College can be a great time to start building a credit history. The trick is to choose a credit card that will help you learn to manage your finances without getting in over your head.
Prior to the implementation of the Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure Act (aka. CARD Act), college campuses were an all-you-can-eat buffet for credit card issuers. The 2009 law put up some welcome guardrails, like a requirement that applicants under 21 must have co-signers, and that all student applicants must have verifiable income of their own — not just the Bank of Mom and Dad.
It also implemented changes meant to curb on-campus promotional activities, with the idea being that students would have a better shot at signing up for the best starter credit card available, rather than simply whatever card was being hawked by a clipboard-toting sales rep in the student center.
When MONEY surveys this category, we look for the best student credit cards to have features like simplicity, no extra fees and, ideally, credit education features.
Winner: Capital One Journey Student
•Rewards: 1% cash back on all purchases, which rises to 1.25% for on-time payments.
•Annual Fee: $0
Why You Should Get It
What makes this the best first credit card? Capital One reviews accounts after five months and grants higher credit lines to cardholders with a perfect record of on-time payments. This card also offers an additional incentive to pay on time in the form of accelerated rewards — the 1% cash back on purchases gets bumped to 1.25%.
Although rewards credit cards can encourage spending, built-in motivation to pay on time combined with the issuer’s Credit Wise suite of tools should encourage financial literacy and get students to start practicing smart money-management habits. We also considered a couple of other factors that might be especially pertinent to students. This card charges no annual fee, and no foreign transaction fees — a must-have for students who plan to study abroad or travel overseas during breaks.
Although the Journey Student card has much to recommend it among student credit cards, the high APR — a flat 26.49% — gives us pause. While even the best credit cards for college students tend to charge high interest rates because young adults are less likely to have a history of creditworthiness. Students who have built up some positive credit history might want to look at a card like the Bank of America Travel Rewards Credit Card for Students, which has an APR range that starts at 16.74% — but keep in mind that you’ll need good credit to qualify for that rate. If your credit isn’t as good, you might wind up with an APR as high as 24.74%.
International students might find the Deserve EDU MasterCard (a previous MONEY pick as the best credit card for students) an appealing choice, as it doesn’t require foreign students to provide a Social Security number and has an APR of 20.49%.
MONEY worked with MagnifyMoney to narrow down credit card options in each category to a set of finalists. MONEY’s editorial staff was solely responsible for choosing the winners, focusing on interest rates, fees, and perks of each card.
Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.