Best Credit Cards for College Students and Recent Graduates [2021]

Student with Books

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Few life events are more transforming than leaving home to enter college. It can be overwhelming when you realize you’ll now be solely responsible for managing your time, your choices, and possibly your finances.

Getting a credit card and learning how to manage your finances while you’re in college can give you an advantage once you’ve graduated. Establishing a good personal credit history early on will make securing a cell phone, renting an apartment, or even purchasing a car, much easier.

Gone are the days when credit card companies camped out at your local college to solicit college students. The CARD Act of 2009 changed all that by instituting higher barriers to credit for those under 21, adding greater transparency and putting restrictions on freebie application incentives.

Today, unfortunately, getting started can be difficult as most students haven’t yet established credit history.

How can you get started when you have no credit history?

Fortunately, when it comes to building or rebuilding credit, there are always options — and that’s what we’ll be discussing today.

We’ll explore why you’d even want a credit card while you’re in college, look at some specific credit cards geared towards students, and then recommend a few cards that can take you to the next level after graduation.

Let’s get started with our discussion on securing credit while in college and beyond.

Why You Need a Credit Card in College

With everything you have on your mind when entering college, establishing credit may be low on your list. There are, however, so many reasons to make it a priority.

Here are some of the most important reasons for establishing credit when you enter college.

Begin Establishing a Credit History

One of the factors that makes up your credit score is the length of your credit history. Securing a card while you’re in college can start that clock ticking sooner rather than later and ultimately have a positive effect on your credit score.

Learn to Manage Credit

Having a credit card while in college will help you learn to manage a small amount of credit effectively and prepare you for managing broader financial responsibilities later in life.

Prepare for What Comes Next

Building a good credit history while you’re in college makes you better prepared when you graduate. You’ll need good credit to purchase a car, rent an apartment, purchase a cell phone over time, or in some cases, for employment.

Establish a Relationship With a Credit Issuer

Creating and continuing a positive relationship with a financial institution (credit card issuer) may give you leverage for future loan approval, the ability to upgrade your card at a later date, or receive special offers for more lucrative rewards cards.

Save Money in the Long Run

Establishing a good credit history early on can save you money. Consumers with bad credit pay higher interest rates for loans, are required to provide security deposits, and even pay more for car insurance in some states.


A credit card can be very useful in case you must purchase a textbook at the last minute, need transportation, or experience even a more serious emergency.

Earn Rewards

You may be able to earn rewards that can be used to offset your expenses.

Bottom Line: Securing a credit card while in college can help you establish credit early, be a welcome resource in case of an emergency, and prepare you for further responsibilities after graduation. 

Capital One Venture
Many credit card issuers allow you to find out if you have targeted offers available before you apply. Image Credit:

Check for Current Offers — a Good First Step

Prior to applying for any credit card, you can use these risk-free tools to find out whether you have any available credit card offers. Credit card issuers often target college students, so accessing this information before applying for a card is a great place to start.

Card Match Tool

One way to find out if you have available offers is to utilize the CardMatch Tool. The tool allows you to see offers you might be able to qualify for without having to have a hard credit inquiry pulled against your credit score.

While the tool doesn’t guarantee you’ll be approved for a specific card, it will give you an idea of cards you’re more likely to qualify for. It will also give you an idea of which credit card issuers might be targeting you.

You do not need to set up an account with CardMatch; simply provide your name, address, and the last 4 digits of your social security number. The tool instantly pulls up any available offers.

Check Offers Through Credit Card Issuers

Several credit card issuers allow you to see if you have any offers available and there is no inquiry on your credit report, so the process is risk-free.

Check these credit card issuers for possible offers and see if you might be targeted before you apply for any credit card.

Bottom Line: Chances are you will have very few offers when you’re first starting out, but with no risk involved, finding out if you have available credit card offers is a good first step prior to applying for a card. 

National Rental Car Jaguar
Building good credit while you’re in college can help you prepare for getting your own place to live, purchasing a vehicle, and even securing employment. Image Credit: Chris Hassan

Best No Annual Fee Credit Cards for Students

Student credit cards have approval processes that take into consideration a student’s lack of significant income or credit history. Student cards do not function differently than regular credit cards but can be easier to qualify for.

Getting started with a no annual fee credit card avoids any extra annual expense.

Journey Student Rewards from Capital One

Simplicity can be good when it comes to a starter credit card. Earning cash-back rewards on every purchase and for paying your credit card statement on time makes the CapOne Journey Student card a top consideration.

Bank of America® Cash Rewards for Students

Earn rewards on all of your purchases with this cash-back student credit card that doesn’t charge an annual fee.

  • Welcome bonus
  • Earn 3% cash-back in 1 category you select: gas, online shopping, dining, travel, drug stores, or home improvement/furnishings
  • Earn 2% cash-back at grocery stores and wholesale clubs
  • Introductory 0% APR on purchases and balance transfers for 15 billing cycles
  • Free monthly FICO credit score

There is a $2,500 quarterly spending cap for 3% and 2% categories.

