Student Credit Cards: How to Pick the Best One (and How Best to Use It)

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You’re in college, and you figure you need a credit card. But you’re not sure you have the credit history to get one. Besides, how do you know which card is the best one for you?

If you don’t know where to start, getting a student credit card can be a good beginning. Here’s everything you need to know about choosing a student credit card and using it to build your financial reputation.

What is a student credit card?

Student credit cards are just what they sound like: credit cards aimed at college students. These credit cards are unsecured, so you don’t have to worry about putting money into an account with the issuer as collateral. In that way, they are similar to “regular” credit cards.

However, qualifying for a standard unsecured card can be tricky, according to Sarah Hollenbeck, a credit card expert with deal site Offers.com. To access to the best deals and rewards, you need to have already built up a credit history — and many college students just aren’t there yet. This is where a student credit card comes in.

“Banks recognize that students are just starting to make bigger purchases and build credit, so they don’t require such a long credit history to approve you for a student card,” Hollenbeck said.

But just because student credit cards are easier to get than their standard counterparts, it doesn’t mean there aren’t some drawbacks. “Realize that a lack of credit history also means that students might see a higher interest rate,” Hollenbeck said.

On top of that, pointed out Matthew Coan, the owner of credit card comparison website Casavvy.com, student credit cards often come with lower credit limits.

And while some student cards come with perks, there are usually fewer rewards opportunities than what you see with standard credit cards. “Most student credit cards just aren’t going to offer 0% APR and balance transfer opportunities that the mainstream cards offer,” Coan said.

Use a student card to build your credit

The main purpose for a student card is to boost your credit to the point where you can qualify for a standard unsecured card down the road and prepare for bigger money decisions, according to Alex Cohen, CEO and cofounder of Birch Finance.

“A credit card is both a tool for personal growth in financial responsibility and a sign to lenders that you’re financially trustworthy,” he said. “They’re a great vehicle for learning financial responsibility and developing good spending habits.”

As you use your student card, here are some of the things you can do to build the kind of credit history that will give you a solid start in your financial life:

Spend small

First of all, said Cohen, it’s important to spend only what you can pay off by the end of the month. Carefully budget your money so that you only buy what’s in your original plan. Credit cards shouldn’t be used for impulse purchases.

“Use the card only occasionally so you avoid spending more than you can pay,” said Jason Steele, a credit-card expert with Credit.com. He pointed out that trying to use a credit card as your main method of spending is an advanced money management technique that should wait until you have more financial practice.

Keep purchases small, planned, and occasional for best results.

Pay off the balance each month

When building your credit history, it’s not about how much money you spend. “Your credit score is basically a grade on how well you pay back money that you borrow,” said Coan. He recommended making your payments on time each month, preferably paying off the entire balance to avoid interest charges.

Steele suggested using tools available to remind you pay on time. Many issuers will send you text alerts to remind you to pay your bill. If you really want to make sure you don’t miss a payment, he proposed setting up automatic debits from your bank account to cover the required amount each month. Just stay on top of the situation so you don’t overdraft your account with autopay.

Keep your credit utilization low

Your credit utilization reflects how big your balance is compared to your credit limit. “Many student cards have limits no bigger than $1,000,” said Hollenbeck. “That limits how much debt you can get in, but it also means you have to be careful about how much you charge.”

Coan said your best credit-building results come when your balance is kept below 30 percent of your credit limit. When you have a $1,000 limit, that means you want to avoid having a balance higher than $300 on your student credit card.

Of course, your limit is your limit. You can charge up to that amount. But it can reduce your ability to build your best possible credit history. And, yes, you can conceivably carry up to 30 percent of your limit from month to month without seeing a negative impact on your credit score. But all of the experts interviewed for this article agreed that your finances will be in better shape if you just pay off the total balance in every billing cycle.

Get help managing your money

When you manage your money intelligently, incorporating your credit card spending into the overall plan, you are more likely to see good results with your credit history, said Steele. He recommended using available tools to help you manage your money. These platforms can help you with everything from setting a budget to understanding and managing your credit:

  • Personal finance software such as Mint or Personal Capital
  • Credit and money management tools from your credit card issuer or bank

Steele also said it helps to have your parents play a role. “Have a parent or other trusted adult log into the account from time to time, just to check things,” he said. “They can see if it’s being managed well, spot red flags, and help you make positive changes based on what they observe.”

