The best credit cards for students in 2021

Two students travel in Taiwan using the best credit cards for college studentsImage: Two students travel in Taiwan using the best credit cards for college students
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Hear from our editors: The best credit cards for students in December 2021

Updated November 30, 2021

This date may not reflect recent changes in individual terms.

Editorial note: Credit Karma receives compensation from third-party advertisers, but that doesn’t affect our editors’ opinions. Our marketing partners don’t review, approve or endorse our editorial content. It’s accurate to the best of our knowledge when posted.

Written by: Erica Gellerman

College students may want to start their credit journeys with a new card. But qualifying for a traditional credit card can be challenging when you have limited income and a thin credit history.

That’s where student credit cards come in. Many of these cards are designed and marketed specifically for college students, and they may often include features tailored to their needs.

Take a look at our picks for best student credit cards, all of which come with no annual fee.

Best for students with no credit history: Deserve® EDU Mastercard

Here’s why: The Deserve® EDU Mastercard considers applicants with no credit history and could give those students a chance to build their credit profile.

A good option for those without credit, the Deserve® EDU Mastercard doesn’t require a co-signer or security deposit when you apply. International students can also apply because you don’t need a Social Security number to qualify for the credit card. But those applicants will be required to provide other materials, like identification and proof of a bank account balance.

The Deserve® EDU Mastercard offers several perks and rewards, including a one-year membership to Amazon Prime Student (a lifetime value of $59) when you spend $500 in the first three billing cycles, and 1% cash back on all purchases.

Read our full review on the Deserve® EDU Mastercard for more info.

Best for studying abroad: Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card for students

Here’s why: The Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card for students comes with a solid sign-up bonus to put toward your travel expenses.

Cardholders who spend $1,000 on purchases within the first 90 days after account opening can earn 25,000 bonus points, which is good enough for a $250 statement credit to put toward travel purchases. On top of that, you’ll earn an unlimited 1.5 points for every $1 you spend on purchases.

Plus, if you’re studying abroad, you can do so without worrying about foreign transaction fees — this card doesn’t charge them.

Check out our review of the Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card for students to learn more.

Best for cash back bonus categories: Discover it® Student Cash Back

Here’s why: The Discover it® Student Cash Back card offers a high cash back rewards rate on rotating categories that may be popular with students.

You’ll earn 5% cash back on up to $1,500 in purchases in categories that rotate quarterly when you activate (and 1% after that cap). In the past, these categories have included common expenses at places like …

  • Gas stations
  • Grocery stores
  • Restaurants

If you’re dining out or making everyday purchases by shopping online, you may get value out of this card, depending on the quarterly rotating cash back categories.

You’ll need to remember to activate your bonus rewards each quarter to receive your 5% cash back rate on qualifying purchases. All other purchases get you 1% cash back.

Students who are starting their credit journey should remember that earning cash back isn’t a reason to spend more than you can comfortably afford to repay. Building good credit and avoiding big interest payments will ultimately benefit you more than what you’ll earn in rewards.

Take a look at our rundown of Discover’s rotating categories to learn more about this card.

Best for building good credit habits: Journey® Student Credit Card from Capital One®

Here’s why: One of the best ways to build credit is by making on-time payments, and this card rewards you for that behavior with a cash back boost.

The Journey® Student Credit Card from Capital One® earns a base rate of 1% cash back on all eligible purchases, but you’ll get an additional 0.25% cash back each month that you pay your bill on time. In other words, you’ll have an incentive to maintain good credit-building habits.

You’ll also be automatically considered for a higher credit line in as few as six months, which could help improve your credit utilization rate — as long as your spending habits remain the same, your credit line should increase.

Just keep in mind that not paying on time could hurt you, because the card does have a late fee of up to $40. And if you carry a balance, you’ll be hit with the card’s high variable purchase APR of 26.99%, which is steep for a student credit card. It’s a good idea to pay on time with any card in order to build credit and avoid costly fees, but this card’s terms make that importance even more glaring.

Our full review of the Journey® Student Credit Card from Capital One® has more details.

How to make the most of these student credit cards and budget as a student

While focusing on rewards and perks can make picking your first credit card exciting, the biggest benefit to opening a student credit card is getting to build your credit from scratch. By starting to build credit before graduation, you can put yourself in a position to take advantage after school.

Here are some tips to help you make the most of one of these cards and budget effectively as a student.

Make a budget and stick with it

If you’re not tracking your finances, you won’t know if you’re running up more debt than you can handle. So before you do anything else, make sure you have a good idea of how much money you have coming in and going out each month.

To create your budget, start by listing your monthly income, including income from any jobs you have as well as anything your family provides for you. Then, list your monthly expenses like food, school supplies, gas and car insurance. To keep yourself motivated, write down a goal. Do you want to save up for a purchase, add to your emergency savings or simply stay out of debt?

Then, consistently track your finances. Here are a few ways to do that.

  • Use a tool that makes you record your expenses so you’ll be more conscious of your spending. Write them in a spiral notebook, an Excel spreadsheet or in your Notes app — whatever works for you.
  • Deposit cash and checks into your bank account as you receive them.
  • Open all bills as soon as they arrive (or when you get the alert) and pay them immediately.
  • Use only one credit card while you learn how to build credit.

Following these guidelines can help you avoid putting charges on your card that you can’t pay off.

Spend only what you can afford to repay 

To start creating the best credit card habits, plan on paying off your balance on time and in full each month. Interest rates on student credit cards can be high, and carrying a balance from month to month could end up costing you much more than what you earn in rewards.

Understand APR

The APR, or annual percentage rate, is essentially how much it costs you to borrow money. It’s important to know this because when you charge a purchase to your credit card and don’t pay off your statement balance by the payment due date, it accumulates interest. But if you pay off your statement balance each month, you won’t pay interest on that balance — thanks to what’s known as the grace period.

Generally, credit card companies offer a grace period for new purchases. This period is the gap between the end of your card’s billing cycle and the date your payment is due. With most credit cards, if you pay off your statement balance in full and have no outstanding cash advances, you won’t be charged interest on new purchases during the grace period.

Heads up though: If you make only the minimum payment every month, you could be inviting debt. For example, for a $1,000 balance with an APR of 21%, it’ll take about five and a half years to pay off the balance, and you’ll pay about $662 in interest.

Make sure you know the following details of your card:

  • Your statement balance
  • The date your payment is due
  • The purchase APR and penalty APR
  • The date your introductory APR ends (if applicable)

Make on-time payments

Late payments can hurt your credit scores. Create reminders for your due date or set up automatic payments.

Stay on top of your credit

Building and maintaining good credit can take time. So it’s a good idea to build good habits early, like keeping your credit utilization low and checking your scores and reports regularly. You might even find some errors, which you can dispute with the bureaus.

How we picked these cards

We narrowed our search for the best student cards that are geared toward students. While students aren’t limited to applying for these types of credit cards, their issuers often consider students with limited or no credit history, and tend to offer better features than alternatives, like secured credit cards. We also picked cards with no annual fee, because students are often on tight budgets.

When choosing our categories, we considered factors that would be most important to students: building good credit habits and avoiding extra fees if studying abroad.

About the author: Erica Gellerman is a personal finance writer with an MBA in marketing and strategy from Duke University. She’s also the founder of The Worth Project: a weekly money newsletter you actually want to read. Her work has b… Read more.