Written by Missy Nolan
When you’re busy studying for exams and drafting essays for school, establishing a stable financial history might be the last thing on your mind. However, the average American gets their first credit card when they’re 20 years old - so even if you aren’t interested in credit yet, you might be soon. We know that navigating the credit scene can be confusing, so we’ve provided answers to common questions about student credit cards so you can focus on enjoying college life instead.
General Questions About Credit Cards for Students
What is a student credit card?
A student credit card is a credit card that’s geared toward college students. A credit card, regardless of whether you’re a student or not, gives you the freedom to buy goods and services using borrowed funds. These funds generally come from the bank that issues your credit card, but sometimes they come from a deposit that you make on the account. We discuss this in more detail under the section titled “Fees, Deposits, and Your Credit Line.”
Do I have to be a student to have a student credit card?
Generally, yes. When you apply for a student credit card, the card company may request information about your status as a student. You may have to verify enrollment or share your transcripts.
However, there are some exceptions. Read the card agreement before you apply for credit for students so that you can make sure you qualify. Also, you can usually keep a student credit card after you graduate college, but some companies may offer to let you upgrade to a regular card. Many college graduates take advantage of account upgrades because they find they have different financial needs after they finish school.
What student credit card can you get with no credit?
You have a great chance of getting a secured credit card for students if you have no credit. We’ve also found that some applicants have success getting the Discover it Chrome for Students when they have little to no credit history.
Can an international student get a credit card?
You can get approved for a credit card if you’re an international student, but we’ll be honest with you: It’s difficult. Many credit card companies require a Social Security number for approval, but you can’t get a Social Security number unless you’re legally authorized to work in the U.S.
You can bypass this requirement if you get a card from a company that doesn’t care whether you have a Social Security number. Some companies let applicants substitute an individual taxpayer identification number.
ValuePenguin agrees with our claim that it’s difficult to get a credit card if you’re an international student, which is why they recommend applying for the SelfScore Mastercard if you’re not a citizen or permanent resident of the United States. The SelfScore Mastercard doesn’t require a Social Security number, but it does require you to have a passport, visa, and bank account. You’ll also need your Form I-20 to prove that you’re an international student.
Can I get a credit card if I’m studying abroad?
Yes, you sure can. Many students dream of leaving the United States to study abroad in France, Germany, or other countries. If your dream becomes a reality, you may need a credit card to help pay for the experience even if financial aid or scholarships cover your books and tuition.
We recommend applying for a student credit card before you leave for your semester abroad. Look for a card that has no foreign transaction fees, and make sure you have a way to pay the monthly bill.
Why would a college student need a credit card?
Even if a college student has no problem paying for textbooks or monthly utilities, they may need a credit card to establish, build, or repair credit. Your credit score impacts everything from job opportunities to car loans, so many students like to get an early start on cultivating a strong credit history. It can take years to develop an impressive credit history, so it’s important to apply for credit as soon as possible if you plan to make a big purchase - like a home or a car - right after college.
What’s the best student credit card?
Our current favorite is the Citi ThankYou Preferred Card for College Students. We reviewed it above if you want the full details, but we can sum up things quickly for you now:
- Score points for every qualifying purchase, then redeem them for student-inspired rewards
- Accepted worldwide - so go ahead and accept that opportunity to study abroad!
- No annual fee
We also like the Discover it Chrome for Students, Bank Americard Cash Rewards for Students, and Journey Student Rewards from Capital One. The Journey Student Rewards from Capital One is a great starter card if you’re new to the credit scene, while the Discover it Chrome is perfect for students with a high GPA thanks to its annual good-grades bonus.
Applying for Student Credit Cards
How do you apply for a student credit card?
Fill out an application online, contact a credit card provider via phone, or head to a local bank or credit union if you want a student credit card. Make sure you have your Social Security number when you apply, as well as information about your income and expenses.
Do your parents have to cosign for a student credit card?
A signature from the ‘rents isn’t a necessity in most cases, but it can potentially help you score a higher credit limit. That’s because the card company may evaluate your combined income rather than just running yours.
If a company is on the fence about approving you, having Mom or Dad offer to cosign might seal the deal as far as acceptance goes. Just make sure they have good credit or you’ll end up with awful interest rates, a low credit line, or - worst case scenario here - a denial letter from the credit card company.
Do you need a job to get a credit card for students?
Credit card companies usually don’t require applicants to have a job, but they do expect you to have some sort of income. After all, they’d like you to pay your bill on time each month, and it’s kind of hard to do that if you aren’t collecting some sort of funds on a regular basis.
No job? Focus on other sources of income when you apply. Some card companies let you count scholarships, student loans, and pell grants as a source of income. If you have a parent who receives child support arrears for payments that were due before you turned 18, you may be able to list those payments on your app. Assuming your parent gives you the money, that is.
Should I get a secured credit card or an unsecured credit card?