How to choose the right student credit card for you

While Cohen acknowledged there aren’t as many choices for student credit cards as there are for other mainstream credit cards, there are still a significant number of cards available. Deciding which student card will work best for you can be a challenging task.

Cohen suggested starting by analyzing your spending. “Look at your past purchases to see which areas you spend the most money on,” he said. “Your past spending habits will help you figure out which cards have the perks you’re looking for.”

Hollenback advised looking for student-specific perks to offset the lack of more traditional rewards, such as systems that take into account your college GPA or the number of on-time payments you make.

“Since student cards have higher interest rates, it’s important to take advantage of all the other reward opportunities you can,” she said. “Plus, a cash incentive for your grades can help you do well in school while building your credit from the ground up.”

Steele said that there are student rewards cards that offer cash back, travel points, and signing bonuses. However, they might be harder to get than cards that don’t offer these perks. He suggested on focusing on simplicity when deciding what cards to apply for.

“It can help to get a card issued by the same bank or credit union you already have a checking or savings account with,” he said. “That way, payments become simply a matter of transferring funds between accounts. Besides, many of these institutions offer student cards with lower interest rates and management tools that help you learn good financial habits.”

5 student credit cards to help you get started

Now that you have an idea about some of the strategies for using a student credit card, let’s take a look at which card might be right for you. Check out these five cards recommended by the experts:

Discover it® Student chrome

If you’re looking for an all-around card that offers student-based perks on top of more-standard rewards, then Coan suggests the Discover it® Student chrome as a good choice. This card comes with such perks as:

  • Intro 0% for 6 months on purchases, then a 14.49% - 23.49% Variable APR applies
  • No penalty charged on your first late payment
  • 2% cash back on up to $1,000 per quarter in restaurant and gas station purchases
  • 1% cash back on all other purchases
  • For new cardmembers, a dollar-for-dollar match on all the cash back earned at the end of your first year, automatically

On top of those features, the Discover it® Student chrome comes with a $0 annual fee and doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees.

The card also comes with security features that Coan likes. “You have the option to freeze your account if you lose your card,” he said. “Discover will also monitor your Social Security number and alert you if anyone is trying to use it to obtain credit elsewhere.”

The information related to Discover it® Student chrome has been collected by Student Loan Hero and has not been reviewed or provided by the issuer of this card prior to publication.

Citi ThankYou® Preferred Card for College Students

Hollenbeck recommends the Citi ThankYou® Preferred Card for College Students as one that offers some decent rewards — even if they aren’t quite on par with other Citibank cards meant for customers with more credit experience. Some of the perks that Hollenbeck likes include:

  • Intro 0% for 7 months on Purchases* on purchases, then a 16.49% - 26.49%* (Variable) APR applies
  • Earn 2,500 bonus points after spending $500 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening
  • Earn 2X Points on Dining Out & Entertainment and Earn 1X Points on All Other Purchases

You don’t have to worry about an annual fee with this student credit card, said Hollenbeck, but you do have to deal with a foreign transaction fee of 3%, making this card less than ideal for those who decide to study abroad.

The information related to Citi ThankYou® Preferred Card for College Students has been collected by Student Loan Hero and has not been reviewed or provided by the issuer of this card prior to publication.

Journey® Student Rewards from Capital One®

While the Journey® Student Rewards from Capital One® doesn’t come with the same level of rewards as some other student credit cards — and you won’t get a 0% APR offer — Steele likes its money and credit management tools, such as access to credit monitoring tool CreditWise. The card also features:

  • 1% Cash Back on all purchases; 0.25% Cash Back bonus on the cash back you earn each month you pay on time
  • Higher credit limit after making your first five payments on time, terms apply.

This card does come with a higher interest rate on purchases than some of the other student cards. However, Steele says this could be an advantage since it might encourage students to pay off their balances in full each month, especially with the card’s emphasis on money-management tools. Plus, the card has a $0 annual fee, and you don’t have to worry about foreign transaction fees when you leave the country.

