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The Best College Student Credit Cards of 2019

We analyzed over 20 credit cards that students can easily qualify for to determine which was the most rewarding. We found that the Discover it® Student Cash Back is the top student credit card because it offers high rewards and useful perks geared towards students. If you have more specific needs, like if you're an international student or you're someone who travels frequently, there are more tailored recommendations below. All of our top picks come without annual fees, ensuring they make sense for any college student's budget.

Recommended Cards

Best ForCredit NeededAnnual Fee
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Discover it® Student Cash BackBest For MostFair/No Credit$0
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BankAmericard Travel Rewards® for StudentsTravelFair/No Credit$0
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Deserve® Edu Mastercard For StudentsInternational StudentsPoor/No Credit$0

In-Depth Reviews of the Best College Student Credit Cards

Comparing over 20 student credit cards was no easy task—in fact, our evaluation of each card involved creating a model and getting on the phone with customer service representatives to test them for student benefits. Our picks offer what most students care about: the best rewards, easy qualifications, and great perks. Read below for some tips on getting the most out of each card and to see which cards were close runner-ups.

Best Student Credit Card for Most

Out of all the cards available in the U.S., the Discover it® Student Cash Back comes with the highest cash back rewards for students that we've seen. In fact, the card's extremely generous rewards rate overshadows cards in all other categories, which is why we recommend this for most students. Whether you're living at home or in a dorm, the card's rotating cash back shopping categories will save you the most money out of all the cards on the market. These are common and useful shopping groups that include gas, groceries and restaurant dining. Occasionally, the card also provides industry-leading cash back rewards on Amazon.com, which is especially great for students who use the site to buy school supplies or textbooks. The Discover it® Student Cash Back rewards students in some other unique ways too. For instance, students are able to earn a $20 statement credit for getting good grades.

There's one problem some students may have only with this card. You must keep track of the rotating categories to maximize your cash earnings. If you don't, you'll likely only earn a measly 1% cash back rate (compared to this card's optimal 5% rewards). If you're too busy throughout the semester to remember the bonus calendar, or to activate your rewards online, you'll get better results with a simpler cash back card like the BankAmericard Cash Rewards™ for Students.

Runner-up Pick

On Bank of America's Secure Website

BankAmericard Cash Rewards™ for Students

On Bank of America's Secure Website
$100 online cash rewards bonus after you spend at least $500 on purchases in the first 90 days of account opening
  • 0% APR for the first 12 billing cycles and for any balance transfers made in the first 60 days, then, 13.24% - 23.24% Variable APR. 3% fee (min $10) applies to balance transfers.
  • 0% APR for the first 12 billing cycles and for any balance transfers made in the first 60 days, then, 13.24% - 23.24% Variable APR. 3% fee (min $10) applies to balance transfers.
Annual Fee
No Annual Fee
APR
13.24% - 23.24% Variable
Credit Needed
Excellent

For college students who want to save on the essentials—groceries and gas—the BankAmericard Cash Rewards™ for Students is the best choice. The card provides the highest cash back rates we've seen for these two categories: 2% cash back at grocery stores and wholesale clubs, and 3% on gas. You can get a 5% return with the Discover it® Student Cash Back, but remember that those categories will shift every three months, so the BankAmericard Cash Rewards™ for Students is overall the better choice if gas and groceries are your priorities all year round.

The BankAmericard Cash Rewards™ for Students also has one of the highest cash back bonuses we've seen on a student card. Most offers geared towards college students offer either a meager bonus or none at al.. The BankAmericard Cash Rewards™ for Students gives a bonus three times bigger than the norm — awarding $150 to those who make at least $500 in purchases within the first 90 days of their account opening.

Best Student Credit Card for Travel

Whether you're studying abroad or want a credit card for spring break, the BankAmericard Travel Rewards® for Students is the best student credit card option for travel. The card provides a respectable 1.5% rewards rate on all purchases, which is the highest rewards you can get on everyday purchases from a student card. More importantly, this is one of the only student cards to have no foreign transaction fees, making it ideal for travel. This helps you save on a 3% fee with every transaction overseas versus other options.

The BankAmericard Travel Rewards® for Students is the only student credit card with chip & pin technology, making it the most suited for international use. Other credit cards in the U.S. use a chip & signature, which may not work in small towns throughout places like England or South America. So wherever you venture in between classes abroad, so long as you’re on the VISA network you’ll be fine.

