When you’re just starting out, your credit is one of your most important financial assets. It can help you in the future when you need to buy a car, secure a loan or eventually get a mortgage for your first home. Even if those things are far off in the future, it’s never too early to start building your credit.
One of the best — and easiest — ways to do so is to get a student credit card. A credit card can help you establish good credit early on and set you on a path for financial success. But there’s a catch: You typically need to have a credit history to be approved for a credit card, but you need to get a credit card to build your credit history.
That’s why credit cards designed for college students typically have slightly lower requirements when it comes to approving you. So even if you have no credit, not much income and no one to co-sign your application, there are still student credit cards you can apply for to help build your credit.
The best credit cards for college students for 2021
Bank of America® Cash Rewards Credit Card for Students: Best for flexible bonus categories
Bank of America® Travel Rewards Credit Card for Students: Best for simplicity
Journey Student Credit Card from Capital One: Best for those with fair credit
Secured Mastercard® from Capital One: Best secured credit card
Deserve® EDU Mastercard for Students: Best for international students
Petal® 2 Visa® Credit Card: Best for those with no credit
Bank of America Cash Rewards Credit Card for Students: Best for flexible bonus categories
The Bank of America Cash Rewards Credit Card for Students allows savvy college students to earn plenty of bonus cash, as the card earns 3% cash back in one category of your choice. These categories include gas, online shopping, dining, travel, drugstores and home improvement/furnishing.
Best of all, you can change your category on a monthly basis, depending on your spending habits. This is a perk that’s hard to find even on regular credit cards, so to be able to maximize your cash back based on your spending habits is a big win.
For example, if you have a road trip planned one month, that would be the perfect opportunity to change your bonus category to gas and earn 3% cash back every time you fill up your tank. Then, if the next month happens to be over the holidays, you can change your bonus category to online shopping and earn more cash back on your holiday purchases.
On top of 3% cash back on your selected bonus category, you’ll also earn 2% cash back on groceries and wholesale clubs, and 1% cash back on all other purchases. However, there’s a $2,500 cap on your bonus category purchases each quarter (this is a combination of the 3% and 2% cash back categories). If you do hit this maximum, you’ll then earn 1% cash back for the rest of the quarter on everything.
Aside from the monthly bonus potential, new card members can also earn $200 in bonus cash back after spending at least $1,000 in purchases within the first 90 days after opening the account. While this might sound like a lot, it averages out to $333 per month.
If you put all of your everyday purchases on the Bank of America Cash Rewards for Students — including textbooks and off-campus dining — you may find that this spending requirement to get the bonus isn’t as scary as it might seem.
For the college student who’s willing to put some time into making sure they earn as much cash back as possible, this is a great card, especially since it has no annual fee. But keep in mind that this card does come with a 3% foreign transaction fee, so it’s not a card you’ll want to use if you happen to be traveling abroad once the pandemic has ended.
Bank of America Travel Rewards Credit Card for Students: Best for simplicity
If you don’t want to have to worry about bonus categories and prefer a simpler approach, then the Bank of America Travel Rewards Credit Card for Students might be the perfect choice for you.
With this card, you’ll earn a flat 1.5 points for every dollar you spend on it, regardless of what kind of purchase you make. This is better than the standard 1% cash back, but you’ll miss out on the bonus categories of some other cards, which can earn you 2 to 5 times as much.
It’s also important to note that, unlike some other cards on our list, the Bank of America Travel Rewards for Students earn points instead of straight cash back. While you can always redeem your points for cash, you’ll lose some value, as you’ll get the most for your points when you use them for travel.
Fortunately, it’s easy to redeem your points for travel on this card. Anytime you make a purchase that falls into the card’s “travel” category, you can redeem points to cover the cost of that purchase. Travel includes airfare, hotels, buses, taxis and much more. In fact, Bank of America even counts many entertainment purchases, which means your points can be used for amusement parks and museums.
Best of all, this card has no annual fee and offers a 25,000-point bonus for new card holders, which can be redeemed for a $250 statement credit toward travel purchases. In order to earn the bonus, you’ll need to spend $1,000 on the card within the first 90 days. But if you have some upcoming expenses, this could be the perfect opportunity to offset the cost of your next spring break trip.
The Bank of America Travel Rewards for Students also offers a 0% APR on purchases for the first 12 billing cycles, which increases to a variable 14.99% to 22.99% after the introductory period ends. So if you have some large expenses coming up that you can’t pay off immediately, such as furniture for your off-campus apartment, this is a great way to carry some debt without paying interest on it. Just make sure you’re able to pay off your purchases before the introductory period ends and the interest rate jumps.
And although most “study abroad” trips are on hold right now, when college programs return to normal, you’ll want to make sure to have a card that won’t charge you any fees on your international transactions. The Bank of America Travel Rewards for Students has no foreign transaction fees, which makes it ideal for traveling overseas.
Journey Student Credit Card from Capital One: Best for those with fair credit
If you’re a college student who might not have been the most responsible card holder in the past, you could have a higher chance of being approved for the Journey Student Credit Card from Capital One — as this is a card that caters to students with fair credit.
This no-annual-fee card earns 1% cash back on all purchases, but if you pay on time, your cash back will be boosted up to a total of 1.25% cash back for the month. That means with responsible usage not only can the card help you rebuild your credit history, but it can also earn you extra cash back.
