Reader Request: Which Credit Cards for College Students With No Credit History?

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Update:   The Citi Forward for College Students is no longer available.

Million Mile Secrets reader Jacob writes in:

I’m sure you get this a lot.  I’m a student with no credit history looking to start off.  I’m wondering which card is best.  The most important things to me are no annual fee, and no foreign transaction fee as I will be doing study abroad for the next 2 semesters.  I also want a card that earns rewards, whether cash back or points.

I want your advice on which card to start with.  I’m turning 20 next summer by which I hope to be getting big time travel rewards 🙂  The Chase Sapphire (not preferred) seems to fit those qualifications but I don’t know if chase will approve me seeing as I have no credit history.

If you don’t have a credit history in the US, you’re almost certainly NOT going to get approved for many of the great miles and points credit cards such as the Citi American Airlines cards with a 50,000 mile sign-up bonus or the Chase Sapphire Preferred with a 40,000 point sign-up bonus.

Most of the lucrative miles and points credit cards are NOT targeted to folks applying for their first credit cards.  So I wouldn’t recommend that Jacob sign-up for the Chase Sapphire without any credit history!  The Chase Sapphire also charges 3% foreign transaction fees, so that wouldn’t help him abroad.

What’s a College Student to do?

Instead, I’d apply for a credit card specifically targeted to students with no credit history.  Once I’m approved, I’d spend no more than 20% to 30% of the monthly limit and pay the balance back in FULL each month.  You don’t want to max out your new credit card because your credit utilization ratio will increase and lower your credit score.

This shows banks that you can use credit responsibly and that you’re a good credit risk for them.  Remember that banks are taking a bet that you will repay your debt every time they approve you for a credit card.

After about 5 to 7 months, I’d apply for a miles and points credit card or charge card.  If you’re approved, great, and welcome to the addicting world of miles and points!  Many college students report being able to get a miles and points card after having a credit history for 6 months, but as always, your miles may vary.

If not, continue to pay your student credit card on time and apply for a miles and points card again in a few months.

Warning!

The effects of most college experiments can be forgotten after a good night’s sleep.  But messing up your credit will haunt you for a long, long time.

You should NOT apply for  a student credit card if you can’t pay off the bill in full each month.  You’re never going to get ahead paying 25% or more in interest.

Only apply for a student credit card if you have the discipline to not exceed 20% to 25% of your credit limit and will pay the balance in FULL each month.

3 Things to Look for When Applying for Student Credit Cards

There are three things to look for when applying for a credit card for the first time to establish a credit history.

No Annual Fee:  Because this is your first credit card, you should plan on keeping this card indefinitely to help build your credit score.  You could either keep the same card for many years or ask the bank to convert it to a card with a higher credit limit while keeping the credit history associated with the card.

The length of your credit history accounts for 15% of your FICO score according to MyFico.com, so it makes sense to keep some credit cards open for a very long time.

And if you’re keeping the card open for a very long time, you’ll save money by not paying an annual fee.  Fortunately, most student credit cards don’t charge an annual fee!

I still have my first college credit card from Capital One which had a $200 limit when I got it over a decade ago!  I now have a $5,000 credit limit on that card and I don’t plan on cancelling it.

No Foreign Exchange fees:  If you’re studying abroad for a semester or two, you don’t want to pay an extra 3% just for using your card outside the US.

However, most study abroad programs are in your junior or senior year.  So you may already have a regular miles and point earning credit card by then, which doesn’t charge foreign exchange fees, if you build your credit history as soon as you enter college.

Earn Rewards or Cash Back:  Don’t settle for any student credit card, just because you have no credit history!

Select  a card which will ether give you lots of cash back for purchases or which you *may* be able to convert to miles and points later on.  And a sign-up bonus doesn’t hurt either!

Which Student Card Should I Get?

Unfortunately, there isn’t one student credit card which satisfies all three criteria, but here are three credit cards specifically targeted to students.

[Update:  Offer not available.]

 1.   Citi Forward for College Students:

The Citi Forward for Students is probably the most rewarding card for students.

  • 2,500 Thank You Points after spending $500 within 3 months
  • You get 1 point for every $1 spent 
  • 100 extra Thank You points a month (1,200 a year) for paying your bill on time

Unfortunately, the card does have a 3% foreign transaction fee, so I wouldn’t use this card outside the US or for online purchases charged in a foreign currency.

How to Redeem:  Citi Thank You Points can be redeemed for gift cards, cash back, statement credits or other products on the Thank You website.

