Guide to getting your first credit card while in college

The world of credit cards can be a hazy and mysterious place, but once you’ve learned all the necessary terms — credit score, APR, annual fee — they can be incredibly useful tools to begin your financial journey. In fact, college students dipping their toes into the “real world” and earning a bit of money may find it a ripe time to apply for their first credit card.

There’s a lot to consider when picking the right credit card, and oftentimes you don’t know what you don’t know. Before applying for your first credit card in college, you should consider a few key factors and identify your best options.

Minimum age to apply

For starters, you may be asking: How old do you have to be to get a credit card?

Prior to 2009, an issuer could sign on any young adult for a credit card. After the Credit CARD Act of 2009, the age minimum became 21, unless one had a cosigner or proof of income. Nowadays, issuers generally require you to be at least 18.

You may be ready to experience some financial freedom once you reach that age. That’s understandable — but if you’re a younger student (some college freshmen are 17 years old), you should wait until your next birthday before applying.

Your credit score

A credit score is a three-digit number that represents your individual credit health and the likelihood of you making payments on loans, card balances and the like. Though there are different credit-scoring models, FICO and VantageScore are the two big ones, and many financial institutions use your FICO score. The most important factors under FICO’s traditional model are payment history, amounts owed and length of credit history.

Do you have a credit score?

While shopping for a card, you may wonder: Do I even have a credit score? If you’ve only ever used cash, a debit card or your parents’ credit cards for a quick coffee, chances are you have no credit history. That just means you haven’t used any financial products that help build credit — and that’s not a problem. There are plenty of credit cards aimed at those with no credit history, including students.

Another possibility is that you do have a credit score, but you just don’t know it (honestly, it happens). If one day, your parent simply handed you a plastic card with your name on it and said, “Use it. I’ll pay the bills,” you’re likely an authorized user. This allows you to build credit while the primary cardholder is responsible for paying off your balances. In that case, your credit score could be a lot higher than you think — maybe even in the good-to-excellent range.

We should note that installment loans also build credit. So, if you took out a personal or student loan to pay for college, and you or a family member are regularly making payments on it, you may already have a credit score in your name.

Check your credit score through an issuer’s program

Whatever the case, you must check your credit score to know which credit card you’ll likely qualify for. There are a few ways to check your credit score for free, but the easiest way is using an issuer program such as American Express’s MyCredit Guide, Capital One’s CreditWise and Chase’s Credit Journey. They don’t require you to be an account holder, provide the service for free and even monitor your credit report for identity theft.

Can you apply for a regular credit card?

For those with no credit history, all is not lost. You can still apply for a credit card. One option is a secured credit card, which requires you to pay a deposit (usually at least $200 to $300) and use that deposit as your credit limit and collateral. Though a secured card may not sound as exciting as a standard rewards credit card, also known as an unsecured credit card, plenty of them offer great features like no annual fee, cash back rewards and automatic consideration for a credit line increase after a few months.

If you’re determined to get an unsecured card, there are plenty of student credit cards out there specifically intended for no-credit individuals, with perks like ongoing rewards, no penalty APR and even no foreign transaction fees (should you plan on studying abroad).

Narrow down your starter card options

We’ve discussed secured cards, student cards and rewards cards. Though some may not sound as glamorous as others, each card has the potential to build credit and teach you good financial habits.

To help you narrow down your choices, here are some of our top picks that would work well as a first card for a college student:

  • Discover it® Secured Credit Card: With a deposit of as little as $200 or as large as $2,500, the Discover it Secured can help you steadily build credit. It also earns rewards on two big categories students often spend in — 2 percent cash back at gas stations and restaurants on up to $1,000 in purchases quarterly, then 1 percent.
  • Petal® 2 “Cash Back, No Fees” Visa® Credit Card: This no-annual-fee card has a particularly interesting rewards structure. You start off earning 1 percent cash back on all eligible purchases, and after 12 months of on-time payments, the cash back rate goes up to 1.5 percent. This card is also known for its lack of fees, including no foreign transaction fees, late payment fees or returned payment fees.
  • Discover it® Student Cash Back: Maybe one of the most popular student cards, this card offers 5 percent cash back on rotating categories (up to $1,500 per quarter after enrollment, then 1 percent) and 1 percent back on all other purchases. At the end of your first year, Discover will match all your first-year cash back earnings, essentially doubling them. Its popularity stems from its great rewards potential for no annual fee, as well as its availability to cardholders with no credit history.
  • Capital One Quicksilver Student Cash Rewards Credit Card: Great for those with a fair credit score, this card gets you 1.5 percent cash back on all purchases and 5 percent cash back on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel. Not only does it earn solid, flat-rate rewards and help you build credit, but it also grants you access to Capital One’s travel portal and has no foreign transaction fees — making it ideal for students studying abroad.

Tips for your credit card application

Once you’ve narrowed down which card you want, it’s time to apply. However, when you get to the application page, some last-minute questions may come up — should you put “student” or “employed,” and how much will your income affect your application?

Some applications do ask about your occupation, and you should be honest and list yourself as a student. Sometimes, it may ask you to verify your enrollment at a college, but that’s okay — what’s important is that issuers tend to be more accepting of students in terms of expected income and credit limit.

As for your income, it does affect your application, since issuers must assess the risk they’ll take on if they give you a credit card.

According to 2020 data collected by the National Center for Education Statistics, 40 percent of full-time undergraduate students were employed, and 15 percent of them worked 20 to 34 hours a week. Estimating an average student’s annual income — the federal minimum wage of $7.25 multiplied by 20 hours of work per week (a typical part-time job) — the total comes out to $7,540 a year. In short, the average student’s income isn’t sky-high, and card issuers should be aware of this.

As previously mentioned, applicants under 21 must have a cosigner or proof of income. This is mostly to show card issuers that you have the means to make regular payments and will be less likely to default on your credit card debt.

The bottom line

Contrary to popular belief, you do not need a high credit score right off the bat to qualify for a good credit card. In fact, there are plenty of student cards designed for young adults with no credit.

Remember to pay your credit bills in full and on time, and slowly but surely, you’ll increase your score. A good credit score sets you up for success in terms of your future financial goals — buying a house, taking out a loan, financing a car — so it’s important to start as soon as you can to build healthy credit habits.

If you’re ready to apply for a credit card, don’t hesitate. Be honest about your status as a student and your income, and you should be fine to begin your credit journey.

Artur Starke
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