Updated on Nov 15, 2017

Best Credit Cards for College Students for 2017

Manage your expenses and build positive credit with this year’s top picks.
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They usually don’t teach you the importance of having good credit in high school. Instead, many students often learn (sometimes the hard way) how having good credit can open the door to leasing a nice apartment or putting a down payment on a good car. Thankfully, there are plenty of student credit cards that can help build a good credit score. Review our list of top picks and apply online in minutes.

Summary

Best credit cards for college students for 2017

The Simple Dollar’s picks for the best credit cards for college students

Best rewards potential

Discover it® for Students
Rewards Summary 5% cash back at Amazon.com and Target now through December 2017, on up to $1,500 in purchases when you activate. Plus, 1% cash back on all other purchases.
Redeem for... Merchandise; restaurants; ground transportation

Ongoing APR 13.99% - 22.99% Variable
Annual Fee $0
Highlights Provided by Discover Show Highlights
Card Highlights Provided by Discover:
  • Get a dollar-for-dollar match of all the cash back you've earned at the end of your first year, automatically.
  • Earn 5% cash back at Amazon.com and Target now through December 2017, on up to $1,500 in purchases when you activate. Plus, 1% cash back on all 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 & get your free Credit Scorecard with your FICO® Credit Score, number of recent inquiries and more.
  • Freeze It® on/off switch for your account that prevents new purchases, cash advances & balance transfers in seconds.
  • New! Receive FREE Social Security number alerts-Discover will monitor thousands of risky websites when you sign up.
  • 0% intro APR on purchases for 6 months, then the standard variable purchase APR of 13.99% - 22.99%.
  • Click "APPLY NOW" to see rates, rewards, FICO® Credit Score terms, Cashback Match™ details & other information.
  • Issuer: Discover
  • Rewards Details: 5% cash back at Amazon.com and Target now through December 2017, on up to $1,500 in purchases when you activate. 1% cash back on all other purchases. $20 cash back each school year your GPA is 3.0 or higher for up to the next 5 years.
  • Annual Fee: $0
  • Balance Transfer Fee: 3%
  • Cash Advance APR: 25.99% Variable
  • Introductory APR: 0%
  • Introductory APR Period: 6 months
  • Introductory Balance Transfer APR: 10.99%
  • Introductory Balance Transfer Period: 6 months
  • Ongoing APR: 13.99% - 22.99% Variable

Our two cents

Who should get it

For students starting out, the Discover it® for Students card is as good a place as any to begin understanding and building a good credit history. With this card, any penalties that would normally be incurred by a late payment are forgiven the first time. This is an invaluable second chance for first-timers who already have enough on their plates with college.

How to use it
  • Earn 5% cash back at Amazon.com and Target now through December 2017, on up to $1,500 in purchases when you activate. Plus, 1% cash back on all other purchases.
  • Keep your GPA up to a 3.0 or higher to earn $20 cash back during the school year.
  • See where your money is going and improve your spending habits with Spend Analyzer.
Consider this

While a good all-around credit card for students, the Discover it® for Students may not be the best option to start with for students with poor or no credit. In situations like these, starting with the Discover it® Secured Card - No Annual Fee may improve your likelihood of approval. Sometimes it’s all about getting your foot in the door, and this card provides a powerful tool to achieve just that.

Why you'll love it

Discover it® for Students is our top pick for its flexibility, lack of fees, and generous rewards program. Its $20 bonus for students who maintain a 3.0 GPA may not sound like much, but it is an extra bonus for students who focus on their studies.