To get ~1 cent per Thank You point, redeem your points for air travel through the Thank You portal or call Citi and ask them to mail you a check to pay off your student loans.

I wouldn’t cash out my Thank You points now, but would wait until I have the Citi Thank You Premier card.  I’d then transfer points from the Citi Forward for College Students to the Citi Thank You Premier account and get a redemption value of 1.25 cents per Thank You point towards any air ticket.

 2.   Discover Student Card:

The Discover Student card is a good alternative to the Citi Forward for Students, and does NOT charge a foreign transaction fee.  However, Discover cards aren’t that widely accepted outside the US.

  • $20 Cash Back sign-up bonus after your 1st purchase within 3 months
  • You earn 5% cash back for every $1 spent on different categories (movies, gas, restaurants, theme parks etc.) which change every quarter
  • Earn 1% cash back once you exceed $1,500 in purchases (excluding 5% cash back categories & purchases at warehouse clubs and discount stores)
  • Earn 0.25% cash back for purchases less than $3,000 a year
  • No foreign transaction fee

You have to register for the 5% quarterly category bonus in ADVANCE and there is a cap on the limit of points you can earn.

Discover doesn’t issue any miles and points earning cards so it could make sense to have a Discover card as your first card because you can then focus on the miles and points cards with the other banks.

How to Redeem: You can redeem Discover Cash Back bonus  can be redeemed for gift cards, cash back, statement credits or other products on the Discover website.

 3.   Journey® Student Rewards from Capital One®:

The Capital One card doesn’t have a sign-up bonus, but doesn’t charge any foreign exchange fees.

  • You earn 1% cash back on all purchases
  • An extra 0.25% cash back for paying your bill on time
  • No foreign transaction fees

Capital One likes to keep their cards simple, and you earn 1% on all purchases without having to activate any categories.

Bottom Line:  You won’t be able to get miles and points cards with a large sign-up bonus unless you have a credit history.  But banks realize that college students don’t have any credit history and have specific cards to help them establish a credit history.

You can establish a credit history by applying for a college credit card and charging 20% to 30% of your credit line and pay your balance in FULL each month.

After about 5 to 7 months, you should be able to get approved for the regular miles and points credit cards.

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39 responses to “Reader Request: Which Credit Cards for College Students With No Credit History?

  1. When I was a student, I used the Discover Card. When I graduated, they moved my “student card” to a DiscoverMore card. Even though Discover isn’t taken everywhere, it worked for all the purchases I needed as a student. A note, Discover IS accepted more than it appears outside the US because places that take Diner’s Club Cards take Discover (even if it doesn’t blatantly say that). For more info: https://www.discover.com/credit-cards/help-center/account/international-use.html

  2. I’ve had the Citi Forward since I turned 18 (I’m 21 now) and I’ve found it to be a great card. The 100 bonus points per month for paying your bill on time is great, and you can’t argue with 5x points for a such a wide range of spend. I would highly recommend it as a first card.

  3. With no credit history at all and just graduated high school, how much income, if any, is the bank going to be looking for?

  4. This is a great topic – but I think you need to check the “3% foreign transaction fee” comment re: the Chase Sapphire card. It is my “go to” card while in Europe specifically because it DOES NOT charge any foreign transaction fees for purchases made outside the United States. Check your link, it is even in the card description of the application.

    • @Jeanne – Thanks for the link! Discover is accepted in more places outside the US than it appears, but I’d still want a MasterCard or Visa when I travel overseas!

      @Brendan – Thanks for sharing!

      @pianodude – I can’t give you a specific number, but banks have to consider your ability to repay your debt before extending you credit. But there are other sources of income besides income from a job which you can list in the application.

      @Rob Markoff – The Sapphire Preferred does not charge a foreign transaction fee, but the regular Sapphire (not Preferred) version does charge a foreign transaction fee!

  5. One idea is to have one of the student’s parents add them as an authorized user on one of their old (long established) credit cards (CC). That would only work if the parent’s CC has low utilization (balance relative to credit line), a long history (years), and perfect on time payments. That would help with the student’s credit history.
    If the parent is hesistant, the parent should not give their child the physical card but just add them as an authorized user so the student can get some excellent credit history right off the back.

    Amex works well because some parents may have had the card for a long time.

