7 Best Credit Cards for College Students (First Card, No Credit, More)

credit card advice

Ashley Dull
By: Ashley Dull
Posted: March 16, 2017
Opinions expressed here are ours alone, and are not provided, endorsed, or approved by any issuer. Site may be compensated through the issuer affiliate programs.

Heading to college is an exciting time in one’s life — you’ve got more freedom than ever before, and you finally get to choose the things you learn about, unlike school before college. The world is at your fingertips, but it doesn’t come without a price.

With such freedom comes responsibility, including the financial sort, but it’s hard to rely on Mom and Dad for everything once you’ve left the nest. A credit card designed for students can be a viable tool to help you pay for books, tuition, transportation, groceries, and any other college-student necessity. Whether you’re ready to begin building a positive credit history or just want a simple, prepaid solution, below are our top credit card recommendations for students.

Your First Card | No/Limited Credit | Bad Credit | Prepaid Cards

Best “First Card” for a College Student

Most college students have never had credit before, and that’s okay — everyone has to start somewhere! Even with absolutely no credit history, students can still be approved for a card with a reputable issuer that won’t prey on first-time cardholders.

The Discover it® for Students offers cash back rewards, no annual fee, late payment forgiveness, and no interest on purchases for the duration of the intro period — usually six months — but check the terms when applying as terms change often.

Discover it® for Students Review

at Discover Card'ssecure website

  • Our Take: "The lack of fees, combined with great perks like cash back and free credit score tracking, make this credit card a solid deal for college students.
  • 5% cash back in categories that rotate quarterly, up to $1,500 per quarter when you sign up for the quarterly bonus
  • 1% cash back on all your other purchases with no limits
  • No annual fee
  • $20 cash back each year your GPA is 3.0 or higher (maximum 5 years)"
Intro (Purchases)
Intro (Transfers)
Regular APR
Annual Fee
Credit Needed
0% for 6 months
10.99% for 6 months
13.74% - 22.74% Variable
$0
Fair

+ See more student credit cards

College Students with Limited or No Credit

The nice thing about limited or no credit is that you’re not discriminated against by the credit bureaus for not having an established credit history yet. In fact, you can get card benefits that are comparable to those for people with good credit, with the added bonus of rewards for good grades — typically a GPA of 3.0 or higher.

The Discover it® chrome for Students is very similar to the Discover it® for Students above in that it also offers no annual fee and a 0% intro period, but the chrome offers a higher, fixed cash back percentage, whereas the Discover it for Students offers 5% back on rotating quarterly categories.

Discover it® chrome for Students Review

at Discover Card'ssecure website

BEST OVERALL RATING

★★★★

4.0

OVERALL RATING

4.0/5.0
  • Get a dollar-for-dollar match of all the cash back you’ve earned at the end of your first year, automatically.
  • 2% cash back at restaurants and gas stations on up to $1,000 in combined purchases every quarter - no sign-ups needed. 1% cash back on all your other purchases.
  • Good Grades Rewards: $20 cash back each school year your GPA is 3.0 or higher for up to the next 5 years.
  • No annual fee. No late fee on first late payment. No APR change for paying late.
  • Get 100% U.S. based customer service & your FICO® Credit Score for free on monthly statements, on mobile and online.
  • Freeze It® on/off switch for your account that prevents new purchases, cash advances & balance transfers in seconds.
Intro (Purchases)
Intro (Transfers)
Regular APR
Annual Fee
Credit Needed
0% for 6 months
10.99% for 6 months
13.74% - 22.74% Variable
$0
Fair

The Journey® Student Rewards card is issued through Capital One, one of the 10 largest banking institutions in the U.S., so you know you’re in good hands. The primary benefit to this card is that after five on-time payments, you may qualify for a credit limit increase. As with the Discover cards, you’ll pay no annual fee and earn cash back rewards.

BEST OVERALL RATING

★★★★

4.2

OVERALL RATING

4.2/5.0
  • Earn 1% cash back on all your purchases. Pay on time to boost your cash back to a total of 1.25% for that month
  • There’s no limit to the amount of cash back you can earn, and rewards don't expire
  • Get access to a higher credit line after making your first 5 monthly payments on time
  • Pay no annual or foreign transaction fees
  • Fraud coverage if your card is lost or stolen
  • Pick the monthly due date that works best for you
Intro (Purchases)
Intro (Transfers)
Regular APR
Annual Fee
Credit Needed
N/A
N/A
20.74% (Variable)
$0
Average, Fair, Limited Credit

+ See more no/limited credit cards

College Students with Bad Credit

Cards for subprime credit typically charge high fees, so a secured card can be a good way to go if you’re a student with bad credit, that is, a score below 650. Secured cards generally don’t have annual fees and provide the opportunity to prove you’re creditworthy as you approach graduation.

