An Introduction to Credit Cards for College Students

A friendly guide to introductory credit cards and personal finance geared for college students

About This List

As an almost-graduating college student, a question that I get asked a decent and surprising amount by friends is what kind of first credit card as they begin to enter the “adult” world. A credit card is a first step into entering the world of personal finance, and I felt like I should share the knowledge that I’ve gained with you in hopes of helping you make a good personal finance decision as you exit college and enter adulthood.

Why You Should Get a Credit Card

If you’re reading this, you’re probably a college student, which also hopefully means that you come from a somewhat affluent financial background, and may have even worked some decently paying internship over the summer. You at least have access to funds, likely from family, if you would need to in an emergency. Most importantly, you have good spending habits and don’t into personal debt on the regular.

If this sounds like you and you still don’t use a credit card, you definitely should. Even if this doesn’t sound like you, as long as you have responsible spending habits and don’t go into debt, a credit card is a great thing to have. Using a good credit card, over say a debit card, literally just makes you free money for buying and doing the exact same things you would normally do. This is usually in the form of cashback %, where you get some percentage back of how much you spend, usually around 1.5% to 5%. Although this sounds small, it really stacks up when you think about how much money you spend in your whole life (food, travel, clothes, entertainment, etc.) Using a credit card also builds your credit score, which in the future will help you get better interest rates on things like loans and mortgages when you’re making big decisions later down the line.

Since you might have never owned a credit card before, almost all the cards I’m going to be talking about on this list are easy to get, have no annual fees, are low-risk, and have solid amounts of cash back and bonuses. I’ve divided this list into two sections. One is general purpose cards, which are great overall credit cards you should have at least one of. The other is more specific credit cards, which may be really good in certain spending areas such as dining or travel, but not as good in most other areas. The ideal number of credit cards to have is 2–3, with a general purpose card handling various purchases and specific cards handling purchases made in these respective categories.

Above everything it’s really important you purchase wisely. Credit card companies make all of their profit on debt and a card should only be used on things you know you can pay off.

General Purpose Cards

Citi — Double Cash

Citi Double Cash

Pros

  • 2% Cashback on Anything
  • No Annual Fee
  • Get $100 if you spend $500 in the first 3 months
  • Relatively easy to get if not high credit score

Cons

  • Full cashback is paid out after you pay off your purchases, so not great if you need to cash rewards before paying stuff off (not usually an issue)
  • $100 intro bonus isn’t as much as compared to other cards

Review

This was my first credit card. The 2% cashback on anything and everything is great and basically sets the cashback % standard you should rate every other credit card. The $500 minimum is really easy to finish off in 3 months (that’s like basically only food purchases). Overall a very solid all-purpose card.

One downside to this card is that you only get the full 2% cashback when you pay off your purchases. For this reason, it’s really important that you purchase wisely with this card and, just as with any credit card, make sure you can fully pay off your purchases each month.

Discover — it Card

Discover it Card

Pros

  • 5% cash back on Cash Back Calendar Category (Gas Stations, Amazon)
  • 1% cash back on Everything Else
  • Double all of your cash back rewards in the first year
  • $20 credit every year if college student for up to 5 years (above 3.0 GPA)
  • No Annual Fee

Cons

  • No introductory $ bonus
  • Usefulness of the card is limited by the Cashback Calendar
  • Only really good for the first year
  • The card physically feels super cheap and plasticky (if you care)

Review

This is a card that’s well-known and often recommended to new college students. Because of the fact that your cashback is doubled for the first year, this card will basically be unbeatable as you’ll be getting 2% cashback on everything and 10% cash back on the specific category of the month based on the Discover Cashback Calendar, which rotates between gas stations, grocery stores, Amazon, and restaurants. If you’re a Freshman or Sophomore in college and have above a 3.0 GPA, this card is also good because you’ll get $20 each year that you’re in school.

In terms of cashback, the Discover it Card is almost a strictly better version than the Citi Double Cash because of the calendar categories. However, because it doesn’t carry any introductory bonus and assuming you’re not a college student and won’t get the $20 good student credit each year, compared to the Double Cash’s bonus of $100, in order for this to be more worth it than the Citi Double Cash, you would have to spend over $1000 using the 10% cashback at gas stations, grocery stores, Amazon, and restaurants in a year in order to make more than the Double Cash’s introductory bonus. If you think you can realistically do this, then get this over the Double Cash because it would be more worth it.

That being said, after the first year this card does not hold up to the others on this list. No introductory $ bonus and 1% on everything is pretty bad, and although some of the calendar categories still give 5% cash back, they may not even be useful to you. For example, I don’t have a car and try not to shop on Amazon so the gas station and Amazon months aren’t that useful for me. If you’re going to get this card, I would recommend keeping it for a year to get the double cash back, and then cancelling it shortly afterwards and getting something else.