Runner-up Pick

On Capital One's Secure Website

Journey® Student Rewards from Capital One®

On Capital One's Secure Website
  • Earn 1% cash back on all your purchases. Pay on time to boost your cash back to a total of 1.25% for that month
  • Enjoy no annual fee and no foreign transaction fees
  • Get a head start and build your credit with responsible use
  • Get access to a higher credit line after making your first 5 monthly payments on time
  • Monitor your credit profile with the CreditWise® app, free for everyone
  • $0 fraud liability if your card is ever lost or stolen
  • Pick the monthly due date that works best for you
  • Get customized alerts and manage your account with the Capital One mobile app

Note: The information in this box was provided by Capital One and is not part of our independent analysis.

  • Earn 1% cash back on all your purchases. Pay on time to boost your cash back to a total of 1.25% for that month
  • Enjoy no annual fee and no foreign transaction fees
  • Get a head start and build your credit with responsible use
  • Get access to a higher credit line after making your first 5 monthly payments on time
  • Monitor your credit profile with the CreditWise® app, free for everyone
  • $0 fraud liability if your card is ever lost or stolen
  • Pick the monthly due date that works best for you
  • Get customized alerts and manage your account with the Capital One mobile app
Annual Fee
$0
APR
24.99% (Variable)
Credit Needed
Average, Fair, Limited

If you're having difficulty qualifying for the BankAmericard Travel Rewards® for Students, or if you prefer banking with Capital One over Bank of America, the Journey® Student Rewards from Capital One® is another decent student travel card. This card has a worse rewards rate (1.25% vs the 1.5% you get with the BankAmericard Travel Rewards® for Students) and your card will be chip & signature instead of chip & pin, so you might have trouble using it in off-the-beaten-path towns. If you're about to spend a semester abroad, try to find out whether the place you're travelling to uses one or the other, as this may be a huge determining factor of which card you should apply for.

Still, we recommend the Journey® Student Rewards from Capital One® because it checks off two major requirements for a travel card for students. It's on a popular credit card network (VISA) that you can use both at home and in other countries, and it waives the 3% foreign transaction fees.

Best Credit Card for International Students

The Deserve® Edu Mastercard For Students is hands-down the best option for international students for two reasons: its has a rewards program (most credit cards geared towards non-US citizens don't) and it doesn't require a social security number (most credit cards do). Since international students aren't U.S. citizens, they will likely not have a Social Security Number or any sort of credit history—making it near-impossible to get approved for a credit card. This feature alone would make this a great card. However, the Deserve® Edu Mastercard For Students goes one step further and throws in a 1% cash-back reward on all purchases. While that's not great compared to standard student credit cards, it's amazing compared to options open to international students.

With the Deserve® Edu Mastercard For Students, you'll begin building a credit history—an invaluable feature if you're planning to stay in the U.S. after your studies. This is another must-have feature, and we wouldn't recommend this card without it.

Best Student Credit Card for Dining Out and Entertainment

The Citi ThankYou® Preferred Card for College Students provides best-in-class rewards for college students with these common campus expenses: restaurants and entertainment. The card awards an unmatched 2% rewards rate in these two categories. "Entertainment" can include things like concerts, movies and even online-streaming platforms like Netflix. Again, we want to stress that earning 2% in these types of categories is rare for college cards. "Restaurants" is also a broad category that includes more than just dining establishments—bars and cafes also qualify. If you're the type of student who spends hours with their laptop in a cafe, this card will give you the best savings on all the coffee and treats you buy there.

This is also the only student credit card that allows you to transfer the points you earn through it to various travel airline programs. This is a nice feature for college students who dream of using points and miles to travel the world. The list of airlines includes carriers like JetBlue, Thai Airways and Virgin Atlantic.

Compare Student Credit Cards

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We began our search by examining student credit card offers from major U.S. banks, credit unions and alumni associations. We also considered credit cards being issued through Silicon Valley Startups, many of which specifically cater to individuals with no credit history (like students and immigrants). In total, this lead us to a starting list of 25 credit cards.

Once we understood the universe of credit cards available to students, we applied a rigorous grading system to help narrow down the list until we were left with the 6 recommendations you see above. We graded the cards in our database based on the criteria below. This involved reading through the terms and conditions for each, as well as modeling their rewards to understand both short-term and long-term value.