Citi Rewards+℠ Student Card

Earn double Citi ThankYou Points at supermarkets and gas stations, receive more points with the round-up feature, and get a rebate on redeemed points.

  • Modest welcome bonus
  • 2x earnings at supermarkets and gas stations on the first $6,000 in purchases per year (1x after that)
  • ThankYou Points earned are rounded up to the nearest 10 points
  • Receive 10% of your points back when you make a redemption

Capital One Platinum Credit Card

Packed with tools to assist you in building your credit, the CapOne Platinum card offers credit management tools, plus it comes with travel benefits and protections you normally don’t find on a basic credit card.

We like the card for beginners for the following reasons:

  • Ability to earn a higher credit limit
  • Pick your own due date
  • Online account management and free credit monitoring
  • Shopping benefits such as extended warranty and price protection

The card does not have a welcome bonus or earn rewards but it serves as an excellent option for building (or rebuilding) credit.

Hot Tip: See how this card stacks up to some other popular options — check out CapOne Platinum Card vs. Chase Freedom Cards and CapOne Platinum Card vs. Capital One VentureOne Rewards card and Capital One Venture Rewards card, or the CapOne Platinum Card vs. Capital One Savor Rewards card for some head-to-head comparisons.

Credit Card Tips at Graduation

Congratulations, you did it! You’re ready for a career, a place of your own, and perhaps a vehicle. Aren’t you glad you started establishing credit early?

If you played your cards well and managed your credit successfully, you now have choices. Here are some options to consider before taking the next step in your credit journey.

  • Keep No Annual Fee Credit Cards Open — One of the factors that make up your credit score is the length of your credit history. Even if you’re not going to regularly use the cards you opened during college, it’s good to keep them for the purpose of establishing your credit history longevity.
  • Check Your Credit Score — Hopefully, you’ve been monitoring your credit throughout college, but we know you’ve been busy. Find out where you stand before you take the next step. You can obtain a free credit report from several places.
  • Ask for an Upgrade — If you’ve established credit with a particular card issuer, ask for a card upgrade to a rewards-earning card with better benefits.
  • Apply for a Better Card — With 4 years of good credit under your belt, you may qualify for a better, more rewarding, credit card.

Hot Tip: There are several ways to secure your credit report and determine your credit score for free. Sites like Credit Karma, Credit Sesame, and Chase’s Credit Journey are examples of services that provide this information without charge. 

Graduation Hat and Shirts
If you’ve managed your credit well during college, your credit card choices at graduation time will be many. Image Credit: Jostens

Best Credit Cards for Recent Graduates

You can now move on from secured and student cards — with 4 years of good credit history, you have choices.

You’ll find credit cards with greater benefits and the ability to earn greater rewards.

Here are some choices for your next step credit cards at graduation.

Chase Freedom Unlimited® Card

The Freedom Unlimited card is a good choice for earning rewards on every purchase you make.

Capital One® VentureOne® Rewards Card

The VentureOne card makes a good first choice for a travel rewards card. It has no foreign transaction fees, earns rewards on every purchase, and has flexible redemption options.

  • A generous welcome bonus
  • No annual fee
  • Earn 1.25 miles on every purchase
  • Redeem miles for statement credits to erase travel purchases
  • Transfer miles to travel partners
  • 12 month 0% APR period on purchases
  • Travel and shopping protections/benefits

Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card

Although the Chase Sapphire Preferred card has an annual fee, it is one of the most popular first-time credit cards. You’ll need a good to excellent credit score to qualify, but the card is one you can keep for a lifetime of use.

If you’ve secured that full-time job and have some upcoming expenses to help you qualify for the welcome bonus, you’ll fare well securing the Chase Sapphire Preferred card.

The card earns valuable Ultimate Rewards points that can be redeemed for 1.25 cents per point for travel or transferred for even greater potential value to airline and hotel partners.

Luxury resort view
Rewards earned on travel rewards credit cards can fund a beach vacation. Image Credit: Christine Krzyszton

Next Step Travel Rewards Credit Cards — the Holy Grail

It may seem like fantasy when you’re still in college or newly graduated, but travel rewards credit cards can allow access to luxury airport lounges worldwide, provide VIP elite status with hotel and car rental programs, plus deliver benefits that can save you money and make your travel really comfortable.

For a sneak peak at some of the options you’ll have when your credit reaches the excellent level, check out our collection of recommended travel rewards credit cards and expect to be wowed.

We’ve also put together a composite of our recommendations for first-time travel rewards cards.

Alternative Credit Options

We’ve talked about student credit cards that you can apply for during and after college but there are alternative options for securing credit when you might need some extra assistance. Here are some alternatives for establishing credit when you’re just starting out.

