Best Credit Cards for Teens and College Students

Getting your first credit card after you turn 18 is a rite of passage. It’s also one of the best ways to take control of your finances and start building credit. Many credit card companies offer products geared specifically toward students, giving you a perfect starting point. To learn more about the best credit card options for teens and college students, read on.

Best Credit Cards for Older Teens and Students

Older teens and students should be looking for a simple card with minimal fees and a couple of benefits relevant to their lifestyle (like cashback on gas or restaurants). Here are some of the best credit card options:

Capital One Platinum

The Capital One Platinum is an average starter card for young adults. Its main benefits are the $0 annual fee and the fact that borrowers have the opportunity to get their credit limit raised in as little as six months by making on-time payments. Since credit limits will be low to start for most students, this card offers a quick way to boost their buying power. 

However, the card offers no direct cashback rewards and has a high APR, which means you should try to pay your balance in full every month.

Pros:

  • $0 annual fee
  • No foreign transaction fee
  • Can raise credit line quickly
  • Those with average credit (620-699) should qualify easily
  • No penalty APR for late payments

Cons:

  • No rewards
  • High APR (26.99%)

Capital One QuicksilverOne 

Capital One’s QuicksilverOne card offers more in rewards than its above sister card, but at a cost. Its main benefit is the 1.5% cash back it offers on all purchases, which never expires. Cardholders can also earn unlimited 5% cash back from hotels and rental cars booked through the Capital One Travel portal. The card is intended for those with average credit, so there’s no need to have an excellent score to qualify.

The main downside to the card is its $39 annual fee. The APR is also high at 26.99%. If you put more than $2,600 on the card during the year, you’ll earn enough cash back to negate the fee.

Pros:

  • 1.5% cash back on every purchase, no expiration
  • Those with average credit should qualify easily
  • 5% cash back from hotels and rental cars booked through the Capital One Travel portal
  • No foreign transaction fee
  • Can raise credit line quickly

Cons:

  • $39 annual fee
  • High APR (26.99%)
  • Lacks same benefits of Capital One Quicksilver Cash Rewards card

Secured Sable One

Secured credit cards are for those with bad, to no credit. They operate almost identically to regular credit cards, except card holders have to put down a security deposit (usually equal to your credit line) to receive their card. The Secured Sable One credit card offers 2% cash back on purchases at Amazon, Uber, UberEats, Whole Foods, Netflix and Spotify. Plus, the card enables you to earn 1% cash back on all other purchases. At the end of your first year with the card, you’ll get a dollar-for-dollar match on all cash back you earned. As usual with secured cards, there is no credit check to qualify.

Borrowers will have to put down a security deposit likely totaling $200 or more and they will need to open a Sable bank account to qualify.

Pros:

  • 1% cash back on all purchases and 2% cash back on purchases at Amazon, Uber, Uber Eats, Whole Foods, Netflix, and Spotify
  • Dollar-for-dollar cash back match at end of your first year
  • No credit check or US credit history required, making it great for those with bad credit
  • No annual fee
  • Choose your own credit line based on how much your security deposit is (up to $10,000)
  • Auto-review to unsecured card in as fast as 4 months
  • Low APR (10.99%)

Cons:

  • Required security deposit
  • Must open an account with Sable bank

Discover It Student Cash Back Card

Discover’s student cash back card is one of the best out there for young card holders. There is no annual fee, 1% cash back on every purchase, and 5% cash back on rotating quarterly categories. For example, from January to March, you’d receive 5% cash back on gas stations and Target, up to $1,500 in quarterly spending. Discover will also match all the cash back you’ve earned at the end of your first year.

While some view the rotating categories as a benefit, others see it as a complicated hassle, especially because the categories change year to year. Discover also has limited acceptance outside the United States and is simply not an option for international students as you need a Social Security number to qualify.

Pros:

  • No annual fee 
  • 1% cash back on every purchase and 5% cash back on rotating quarterly categories
  • Dollar-for-dollar cash back match at end of your first year
  • 0% intro APR for 6 months, then variable APR of 13.74%-22.74%.
  • The card is intended for college students and those with average credit

Cons:

  • Complicated rotating cash back categories 
  • Limited acceptance abroad
  • Not an option for international students

Chase Freedom Student Rewards Visa

The Chase Freedom Student Rewards Visa is designed for students to build credit. The card comes with 1% cash back on all purchases, no annual fee, and no credit history is required to qualify. You’ll get a $50 credit after your first purchase and $20 every year your account is in good standing for the first five years. The variable APR is 15.24%.