An unsecured card is ideal, but some students prefer to launch their credit history with a secured credit card. There are also students who can’t get approved for an unsecured card just yet, so they get a secured card because their credit options are limited.
We’re not bashing secured cards because we feel they’re a great tool for students - and people in general - who need to build or repair credit. However, you’re essentially paying interest to borrow your own money, which is one reason why we recommend getting an unsecured student credit card whenever possible.
How long does it take my card to come in the mail?
Credit cards typically arrive within 2 to 4 weeks, but some card companies offer express delivery. Keep in mind that a speedy delivery usually requires a hefty fee.
To avoid delays, make sure you include all information about your address, including the apartment number. Some companies don’t deliver to P.O. Boxes, so that’s another thing to consider when you request a card.
What credit score do I need to get a student credit card?
There’s not a specific credit score that you need to get a student credit card. Cards are available for scores ranging from 300 to 850, but remember that your score often affects your interest rate, credit limit, and deposit (or lack of).
If your score falls somewhere between 300 to 500, you probably won’t qualify for an unsecured credit card. You can build a stable credit history with a secured card and then apply for an unsecured card when you’re ready. Applicants with scores in the low to mid 500s may also struggle to get approved for an unsecured card, but occasionally you can find a lender that’s willing to take a chance on you.
NerdWallet says that fair credit is anything from 630 to 689, and good credit ranges from 690 to 719. If you’ve got a score higher than that, congratulations - you’ve got excellent credit and probably won’t have any trouble getting a credit card company to approve your app.
Which credit card should I apply for?
Our crystal ball says that it’s impossible to predict which card you should apply for without knowing your unique needs, but we can offer some tips to help you decide:
- Consider your credit score (or lack of one)
- Read reviews from trusted experts (like Faveable, of course!) and cardholders
- Think about your income - is it enough to pay the bill?
- Is the card designed for students or older adults?
- Make sure the benefits outweigh any potential fees, such as an annual fee or high interest rates
We recommend that students start with a card that’s made just for them. Our favorites include the Citi ThankYou Preferred Card for College Students, the Discover it Chrome for Students, the Bank Americard Cash Rewards for Students, and the Journey Student Rewards from Capital One.
Companies that offer student credit cards often understand that students may have little to no credit history, so sometimes they’re easier to get than other types of credit cards. Some student credit cards also offer rewards geared toward cardholders your age, so you can build credit while enjoying awesome perks.
Fees, Deposits, and Your Credit Line
How much credit can a student get?
A student can get as much credit as they qualify for, which can range from a couple hundred bucks to thousands of dollars. Unless you’re a highly paid model or movie star, you probably won’t end up with millions of dollars in credit. That’s because companies often base your credit limit on your income because it gives them peace of mind that you’ll actually pay your bill.
What is an APR?
You probably have at least one friend or family member - or maybe you’re even this type of person - who has a “what’s in it for me” mentality. That’s basically how credit cards work. They let you borrow money, but then they expect something in return for their trust and kindness.
APR stands for annual percentage rate when it refers to credit card payments. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) explains this term well, stating that your credit card APR is “the price you pay for borrowing money.” You can potentially avoid APR-related charges by paying off your card each month, but some companies don’t give you that option.
Why do I have to pay a deposit for my credit card?
Many students get a credit card without paying a deposit, but sometimes you can’t avoid forking over some of your own funds. Start by reviewing the terms for your credit card - you can usually find these online or in a brochure that was mailed with your card. You may find that your deposit is based on something known as creditworthiness, which is just a fancy way of saying your credit score is either nonexistent or needs some help.
If you paid a deposit, that means you have a secured credit card rather than an unsecured credit card. A secured card is funded with your own money, while an unsecured card lets you spend money from the card’s bank.
Sometimes cardholders confuse monthly maintenance charges and annual fees with deposit costs. A deposit is refundable if you use your card as agreed, while you generally don’t get your monthly maintenance charges and annual fees back.
What happens if I pay my bill late?
You don’t go to jail, so don’t worry about that. We’ve heard several students say that shady debt collectors have claimed that you go to jail or prison if you don’t pay your bills.
However, there are still consequences for late payments. Some cards, like the Discover It Chrome for Students, waive the first late payment fee - but very few other companies offer this perk. If you pay your card late, expect to get hit with a hefty fee and possibly even have your APR increased. You may also damage your FICO score, and that’s definitely not something you want to do. We explain why your credit score matters in the section titled “Building or Improving Credit With a Student Credit Card.”
How do I get a bigger credit limit?
Look, we aren’t trying to tell you how to live your life, but make sure you can handle a bigger credit limit before you request one. Now that we’ve gotten that unsolicited advice out of the way, let’s talk about how you can increase your credit limit.
Some students successfully manage to negotiate a larger limit before they even use their cards. When your card arrives in the mail, contact the issuing company and explain why you feel you deserve a larger limit. Be polite, and back up your request with facts (“I make $30,000 a year and can easily pay this) rather than opinions (“I think I deserve this because you gave my sister a bigger limit and she’s not even as responsible as me.”)
