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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
The Freedom Unlimited card is a good choice for earning rewards on every purchase you make.
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
- 15 month 0% APR period on purchases and balance transfers. Regular APR (as shown above) applied thereafter
- Travel and shopping protections/benefits
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.
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.
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 works, what 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, and Citi Rewards+℠ Student Card was independently collected by Upgraded Points and not provided nor reviewed by the issuer.