  6. Thank you for mentioning the Citi Forward. As a recent college grad and having obtained the card when it first came out, I’ve found it to be the best card that fits the needs for college kids. For some reason, TPG does not promote this card much whenever he posts on the same topic. The Chase Freedom would be a second choice, and Amex Cash be a third (I had Blue Sky since back then Blue Cash was tiered). Rounding out the three banks to start relationships with! I never looked at APR since if I planned on paying in full every month. If a friend asks about APR, then I tell them to narrow their sights a little and start with building credit and/or financial independence first and maybe pick by APR to better suit their needs. I kept an immaculate credit report for the first 3 years of history, with 4 credit cards and 2 store charge cards (I was/am fortunate enough to have no loans). That put me in a good enough position and now in my fifth year of credit history, I’ve got a total of close to 30 accounts (opened and closed), thanks to FTG and blogs like yours!

  7. I don’t understand how the piggyback method is valid and talked about. Am I missing something here? Aside from Amex, neither Citi, BOA, nor Chase require you provide the authorized user’s SSN when requesting an additional card, so how is that card going on the authorized user’s credit report? Of all the authorized users I have added with those three banks, only Equifax picked up SOME of the authorized users account, not because I provided SSN or because I told Equifax. They just miraculously picked it up. The same accounts were not picked up by Experian or Transunion. With Chase, I know there’s the joint account option for credit card where I was told both people sign and hard pull will be made on additional user as well. With Amex, the piggybacking used to work, but now there’s ongoing discussion that they changed policy so that the date opening year for authorized users account will be exact date it was requested, no longer backdating to primary member’s Member Since year, hence taking away the piggyback idea.

  8. One thing to keep in mind is that you need to pay your bills even if you never received them. When I was in my college/early 20s years, I moved about once a year. There was a bill that was never forwarded to me, so I didn’t pay it until collections tracked me down about 6 months later. That damaged my credit for years. A tough lesson learned, back in the days before the Internet. (Some of you may not know that there once was such a time.) Nowadays you can receive bills wherever you are using an email account, so be sure to do that.

  9. I spent a lot of time on the MyFico boards fixing my credit (allowing me to now take advantage of these miles and points offers), so I want to make a few corrections about card usage and how it affects your score.

    First, you can absolutely charge up to the limit on the card as long as you don’t go over the limit and as long as you pay that off BEFORE the statement cuts. That’s the key – your credit score only gets updated when the statement drops, so you can have any amount on it the rest of the month and it doesn’t matter as long as long as you have it paid down by the statement cut date (note: not the statement due date). Second, the ideal amount to have report on your card for the best score is 1-9%, not 20-30%. Twenty-thirty is passable, but you get a better score with less reporting.

    So using Daerius’ college card limit as an example: Your statement cuts the 27th of the month. Spend $199 any time between the 28th of this month and the 25th of next month. Pay anywhere from $181-197 on the 26th, leaving $2-18 to report to the credit bureaus on the 27th. You could have spent anywhere from $2-$199, but they won’t know – all they know is what reports. This is also why you don’t want to pay it to $0 each month, because then it looks like you’re not using the card, and they want to see “responsible use of credit”. As Daerius said, however, planning to pay for what you buy each month and not revolve the charges is the only smart way to play the credit game. Never let them earn interest from you.

    If you have more than 1 card, it’s best to let 1 card report the 1-9% and pay the others to $0, but if you only have 1 card, that’s not important.

  10. @LisaPA – Not all issuers report the statement balance, and so your method will work for a limited range of cards. Some cards will report balances mid-cycle. See the discussion of this (on various pages) at creditboards.com

  11. I want to mention that students (with no good or bad credit history) are not automatically accepted for the Citi Forward card as one might think they would be. I’ve even called the Citi reconsideration line about this and didn’t get anywhere.

  12. I wouldn’t recommend maxing out a card and then paying it down to the 1-9% credit limit amount before the statement comes out. There are 2 reasons.

    1) The credit card may use your monthly statement as their reporting number. Or they may choose another day a couple days before or after. My FICO scores don’t always report the same dollar amount as my statement.
    2) FICO reports will show not only your credit limit, but the maximum you’ve ever charged on your card. So if your limit is say $1000. And you had $990 on it and then paid it in full before your balance was due. It will still show up in your FICO report that you had the card up to $990.

    I do agree with keeping the balance at 10% of your credit limit or less.

  13. I’m a “recent” college grad, when I was a student, what I did to help get started was first to apply to the dept store ccs, like Target and then a year later I got offers in the mail, starting with Discover for students….when I was a freshman (I guess before when they upp the age to 21) I remember seeing cc companies on campus promoting their CCs and with a sign–up you get free college swag etc.

