The best credit cards for college students

Danny Nelson, Reviewed
The right credit card can help students build their credit history.
The right credit card can help students build their credit history.

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College can be an exciting, confusing, and, well, costly time in your life. You’ll need to buy everything from books to blankets to the occasional beer (if you’re old enough), and you get to make those spending decisions all on your own. Assuming you take a smart approach to your money and don’t go over your budget, using the right credit card to make your necessary purchases can make your transition into adult life just a little bit easier.

The best credit cards for college students have a few things in common: They offer forgiving policies, robust points reward systems or cash back opportunities, and they’re geared toward people who don’t have that much credit already. Most of these cards are branded specifically toward students (or limited credit history individuals) which makes them somewhat easier to attain for first-time cardholders.

If you're a parent looking to add your child onto a card where you're the main account holder, check out our list of the best credit cards to share with your child. But if you're a college student looking to strike out on your own, our research below could help you pick the right card for yourself.

The best credit cards for college students

  • Best first credit card: Journey Student Rewards from Capital One

  • Best for high GPAs: Discover It Student Chrome card

  • Best for playing the points game: Discover It Student Cash card

  • Best for study abroad: Bank of America Travel Rewards Credit Card for Students

  • Best for students with well-established credit: Amazon Rewards Visa Signature Card

Things to know before you apply for a credit card

  • Long introductory period APR rates are only a short-term incentive. Potentially high APR rates snap into effect after the card’s intro period ends, which could cost you a lot in interest if you’ve left your balance unpaid. It’s really important—especially when getting a card for a big purchase—to keep an eye on your finances, and keep an eye on the calendar.

  • APR rates and credit limits vary based on your individual credit. Credit limits and interest rates for each card are determined based on each cardholder's personal situation, so we did not take that information into account when evaluating these cards. One thing to remember is that if you pay your card off in full every month, you will not be charged interest.

  • Banks have final say on who they accept for a credit card. These recommendations were put together with the assumption that applicants would have average credit or above. That being said, banks decide who they will issue credit cards to using criteria including, but not always limited to, an individual's credit score when evaluating each applicant.

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How we evaluated

I’m a veteran writer who has covered travel rewards and the intricacies of credit card points and miles. For this list, I looked for cards that would appeal to first-time cardholders and students looking to make the most out of the card rewards landscape.

Most of these choices are within reach of those with limited or average credit, and many of them incentivize good spending habits with easy access to your credit score and bonus cash back.

I also dug up a few options for travel and lifestyle-oriented spenders. While not as forgiving as basic starter cards, these cards will go far for those who use them well. And, finally, none of these cards have annual fees.

Journey Student Rewards from Capital One

Journey Student Rewards from Capital One
Journey Student Rewards from Capital One

Don’t feel bad if you don’t know a thing about credit scores, annual percentage rate (APR), sign up rewards, cash back programs and annual fees. Here’s your chance to learn. With the Journey Student Rewards from Capital One credit card, you’ll get an educational introduction to the world of credit.

Points: This is a beginner’s card, and as such it has a beginner’s approach to points. For new cardholders hoping to build up credit, Journey Student card’s on-time payment incentive program—which kicks an extra 0.25% on top of the standard 1% cash-back rate any month you pay your balance on time—helps you develop good cardholder habits. Extra cash back for financial responsibility—a pretty good tradeoff if you’re worried about that first card.

Perks: Keep track of your credit score easily, and often, with Capital One’s online CreditWise platform—it gives you unlimited access to that all-important figure. That’s an essential for first-timers.

You know what else is essential? Getting access to higher lines of credit. After six months, Capital One will consider upping your limit. (We recommend paying off your statement balance in full and on time every month. You’ll exhibit responsible use, and also avoid adding interest charges to your purchases.)

There's also yet another draw to pay your bill on time: You can scoop up $5 per month toward monthly streaming subscriptions such as Audible and Disney+ for up to 12 months.

As much as this card rewards good habits, it punishes bad ones, with a variable high APR right off the bat.

Learn more about the Journey Student Rewards from Capital One

Discover It Student Chrome card

Discover it Student Chrome Card
Discover it Student Chrome Card

Great perks for good grades and a cash-back match guarantee—the Discover it Student Chrome card makes building up your credit history a rewarding part of the student experience. And with no annual fee, it goes a long way for those with limited credit.

Points: I get it—you just finished Kerouac’s “On the Road” and wanna beeline to Denver the second semester break rolls around. Slow down there, champ: That’s gonna cost a lot in gas, and involve a lot of eating out. Discover It Student Chrome card can remove some of the pain. You’ll get as much as 4% cash back from those restaurant and gas purchases, thanks to its first year’s cash-back match guarantee. After the first year, you’ll drop back down to the 2% restaurant/gas rate, and earn 1% cash back on everything else.

Perks: Bookworms take note: The Discover it Student Chrome card incentivizes good grades and rewards those who earn them. Get $20 each year you achieve a GPA of 3.0 or higher, up to five years total. Another top perk is the card’s free access to your FICO credit score, so you can watch as you build credit. You’ll ease into APR, with your first six months at 0% before the variable rate based on your creditworthiness kicks in.