The information related to Journey® Student Rewards from Capital One® has been collected by Student Loan Hero and has not been reviewed or provided by the issuer of this card prior to publication.

Bank of America® Cash Rewards Credit Card for Students

The Bank of America® Cash Rewards Credit Card for Students comes with:

  • Intro 0% for 12 billing cycles on purchases. A 15.74% - 25.74% Variable APR applies, thereafter.
  • Intro 0% for 12 billing cycles on balance transfers. A 15.74% - 25.74% Variable APR applies, thereafter.
  • You'll earn 3% and 2% cash back on the first $2,500 in combined choice category/grocery store/wholesale club purchases each quarter, then earn 1%.  

On top of these perks, Steele points out that the Bank of America® Cash Rewards Credit Card for Students comes with access to your FICO score, updated monthly. You can look at key factors impacting your score to help you make better decisions. Plus, there is a $0 annual fee, though unfortunately for students traveling abroad, there is a foreign transaction fee of 3% of the U.S. dollar amount of each transaction.

The information related to Bank of America® Cash Rewards Credit Card for Students has been collected by Student Loan Hero and has not been reviewed or provided by the issuer of this card prior to publication.

Chase Freedom® Student credit card

The Chase Freedom® Student credit card offers a $50 sign-up bonus after making their first purchase on the card within the first three months.

Like other cards suitable for students, the Chase Freedom® Student credit card has a $0 annual fee. However, there is a foreign transaction fee of 3% of the amount of each transaction in U.S. dollars.

The information related to Chase Freedom® Student credit card has been collected by Student Loan Hero and has not been reviewed or provided by the issuer of this card prior to publication.

Staying on top of your finances

No matter which student credit card you choose, the important thing is to practice good financial habits. Figure out a spending plan and stick to it. And avoid buying more than you can afford with your credit card.

Remember: Your credit card is a tool. It can help your finances, but it can also be a disaster if not used responsibly.

Interested in a personal loan?

Here are the top personal loan lenders of 2019!
LenderAPR RangeLoan Amount 
1 Includes AutoPay discount. Important Disclosures for SoFi.

SoFi Disclosures

  1. Fixed rates from 5.99% APR to 17.88% APR (with AutoPay). Variable rates from 6.49% APR to 14.70% APR (with AutoPay). SoFi rate ranges are current as of November 4, 2019 and are subject to change without notice. Not all rates and amounts available in all states. See Personal Loan eligibility details. Not all applicants qualify for the lowest rate. If approved for a loan, to qualify for the lowest rate, you must have a responsible financial history and meet other conditions. Your actual rate will be within the range of rates listed above and will depend on a variety of factors, including evaluation of your credit worthiness, years of professional experience, income and other factors. See APR examples and terms. Interest rates on variable rate loans are capped at 14.95%. Lowest variable rate of 6.49% APR assumes current 1-month LIBOR rate of 1.81% plus 3.08% margin minus 0.25% AutoPay discount. For the SoFi variable rate loan, the 1-month LIBOR index will adjust monthly and the loan payment will be re-amortized and may change monthly. APRs for variable rate loans may increase after origination if the LIBOR index increases. The SoFi 0.25% AutoPay interest rate reduction requires you to agree to make monthly principal and interest payments by an automatic monthly deduction from a savings or checking account. The benefit will discontinue and be lost for periods in which you do not pay by automatic deduction from a savings or checking account.
  2. To check the rates and terms you qualify for, SoFi conducts a soft credit pull that will not affect your credit score. However, if you choose a product and continue your application, we will request your full credit report from one or more consumer reporting agencies, which is considered a hard credit pull.
    See Consumer Licenses.
  3. Minimum Credit Score: Not all applicants who meet SoFi’s minimum credit score requirements are approved for a personal loan. In addition to meeting SoFi’s minimum eligibility criteria, applicants must also meet other credit and underwriting requirements to qualify.
  4. If you lose your job through no fault of your own, you may apply for Unemployment Protection. SoFi will suspend your monthly SoFi loan payments and provide job placement assistance during your forbearance period. Interest will continue to accrue and will be added to your principal balance at the end of each forbearance period, to the extent permitted by applicable law. Benefits are offered in three month increments, and capped at 12 months, in aggregate, over the life of the loan. To be eligible for this assistance you must provide proof that you have applied for and are eligible for unemployment compensation, and you must actively work with our Career Advisory Group to look for new employment. If the loan is co-signed the unemployment protection applies where both the borrower and cosigner lose their job and meet conditions.
  5. Terms and Conditions Apply: SOFI RESERVES THE RIGHT TO MODIFY OR DISCONTINUE PRODUCTS AND BENEFITS AT ANY TIME WITHOUT NOTICE. To qualify, a borrower must be a U.S. citizen or permanent resident in an eligible state and meet SoFi’s underwriting requirements. Not all borrowers receive the lowest rate. To qualify for the lowest rate, you must have a responsible financial history and meet other conditions. If approved, your actual rate will be within the range of rates listed above and will depend on a variety of factors, including term of loan, a responsible financial history, years of experience, income and other factors. Rates and Terms are subject to change at anytime without notice and are subject to state restrictions. SoFi refinance loans are private loans and do not have the same repayment options that the federal loan program offers such as Income Based Repayment or Income Contingent Repayment or PAYE. Licensed by the Department of Business Oversight under the California Financing Law License No. 6054612. SoFi loans are originated by SoFi Lending Corp., NMLS # 1121636. (www.nmlsconsumeraccess.org)

