What is the difference between a student credit card and a regular credit card?

Written by
Geoff Williams
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If you’re a college student who wants a credit card, you may well wonder, should I get a student credit card or a regular credit card? Does it matter what I get? Is there any real difference? Am I allowed to get a regular credit card?

You’ve got questions, and we have answers, and, no, you don’t have to worry about a pop quiz at the end!

Who can apply for student credit cards?

Despite the moniker of “student credit cards,” not just any student can apply. It probably doesn’t need to be said, but student credit cards are marketed to college students – and not, say, high school or middle school students.

If you’re 18 or above, have proof of income (even if it’s minimal), and are enrolled in college, you can apply for a student credit card. If you’re under 18 or you’ll need a parent or guardian to co-sign your application; however, this isn’t really something commonly offered by credit card issuers anymore. Instead, you could ask a parent or guardian to make you an authorized user on their credit card account. This would allow you to use the card, but you would not have full control of the account.

Finally, because student credit cards are designed in part to help students build their credit history, a high credit score often isn’t required for these cards. Even if you’re brand new to credit, you may still be eligible for a student credit card.

Student credit cards vs regular credit cards – what are the main differences?

First of all, we really should dispense with the word “regular.” A student credit card is a regular credit card. Got it? It’s a regular credit card designed for college students.

But with both a student credit card and a regular credit card (we said we should dispense with the term, not that we actually would), you’re borrowing money, and you have to pay it back, and if you don’t, you can end up hurting your credit score.

So, yes, both a student credit card and a regular credit card are pretty similar, but there are a few differences:

Applying for a student credit card is usually easier

That is, credit card companies that issue student credit cards recognize you don’t have a long history of borrowing money – and that you may have no credit history.

As long as the credit issuer doesn’t learn that you do, in your young life, have a checkered past in which you’ve borrowed a lot of money and not paid it back, you’ll likely get approved for a student credit card – provided you have proof of income and are at least 18 years old.

There is no annual fee

Plenty of regular credit cards, that is, ones not marketed to college students, do not have annual fees, but the best credit cards generally do have them.

If you’re new to the world of credit cards, it can sound really stupid to pay a credit card money so you can use that credit card – but the fact is, if you use a credit card with an annual fee wisely, you often end up saving a lot of money thanks to the rewards and perks offered by these card.

But never mind that. The nice thing about student credit cards is that none of them ask you to pay an annual fee. If a student credit card does ask you to pay an annual fee, you’re probably not dealing with an actual student credit card.

Fewer rewards and perks

Student credit cards usually have fewer rewards and perks, because, as we just discussed, there is no annual fee. That said, you can find a lot of student credit cards that do offer rewards and benefits.

What kind of rewards and benefits, you ask?

Well, just as an example, if you were to apply for theCardName, you’d get 1% cash back on pretty much everything you buy – and 3% cash back in certain other categories like dining, entertainment, popular streaming services and at grocery stores (excluding superstores like Target and Walmart). Additionally, earn unlimited 5% cash back on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel (terms apply) and earn 8% cash back on Capital One Entertainment purchases.

It can be easier to earn the sign-up bonus

Many credit cards offer welcome bonuses to new cardholders as an incentive to apply for that card. With non-student credit cards though, the spend threshold required to earn the bonus can be pretty high. “Spend $3,000 in three months of opening an account and earn $500,” for example. If you have a full-time job and steady income, responsibly spending $3,000 in three months might not be so difficult; however, this is likely a serious task for most college students. Furthermore, the credit limit for student credit cards is usually capped pretty low to help students build responsible credit habits. Sure, it may be easy for a college student to spend $3,000, but the bigger concern is if they have $3,000 in their bank account to pay it back… It should be noted that no amount of credit card rewards will outweigh interest charges if the balance isn’t paid in full each month…

Because students’ financial situations likely differ drastically from someone with a full-time job, student credit card welcome bonuses are usually much easier to obtain. The CardName mentioned above, for example, offers an early spend bonus of $50 if you spend $100 in the first three months of opening an account. That’s just over $30 spend each month on the card, which is way more practical for a college student.

What’s required on a student credit card application?

Every credit card issuer handles things a little differently, but generally, you will be asked questions about where you are enrolled in college. They may ask you how long you’ve been in your college or what your degree is in or when you graduate.

You will also be asked about your employment, and your source of income. Don’t sweat this section too much. Banks simply want to see proof that you can pay your bills and that could mean a few hundred dollars per month from a part-time job or even a regular deposit from your parents.

You’ll also need to furnish a Social Security number. Your name. Your address. Standard, typical stuff.

What if I apply for a student credit card and am denied?

If you are denied, and if you don’t want to ask your parents to co-sign for your student credit card, you could consider applying for a secured credit card. These are credit cards offered to people with bad credit or no credit, but the main thing to know is that you have to add a refundable security deposit to the account in order to use your card. Then, after an extended period (usually six to 12 months) of responsible use and on-time payments, you can usually graduate to a regular credit card and have your deposit returned to you.

But if you’re a college student and you do have steady income, your odds of approval should be pretty good. There’s no reason, at any rate, to not try and apply for a student credit card. You could, as the saying goes, give it the old college try.

Geoff Williams
CardRatings Contributor

Geoff is a freelance journalist and has been since the 1990s. He specializes in personal finance and small business issues and has seen his work published with numerous news outlets including The Wall Street Journal, CNNMoney.com, Reuters, The Washington Post and Consumer Reports. He also...Read more

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