Chase — Freedom Unlimited

Chase Freedom Unlimited

Pros

  • 1.5% Cashback on Anything
  • No Annual Fee
  • Get $200 if you spend $500 in the first 3 months

Cons

  • Kinda hard to get if your credit card is just starting out

Review

This is card along with the Citi Double Cash is probably one of the best general purpose credit card you can get. It not only gives you the best introductory bonus ($200), but it also gives a very solid cashback percent of 1.5% paid immediately with no annual fee.

The one downside about this card is that it might be hard to get if your credit score is just starting out (I got rejected when I applied to it) but you should definitely still try to apply for it since it’s the one of the best cards on this list. If you can’t get this, you can also try the Chase Freedom, which has almost similar benefits but without the 1.5% unlimited cashback.

CapitalOne — Quicksilver

CapitalOne Quicksilver

Pros

  • 1.5% Cashback on Anything
  • Get $150 if you spend $500 in the first 3 months
  • Relatively easy to get if not high credit score

Cons

  • $39 Annual Fee (waived for the first year)

Review

The Quicksilver is pretty good on cashback with 1.5% on everything that gets paid immediately, although it is a bit less than the Citi Double Cash. You do however get a better introductory bonus of $150 compared to the $100 of the Double Cash.

A big drawback on this card though is the $39 annual fee, which none of the other general purpose cards have, although it is waived for the first year. I see this card recommended a lot on online “review” sites, which I suspect to be just discrete advertisements, but this card is almost objectively worse than the Chase Freedom Unlimited because you get a lower introductory bonus ($150 vs. $200) and there’s an annual fee. However, it is still solid and if you couldn’t get the Freedom Unlimited this could also work. I wouldn’t hold it for more than a year though in order to avoid paying the annual fee.

Specific Use Cards

CapitalOne — SavorOne

CapitalOne SavorOne

Pros

  • 3% on Dining and Entertainment (restaurants, bars, movies, etc)
  • 2% on Groceries
  • 1% on Everything Else
  • Get $150 if you spend $500 in the first 3 months
  • No Annual Fee

Cons

  • Slightly hard to get if just starting credit score

Review

I have this card and it’s pretty great. 3% cashback on dining and entertainment, as a college student, is where basically all my money goes to anyways for things like eating out, movies, concerts, sports games, etc. The $150 bonus is also great and the no annual fee is icing on the cake. This card is really solid if you eat out and go to events a lot.

You might not be able to get this as your very first credit card though, so be sure to apply after you’ve worked up your credit a bit with another, more general purpose card, though it shouldn’t be that hard to get.

Uber Visa Card

Uber Visa Card

Pros

  • 4% on Dining (restaurants, bars, etc.)
  • 3% on Hotel and Airfares
  • 2% on Online Purchases (Uber, online shopping, streaming services)
  • 1% on Everything Else
  • Get $100 if you spend $500 in the first 3 months
  • No Annual Fee
  • Up to $50 credit for streaming services if you spend at least $5000 a year

Cons

  • Must redeem at least $5 if you want rewards to go to Uber Wallet
  • Must redeem at least $25 if you want rewards to go to your bank

Review

At first glance, the Uber Visa Card seems pretty great in terms of cashback %, which is higher than every card on this list. Compared to the CapitalOne SavorOne, this card also does give 3% back on travel, which can be helpful if you fly around a lot. The introductory bonus of $100 and no annual fee are both solid. The card also offers other various benefits like online streaming credit and mobile phone protection that you can read more about at the link.

One big caveat about this card though is that it’s pretty difficult to redeem your cashback rewards for actual cash, and instead very easy to redeem your rewards for money in your Uber wallet. If you use or plan on using Uber a lot, then this isn’t really a problem and will give you the great dining rewards, but if you don’t, then it does add a considerable constraint on when you can redeem your cashback rewards for just regular money. Compared to the SavorOne, you also don’t get the 3% cash back on entertainment which is a downside. Ultimately, picking this card depends on how much you use Uber, but personally I would recommend the SavorOne generally over this because it is less restrictive.

FAQ / Notes

Are there other cards than the ones on this list?

It is a totally realistic possibility that I am missing some great cards out there that might be better for your lifestyle or spending habits. This is by no means a comprehensive list and is just my personal recommendations. However from my own research, I do believe that these are generally some of the best cards to get for college students, specifically for those that are graduated or graduating soon.

What exactly are points?

Points are a fancy way for companies to say a cent. Saying that you get 2X points on something is basically the same thing as saying you get 2% cash back. So by a normal conversion:

  • 1 point is equal to $0.01
  • 100 points is equal to $1
  • 1,000 points is equal to $10
  • 10,000 points is equal to $100
  • 50,000 points is equal to $500.

Are there other sites I can look at to read more on cards?

There are many other popular credit card review websites out there, such as NerdWallet and The Points Guy. However, some of these sites, from what I’ve read online previously, write reviews that are sponsored by credit card companies and whose reviews are influenced by the industry to just be advertisements, so I would be careful in taking these recommendations at face value. Above all, it is important to read about all the details in a credit card to decide whether it helps maximize your rewards based on your lifestyle and spending habits.

Thanks!

I hope that this list has given you at least a direction to look into when looking for a good introductory credit card. Thanks for reading!

Cornell