Start your application now

Best for dining out and gas

Discover it® chrome for Students
Rewards Summary 2% cash back at restaurants and gas stations on up to $1,000 quarterly; 1% cash back on all your other purchases
Redeem for... Cash back

Ongoing APR 13.99% - 22.99% Variable
Annual Fee $0
Highlights Provided by Discover Show Highlights
Card Highlights Provided by Discover:
  • 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 & get your free Credit Scorecard with your FICO® Credit Score, number of recent inquiries and more.
  • Freeze It® on/off switch for your account that prevents new purchases, cash advances & balance transfers in seconds.
  • New! Receive FREE Social Security number alerts-Discover will monitor thousands of risky websites when you sign up.
  • 0% intro APR on purchases for 6 months, then the standard variable purchase APR of 13.99% - 22.99%.
  • Click "APPLY NOW" to see rates, rewards, FICO® Credit Score terms, Cashback Match™ details & other information.
  • Issuer: Discover
  • Rewards Details: 2% cash back at restaurants & gas stations on up to $1,000 in combined purchases every quarter - no sign-ups needed. 1% cash back on all your other purchases. $20 cash back each school year your GPA is 3.0 or higher for up to the next 5 years.
  • Annual Fee: $0
  • Balance Transfer Fee: 3%
  • Cash Advance APR: 25.99% Variable
  • Introductory APR: 0%
  • Introductory APR Period: 6 months
  • Introductory Balance Transfer APR: 10.99%
  • Introductory Balance Transfer Period: 6 months
  • Ongoing APR: 13.99% - 22.99% Variable

Our two cents

Who should get it

The Discover it® chrome for Students card rewards students who need to fill up at gas stations or want to eat out with friends. Cardholders can also earn 2% cash back at participating restaurants and gas stations on up to $1,000 in combined purchases on a quarterly basis (1% on all other purchases).

How to use it
  • Get 2% cash back when you use this card to dine out with classmates or fill up your gas tank (up to $1,000 in combined purchases each quarter).
  • Receive $20 for each school year your GPA is 3.0 or higher (for up to five years).
  • Misplaced your card? Protect your account using the Freeze It® on/off switch.
  • Take advantage of the free monthly FICO® Credit Score† and keep track of your blossoming credit score.
Consider this

The 2% cash back rewards a student can get on restaurant and gas station purchases with the Discover it® chrome for Students might not work for everyone. If you find that your spending habits do not align with these rewards, then you should consider the Discover it® for Students. Students can get 5% cash back at Amazon.com and Target now through December 2017, on up to $1,500 in purchases with this card.

Why you'll love it

While Discover it® chrome for Students is very similar to Discover it® for Students, there are a few differences in each card’s rewards program. Your spending habits will ultimately determine which of these cards is right for you. If you do a lot of driving, it’s nice to have the 2% cash back at participating gas stations – especially with today’s gas prices. Another thing to bear in mind is that all other cardholder benefits and fees are identical to Discover it® for Students.

Start your application now

Best for developing responsible credit habits

Journey® Student Rewards from Capital One®
Rewards Summary 1% cash back on all your purchases; 1.25% cash back for the month (when you pay on time)
Redeem for... Cash back

Ongoing APR 24.99% (Variable)
Annual Fee $0
Highlights Provided by Capital One Show Highlights
  • 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 won't expire for the life of the account
  • 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
  • Issuer: Capital One
  • Rewards Details: 1 % Cash Back on all purchases. 0.25 % Cash Back bonus on the cash back you earn each month you pay on time.
  • Annual Fee: $0
  • Balance Transfer Fee: $0
  • Cash Advance APR: 24.99% (Variable)
  • Foreign Transaction Fee: None
  • Introductory APR: N/A
  • Introductory APR Period: N/A
  • Introductory Balance Transfer APR: N/A
  • Introductory Balance Transfer Period: N/A
  • Ongoing APR: 24.99% (Variable)
  • Penalty APR: None

Our two cents

Who should get it

When you pay your monthly bills on time, the Journey® Student Rewards from Capital One® card incentivizes that habit by boosting the percentage of cash back you can receive on purchases. For example, cardholders who pay on time can see their 1% cash back rewards boosted up to 1.25% for every month they pay back on time. After 5 months of on-time payments, cardholders are even eligible to raise their line of credit.