However, the card is inferior to many of its competitors that offer 1.5% cash back, rotating 5% cash back offers, and cash back match deals. There’s also the downside of a 3% foreign transaction fee for every purchase made outside the U.S.

Pros:

  • 1% cash back on all purchases
  • No credit history is required to qualify
  • $50 credit after first purchase and $20 every year for an account in good standing for the first five years.
  • A potential credit limit increase after making five monthly payments on time
  • 5% back on qualifying Lyft services purchased through the Lyft app

Cons:

  • 3% foreign transaction fee
  • Inferior rewards compared to direct competitors
  • Middle of the road variable APR (15.24%)

The Citi Rewards+ Student Card

Citi’s Rewards+ Student card certainly has some benefits, like a $0 annual fee, 0% intro APR for 7 months, and 2 ThankYou points per $1 spent at supermarkets and gas stations for the first $6,000 spent per year. ThankYou points are worth 0.8 cents to 1 cent each, depending on how you redeem them.

That said, the card is for teens with good credit — a 690 score or higher — which might not be possible for many just starting to build their credit. It’s not ideal for those who frequent restaurants more than grocery stores and has a harsh penalty if you miss a payment, with a late fee and a penalty APR tacked on. There’s also a 3% foreign transaction fee.

Pros:

  • No annual fee
  • 0% intro APR for 7 months, then variable APR of 14.49%-24.49%
  • 2 ThankYou points per $1 spent at supermarkets and gas stations for the first $6,000 spent per year
  • A $25 gift card after $500 in purchases during your first three months
  • 1 ThankYou point per $1 spent on all other purchases
  • 10% points back for the first 100,000 ThankYou Points redeemed per year.
  • Rewards are rounded up to the nearest 10 points on every purchase

Cons:

  • Only for those with good credit (690 or higher)
  • 3% foreign transaction fee
  • No late fee forgiveness for a first offense, compounded with a penalty APR
  • Complicated rewards system

Bank of America Travel Rewards for Students

The Bank of America Travel Rewards credit card for students is a decent option for young adults studying abroad. Cardholders earn unlimited 1.5 points for every $1 spent on all purchases around the globe, with no expiration on points. There’s no annual fee or foreign transaction fee, and you start with a 0% intro APR for 15 billing cycles. 

Where the card comes up short is with balance transfer fees, but this shouldn’t be a major consideration for teenagers. The card also has a high penalty APR and late fee if you miss a payment, and lacks the bonus 5% categories that some cards have.

Pros:

  • No annual fee
  • No foreign transaction fee
  • 0% APR for 15 billing cycles, with a variable APR of 14.74%-24.74% afterwards
  • Unlimited 1.5 points for every $1 spent on all purchases around the globe, with no expiration on points
  • 25,000 bonus points if you make at least $1,000 in purchases in the first 90 days of your account opening – can be redeemed for a $250 credit

Cons:

  • High penalty APR and late fee for missed payments
  • Balance transfer fees
  • Lack of bonus 5% categories that some competitors carry

Best for Foreign Students: Deserve EDU Mastercard for Students

The Deserve EDU Mastercard is a great starter card for international students. It boasts a $0 annual fee, unlimited 1% cash back on all purchases, and you don’t need a Social Security number or credit history to qualify. There’s no foreign transaction fee and your first late fee is waived.

The main reason you might consider another card is due to the limited rewards options compared to its competitors. However, most of these other cards require a credit check or a Social Security number. The variable APR also sits at 19.49%.