2 Includes AutoPay discount. Important Disclosures for Opploans.

Opploans Disclosures

Direct Deposit required for payroll.

Opploans currently operates in these states: . *Approval may take longer if additional verification documents are requested. Not all loan requests are approved. Approval and loan terms vary based on credit determination and state law. Applications processed and approved before 7:30 p.m. ET Monday-Friday are typically funded the next business day.

  1. To qualify, a borrower must (i) be a U.S. citizen or permanent resident; (ii) reside in a state where OppLoans operates; (iii) have direct deposit; (iv) meet income requirements; (v) be 18 years of age (19 in Alabama); and, (vi) meet verification standards.
  2. NV Residents: The use of high-interest loans services should be used for short-term financial needs only and not as a long-term financial solution. Customers with credit difficulties should seek credit counseling before entering into any loan transaction.

  3. OppLoans performs no credit checks through the three major credit bureaus Experian, Equifax, or TransUnion. Applicants’ credit scores are provided by Clarity Services, Inc., a credit reporting agency.

  4. Based on customer service ratings on Google and Facebook. Testimonials reflect the individual’s opinion and may not be illustrative of all individual experiences with OppLoans. Check loan reviews.

  5.  

    Rates and terms vary by state.


3 Includes AutoPay discount. Important Disclosures for Payoff.

Payoff Disclosures

  1. All loans are subject to credit review and approval. Your actual rate depends upon credit score, loan amount, loan term, credit usage and history. Currently loans are not offered in: MA, MS, NE, NV, OH, and WV.

4 Important Disclosures for FreedomPlus.

FreedomPlus Disclosures

  1. All loans available through FreedomPlus.com are made by Cross River Bank, a New Jersey State Chartered Commercial Bank, Member FDIC, Equal Housing Lender. All loan and rate terms are subject to eligibility restrictions, application review, credit score, loan amount, loan term, lender approval, and credit usage and history. Eligibility for a loan is not guaranteed. Loans are not available to residents of all states – please call a FreedomPlus representative for further details. The following limitations, in addition to others, shall apply: FreedomPlus does not arrange loans in: (i) Arizona under $10,500; (ii) Massachusetts under $6,500, (iii) Ohio under $5,500, and (iv) Georgia under $3,500. Repayment periods range from 24 to 60 months. The range of APRs on loans made available through FreedomPlus is 5.99% to a maximum of 29.99%. APR. The APR calculation includes all applicable fees, including the loan origination fee. For Example, a four year $20,000 loan with an interest rate of 15.49% and corresponding APR of 18.34% would have an estimated monthly payment of $561.60 and a total cost payable of $7,948.13. To qualify for a 5.99% APR loan, a borrower will need excellent credit on a loan for an amount less than $12,000.00, and with a term equal to 24 months. Adding a co-borrower with sufficient income; using at least eighty-five percent (85%) of the loan proceeds to directly pay off qualifying existing debt; or showing proof of sufficient retirement savings, could help you also qualify for the lowest rate available.