  14. Is there any credit card for people staying in US on temporary visa with Tax ID but not a social security number?

  15. My advise for any college student (and I give this to my two sons that are in college right now) is skip the credit cards. Maybe get a car loan or other credit building tool but instead of trying to get a miles or points credit card sign up for Bank of America Alaska Airlines debit card (I used to advise them to get the US Airways but that one is going away). Way easier to stay out of trouble with a debit card. There will be plenty of time after college to build credit.

  16. We added our children to one of our cards when they left for college; not as an authorized user, but as a co-applicant. Since that makes us both responsible, our excellent credit rating took care of any issues with their non-rating. They’re building credit by using the card that we’re paying for.

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  18. What would be a good card for me, a college student to get on my own, who has established credit for about three years, from being added to my parents’ GoldAmEx & Discover Card? Thanks.

    • @LisaPA – Banks report the account balance at different times in a month. My suggestion was to not max out your credit card, hence the 20% to 30% range. And paying interest is never good!

      @Flyer – You could try to apply with a Tax ID number. I know folks in the US on student or work visa’s who apply for and get approved for credit cards.

      @Steve – Depends on your goal. You could test the waters by applying for the Chase Freedom card (no fee) or the AMEX SPG or Premier Rewards Gold card. Good luck!

  19. Need some advice.I just recently had several delinquint Collections fall off my credit reports.Only one 6 year4 month collection remaining and its a small unpaid $800.00, with zero balance account. Taken seven years for all the bad debts to fall off.That is the obvious bad news. The good news is I have excellent auto payment history that is on my credit reports and will be there till 2014. And I opened a Secured visa($2K) about 10 months ago that is also boosting my credit score. My TU-FICO 705,EQ-FICO 710,EX 708.
    My question is can I get a Premium CC with decent line of credit, despite my one 6.4 year old collection on file, and with my current credit scores? I want a CitiBank AA Card.But i don’t want to risk an inquiry unless I have good odds of approval. I had a unpaid AMEX Blue, and Circuit City Chase that went collection.I hear that both companies do blacklist, so they might be questionable options. Any suggestion on my status? Thanks

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  22. Hi Darius,

    I am going back to school this fall. I have already built a very good credit score during my office days. I wanted to know what should I be filling up in the application form “Annual Income” section ? If I put Student in the Source of Income section, will my application get rejected ? And also what will happen to my existing credit cards as I won’t have any income from August ? Will they get deactivated ?

    • @Abhishek – You have to put in what your annual income is (perhaps your have investments, other sources of income etc.) If you don’t have income it could be tough to get approved for new cards. If you don’t have income from August, your existing cards won’t be deactivated and you can use them (as long as you pay the bills on time).

  23. Hi,

    I’m french and I will study in the USA for a year, but I plan to come back in a few years in order to live in the USA. Do you think it’s possible to keep my credit card when I leave in order to raise my credit score? maybe the capital one card seem good for me?

    Thanks

    PS: Sorry for any spelling mistakes

  24. Hi,

    I am a 24-year-old college student that works as a nanny. I have a Bank of America Cash Rewards card that I have had for a year and a half with a $500 credit line (Which I think I can increase, but I haven’t because I am not sure if it will affect a new credit card application) and a USAA rewards points card from my job that my employers pay each month. I pay my balance off in full each month and in the case of my credit from medical expenses I pay more than the minimum balance. Over the past few months I have received mail from the Discover IT card, the American Express Green Card, and the Visa Platinum Card but I haven’t given them much thought. I am beginning to travel more and would like to use points simply because they have more value than cash back. Which card would you recommend in my situation?

    Thank you for all of your help in advance (I love this site!!),
    Amber

  25. Student Need Help

    Hi, I was actually just rejected from the discover student card even with a joint application… Which credit card would be my best option?

  26. Just applied online for the Capital One Journey card in order to try and establish some credit and was rejected immediately. I have no debt and pay my rent on time. I have a decent savings account and a on-campus job. I graduate in May and have a job lined up to start in July. Of course they did not ask any of those questions. The rejection will be a black mark on my record that will hurt my chances of securing credit elsewhere. This card is marketed to students who are trying to get credit established. Capital One should review their applicants more thoroughly before issuing an immediate rejection.

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  28. My son just graduated from college with no student loan debt. He has a car loan in my name and his so the the payments have been made on time with no lapse. My question is: Can he qualify for a Southwest Airlines card and get the 50,000 point bonus? He can put down an estimated yearly income. I will pay the $5000 min spend in the first 3 months since he doesn’t have a steady job yet. He will need to travel in his job search so I thought the SW card would be ideal.

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