Pros: 

  • No annual fee
  • 1% cash back on all purchases
  • No Social Security number or credit history required
  • No foreign transaction fee
  • First late fee is waived
  • Statement credit for a 12-month Amazon Prime Student subscription after you spend $500 in the first three billing cycles
  • Can qualify for a maximum $5000 credit line

Cons:

  • Limited rewards compared to competitors
  • Variable APR of 19.49%

Best Debit Card for Teens

For younger teens, a debit card will be your only option. There are plenty of choices, but one card stands out:

GoHenry 

The GoHenry debit card is ideal for kids ages 6 to 18. For the most part, it’s a standard debit card that helps your child learn healthy money habits. Parents can fund the account via money transfers and can set limits on where their child can spend money and how much. You can also set up custom tasks in the form of chores that grants a payout upon completion. This is a great way to encourage your kids to complete their weekly chores. GoHenry also provides financial literacy tools that enable kids to watch videos on money management, take quizzes and earn points as they learn to save, spend, borrow and invest. Kids can select a personalized card that fits their style.

While there is a free one-month trial, there is a $3.99 monthly maintenance fee after that for each account. Parents can only fund their kid’s account with a single connected debit card and are limited to $500 a day, so big payouts need to be planned over a weekly period.

Pros:

  • Parents can limit funds and where money is spent
  • Custom tasks can be set up which grant a payout
  • GoHenry provides financial tools to learn about money management
  • Overdrafts are automatically declined

Cons:

  • Monthly maintenance fee of $3.99 for each account
  • Can only fund child’s card through a single connected debit card
  • Limited to $500 a day in funding
  • Can only fund account up to three times a day

Prepaid Cards for Teens

A prepaid card operates more similarly to a gift card than a debit or credit card. You add the desired funds to the card, and can use that amount at participating locations until you exhaust the funds. You can reload a balance onto the card online or at an ATM. There’s no risk of late fees or paying a high APR with prepaid cards, you simply utilize what you have on the card.

Our Top Pick: The American Express Campus Edition Prepaid Card

American Express’s prepaid card has zero annual or monthly fees, no foreign transaction fees, overdraft fees, or card replacement fees. The first ATM withdrawal per month is free, before upping to $2 there after. You can load funds onto the card with a bank account or cash anytime and can use it at millions of locations around the world.

The main fee associated with the card is every time you add funds via a participating student bookstore, there’s a $3.95 fee. Cards are also limited to $1,000 at a time and there’s a total limit of $6,000 per year you can put on the card.

Pros:

  • Preload the card anywhere, anytime
  • No annual or monthly fees
  • No foreign transaction fee
  • No overdraft fee
  • No card replacement fee

Cons:

  • $1,000 card limit at a time
  • Limited to $6000 a year
  • $3.95 fee each time you load your card via your bookstore

Checking Accounts for Teens

At most banks, you can open a checking account at 13 with a parent being a joint account holder. This can enable your teen to get their first debit card.

Our Top Pick: Capital One MONEY Teen Checking Account

A great checking account to get started with is Capital One’s MONEY Teen checking. There is no monthly service fee nor a minimum balance requirement, making it available to just about anyone. It’s also one of the few checking accounts that earns you interest, albeit a small 0.10% APY. This joint account features two separate logins, a bonus for teens and parents alike. Parents can control purchase and withdrawal limits alongside monitoring alerts on purchases. Notably, the account doesn’t allow teens to spend in certain categories like car rentals, drinking establishments, liquor stores, cigar stores and some online retailers. The mobile app is also one of the best rated among financial institutions.

Compared to other teen checking account options, the only real downsides are no out-of-network ATM fee reimbursement and no 24/7 customer support.

Credit Cards and Teens

Teens won’t be able to legally qualify for a credit card in their own names until they are 18 years old. Minors can’t sign contracts, so they will be unable to open lines of credit. However, There are debit card and prepaid card options for younger teens to help them learn money management. 

While you might be afraid of handing off a debit card to your kids, it can be a good tool to teach good credit habits.

Other Options for Teens

If your teen doesn’t qualify for their own account, there are ways you can help them by using your own accounts.

Parents Can Add Teens as Authorized Users on Existing Credit Card Accounts

Adding kids to your own credit card accounts can give them access to money in emergencies while helping to build them a credit score. They’ll also have access to your cardmember benefits, like purchase protection.

Parents and Teens Can Open a Joint Bank Account

If your teen is under 18 but wants a debit card, you can open a joint bank account so they can qualify. If they have a job, they can have their paycheck directly deposited there. If not, parents can add funds to the account to help their teens build healthy monetary habits.

