For many young Americans, it’s not about if they will get a credit card, but how old they have to be to get a credit card.

You have to be 18 to get a card in your name. If you are under 21, according to credit card law, you will need a cosigner or proof of your ability to pay it off, such as employment, other income or assets.

The right age to get a credit card will vary from person to person, based on maturity, needs and financial support. Young people have a few options when starting their search for a credit card, including a student credit card (like the Discover it Student Cash Back card), a secured credit card (like the Discover it Secured card) and becoming an authorized user on a parent’s credit card. Consider these guidelines to help you determine the right time to get a credit card:

  1. Credit Card Use Before Age 18
  2. Applying for a Credit Card as a Young Adult (18-20)
  3. What a College Student Should Look for in a Credit Card
  4. How to Avoid Unnecessary Credit Card Rejections
  5. Another Option: A Secured Credit Card
  6. Store Cards Can Be Easy, Too
  7. Obtaining Your First Credit Card as an Adult

1. Credit Card Use Before Age 18

Although minors cannot apply for a credit card account in their own name, many credit card issuers allow them to be added to an adult’s account as an authorized user. For example, the Discover card allows primary account holders to add up to five additional authorized users at no charge. Authorized users will receive their own card with their name on it, and can use it to make purchases. Yet the primary account holder is always responsible for making all payments towards the balance of the card.

As older children learn about money and how to make purchases, parents can consider adding them as authorized users to their accounts as a way to begin teaching them responsible credit card use and build their credit history. For example, parents could give their children a credit card to make specific purchases, or for emergency use only.

Another way to teach children responsible credit card use is allow them to make small discretionary purchases, which parents can deduct from the child’s savings or allowance. By showing children how their purchases directly affect their savings, they will begin to appreciate how credit cards work. Every child is different and the right age to get a credit card or start these other spending exercises might be very different from one child to the next.

2. Applying for a Credit Card as a Young Adult (18-20)

Young adults are able to apply for a credit in their own name, but with some restrictions. The Credit CARD Act of 2009 requires that credit card applicants between 18 and 21 years of age show proof that they can repay a loan, such as employment, other income or assets.

Ideally, parents can offer guidance to their adult children to ensure that they make a smooth transition from being authorized users to becoming a primary account holder. Applying for your first credit card can be an important step toward financial independence.

For many in this age group, their first card will likely be a student credit card like the Discover it Student Cash Back card, which also has benefits after graduation. Say a recent graduate needs time to job hunt or wants to take some time off. During that time, they have the convenience of that student card and are building their credit history. What’s more, some student credit cards come with rewards, such as cash back for gas or grocery purchases

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3. What a College Student Should Look for in a Credit Card

Student credit cards tend to carry low maximums, called a monthly credit line. In other words, you may only be able to carry a small credit balance, say $500 or so. That’s because these cards are designed for people who likely do not have a regular income. Despite the limited amount you are allowed to spend, student cards are real credit cards. Your activity is reported to the credit agencies and from day one, you begin to build your credit history.

You’ll probably want to avoid any annual fees, which are charged by credit card companies for the right to give you a card. Luckily, there are many no-annual-fee college credit cards, so you shouldn’t have a problem finding one that fits this criteria.

The second thing to consider is a rewards or cash back program. If you already spend money, why not select a card that offers rewards on every purchase? If you’re planning to travel abroad, a miles reward program might be a good option, as would a card with no foreign transaction fees.

Also look for some additional perks that not every credit card issuer offers. Some offer free access to a credit score. Others, like Discover, might offer a perk like cash for proof of good grades.

4. How to Avoid Unnecessary Credit Card Rejections

Different credit cards require different FICO® Credit Scores. For example, the “Premium rewards” credit cards typically require a higher FICO® Credit Score and a longer credit history due to their attractive sign-up bonus.

Applying for a premium card, or any card designed for high earners with excellent credit scores, if you have little or no credit history will set you up for a probable rejection and disappointment. Even worse, the inquiry on your credit report from the application may negatively impact your credit score. Instead, you may want to consider applying for a specifically designated student credit card. And don’t worry — some credit cards for college students have great rewards programs, too.

Incorrect personal information, or lack of some vital information for the application, can also trigger the credit card company to decline your application. When you do apply, make sure to have all of your information ready and make sure everything is correct. Some of the information you might need includes:

  • Social Security number
  • Legal name
  • Current address
  • Time at current address
  • Proof of income

5. Another Option: A Secured Credit Card

A secured credit card can help you begin establishing your credit.

A secured credit card is essentially a card with a security deposit, meaning you put down a security deposit for the card that essentially becomes your credit limit, up to the amount that the issuer can approve. With responsible use, some issuers may even review your account after a period of responsible use and eventually graduate it to an unsecured credit card, which doesn’t require the deposit.

If you don’t think that a secured credit card can be one of the right start-up credit card options, then you’ve perhaps never heard about the Discover it® Secured card. This card offers cash back and benefits that are more typical for a good rewards card than a secured credit card, and Discover starts reviewing secured credit card accounts in less than a year of use to determine if it can be graduated to an unsecured card.

6. Store Cards Can Be Easy, Too

A store card is another start-up credit card option. These cards work at only one retailer, but often require only fair credit, as opposed to general use credit cards that may require good or excellent credit.

Keep in mind that store cards typically have lower credit limits and higher interest rates. You also don’t want to go overboard — too many cards can reflect poorly on your credit score, and the temptation to use them at your favorite stores and risk blowing your budget may be high.

On the other hand, if you frequently shop at a certain store, you may be able to reap some good rewards when using their store credit card, like deep discounts, early access to sales, or future store credit. Just be sure to practice strong, responsible behaviors like paying on-time, every month, and paying off your full statement balance so you don’t carry debt month-to-month.

7. Obtaining Your First Credit Card as an Adult

Once you reach age 21, you can apply for a credit card as a primary account holder without any age based restrictions. But the good practices mentioned above, like paying every bill on time and not carrying large balances, still apply. You can ensure timely payment by configuring email and text alerts on your credit card for when your statement is available and when your payment is due. You can also enable automatic payments each month.

To avoid carrying large balances, you will need to control your spending and make sure to pay more than the minimum payment each month.

The right age to get a credit card will be different for each person, as it’s a question of an individual’s level of responsibility, rather than their date of birth. By helping children and young adults take gradual steps toward credit card use, parents can help them to become responsible credit card users for life.

Published April 12, 2018.

Updated May 8, 2020.

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