How to use it
  • Use credit responsibly by paying on time each month to see your 1% cash back boosted up to 1.25%.
  • Access the CreditWise program to chart the trajectory of your credit score (and make smart, financial decisions accordingly!)
  • Since there are no foreign transaction fees, this is a great card to take with you while studying abroad.
Consider this

The Journey® Student Rewards from Capital One® card is great for developing good credit habits, but what if you’re already responsible with your card? What if you want higher rewards and maybe even a little incentive to keep that GPA up? If this sounds like you, then we recommend Discover it® chrome for Students as an alternative. This card features 2% cash back on restaurants and gas while rewarding GPAs of 3.0 or higher with $20 cash back each school year (for up to five years).

Why you'll love it

One of the best lessons you can learn in college is how to be responsible with your money. The Journey® Student Rewards from Capital One® further drives home this lesson by incentivizing responsible credit use. Sure, a boost from 1% cash back to 1.25% doesn’t sound like a whole lot, but it gets you in the habit of paying on time — and gives you bonus cash back for your trouble. You’ll also get access to their CreditWise program, which makes it easy and free to monitor your credit score.

Start your application now

Best for poor or no credit

Discover it® Secured Card - No Annual Fee
Rewards Summary 2% cash back at restaurants gas stations on up to $1,000 quarterly; 1% cash back on all other purchases
Redeem for... Cash back

Ongoing APR 23.99% Variable
Annual Fee $0
Highlights Provided by Discover Show Highlights
Card Highlights Provided by Discover:
  • No Annual Fee, cash back on every purchase, and helps you build your credit with responsible use.
  • Your Secured Credit Card requires a refundable security deposit up to the amount we can approve of at least $200 which will establish your credit line. You will need to provide your bank information when submitting your security deposit.
  • We will automatically begin reviewing your account starting at 8 months to see if we can transition you to an unsecured line of credit.
  • Earn 2% cash back at restaurants & gas stations on up to $1,000 in combined purchases each quarter. Plus, 1% cash back on all your other purchases.
  • Get a dollar-for-dollar match of all the cash back you've earned at the end of your first year, automatically.
  • New! Receive FREE Social Security number alerts-Discover will monitor thousands of risky websites when you sign up.
  • Click "APPLY NOW" to see rates, rewards, FICO® Credit Score terms, Cashback Match™ details & other information.
  • Issuer: Discover
  • Rewards Details: 1% cash back on all your other purchases. 2% cash back at restaurants & gas stations on up to $1,000 in combined purchases each quarter.
  • Annual Fee: $0
  • Balance Transfer Fee: 3%
  • Cash Advance APR: 25.99% Variable
  • Introductory APR: N/A
  • Introductory APR Period: N/A
  • Introductory Balance Transfer APR: 10.99%
  • Introductory Balance Transfer Period: 6 months
  • Ongoing APR: 23.99% Variable

Our two cents

Who should get it

The Discover it® Secured Card - No Annual Fee can help students establish their own line of credit with an upfront deposit of $200 or more. In addition to this, cardholders can earn 2% cash back at restaurants and gas stations on up to $1,000 in combined purchases (per quarter before dropping to 1%).

How to use it
  • Use this card responsibly to establish positive credit.
  • Earn 2% cash back at restaurants and gas stations on your first $1,000 in combined purchases each quarter.
  • Enroll for email alerts and text reminders to make sure you’re keeping up with your payments and spending responsibly.
Consider this

The Discover it® Secured Card - No Annual Fee will really appeal only to those who have a bad credit score or, simply, aren’t eligible for anything better starting out. Anyone else may find this card limited in terms of the potential line of credit and capacity for earning rewards. If an unsecured credit card with rewards sounds like more your speed, then there’s the Discover it® for Students card to consider.

Why you'll love it

This card is one of the best credit cards for people with bad credit or no credit at all. For some, it is an effective means of improving their credit score. There are also lots of tools available to help you remember to pay on time, thus helping you establish a record of on-time payments and making you eligible for other credit cards in the future.

Start your application now

Best student credit cards: summed up

Student credit cards 101

According to a recent post by Kristen Kuchar on the topic of students’ common money mistakes, she reported that the average college student can accumulate as high as $3,000 in credit card debt. Of course, this doesn’t mean student credit cards are bad or should be avoided. In fact, the potential is often justified by the opportunities made possible by establishing a positive credit history.

