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Turning 18 is a milestone toward adulthood, independence—and potentially access to credit. Credit can seem complicated, but starting early with responsible credit card use can set you up well for future success. You must be 18 or older to open your own credit card account; however, you can get a head start even before you reach the minimum age for a credit card.
Credit Card Age Requirements
While the minimum age to get a credit card is 18 years old, the Credit CARD Act of 2009 requires that credit card applicants under 21 provide proof that they have enough independent income to afford their bill or have a cosigner. This means you must show the credit card company that you have enough stable cash flow to cover your credit card expenses, whether with paychecks, parental allowance or other income.
Without verified income, you need a cosigner to join your credit card application. They can be a trusted family member or friend over 21 who agrees to share responsibility for any debt you may incur. Few credit card issuers still allow cosigners, however. If you can't find a cosigner and don't have the income to qualify for a card on your own, you may instead consider asking a family member if they're willing to add you to one of their credit accounts as an authorized user (more on that later).
Why It Could Be a Smart Move to Get a Credit Card at 18
Getting a jump-start on your credit journey in your teen years can have serious advantages. For one, you're better protected from fraud with a credit card than with other payment methods. Credit cards also have the potential to reward you with perks like cash back or travel miles you can redeem for flights or hotel stays.
Additionally, responsible management of a credit card at an early age can help you start building your credit. Since the length of your credit history makes up about 15% of your FICO® Score☉ , opening a card at 18 can be a long-term boost for your credit score as long as you keep the account open and in good standing. By establishing a sound credit score early on, you'll be better prepared for financial milestones down the road like buying a car or applying for a job.
Plus, by using a credit card early on—ideally with guidance from trusted family members and financial experts—you can get a grasp on valuable financial knowledge early on. The sooner you can learn the ins and out of credit, the better equipped you'll be to handle your cards down the road.
What to Look For in Starter Credit Card
Credit card shopping—especially for your first—can be a bit daunting. For a starter credit card, look for three basic components:
- In your range: Card companies must verify your independent income if you're under 21, and you'll have to meet the card issuer's qualifications on top of that. If you see a card for people with excellent credit scores, that one probably isn't for you since you haven't had much time to build up a high score yet. Instead, try a secured credit card, which requires a security deposit as collateral and can be easier to qualify for.
- Low or no fees: When you're learning the ropes of charging and paying off your monthly bill, avoid cards that charge an annual fee or other fees.
- Perks: You're not likely to get accepted for the fanciest rewards cards when you're just starting your credit journey. But you may be eligible for student credit cards, some of which have no annual fees, cash back rewards and 0% intro APRs.
What Happens if You Get Denied for a Credit Card?
Younger credit card applicants may get denied because they don't have sufficient income or credit history. If this happens to you, the card issuer will explain their reasoning in what's called an adverse action letter. Read this over to find out why you were denied and call the company if you think your application should be reconsidered.
When income (or a lack thereof) is the problem, your options are either to start earning one or finding a cosigner to share responsibility with you for the account. Double-check that the income amount you put on your application included all potential forms of income, such as paychecks, student loan deposits and parental allowances.
If you were denied because of your credit, your adverse action letter should explain to you that you're entitled to a free copy of your credit report from the bureau that supplied the report used to calculate the score reviewed in the decision. You can also get your credit report for free through AnnualCreditReport.com or check your credit report and FICO® Score for free through Experian. Typically, creditors consider a good FICO® Score to be one that's 700 or above, but this can vary depending on the card issuer.
If you haven't built your credit enough that a score can be calculated (or find yourself with a less-than-stellar score), you have a few options:
- Ask a trusted family member to add you as an authorized user on a credit card account they manage responsibly (meaning they keep balances low and never miss payments). As an authorized user, you can have the primary cardholder's payment history and account age on your own credit report, which could help you improve your scores and seem more creditworthy to lenders. Make sure to confirm the card issuer reports your authorized-user status to credit bureaus.
- Try Experian Boost®ø, a free service that can add monthly bills like utilities and streaming services to your credit report and help you build a positive payment history. These added payments may help increase your credit score instantly.
- Apply for a secured card or student credit card. These options tend to have certain constraints, like requiring an initial deposit, but they can be great starter cards to build your credit history.
The Bottom Line
Your first experiences with credit cards can impact you for years to come. Whether you just reached the minimum age for a credit card or want to discuss becoming an authorized user with your family, focus on using your account responsibly so you can build a healthy financial history. Wait until you have a steady income and manage your purchases carefully so you don't hurt your credit history by missing payments or accruing a high account balance. Your future self (and future credit score) will thank you for it.