The Selection Criteria for Our Six Best Student Credit Cards

Cards must be available to applicants with little-to-no credit history. Since most college-aged individuals haven't had the time to build up a credit score, this is a must-have for any credit card we recommended.

Rewards rate of at least 1.5%. Today, most of the top credit cards have a rewards program, and the standard everyone should expect (including students) is a 1.5% rewards rate. The only time it is acceptable for a card to have lower return on your purchases is if there are some extenuating circumstances that severely limit your options (such as a bankruptcy on your credit file or being an international student).

No annual fees. A majority of students face tough financial situations and work on tight budgets, so an ideal student credit card shouldn't be charging any annual fees. According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, those under 25 make up the only age bracket for whom expenditures dwarf income. That means optional expenses, like credit card or foreign exchange fees, should be avoided as much as possible.

Cards must help build credit history. Besides earning rewards, the goal of any credit card should be to build and establish credit. That's why when we examined student credit cards we checked whether the banks issuing them reported the accounts and its activity to the credit bureaus. Without this feature, all the timely payments and responsible financial behavior will go unreported. It would like doing the extra credit homework, and never submitting it to your professor.

No matter what credit card you end up choosing, there are a few things you should look for in a student card.

First, it shouldn't have an annual fee. Student credit cards don't provide high enough rewards or bonuses to charge their users annual fees. Also, since most students operate on a tight budget, an annual fee would be a big financial pain.

You should also always check whether a credit card company will report your account and all your behavior to at least one of the credit bureaus—Equifax, TransUnion or Experian. All of the credit cards from major banks do this. But if you get an offer from a small regional bank or some other company, this may not always be the case. As a student, your priority above all else should be building out your credit history by making timely payments - this has major financial implications for life after college. You can't do that if your bank isn't reporting your credit card to a credit bureau.

Student credit cards are only for people with no credit history or thin credit files (less than 1 year old). If you already have a bad credit score, or a bankruptcy in your past, you should apply for a secured credit card instead. You'll likely get denied from any student credit card you apply for.

Do not get a credit card if you plan to carry a balance. Student credit cards are unforgiving in this regard, and most charge extremely high interest rates and don't come with 0% intro APR offers like non-student cards do.

For most students, a cash back credit card is the best option. These are the simplest credit cards to use, and they generally are good at providing the highest rewards in the shopping categories that matter most to students. Expenses don't change all that much whether you're a freshman, sophomore, junior or senior, so most of the credit cards we recommend above should be a good fit for your budget.

Anyone planning on studying abroad or traveling a lot overseas throughout the year, we recommend you get a travel card. These cards will be easiest to use when you leave the country, plus they won't charge you extra fees when you do it. Cash back credit cards may impose a 3% surcharge every time you swipe them outside of the U.S.

Robert Harrow

Robert is the head of the Credit Card vertical at ValuePenguin and has been covering the card industry since 2014. His work has been featured in Reuters, Marketwatch, the New York Times and more.

Comments and Questions

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Info about the following cards: Premier Rewards Gold Card from American Express, Delta Reserve® Credit Card from American Express, Platinum Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express, Hilton Honors Surpass® Credit Card, American Express® Blue Sky, American Express® Green Card, The Amex EveryDay® Preferred Credit Card from American Express, The Amex EveryDay® Credit Card from American Express, The Plenti® Credit Card from Amex, Blue from American Express®, Platinum Card® from American Express Exclusively for Mercedes-Benz, Bluebird, Centurion® Card from American Express, Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card, Starwood Preferred Guest® American Express Luxury Card, and Amazon Business American Express Card has been collected independently by ValuePenguin. The issuer did not provide the details, nor is it responsible for their accuracy.

Disclaimer: This content is not provided or commissioned by the credit card issuer. Opinions expressed here are author's alone, not those of the credit card issuer, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the credit card issuer. This site may be compensated through the credit card issuer Affiliate Program.

These responses are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

How We Calculate Rewards: ValuePenguin calculates the value of rewards by estimating the dollar value of any points, miles or bonuses earned using the card less any associated annual fees. These estimates here are ValuePenguin's alone, not those of the card issuer, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the credit card issuer.

Example of how we calculate the rewards rates: When redeemed for travel through Ultimate Rewards, Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card points are worth $0.0125 each. The card awards 2 points on travel and dining and 1 point on everything else. Therefore, we say the card has a 2.5% rewards rate on dining and travel (2 x $0.0125) and a 1.25% rewards rate on everything else (1 x $0.0125).