To better understand how these cards work for students, we must first start at the beginning. The Credit Card Act of 2009 stipulates that a student of 18-21 years of age may qualify for a credit card if one of the two conditions are met:

  1. A parent, guardian, spouse, or another adult is willing to co-sign
  2. You submit proof of income and financial history proving a full-time income (or even a part-time income that’s sufficient enough to pay the balance each month).

When you need a parent to co-sign

When you’re a student starting out with a credit card, you might need a parent to co-sign. This is not an uncommon situation as most first-timers usually won’t have a credit history or enough income to qualify for a card on their own.

Co-signing risks for parents

There may be several benefits to having a parent co-sign for a student credit card, but there are also risks for both the parent and the student.

  • Parents who co-sign aren’t just helping their children qualify for a credit card. Co-signing also means that both parties will be held mutually responsible for all debts incurred.
  • Certain credit factors, such as high utilization, can negatively impact a parent’s credit score.
  • Shared accounts that go into default can negatively impact your credit score the same as accounts that are held privately. Both parties will also be pursued by collections.

Alternatives to co-signing

If parents would rather not co-sign for a student’s credit card application, there is the alternative of adding an adult child as an authorized user to an existing card account. This can help parents give specific financial advice to their child and, being an authorized user adds to a student’s credit history.

What is the best credit card for students?

The best credit card for students is the one that fits your financial goals. For instance, if your goal is to use your card instead of cash to earn rewards, then look at the Discover it® for Students. Are you planning for forgo the dining plan and eat out often? Then you might want to consider the Discover it® chrome for Students. Or, if you have poor or no credit history yet and you’re just starting out, think about the Discover it® Secured Card - No Annual Fee.

The key is to find a card that matches your goals, interest, and spending habits, apply, and then use it responsibly to consider building credit. This means only charging what you can afford to pay and then making payments in full and on time each month.

How do you get a credit card for the first time?

Getting a credit card for the first time will depend on your credit profile. If you have some good credit (perhaps your parents listed you as an authorized user on their credit card), then you may be able to apply for student-specific credit cards on your own. If you have no credit history or bad credit, then you may need a co-signer (as mentioned above), or you may consider a secured card. A secured credit card requires a cash deposit; however, in many cases, you can receive a deposit refund after several months if you keep your account in good standing.

What do you look for in a good credit card?

The best credit card for you will depend on how you plan on using it; however, with any credit card — whether it’s the best balance transfer credit cards or the best student credit cards — you’ll want to look at a few key details:

  • Low (or $0) Annual Fee: This is a once-a-year fee you pay in order to use your card and its benefits. The best credit cards have no or low annual fees; however, as a student building credit, you may need to get a card with an annual fee.
  • Annual Percentage Rate (APR): This is the rate you’ll be charged for “borrowing” money via a credit card, on a yearly basis. APR differs from interest rate, which is monthly. Ideally, you’ll have a low APR.
  • Credit Limit: This is your line of credit or the amount you can charge each month. Knowing your credit limit is important to keeping your credit utilization low (around 30% or less). This means if you have a $300 credit limit, you shouldn’t have more than a $100 balance at any given time.
  • Introductory Offers: Depending on the card, they may offer introductory 0% APR or $0 balance transfer fees to entice you to sign up.
  • Rewards: These are points, miles, or cash back you earn as you make purchases. The rate at which you earn depends on the card.
  • Credit Score Tracking: Although not an essential for all credit card users, students trying to build credit will find this feature particularly useful.

No matter which card you choose, the most important thing to keep an eye on is your statement balance. You should never charge more than you can pay off. Paying your balance off in full and on time each month is crucial to build positive credit.

How do credit cards work?

A credit card actually provides a short-term loan. A less-pleasant word for a loan is debt. When you purchase lunch at a restaurant with a credit card, the credit card company pays the restaurant right away on your behalf, then gives you roughly a month to pay them back. You are legally bound to pay back that loan.