The difference between a secured and an unsecured card is that a secured card requires a deposit to “secure” the line of credit. The required deposit is generally equal to the amount of credit you’re given and is the issuer’s way of protecting itself if you miss or default on payments.

This is not to be confused with a prepaid card, as prepaid cards do not report to the credit bureaus, so they do not affect your credit in any way like a secured card will. You may also receive a credit limit higher than the required deposit — this is known as “partially secured” credit and is solely decided by the issuer when you apply.

SECURED RATING

★★★★★

5.0

OVERALL RATING

4.0/5.0
  • No annual fee, and all the credit building benefits with responsible card use
  • Unlike a prepaid card, it builds credit when used responsibly, with regular reporting to the 3 major credit bureaus
  • You will get an initial $200 credit line after making a security deposit of $49, $99, or $200, determined based on your creditworthiness
  • Get access to a higher credit line after making your first 5 monthly payments on time with no additional deposit needed
  • Easily manage your account 24/7 with online access, by phone or using our mobile app
  • It’s a credit card accepted at millions of locations worldwide
Intro (Purchases)
Intro (Transfers)
Regular APR
Annual Fee
Credit Needed
N/A
N/A
24.99% (Variable)
$0
Limited, Bad Credit

+ See more secured credit cards

Prepaid Credit Card Options

If you just need a card to be able to make secure transactions online and the like, but don’t want to worry about interest and annual fees, a prepaid card is one way to go. The most important thing to understand about prepaid cards, however, is that if your goal is to establish credit, prepaid cards cannot help you do this, as they do not report to credit bureaus. If this is important to you, but you’re afraid of overspending, check out the secured cards above.

A prepaid card sets a limit to your spending, as you can only use what you load onto it, and is a good way to keep a budget. Be mindful of fees, though, as some prepaid cards charge small monthly usage fees.

Discover it® - Cashback Match™ Review

at Discover Card'ssecure website

BEST OVERALL RATING

★★★★★

5.0

OVERALL RATING

5.0/5.0
  • Our Take: "One of our favorite cards, with long 0% intro APRs, low ongoing APRs, awesome cash back rewards, and lots more.
  • 5% cash back in categories that rotate quarterly, up to $1,500 per quarter when you sign up for the quarterly bonus
  • 1% cash back on all your other purchases
  • Matches the cash back you've earned at the end of your first year (only for new cardmembers)
  • No limit to the amount of cash back that can be matched"
Intro (Purchases)
Intro (Transfers)
Regular APR
Annual Fee
Credit Needed
0% for 14 months
0% for 14 months
11.74% – 23.74% Variable
$0
Excellent, Good

BEST OVERALL RATING

★★★★★

5.0

OVERALL RATING

5.0/5.0
  • Unlimited 1.5% cash back on every purchase — it's automatic
  • Earn a $150 Bonus after you spend $500 on purchases in your first 3 months from account opening
  • 0% Intro APR for 15 months from account opening on purchases and balance transfers, then a variable APR of 15.74-24.49%. Balance transfer fee is 5% of the amount transferred, $5 minimum
  • Redeem for cash — any amount, anytime
  • Cash Back rewards do not expire as long as your account is open
  • No annual fee
Intro (Purchases)
Intro (Transfers)
Regular APR
Annual Fee
Credit Needed
0% for 15 months
0% for 15 months
15.74% - 24.49% Variable
$0
Excellent/Good

BEST OVERALL RATING

★★★★★

5.0

OVERALL RATING

5.0/5.0
  • Earn a $150 Bonus after you spend $500 on purchases in your first 3 months from account opening
  • Earn 5% cash back on up to $1,500 in combined purchases in bonus categories each quarter you activate
  • Unlimited 1% cash back on all other purchases — it's automatic
  • 0% Intro APR for 15 months from account opening on purchases and balance transfers, then a variable APR of 15.74-24.49%. Balance transfer fee is 5% of the amount transferred, $5 minimum
  • Enjoy new 5% categories every 3 months
  • Cash Back rewards do not expire as long as your account is open
Intro (Purchases)
Intro (Transfers)
Regular APR
Annual Fee
Credit Needed
0% for 15 months
0% for 15 months
15.74% - 24.49% Variable
$0
Excellent/Good

+ See more prepaid cards

Responsible Usage is the Key to Credit Success

Whichever card you choose, paying your bill on time and keeping your balance low is the key to building a positive credit history. Establishing a credit history before hitting the “real world” is important for finding an apartment or first home, and in some cases, even a job.

If you go the secured card route, keeping a record of on-time payments will allow you to eventually graduate to an unsecured card, just as you’ll be graduating to a brighter, and, hopefully, more financially secure future.