How to get a student credit card

Written by
Jennifer Doss
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If you’re responsible with money there are a lot of good arguments for getting a student credit card while you are in college – the central one being that you can get a jump on building good credit, which can help you get better terms on loans in the future. This can be beneficial not just for additional credit cards, but a mortgage, a car loan, a business loan and so on.

Under current banking regulations, students must wait until after they reach age 18 (in most cases) to apply for a credit card in their own name. Beyond that, proof of enrollment and some sort of income are generally required to qualify for a student credit card offer. Student credit cards don’t often have the highest limit or the lowest annual percentage rate, but these cards can still be valuable as they can help students build responsible financial habits.

How to apply for credit card as a student

There are a few ways to go about applying for a student credit card. Let’s break down each option:

Apply directly yourself

Current legislation prevents students under the age of 21 from qualifying for a credit card without a co-signer unless they are able to show proof of income to cover their debts; however, because student credit cards are designed to help students snag their first card, card issuers may have lower expectations for things like income requirements. Income from a part-time job is usually sufficient, but other factors such as financial aid deposits or regular bank deposits from family members, could be enough for approval. The important thing here is to be honest about your income. If you’re denied for a credit card, you still have other options, such as…

Ask a parent or guardian to co-sign your credit card application

If you have a responsible parent or guardian who has a good credit history, and who is willing to co-sign your credit card application, you’ll likely have better odds for approval. It’s less of a risk to banks to issue a credit card if they have someone else to hold accountable if you’re ever unable to pay your bills. This isn’t an excuse to not pay your bills, though. At the end of the day, someone will be held responsible, and irresponsible credit card use could make it more difficult for you to get approved on your own in the future.

With that said, it’s a rare thing these days for banks to accept co-signers. While you might find a credit card issuer who does allow this, a better option to consider might be to…

Ask a parent or guardian to make you an authorized user on their card

If you can’t qualify for a card on your own this is probably the best strategy – again, provided you’re responsible with money. Just as it sounds, instead of applying for your own card, you’re able to use a parent or guardian’s credit card as a user on their account. Your parents or guardian may feel a little less pressure in this scenario than they might co-signing a credit card. This is their card, and they can monitor every purchase you make. It’s kind of your version of training wheels for a credit card. You can learn how to use a credit card and get the benefits of your parents or guardian’s credit score. And assuming they have a healthy credit score, that may help yours, too. It doesn’t necessarily make it much easier to get your own credit card down the road, since future lenders recognize that authorized credit card users (you, in this case) aren’t actually responsible for paying the bills, but being an authorized user can potentially benefit your credit score, especially if up until this point, your credit score and history have been basically non-existent.

What is the best credit card for students?

The best credit card for students will vary; it depends on your needs and wants with a credit card. Do you need a card to use during a semester abroad? Look for a card that doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees. Do you want to earn great cash-back rewards on your purchases? Consider your budget and evaluate where you spend money and choose a card that offers cash back on those expenses. Examine your needs and apply for a student credit card that best suits your individual requirements.

Charles Blankson, Professor of Marketing“Today’s students can be surprisingly savvy when it comes to credit card use,” says Charles Blankson, a professor of marketing at the University of North Texas. Blankson says his research has shown students tend to value four main things when it comes to credit cards:

  1. Enhanced buying power. Credit cards provide convenience when it comes to shopping, paying for necessities and travel. It is far easier to use a credit card than to write a check.
  2. Establishing credit. Students understand they will rely on credit when it comes to buying a car and later buying a home. They want to begin building a good credit history while they are in school because they know they will need it as they advance through life.
  3. Incentives. Young people appreciate valuable incentives associated with using credit cards to pay for things they need. Cash back is very appealing to students and getting points for groceries or travel-related purchases can help them get the most for their money.
  4. Customer service. Being able to pick up the phone and speak live with a real person actually matters to students. Credit card issuers with strong, personal customer service appeal to young cardholders just as they do to those in older age groups.

Some of the features to look for when choosing a credit card for students include the following:

  • No annual fee. According to credit scoring experts at FICO, the length of your oldest active line of credit counts for 15% of your credit score. You can keep a no-annual-fee card open without impacting your household budget for years after you graduate, especially if you don’t use it for regular transactions.
  • No co-signer requirement. Although some parents eagerly co-sign on lines of credit with their college-age kids, these arrangements can lead to potentially awkward situations and credit report damage. It’s probably better to take a smaller line of credit on your own than to share a larger pool of potential debt with a loved one. Some banks use proprietary data models – based on your home zipcode, your school or even your major – to estimate your earning potential over the next few years. Remember that if you’re under 18, you’ll have to find a co-signer. Even if you are 18, you’ll need to show proof of income or have a co-signer.
  • Clear communication. College students move frequently and change routines often. Therefore, banks with proactive payment reminders and transaction alerts help keep student borrowers from triggering late fees and penalties (and thereby damaging that baby credit you’re trying to nurture).
  • Bonus perks and privileges. Instead of settling for the first offer you see, hunt for special deals that can earn rewards for the types of purchases you make often.
  • Rewards or rebates. It’s a great time to learn how to use credit cards as tools for financial security instead of getting into debt. Rack up the biggest rebates when you behave as though your credit card is a debit card and pay your balance off in full every month.
  • A “graduation” program. The best student credit cards offer paths for cardholders to graduate into their full-service products after a year or two of responsible usage.

What is the easiest student credit card to get?

Good question, but it’s the wrong question to ask. Much of the “easy factor” with applying for a student credit card depends on your credit history, credit score and your financial situation. What might be an easy student credit card for you to get could be a difficult reach for somebody else.

So rather than focus on looking for the easiest credit card to apply for, you’ll want to think about the various factors that a lender will consider – and then look for a student credit card that seems like a good fit for you.

What are those factors?

Your job history

Credit card issuers like to loan money when they know they’ll get it back. Seems like an obvious thing to say, but for several generations, credit card companies would give a credit card to pretty much any 18-year-old, regardless of whether they had an income or not. Then that 18-year-old would rack up credit card debt and get into serious financial trouble.

The government eventually got involved with something called the Credit Card Act of 2009, which made the rules for lending more strict. This is a good thing though as there’s a good chance you’re already going to be in debt with student loans. Piling credit card debt on top of that won’t help anyone.

So if you’re going to get a credit card, you either need a job that pays enough that you can pay off the credit card every month – or your parents need to agree to pay it off every month. You simply don’t want a credit card without a source of income.

Your credit score and credit history

Have you ever borrowed money from a financial institution? If the answer is no (the Bank of Mom or Dad doesn’t count, in this case), you may not have a credit score or credit history. If you were an authorized user on a parent or guardian credit card, however, you do have a credit history, and if their credit history is good, yours probably isn’t too bad either. If your parents or guardian were constantly missing payments while you were an authorized user, on the other hand, your credit history may not be so hot. In any case, if you have a good credit score and history, you’ll likely have an easier time getting a student credit card. If you have a bad credit score and spotty history, you’ll most likely have a tougher time. If you have no credit history, it really depends. Some student credit cards take that into account, and if you have a way to pay for your purchases, your credit history may not matter so much.

Ready to apply? See our picks for the top student credit cards to find the best option for your situation and needs.

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