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How to Choose the Best Credit Card for College Students

Last Updated: December 3, 2023
5 min read

Key points about: choosing a college student credit card

  1. A student credit card could help you build credit, cover unexpected expenses, and earn cash rewards.

  2. Student cards can help you learn how to manage your finances successfully while you’re a college student.

  3. Like other credit cards, student cards have an interest rate, credit limit, and more, but they may have unique benefits for college students.

You can start learning how to use credit with a student credit card. With responsible use, you can practice managing a credit account and avoid accumulating credit card debt or racking up interest charges.

But how can you choose the best student cash rewards credit card for you? Let’s start by covering the benefits of a student credit card.

What are the benefits of a student credit card?

A student credit card could be a good first step for college students. It can be helpful to have a credit card on hand for emergency expenses, to earn cash back, and help build your credit history1. Plus, a student card can be a great way to learn good money habits, and develop new skills, like keeping track of spending and making on-time payments.

A student credit card could help pay for an unexpected expense

Access to funds can make a difference if an emergency occurs or a surprise cost arises. According to the New York State Department of Financial Services, credit cards can be an additional source of funds for unexpected expenses. A credit card could offer financial security or help you stay safe. 

A student credit card can help you establish good credit

Unless you’ve been an authorized user on an existing credit account or have/had another credit card like a secured credit card, you probably haven't established your own credit history yet.

Student credit cards are specifically designed to help college students build a credit history1 since many college students don't have any at account opening. That’s why there’s no credit score required to apply for a Discover it® Student credit card2 like the Discover It® Student Cash Back Card.

A student card would be an active credit card account on your credit report. And, if your credit card company reports to a credit bureau, you can begin to build credit. 

Typically, account activity, such as the amount you spend, whether you make payments on time, etc., is shared with a credit bureau. This information is part of your credit report and your credit score

To establish good credit, using your student card responsibly is important. 

How can you use your student credit card responsibly?

Credit cards can be a powerful financial tool, especially when used responsibly. 

Building a good credit history starts with good credit card habits. With good credit habits, you can avoid credit card debt, limit interest fees, and build a good credit score.

Start with these tips for using credit cards responsibly: 

  1. Keep track of how much you spend.
  2. Make purchases you can repay in full within a month or two. (This could reduce the interest you accrue and make it easier to pay your balance in full.)
  3. Make your payments on time.
  4. Pay at least the amount listed as your minimum payment due.

Consider a cash rewards credit card

Whether you’re buying textbooks, software, groceries, or other necessities, a cash back student credit card can help you earn rewards on the everyday purchases you might buy anyway.

A rewards card typically rewards the cardmember for any eligible purchase, though not every purchase is eligible for rewards.

Did you know?

A cash rewards credit card like the Discover it® Student Cash Back Credit Card lets you earn 5% cash back on everyday purchases at different places you shop each quarter like grocery stores, restaurants, gas stations, and more, up to the quarterly maximum when you activate. Plus, earn 1% cash back on all other purchases – automatically.

Common features of the best credit cards for college students

Each credit card and card issuer are different. Common features of student credit cards are:

  • No annual fee 
  • Low or 0 % APR 
  • Low or no credit score minimum
  • Perks that cater to college students
  • Student cash back rewards 

What to know before applying for your first student credit card

Before you fill out a student credit card application, consider a few factors:

Check the interest rate

The interest rate or Annual Percentage Rate (APR) is how much you pay for the money you spend on your credit card. Some student cards will have a 0% APR introductory offer, beginning with account opening. Your interest rate may switch to a “standard” APR when the introductory APR period ends.

Consider pre-screened offers

If you’re at least 21 years old, you may receive pre-screened credit card offers for a student card. This typically means that the credit card company did a basic credit check and determined that you meet the basic criteria for that card. While a pre-screened offer isn’t a guarantee that you’ll be approved for the card, you'll likely be approved if you have sufficient income and continue to meet other requirements.

Factor in fees

Beyond the annual fee, do your homework to see what other fees apply to the card. Review the credit card terms or credit card agreement. You probably don’t want to be surprised by late fees, returned payment fees, foreign transaction fees, or other fees.

Understand how a credit card differs from other financial tools

As a college student, you may be learning to manage various kinds of accounts as part of your personal finance portfolio.

Here are some common financial accounts and key ways they differ from a credit card:

Student loan. According to the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Student Aid, a federal student loan (different from a personal loan) is a set amount of money borrowed at one point in time to pay for education and must be paid back with interest. A credit card is a revolving line of credit or a line that remains open for borrowing and may be used to cover different expenses.

Debit card. A debit card is linked to the cash in your bank account or credit union. Typically, you can only spend as much money as you have. A credit card allows you to spend up to your credit limit, even if you can’t pay it back right away. If you spend more than you can repay in one month, you may begin to accumulate interest on the balance you carry.

Secured credit card. secured card is a credit card for someone without an established credit history or lower credit. You provide a cash deposit to the credit card issuer to get a secured credit card. That deposit becomes the credit limit at account opening, but it's not used to repay the balance.

The best student credit card for you depends on your credit needs, credit history, and other personal factors. Take the time to review your options. Then, you can use your student card to practice managing your credit responsibly and maximize cash back rewards.

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  1. Build credit with responsible use: Discover reports your credit history to the three major credit bureaus so it can help build your credit if used responsibly. Late payments, delinquencies or other derogatory activity with your credit card accounts and loans may adversely impact your ability to build credit.

  2. No Credit Score Required: Based on the preceding 12 months of Discover Student credit card application data, applicants without a credit score may qualify. You must meet other applicable underwriting criteria. When we evaluate your creditworthiness, we consider all the information you provide on your application, your credit report, and other information. If you have a credit score, we may use that in our evaluation.

  • Legal Disclaimer: This site is for educational purposes and is not a substitute for professional advice. The material on this site is not intended to provide legal, investment, or financial advice and does not indicate the availability of any Discover product or service. It does not guarantee that Discover offers or endorses a product or service. For specific advice about your unique circumstances, you may wish to consult a qualified professional.