5 Important Disclosures for Citizens Bank.

Citizens Bank Disclosures

  1. Personal Loan Rate Disclosure: Fixed interest rates from 6.79% – 20.89% (6.79% – 20.89% APR) based on applicable terms. Lowest rates range from 5.99%- 18.99% (5.99%-18.99% APR), are for eligible applicants, require a 3-year repayment term, and include our Loyalty and Automatic Payment Discounts of 0.25 percentage points each, as outlined in the Loyalty Discount and Automatic Payment Discount disclosures. Subject to additional terms and conditions, and rates are subject to change at any time without notice. Such changes will only apply to applications taken after the effective date of change.
  2. Loyalty Discount: The borrower will be eligible for a 0.25 percentage point interest rate reduction on their loan if the borrower has a qualifying account in existence with us at the time the borrower has submitted a completed application authorizing us to review their credit request for the loan. The following are qualifying accounts: any checking account, savings account, money market account, certificate of deposit, automobile loan, home equity loan, home equity line of credit, mortgage, credit card account, student loans or other personal loans owned by Citizens Bank, N.A. Please note, our checking and savings account options are only available in the following states: CT, DE, MA, MI, NH, NJ, NY, OH, PA, RI and VT. This discount will be reflected in the interest rate and Annual Percentage Rate (APR) disclosed in the Truth-In-Lending Disclosure that will be provided to the borrower once the loan is approved. Limit of one Loyalty Discount per loan, and discount will not be applied to prior loans. The Loyalty Discount will remain in effect for the life of the loan.
     
  3. Automatic Payment Discount: Borrowers will be eligible to receive a 0.25 percentage point interest rate reduction on their Citizens Bank Personal Loan during such time as payments are required to be made and our loan servicer is authorized to automatically deduct payments each month from any bank account the borrower designates. If our loan servicer is unable to successfully withdraw the automatic deductions from the designated account two or more times within any 12-month period, the borrower will no longer be eligible for this discount.

6 Important Disclosures for LendingPoint.

LendingPoint Disclosures

  • Loan approval is not guaranteed. Actual loan offers and loan amounts, terms and annual percentage rates (“APR”) may vary based upon LendingPoint’s proprietary scoring and underwriting system’s review of your credit, financial condition, other factors, and supporting documents or information you provide. Origination or other fees from 0% to 6% may apply depending upon your state of residence. Upon LendingPoint’s final underwriting approval to fund a loan, said funds are often sent via ACH the next non-holiday business day. LendingPoint makes loan offers from $2,000 to $25,000, at rates ranging from a low of 15.49% APR to a high of 35.99% APR, with terms from 24 to 48 months. The loan offer(s) shown reflect a 28 day payment cycle which is being offered as a courtesy as many of our customers are paid on a biweekly schedule and thus this may better align the loan payment dates with your actual income receipt schedule.

7 Important Disclosures for LendingClub.

LendingClub Disclosures

All loans made by WebBank, Member FDIC. Your actual rate depends upon credit score, loan amount, loan term, and credit usage & history. The APR ranges from 6.95% to 35.89%*. The origination fee ranges from 1% to 6% of the original principal balance and is deducted from your loan proceeds. For example, you could receive a loan of $6,000 with an interest rate of 7.99% and a 5.00% origination fee of $300 for an APR of 11.51%. In this example, you will receive $5,700 and will make 36 monthly payments of $187.99. The total amount repayable will be $6,767.64. Your APR will be determined based on your credit at the time of application. The average origination fee is 5.49% as of Q1 2017. In Georgia, the minimum loan amount is $3,025. In Massachusetts, the minimum loan amount is $6,025 if your APR is greater than 12%. There is no down payment and there is never a prepayment penalty. Closing of your loan is contingent upon your agreement of all the required agreements and disclosures on the www.lendingclub.com website. All loans via LendingClub have a minimum repayment term of 36 months. Borrower must be a U.S. citizen, permanent resident or be in the United States on a valid long term visa and at least 18 years old. Valid bank account and Social Security number are required. Equal Housing Lender. All loans are subject to credit approval. LendingClub’s physical address is: LendingClub, 71 Stevenson Street, Suite 1000, San Francisco, CA 94105.