This is where the situation gets tricky. If you fail to pay your credit card balance in full each month, your card issuer has the right to charge an incredible amount of interest on the balance of money you owe. In many cases, and depending on your interest rate, that means that your $12 lunch at Applebee’s could end up costing you $15, $20, or even $30 over time. However, if a credit card is used properly, it can be an interest-free loan. You simply need to learn to pay your balance in full when you receive your credit card statement each month, or before. Even better, through rewards accumulation, you can actually be “paid” to use this loan.

How students get into credit card trouble

Sometimes, students make the mistake of getting in over their heads with high interest rates on outstanding balances. In order to help student avoid these and other common mistakes, we’ve put together some examples to learn from:

Mistake #1: Overspending

It is easy to forget you are going into debt when you first start using credit. You simply swipe the card and go on your merry way. Unfortunately, the small purchases you don’t remember making will add up over the weeks and months. If you don’t keep track of your purchases in real-time, you may spend far more than you planned. When this happens, you can easily get whacked with an over-the-limit fee or spiral into credit card debt that becomes unmanageable.

Mistake #2: Spending just to earn more rewards

Many credit cards let you earn rewards points that can be redeemed for merchandise, cash back, or travel. It may be tempting to maximize this feature, but you should only do so with caution. The fact is, spending to earn rewards is never beneficial because your unnecessary spending often costs more than the rewards you get back.

Mistake #3: Making only minimum payments

When you carry a credit card balance into the next month, your credit card issuer will ask you to make a minimum payment. This minimum payment is usually only a small fraction of the amount you owe, which can be tempting if you are tight on cash. However, it is important to remember that the balance you carry over will accrue interest and ultimately cost you more money over time.

Mistake #4: Not paying your bill on time

Since your payment history is used to decide 30% of your credit score, late credit card payments are a huge step in the wrong direction. In addition to negatively impacting your score, you will also be charged a late fee that is generally somewhere between $30 and $40.

Student budget calculator

The importance of managing your finances cannot be stressed enough during the college years. It really is a brand new world and, for many, this is the first time keeping track of the money without mom and dad. That’s why we put together this interactive budget calculator to help students who are interested in managing and analyzing their finances. Use this calculator to gain a better understanding of where the money is going so you can prepare your expenses for the coming school year.

How can students use a credit card the right way?

If you want to learn how to truly use credit responsibly, it is best to start out slow and easy. You don’t need to rush into using credit exclusively, and would probably be better off making a few small transactions each month until you feel comfortable. Here are a few more tips that might make the transition smoother:

Start small with one card and a low limit

Since the most common credit card mistake that plagues students is overspending, it might be wise to begin the process with only one card that comes with a relatively low credit limit. For example, a student credit card with a $300 or $500 credit limit offers enough credit to let you get the hang of it without offering you so much credit that you risk going far into debt.

Make small everyday purchases, not extra purchases to get rewards

A common mistake many students make with their first credit card is to deviate from their normal spending habits. Some people get the idea that they need to make exorbitant purchases with their credit card in order to “jumpstart” a decent credit score. Overall, you should never purchase something with a credit card you aren’t capable of paying off within the month. Instead, get used to having that card and make everyday purchases. Accrue some points and/or cash back reward until you are comfortable with your understanding of how your card works.

Understand your spending by analyzing the statement

After using your new student card for your first month, you can use the information you gain to understand your spending better. Unlike when you use cash, using credit creates a paper trail of every transaction you make. This paper trail, and the online budgeting tools the best student credit cards usually offer, make it easier to analyze your real spending and look for ways to improve it.

Pay off your balance each month

With most credit cards, you’ll be required to pay off a minimum amount of your outstanding balance. We recommend getting into the habit of paying off your balance in its entirety, every month. By doing this, you avoid getting hit with any high interest rates. It also looks good on paper as far as your credit score is concerned.

Research the best credit cards for students

There are so many choices for students when it comes to credit cards. Not only that, but each card also offers its own set of perks and caveats. How are you supposed to know which student credit card is right for you? That’s where our student credit cards directory can really help sum it all up.

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