Your Guide to Getting a Student Credit Card

Your Guide to Getting a Student Credit Card article image.

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To apply for a student credit card, you typically need to show you're currently enrolled in college and that you earn your own income, even if it's from part-time or seasonal jobs. But some credit cards marketed to students are available to non-students, too, as long as you meet the credit requirements.

Here's how to get a student credit card, and what your options are if you don't qualify for one just yet.

What Is a Student Credit Card?

Getting—and properly using—a student credit card is one of the best ways to build credit.

You'll need good credit to get the lowest interest rates on loans in the future, and to qualify for premium credit cards that come with attractive travel and cash back rewards.

As a college student, you may have little or no credit history, which, paradoxically, makes it hard to qualify for additional financial products that can help you develop a credit file. But student credit cards are helpful first credit cards particularly for this reason. They generally have lower credit limits than traditional cards, which means their income requirements may be less stringent.

To use a student card responsibly, pay your bill on time, use as little of your credit limit as possible and pay off the balance each month. These habits will contribute to a good credit score, and could help you graduate to a traditional credit card later on.

How Do I Qualify?

To be eligible for a student credit card, you'll generally have to meet the following requirements:

  • Be at least 18 years old: When applying for a credit card in your own name, issuers typically require you to be 18 or over. Also, as a result of the Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure Act of 2009—known as the Credit CARD Act—if you're under 21, you must show that you earn independent income. Otherwise, you must use a cosigner who is older than 21, or opt for a different credit-building strategy.
  • Be currently enrolled in college—usually: Most student cards require applicants to prove they're currently enrolled in school. Credit card issuers define this differently: Discover requires students be enrolled in a "two- or four-year college or university," while State Farm says you must attend a "postsecondary educational institution." The Journey Student Rewards from Capital One, however, does not include college enrollment as a requirement. It's available to anyone, student or not, who meets the credit requirements.
  • Pass a credit check: Credit card issuers will look at your credit report, which shows any accounts you have open, such as student loans, and your payment history on those accounts. If you have poor or no credit and don't qualify, you can look into alternatives to student credit cards, like becoming an authorized user on a parent's card. More on that below.
  • Earn income: Anyone under 21 applying without a cosigner must show they have sufficient income to pay their credit card bill. That income can include money that a parent or other source of support deposits into a shared bank account for you to use.
  • Be a U.S. citizen: You'll generally have to provide a current permanent home address located in the U.S. to apply.

Which Credit Card Is Best for Students?

The best credit card for you depends on your spending habits, financial goals and ability to qualify. But when choosing among student credit card options, check annual fees, rewards programs—including how to earn and redeem those rewards—and their interest rate ranges. Ideally, you'll pay off your credit card bill in full each month, which is one of the top ways students can build credit. But understand how much it will cost if you carry a balance.

Also, consider your lifestyle when deciding on a card:

  • Eager to build credit? Keep your balances low and pay off all purchases each month, and that additional available credit could help you build a stronger credit score.

How Do I Apply?

The most important step in applying for a credit card comes before you fill out any forms. Make sure you're applying for the best card for your situation, and that you meet as many of the requirements as possible. That will give you the best shot at approval.

Once you've chosen a card, the easiest way to apply is on the card issuer's website. Collect the information you'll likely need for the application, like your Social Security number, contact information, annual income—including any types of income the card issuer has particularly noted may count, like bank deposits in a shared account—and monthly housing payment. You may be approved immediately or have to wait for a decision by mail.

What if I Get Denied?

If your application for a student credit card was denied, a likely reason is that you don't have sufficient credit history. You can find out for sure, though, by asking the issuer for an adverse action letter, which explains why the company declined to extend you credit.

Next, take a look at your credit report and make sure there aren't any inaccuracies, like accounts opened in your name that you didn't apply for. Also, if anything changed since you applied for the card—you took on a new, higher-paying job, for instance—you can request the issuer reevaluate the application. Avoid applying for multiple cards that you're unlikely to qualify for, since lots of hard credit inquiries, which occur when you apply for credit cards, can hurt your score.

If getting a student credit card isn't possible for you right now, consider a secured credit card instead, which requires a cash deposit that becomes your credit limit. It's designed to help those new to credit build their file. Use it responsibly, and the issuer could upgrade you to a traditional card eventually.

An additional option is to ask a parent or another financially responsible person in your life to add you as an authorized user to their credit card. You won't be responsible for payment, but the length of their credit history and experience making on-time payments could help build your credit. Make sure the credit card company reports authorized user activity to the credit bureaus.

The Bottom Line

Student credit cards aren't the only credit-building options if you're in college, but their benefits make them a good bet if you qualify. Explore your options before applying, especially by scrutinizing your credit report and choosing a card that fits your credit profile. With the right card, you could lay a foundation for good credit habits early, and enjoy some rewards along the way.

Learn More About Credit Cards for Students

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