Some cards have a convenient credit-limit button in their online dashboard (where you log in to pay your bill and check your balance). When you push this button, you might have to answer a couple simple questions about your current income before the bank gives you a decision. You may receive an instant response or get a letter in the mail explaining the bank’s decision.
Can I withdraw cash at an ATM with my student credit card?
Probably, but avoid it if you can. Many student credit cards let you withdraw cash from ATMs, but it isn’t cheap. You may have to pay a special APR that’s higher than your usual rate, plus shell out a cash advance fee based on a percentage of your ATM withdrawal.
Do I have to pay a membership fee to get a credit card?
Student cards generally don’t have membership fees or annual fees, but some of them do. If you get asked to pay any money prior to getting a card, you’re probably paying for a refundable security deposit.
Building or Improving Credit With a Student Credit Card
How can college students build credit?
You can build credit by doing any of the following:
- Securing an auto loan
- Getting a credit card
- Taking out a personal loan
- Having someone add you to their account as an authorized user
If you are responsible and make your payments on time (or make sure the authorized user does), you can build a stable credit history by doing any of the things above.
Unfortunately, it’s also possible to build a bad credit history. Try your best not to be on the receiving end of any of the following:
- Eviction or foreclosure
- Automobile repossession
- Charged-off credit accounts
- Defaulted loans
- Medical bills or other accounts in collections (“in collections” means your account was sent to a collection agency for nonpayment)
You should also be very careful with student loans. If you take time off from school to travel, tackle medical issues, or simply enjoy life, you may have to begin repaying your student loans. Fail to do so can damage your credit.
How should college students use credit cards?
We’ve read conflicting reports on the best way to use a credit card, but we can tell you that it depends on your financial goals and history. NerdWallet recommends making small purchases on your card and then paying the entire bill in full each month so you don’t get stuck with high interest rates or other fees.
Unless an emergency arises, avoiding maxing out your credit card. When you max out a card, you risk going over your limit when the card company tacks on monthly interest rates. You can also damage your FICO score by maxing out a card; in general, you should keep utilization below 30%. If you have a $300 credit limit, that means you shouldn’t have more than $90 in purchases on the card at any given time.
How do you manage your credit card?
Manage your credit card by reviewing monthly statements that arrive in the mail, if applicable, and verifying that everything is accurate. If possible, sign up for online access or account notifications so you can catch potential issues right away. For example, if your card is lost or stolen, you may not notice the fraudulent charges for weeks if you only receive paper statements.
You can also manage your credit card by calling the number listed on the back of it. Student credit cards often have automated systems that provide current information about payments, transactions, and available credit.
If you lead a hectic life, consider setting up automatic payments so you never pay your bill late. You can usually do this online, but some companies require you to call and request an authorization form for ACH withdrawals. You have the legal right to revoke this authorization with advance notice, so you aren’t locked into an automatic payment plan forever.
Can I check my own credit score?
Many people don’t know their own credit score or even realize that they can check it. You can check your own credit score by requesting a free report from each of the 3 main credit reporting agencies once a year. Many credit cards also provide free access to your credit score on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis through a score monitoring program.
How long does it take to build credit with a student credit card?
It can take weeks, months, or even years to build a decent credit history with a student credit card. The length of time varies for each student, but it’s based on the following factors:
- Whether you have good credit, bad credit, or no credit when you get the card
- How long it takes the credit card to report payments to the credit agencies
- How often you use the card
- Whether you pay your bill on time
If you notice your credit card company isn’t reporting your payments, contact them to see what’s up. Sometimes it just takes a few months for the company to notify the credit bureaus about your new card.
Will a student credit card help my credit?
A student credit card can help your credit - but it can also hurt it. Use your card responsibly if you don’t want to damage your FICO score. Here are some tips for responsible use:
- Pay your bill on time, every time
- Don’t buy things you don’t need
- Avoid maxing out your credit card
- Aim to keep your balance below 30% of your available credit limit
- Make sure the credit card reports your payments
- Keep your card in a safe place so that it doesn’t get lost or stolen
You have control over your credit score, so use your card wisely.
Why does my credit score matter?
What are your post-college plans? You may want to buy a home, lease an automobile, get a job in a specific field, or get married. Your credit score plays an important role in all of these goals.
Before you buy - or even rent - a home, many owners run a credit report. If you’ve got bad credit, you might get denied or get stuck paying a large deposit. Same goes for buying or leasing an automobile.
Some jobs check your credit score to make sure that you’ve had a stable financial history. This is a common practice in jobs where you work with classified information or handle a lot of monetary transactions. If you fail the credit screening, you don’t get the job.
If you decide to get married, your bad credit can affect your spouse both financially and emotionally. Money problems cause frequent arguments in many marriages, so do your best to manage your finances before you say “I do.”