The Best Credit Cards for College Students

By Danny Nelson, July 22, 2019

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 towards people who don’t have that much credit already. Most of these cards are branded specifically towards 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

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.

Things to Know About Credit Cards

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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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Capital One Journey Student Rewards

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Capital One Journey Student Rewards

Best First Credit Card

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 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.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 5 consecutive on time payments, those responsible financial habits bump up your credit line. (And, like every credit card, if you pay off your statement balance on time every month, you’ll avoid adding interest charges to your purchases.) As much as the Journey Student Credit Card rewards good habits, it punishes bad ones, with a variable 26.96% APR right off the bat.

Learn more about the Journey Student Credit Card from Capital One

Discover it Chrome for Students

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Discover it Chrome for Students

Best for High GPAs

Best for high GPAs: 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 1% 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 APR between 15.24% and 20.24% kicks in, based on your creditworthiness.

Learn more about the Discover It Chrome for Students card

Discover it Student Cash Back

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Discover it Student Cash Back

Best for Playing the Points Game

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. This quarter (July-Sept) nets your 5% cash back on restaurants and the next quarter (Oct-Dec) covers online purchases at Target, Amazon and Walmart, just in time for the holiday gift season. Give a gift, get a gift—at the end of your first year you’ll get double the cash back.

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, 6 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

Product Image - Bank of America Travel Rewards Credit Card for Students

Bank of America Travel Rewards Credit Card for Students

Best for Study Abroad

Best for study abroad: 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 fees—foreign transaction or annual—to weigh you 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 towards $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 17.24% to 25.24% rate after that.

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

Amazon Rewards Visa Signature

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Amazon Rewards Visa Signature

Best for Students with High Credit

For students with well-established credit: Amazon Rewards Visa Signature Card

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 gets even sweeter for Amazon Prime members and new Prime signups. Once approved, you can start getting an unbelievable 5%—five percent!!—cash back on Amazon/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 towards safer travels. On top of facing zero foreign transaction fees, you can use this card to insure your trip, nab a $100-a-day credit towards 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 16.49% to 24.49% variable APR for on any balance you don’t pay off in full each month.

Learn more about the Amazon Rewards Visa Signature Card

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Other Top Credit Card Options

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