Learn more about the Discover It Chrome for Students card

Discover It Student Cash Card

Discover it Student Cash Card
Discover it Student Cash Card

With similar perks as the Chrome card, plus a 5% quarterly cash back rewards system perfect for goal-oriented spending maximizers, the Discover It Student Cash Card ups the ante on student card rewards.

Points: New month, new category, same cash-back guarantee: Discover It Student Cash Card roving 5% rewards calendar is one of the most valuable cash back systems students can find. Every three months you'll earn the top rate for different categories, ranging from Uber and Lyft rides to eating out, and online orders at Target, Amazon and Walmart, just to name a few.

Perks: The Student Cash Card has the same basic perks as the Chrome card—credit score access, $20 in statement credits for a GPA of 3.0 or higher, six months of intro APR—so you should only pick this card over the Chrome if you’re eager to focus on meeting the quarterly spending bonus.

Learn more about the Discover It Student Cash Back card

Bank of America Travel Rewards Credit Card for Students

Bank of America Travel Rewards Credit Card for Students
Bank of America Travel Rewards Credit Card for Students

Turn that upcoming tour through Europe’s cheapest party hostels into a credit-building opportunity. Bank of America Travel Rewards Credit Card for Students is tailor-made for your on-the-road needs, without bothersome expenses—no annual or foreign transaction fees here—to weigh you or your bank account down.

Points: College is giving you that academic education; now it’s time to learn about credit card points. The Travel Rewards Credit Card is the perfect card to teach you. It nets you a lot of points—fast. You’ll get 25,000 bonus points for spending $1,000 in the first 90 days (on top of the 1.5 points for every dollar you spend) that can be redeemed toward $250 in travel spending. That’s enough to cover an entire month of hostel stays.

Bank of America checking and savings account holders nab an additional 10% in bonus points goodness. With a good points deal for cardholders and an even better one for account holders, Travel Rewards Credit Card is a great way to jump into the financial landscape.

Perks: Like many of our favorite student-friendly starter cards, Bank of America’s Travel Rewards card gives you a free look at your FICO credit score every month. You’ll definitely want to keep an eye on it as your credit begins to build. This card has a generous intro APR rate, too. Your first 12 billing cycles come with 0% APR, and then, based on your credit worthiness, move into a variable rate after that.

Learn more about the Bank of America Travel Rewards Credit Card for Students

Amazon Rewards Visa Signature Card

Amazon Rewards Visa
Amazon Rewards Visa

If you’re already built up good credit, consistently hit your payment dates, and want a no-annual-fee card with tons of opportunity for cash back, then you might want to consider the Amazon Rewards Visa Signature Card, the perfect choice for online buyers.

And here’s why I think it’s a great card for students: I used to work in my university’s mail room, and the mountains of Amazon packages that came in every day are evidence enough of how reliant students are on that site, and how much they could save with this card.

Points: Consider furnishing your dorm room with everything Amazon. You might as well: Amazon’s starter card rewards in-brand spending lavishly, with 3% cash back on all purchases made at Amazon-owned Whole Foods Market and on Amazon.com.

The deal could get even sweeter if you have an Amazon Prime student account. Once approved, you can start getting an unbelievable 5%—five percent!!—cash back on Amazon and Whole Foods purchases by following upgrade instructions on your Prime account page. Even if you don’t have Prime, you’ll get 2% cash back at restaurants and gas stations, and 1% on everything else.

Perks: The Amazon Rewards Visa Signature Card goes a long way toward safer travels. On top of avoiding a fee on purchases made abroad, you can use this card to insure your trip, nab a $100-a-day credit toward travel essentials when your luggage is delayed, and gain access to a travel help desk hotline for emergency situations.

Safety-oriented perks like these are just the ticket for getting mom off your back about that “dangerous” summer vacation backpacking trip you’re planning. She only worries because she loves you so much—why not give her a thank you gift? You might as well, with the $50 Amazon.com gift card you’ll get after credit card approval. Don’t treat this as a reason to overspend, however, as there’s no introductory APR period. You’ll immediately face a variable rate on any balance you don’t pay off in full each month.

Learn more about the Amazon Rewards Visa Signature Card

Please note: The offers mentioned above are subject to change at any time and some may no longer be available.

Reviewed has partnered with CardRatings for our coverage of credit card products. Reviewed and CardRatings may receive a commission from card issuers.

Other top credit card options

Easy steps to build your credit history

  • Make at least the minimum payment on time. Timely payments are the biggest factor that contribute to your FICO score, accounting for 35%. Set a calendar alert so that you don’t have another task on your mental to-do list, or set up automatic payments to take the stress away altogether. It’s like a personal assistant—without the price tag.

  • Be mindful of your credit utilization. This percentage is how much of a balance you carry compared to your available credit line. Experts recommend keeping it at less than 30%, meaning if your credit limit is $6,000, have no more than $1,800 as a balance.

  • Keep tabs on your credit reports and credit score. One in four credit reports have mistakes that can negatively impact your credit score. Be on the lookout for wrong addresses, outdated information, and high balances that may be a sign of identity theft.

  • Don’t have a credit card? You may still have a credit score, and there are ways to build your history even if you don’t have one in your wallet.

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This article originally appeared on Reviewed.com: The best credit cards for college students: Reviewed