†Per reviews collected and authenticated by Bazaarvoice in compliance with the Bazaarvoice Authentication Requirements, supported by anti-fraud technology and human analysis. All reviews can be reviewed at reviews.lendingclub.com

**Based on approximately 60% of borrowers who received offers through LendingClub’s marketing partners between January 1, 2018 to July 20,2018. The time it will take to fund your loan may vary.


8 Important Disclosures for Earnest.

Earnest Disclosures

  1. Earnest does not lend in Alabama, Delaware, Kentucky, Nevada, or Rhode Island.

9 Important Disclosures for Avant.

Avant Disclosures

*If approved, the actual loan terms that a customer qualifies for may vary based on credit determination, state law, and other factors. Minimum loan amounts vary by state.

**Example: A $5,900 loan with an administration fee of 4.75% and an amount financed of $5,619.75, repayable in 36 monthly installments, with an APR of 29.95% would have monthly payments of $250.30.

Based on the responses from 11,574 customers in a survey of 210,584 newly funded customers, conducted from 1 Feb 2018 – 1 Aug 2019 95.05% of customers stated that they were either extremely satisfied or satisfied with Avant. 4/5 Customers would recommend us. Avant branded credit products are issued by WebBank, member FDIC.


* Important Disclosures for Upgrade Bank.

Upgrade Bank Disclosures

* Personal loans made through Upgrade feature APRs of 6.98%-35.89%. All personal loans have a 1.5% to 6% origination fee, which is deducted from the loan proceeds. Lowest rates require Autopay and paying off a portion of existing debt directly. For example, if you receive a $10,000 loan with a 36-month term and a 17.98% APR (which includes a 14.32% yearly interest rate and a 5% one-time origination fee), you would receive $9,500 in your account and would have a required monthly payment of $343.33. Over the life of the loan, your payments would total $12,359.97. The APR on your loan may be higher or lower and your loan offers may not have multiple term lengths available. Actual rate depends on credit score, credit usage history, loan term, and other factors. Late payments or subsequent charges and fees may increase the cost of your fixed rate loan. There is no fee or penalty for repaying a loan early. Personal loans issued by WebBank, Member FDIC.

** Accept your loan offer and your funds will be sent to your bank via ACH within one (1) business day of clearing necessary verifications. Availability of the funds is dependent on how quickly your bank processes this transaction. From the time of approval, funds should be available within four (4) business days.

5.99% – 17.88%1$5,000 - $100,000

Visit SoFi

5.69% – 35.99%$1,000 - $50,000

Visit Upstart

6.98% – 35.89%*$1,000 - $50,000

Visit Upgrade

99.00% – 199.00%2$500 - $4,000

Visit OppLoans

5.99% – 24.99%3$5,000 - $35,000

Visit Payoff

5.99% – 29.99%4$7,500 - $40,000

Visit FreedomPlus

6.79% – 20.89%5$5,000 - $50,000

Visit Citizens

15.49% – 35.99%6$2,000 - $25,000

Visit LendingPoint

6.95% – 35.89%7$1,000 - $40,000

Visit LendingClub

5.99% – 17.24%8$5,000 - $75,000

Visit Earnest

9.95% – 35.99%9$2,000 - $35,000

Visit Avant

Our team at Student Loan Hero works hard to find and recommend products and services that we believe are of high quality. We sometimes earn a sales commission or advertising fee when recommending various products and services to you. Similar to when you are being sold any product or service, be sure to read the fine print to help you understand what you are buying. Be sure to consult with a licensed professional if you have any concerns. Student Loan Hero is not a lender or investment advisor. We are not involved in the loan approval or investment process, nor do we make credit or investment related decisions. The rates and terms listed on our website are estimates and are subject to change at any time.

 

Published in Budgeting & Expenses, Credit & Debt, Credit Cards, Personal Finance

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