Be a Co-Signer on Your Older Teen’s Application

Whether for a student loan or a credit card, being a co-signer on your older teen’s application can increase the chances of being approved and grant better loan terms. Of course, this does make you responsible for the debt if your child is unable to pay.

Get a Secured Credit Card

A secured credit card requires a security deposit to qualify, which will determine your credit limit. To be eligible, however, you still need to be 18 or older. 

What’s Needed to Apply for a Credit Card

To qualify for a credit card, you’ll need to be 18 years of age or older. In addition, you’ll need:

  • Your full legal name
  • Your Social Security number or ITIN (for some cards this isn’t necessary)
  • Your address
  • Proof of income
  • Employment status
  • Your housing costs
  • Your phone number

Plug all this information into the application for the card of your choice, and you’ll know if you’re approved in about 7-10 days.

What to Look For in a First Credit Card

Don’t be swayed by the flashiest cards on the market. For your first card, you should be looking for something simple, affordable, and that fits your lifestyle for the next couple of years. Here are some of the key things to look for:

  • Low credit limit to avoid spending beyond your means
  • No annual fee
  • Cashback rewards
  • No foreign transaction fees
  • Purchase protections
  • Statement credit signup bonus
  • 0% intro APR
  • Low interest rate
  • No overdraft fee
  • Late payment forgiveness
  • Easy account opening
  • How is the mobile app? 
  • Are balance transfers available? 
  • What’s the variable APR on cash advances?

What is the Credit CARD Act of 2009?

The Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility, and Disclosure (CARD) Act of 2009 is a federal law that instituted consumer protections against abusive lending practices from credit card companies. Its primary accomplishments were reducing unexpected fees and creating a standard language and structure around how credit card terms were explained.

The main protections it offers for young adults are: 

  • Prohibiting marketing toward young consumers, such as merchandise giveaways on college campuses in exchange for signing up for a card.
  • Prohibiting anyone under 21 years of age from getting a card unless they have an adult cosigner or they can show proof they can repay their debt (such as by having a job)

Why is it Important for Young Adults to Build Credit?

A teen’s credit doesn’t seem like it would be a priority, but most private student loan lenders require good credit, usually a minimum credit score of 670 (basic FICO scores range from 300 to 850). Prospective landlords and insurers will also care about credit scores when it comes to off-campus housing or car payments.

Because you are classified as having “no credit” until you’ve established a baseline credit score, it’s important to have some credit history on your credit report before you try to apply for school loans, a car loan, etc.

To do that your teen needs to have some kind of history to report to the three major credit bureaus. While debit cards don’t usually report to the credit bureaus, there are services like Experian Boost that will report on-time payments charged to those debit cards by subscription services, etc. So your Netflix or Hulu subscription could also help you build credit.

Should your teen have a credit card? Watch this video to learn more:

What Makes up a FICO Score?

FICO Scores are calculated using different bits of data in your credit report. There are five categories:

  • Payment history (35%)
  • Credit utilization (30%)
  • Length of credit history (15%)
  • New credit (10%)
  • Credit mix (10%)

These are the main factors that make up the credit score used to determine your creditworthiness when it comes to things like applying for a credit card or receiving a loan.

The Bottom Line

Getting started with building credit as soon as possible is a smart and financially responsible thing to do. When it comes to choosing the best credit cards for teens, it largely depends on your lifestyle, financial priorities and background. Are rewards more important to you? Or would you rather lock in a $0 annual fee? If you’re an international student or are traveling abroad for your studies, it’s essential you pick a card without foreign transaction fees. Whatever matters most to you, selecting your first credit card will be one of your first steps toward financial independence.

FAQs

What Credit Score Do You Start Out With?

There’s no official score you start with. Once you build credit, you’ll earn a baseline score reflecting your actions, good or bad. You won’t start at zero, and if you make on-time payments from the beginning, you could get yourself to a good score relatively quickly.

What is a Variable APR?

A variable APR is an interest rate that changes based on an underlying benchmark index interest rate, whereas a fixed rate will remain the same for the life of the loan.

Can a 16-year-old Have Good Credit?

You can’t build credit on your own until you’re 18. However, you can become an authorized user on an adult’s card and start building credit that way.