The Authorized User Option

It’s possible to establish a credit history by being added as an authorized user on an existing credit card. If you have a creditworthy family member who is willing to add you as an authorized user, you can begin establishing credit without applying for your own credit card.

Prior to being added, you’ll want the existing cardholder to inquire about the credit card issuer’s terms and conditions for authorized users.

  • Do they report the authorized user’s activity to the major credit bureaus? Most major credit card issuers do.
  • Is there a minimum age to be added as an authorized user? Some issuers require the user to be at least 18 years of age, and some specify no requirements.
  • Is there a fee for being added as an authorized user?

Being added as an authorized user can be one of the simplest ways to start building a credit history.

Students Without Income

Credit card issuers understand that students may have limited income but even a part-time job or funds you receive from your parents can help you qualify. If you have no income at all, a co-signer may be necessary to secure a credit card. USAA, U.S. Bank, and Bank of America are credit card issuers known to allow co-signers when a student can’t qualify on their own.

Secured Credit Cards

If your credit card experience during college didn’t work out as perfectly as you hoped, perhaps you missed some payments or overextended yourself. You can still continue on your credit building path by applying for a secured credit card.

Secured cards require a security deposit but allow you to start building a positive credit history when you have less than perfect credit or no credit.

Hot Tip: Check out out guide on secured credit cards as it includes several recommendations!

The Self Credit Builder Account

When you have no credit history or bad credit, your options for securing credit can be limited. The Self company provides a solution in the form of a personal secured loan that doesn’t require a hard credit score pull.

Here’s how the Self Credit Builder account works:

  • Apply for the loan online
  • Once approved, funds are deposited into a bank CD in your name
  • Funds will be held as collateral until the loan is repaid
  • Make your on-time monthly payments on the loan
  • Your on-time payment history is reported to the 3 major credit bureaus which helps build your credit history
  • Receive the funds that are in the account at the end of the term (12 or 24 months)

Don’t open a Self Credit Builder account unless you have no other options. The account charges interest, although reasonable, and there may be other options (such as the ones mentioned in this article) that may be available to you.

Final Thoughts

Starting to build your credit early, while you’re in college, will serve you well. Those with good credit pay less for auto loans, qualify for their own apartment, have the option to pay for a cell phone over time, and in some states, even pay less for insurance.

And if travel is important to you, excellent credit can open the doors to a whole world of travel rewards you may not have considered possible.

But we’re jumping ahead, here. For now, if you want to learn more about how your credit score workswhat determines a good or bad credit score, or get tips for keeping your credit information safe, we’ve put together several informative guides.

The information regarding the Bank of America® Cash Rewards for Students, Citi Rewards+℠ Student Card, and the Chase Freedom Unlimited® Card was independently collected by Upgraded Points and not provided nor reviewed by the issuer.

Frequently asked questions

Which is the best student credit card?

The best student credit card will be the one for which you can qualify, that matches your spending habits, and helps you manage your credit.

Ideally the card will not charge an annual fee, earn rewards, and come with benefits you can use.

The best student credit card will match all these criteria but starting out with no credit history, your options may be limited.

You can get an idea of what is available to you by starting with no risk options such as the Card Match Tool or looking for available offers directly from the card issuer.

What is the difference between a student credit card and a regular credit card?

Student credit cards are not that different from regular credit cards in that there will still be a credit inquiry when you apply. However, the vetting process for getting approved for a student credit card takes into consideration that a student may have little income or credit history.

Therefore, a student credit card may be easier to qualify for than a regular credit card.

Student credit cards generally come with lower credit limits, few rewards, and even higher interest rates.

Additionally, student credit cards may come with tools that help you build and manage your credit.

How old do you have to be to get a student credit card?

You must be at least 18 years of age and have income to get a student credit card but it can be difficult.

If you are under 21 or do not have any income, you may be able to be added as an authorized user to a family or close friend’s credit card and establish credit that way.

You may also be able to secure a card or apply for a card with a co-signer, but not all credit card issuers accept co-signers.

Can I keep my student credit card after I graduate?

When you graduate, you should contact the credit card issuer. You may be able to keep the student credit card or upgrade the card to a regular version of the same card or a better card.

You might also qualify for a higher credit limit.

If you do end up keeping the student credit card, use it occasionally to keep it active. One factor that contributes to your credit score is the length of your credit history and having a card open for a long period of time can impact your score positively.

For this reason, it is good to keep your oldest cards open, unless, of course, the cards charge an annual fee and you do not receive value that exceeds that annual fee.

Christine Krzyszton

About Christine Krzyszton

Christine, who lives in Northern Michigan, travels about 300,000 miles a year despite her remote location. Her expertise is traveling the world on a weekend with no pre-determined destination in mind, letting the cost of the airfare determine where she will go. She has over four million flown miles and elite status on all three major domestic carriers.

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