One of the other features of the Journey Student Credit Card that stands out is that you can obtain a virtual credit card number with it, which gives you a randomly generated temporary card number for your online purchases instead of using your actual card number. This extra layer of security helps keep your card safer from fraudulent purchases.
Ultimately, this card doesn’t offer the highest payouts or benefits, but if you fall into the “fair” credit category, you may have a better chance of being approved for it.
Secured Mastercard from Capital One: Best secured credit card
If you can’t get approved even for a student credit card designed for those with fair credit, a secured credit card such as the Secured Mastercard from Capital One might be the perfect solution. This card isn’t specifically catered toward students, but there are no exclusions as to who can apply.
With a secured credit card, you have to put down a cash deposit first before you can use it — on the Secured Mastercard from Capital One, either a $49, $99 or $200 refundable minimum security deposit is required. This allows the bank to already have your money in case you default on any payments. The more you put down for your security deposit, the higher credit line you’ll get.
Once you’re approved for the card, you can ultimately earn back your initial deposit by taking responsible actions, such as making on-time payments. Your account will be monitored closely, and once the bank deems your account ready, the security deposit will be returned to you as a statement credit. Or, if you ultimately close your account, your security deposit will be refunded.
Being approved for a secured credit card is much easier than getting a regular credit card, and can ultimately help you in establishing a credit history. The downside of this card is that there’s no welcome bonus, no rewards like cash back or travel points and your credit limit will be quite low.
But, if you need to build or rebuild your credit, having a card that reports your payment history to all three major credit bureaus will get you back on the road to good credit. Just make sure to be responsible with the card and you should be on your way to applying for more desirable cards in the future.
Deserve EDU Mastercard for Students: Best for international students
The Deserve EDU Mastercard for Students isn’t a mainstream credit card, which means it uses a slightly different method to approve applicants. You also don’t need a social security number to apply for the card, which means international students who are studying in the United States can apply for it.
While you’ll earn only 1% cash back on every dollar you spend with the Deserve EDU Mastercard for Students, the other benefits of this no-annual-fee card might truly make up for its lower rewards rate. For starters, this card offers cell phone protection, which can truly save you hundreds — maybe even thousands — of dollars during your life as a student.
As long as you pay your monthly cell phone bill with your card, you’ll be covered for up to $600 if your phone is stolen or damaged, with a $50 deductible per covered incident and a maximum of $1,000 per 12 months. Of course, this is a benefit you hope to never have to use, but when an unfortunate event does happen, having a credit card that will cover unexpected out-of-pocket repair costs is a huge perk.
Other benefits of the card include car rental insurance and no foreign transaction fees, making it a great choice to use while traveling abroad. You’ll also receive one year of Amazon Prime Student after you spend $500 on the card within the first three billing cycles of being a new card holder (valued at $59).
Another perk of the Deserve EDU Mastercard for Students is that it has a refer-a-friend program. So if you get the card and then convince your college friends to also apply for it, you’ll earn $30 for every friend who’s approved and uses the card. There’s no cap at the number of friends you can refer, so the opportunities are endless — especially if you have a lot of social media friends.
Petal 2 Visa Credit Card: Best for students with no credit
WebBank, which issues the Petal 2 Visa Credit Card, takes an extremely unusual approach when it comes to approving applicants. Instead of looking at just your FICO credit score to determine whether you should be approved for the card, Petal uses your banking history to create a “Cash Score.” This takes into consideration your income, spending and savings, so even if you’re a student with no income at all, your banking history can help you get approved.
You’ll also notice a slightly different way of earning rewards with this card than what you might be used to. Initially, you’ll earn 1% cash back on all purchases. However, after six months of on-time payments, your rewards rate increases to 1.25%, and then 1.5% after 12 on-time payments.
Additionally, there are select merchants where you’ll earn between 2% and 10% cash back. These bonus cash back opportunities change periodically and are listed on the Petal app. Customers will also appreciate that this is a truly “no fee” card — no annual fees, no late fees and no foreign transaction fees.
Just know that the Petal 2 Visa Credit Card isn’t for people with poor credit but more so people with no credit at all. And even though this card isn’t limited to students, since most students have limited or no credit, it’s a perfect card to get you started on the right foot.
Which credit card is best for college students?
With so many different credit card options for college students, you’ll want to apply for a card that’s right for you. You’ll truly have to look at where you stand in terms of credit history — if you have any — and what’s most important for you on the benefits front.
If you’re starting college with no credit history at all, you might want to consider the Secured Mastercard from Capital One, Petal 2 Visa or Deserve EDU Mastercard. With these three cards, your chances of being approved are much higher, and all three will help you build your credit score by reporting your responsible actions — such as paying your bills on time — to all three credit bureaus.
The Journey Student Credit Card might be a good option if you fall into the fair credit category, meaning you have a few blemishes on your credit history already. The extra level of security for your online shopping purchases might also save you time — and money — by limiting fraudulent activity.
But, if you’re able to be approved for the Bank of America Cash Rewards Credit Card for Students or the Bank of America Travel Rewards Credit Card for Students, you’ll earn the most rewards on your everyday purchases, especially if you’re able to meet the spending requirements to earn the sign-up bonuses.
At the end of the day, finding a credit card that suits your needs — and your approval chances — as a college student is a great way to start building your credit history early. Just make sure to always be responsible with all your credit cards and you’ll find financial doors are open to you for your entire life.
Looking for the best overall credit card? Find out which cards CNN Underscored chose as its best credit cards of 2021.