Updated on Jan 11, 2018

Best Credit Cards for College Students for 2018

Manage your expenses and build positive credit with this year’s top picks.
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Our 2018 picks of the best credit cards for college students offer some impressive rewards potential. They also offer perks to students that help promote responsible credit card use. These include cash bonuses for keeping your grades up as well as access to plenty of tools to help maintain or improve your credit scores. Check out our top picks and apply online in minutes for the card that’s right for you.

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

Best rewards potential

Discover it® for Students
Rewards Summary Earn 5% cash back at different places each quarter like gas stations, grocery stores, restaurants or Amazon.com up to the quarterly maximum each time you activate. Plus, 1% cash back on all other purchases.
Redeem for... Merchandise; restaurants; ground transportation

Ongoing APR 14.24% - 23.24% 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 different places each quarter like gas stations, grocery stores, restaurants or Amazon.com up to the quarterly maximum each time 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 14.24% - 23.24%.
  • Issuer: Discover
  • Rewards Details: 5% cash back at different places each quarter like gas stations, grocery stores, restaurants or Amazon.com up to the quarterly maximum each time 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: 26.24% Variable
  • Introductory APR: 0%
  • Introductory APR Period: 6 months
  • Introductory Balance Transfer APR: 10.99%
  • Introductory Balance Transfer Period: 6 months
  • Ongoing APR: 14.24% - 23.24% 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 different places each quarter like gas stations, grocery stores, restaurants or Amazon.com up to the quarterly maximum each time 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 Back to top

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 other purchases.
Redeem for... Cash back

Ongoing APR 14.24% - 23.24% 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. 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 14.24% - 23.24%.
  • 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 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: 26.24% Variable
  • Introductory APR: 0%
  • Introductory APR Period: 6 months
  • Introductory Balance Transfer APR: 10.99%
  • Introductory Balance Transfer Period: 6 months
  • Ongoing APR: 14.24% - 23.24% 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

Make sure that the rewards structure of the Discover it® chrome for Students matches up with your everyday spending. If you don’t do a lot of driving because you live on campus or you tend not to eat out in order to save money, then this might not be the card for you. However, this card does offer some valuable perks including extra incentive to stay on the ball when it comes to education.

Why you'll love it

For students who do a lot of driving on campus and dine out with classmates, the Discover it® chrome for Students makes it easy to earn rewards getting around campus and making friends. It’s also a great starter card for anyone who wants to keep track of their credit score.

Start your application now Back to top
Learn More on Capital One's secure website

Best for poor or no credit

Capital One® Secured Mastercard®
Rewards Summary N/A
Redeem for... N/A

Ongoing APR 24.99% (Variable)
Annual Fee $0
Highlights Provided by Capital One Show Highlights
  • 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
  • Issuer: Capital One
  • Rewards Details: N/A
  • 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

Students who have never used credit, or didn’t use credit responsibly in the past (it’s a learning curve), should consider the Capital One® Secured MasterCard®. It’s not as flashy as some of the other cards — no rewards and a security deposit is required. However, you’ll have a lot of tools at your disposal to learn about and understand credit to establish or rebuild your credit profile.

How to use it
  • Depending on your creditworthiness, put down a $49, $99, or $200 refundable deposit to establish a $200 line of credit. Plus, deposit more money before your account opens to get a higher credit line.
  • Make your payments on time for the first five months, and you could qualify for a credit line increase — no additional cost.
  • Take advantage of Capital One® tools, such as personalized payments and CreditWise®, to set your own due date, view your credit score, and monitor your credit profile.
Consider this

Making payments on time and in full is vitally important to improving your credit. Miss a payment? You may have to pay a late fee of up to $35 and may not qualify for a credit line increase. Set a reminder on your phone to ensure you’re never late!

Why you'll love it

The Capital One® Secured MasterCard® may not have rewards, but using the card responsibly will let you take control and rebuild or establish credit. If you want a no-nonsense approach to increase your credit, this card may be right for you!

Start your application now Back to top
Learn More on Capital One's secure website

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

For anyone wanting to get into the habit of using a credit card responsibly, we present the Journey® Student Rewards from Capital One® card. This card incentivizes the act of paying your monthly bill on time by boosting the percentage of cash back you can receive on purchases. It can go from 1% to 1.25% and, after five consecutive months of on-time payments, you could even increase your 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

If you’re just starting out or a little baffled by how credit cards work, then you’ll love the Journey® Student Rewards from Capital One®. This card and their offered programs really eases you into the world of credit cards by teaching you responsible card use through incentivizing on-time payments. Not to mention access to programs like CreditWise that can help you keep your credit on the right track.

Start your application now Back to top

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).

Can you apply for a credit card at 17?

Unless you are legally emancipated, you cannot apply for a standard credit card in your own name until you’re 18 years old. However, you might still be able to gain access to a card by getting a co-signer to share your credit responsibilities. If you’re interested in a credit card, but you are not old enough to apply, you might consider discussing the matter with a parent or guardian.

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

While there are plenty of benefits, there are also risks for both parents and students. For instance, parents who co-sign are mutually responsible for debts incurred by the student. Factors like high utilization can also have a negative impact on the parent’s credit score. Understanding and discussing these risks is key to moving your student forward into the world of credit.

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.

Are credit cards good for college students?

It’s never too late or too early to learn the value of responsible credit use. The college life is already full of so many new and important responsibilities and building good credit is an important one to add to the list. When used responsibly, credit cards can help a student learn proper money management and build a line of credit that makes it easier to lease a decent apartment or put a down payment on a car.

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.

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.

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.

How can college students establish a credit history fast?

  1. Always pay off the entire balance
  2. Always pay on time
  3. Automate payments
  4. Avoid applying for too many loans
  5. Increase your credit limit

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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Best credit cards for college students for 2018

  • Discover it® for Students : Best rewards potential
  • Discover it® chrome for Students : Best for dining out and gas
  • Capital One® Secured Mastercard® : Best for poor or no credit
  • Journey® Student Rewards from Capital One® : Best for developing responsible credit habits

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