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The best credit cards for students in 2021

This page includes information about the Discover it® Student chrome, Discover it® Student Cash Back, and Discover it® Cash Back, which are currently not available on Business Insider and may be out of date.

This article is brought to you by the Personal Finance Insider team. It has not been reviewed, approved, or otherwise endorsed by any of the issuers listed. Some of the offers you see on the page are from our partners like Citi and American Express, but our coverage is always independent. Terms apply to the offers listed on this page.

The best credit cards for students:

  • Best cash-back welcome bonus: Bank of America® Cash Rewards Credit Card for Students
  • Best for travelers: Bank of America® Travel Rewards Credit Card for Students
  • Best for travel and purchase protection: Chase Freedom® Student credit card
  • Best for cell phone protection: Wells Fargo Cash Back℠ College Card
  • Best for international students: Deserve® EDU Mastercard for Students 
  • Best for rotating bonus categories: Discover it® Student Cash Back
  • Best rewards for gas and dining: Discover it® Student chrome
  • Get rewarded for on-time payments: Journey® Student Rewards from Capital One®
  • Best for building credit: Petal® 2 "Cash Back, No Fees" Visa® Credit Card

Applying for your first credit card is an exciting milestone regardless of age, but young adults can find it hard to get approved with limited income and credit history. Some parents add their children as credit card authorized users while they're still minors to get a head start on building credit, but this strategy isn't a good fit for everyone.

If you're a student without established credit, there are still plenty of credit cards that you can qualify for. Then, once you've improved your credit score by using a credit card responsibly, it can be easier to upgrade to more-lucrative rewards credit cards.

Some of the major banks offer credit cards that are specifically geared to students, and many don't require a deposit like secured credit cards (although those are an option for young adults, too). The very best student credit cards offer rewards for your spending, along with welcome bonuses, travel and purchase protections, or incentives for paying on time.

Here are the top student credit cards to consider if you're new to credit — but if you've already got a good credit score and a credit history under your belt, you may want to check out our guides to the best cash-back credit cards and best no-annual-fee credit cards as well.

We're focused here on the rewards and perks that come with each card. These cards won't be worth it if you're paying interest or late fees. When using a credit card, it's important to pay your balance in full each month, make payments on time, and only spend what you can afford to pay.

Best cash-back welcome bonus: Bank of America Cash Rewards Credit Card for Students

Card type: Unsecured

Annual fee: $0

Pros: Generous welcome bonus, earns 3% cash back in a category you choose from a list and 2% back at grocery stores and wholesale clubs (up to $2,500 in combined spending per quarter, then 1%), introductory APR offer 

Cons: Foreign transaction fees, few extra benefits

The Bank of America® Cash Rewards Credit Card for Students offers one of the most generous welcome bonuses of any student credit card. Like its grown-up equivalent (the Bank of America® Cash Rewards credit card), new cardholders can earn $200 in cash rewards after spending $1,000 on purchases in the first 90 days of account opening. 

The card's other compelling feature is the ability to customize the category in which you earn the most rewards. You can choose to earn 3% back on gas, online shopping, dining, travel, drugstores, or home improvement/furnishings on up to $2,500 in spending (combined with the 2% categories of groceries and wholesale clubs, then 1%) each quarter, and you can change your 3% category selection once per month. 

New cardholders receive an introductory 0% APR on purchases and cash advances (made in the first 60 days of account opening) for the first 12 billing cycles (then a 13.99% - 23.99% variable APR). That's handy if you've got a lot of upfront expenses you need to pay off over time, like dorm decor or textbooks — but be sure you have a plan and means to pay off the balance before the intro 0% APR period expires.

Best for travelers: Bank of America Travel Rewards Credit Card for Students

Card type: Unsecured

Annual fee: $0

Pros: A welcome bonus worth $250 in travel, no foreign transaction fees, straightforward rewards earning of 1.5x on all purchases, wide variety of eligible travel purchases for redemption, introductory APR offer

Cons: No other travel-related benefits

Students who love to travel — especially overseas — should have a look at the Bank of America® Travel Rewards Credit Card for Students. Just like the non-student version (Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card) it comes with a welcome bonus of 25,000 points after spending $1,000 on purchases in the first 90 days of account opening. Each point is worth 1 cent when you redeem for statement credits toward travel purchases, including airfare, hotels, rental cars, campgrounds, and even certain tourist attractions.

This is a good card if you don't want to mess with complicated award charts or blackout dates, and its earning structure is simple — 1.5 points per dollar on all purchases, with no categories to keep track of. You'll also get an introductory 0% APR on purchases for the first 12 billing cycles (then a 14.99% - 22.99% variable APR) and no foreign transaction fees when you use the card on your adventures abroad.

Best for travel and purchase protection: Chase Freedom Student credit card

Card type: Unsecured

Annual fee: $0

Pros: Earns Chase Ultimate Rewards points you can redeem for cash back, travel, gift cards, and more, purchase protection, extended warranty, trip interruption and cancellation insurance, bonus rewards on Lyft rides, DoorDash DashPass benefits, annual $20 good standing reward, opportunity to increase credit limit with on-time payments

Cons: Foreign transaction fees

The original, iconic Chase Freedom® card isn't available to new applicants anymore, but its younger sibling — the Chase Freedom® Student credit card — lives on. New cardholders can earn a bonus of $50 (5,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points) after their first purchase in the first three months of account opening, and 1% cash back (1 point per dollar) on all purchases.

Each year your account is in good standing, you'll receive a $20 bonus (2,000 points), and you can earn a credit limit increase after making five monthly payments on time within 10 months from account opening (when you meet credit criteria).

The Chase Freedom® Student credit card has surprisingly good benefits for a no-annual-fee student card. When you use your card to pay for an eligible purchase, you'll get the warranty extended by one year on manufacturer's warranties of three years or less, and coverage against damage or theft on new items for up to 120 days (up to $500 per claim and $50,000 per account). You also receive trip interruption or cancellation insurance when you pay with the card — up to $1,500 per person and $6,000 per trip for pre-paid, non-refundable travel (like if you get sick and have to cancel or shorten your trip, or if it's canceled due to severe weather).

You'll also get other unexpected perks, including 5% back on Lyft rides (5x points) through March 2022, and three months of complimentary DoorDash DashPass membership, which gets you $0 food delivery fees and reduced service fees on orders of $12 or more with DoorDash and Caviar. After that, you'll receive a 50% discount on your DashPass membership for the next nine months (activation is required by December 31, 2021). These same perks are offered on the Chase Freedom Flex℠ and Chase Freedom Unlimited®, too.

Best for cell phone protection: Wells Fargo Cash Back College Card

Card type: Unsecured

Annual fee: $0

Pros: Cell phone protection, car rental insurance, roadside dispatch, travel and emergency assistance services, introductory APR offer, flexible redemptions

Cons: Must have an existing Wells Fargo relationship (like a bank account) to apply online, foreign transaction fees, no traditional welcome bonus

Cracking a screen or breaking a cell phone altogether is probably a student's worst nightmare — or maybe second-worst, after finding how much it costs to repair or replace. There are numerous credit cards that offer cell phone protection, but only a handful have no annual fee, including the Wells Fargo Cash Back℠ College Card. When you use the card to pay your wireless bill, you're covered for damage or theft up to $600 (less a $25 deductible) up to two times per year.

The Wells Fargo Cash Back℠ College Card doesn't have a standard welcome bonus — instead, new cardholders can earn 3% cash rewards on up to $2,500 spent on gas, grocery, and drugstore purchases for the first six months, and 1% back on all other purchases. You'll also get perks like secondary rental car insurance , and there's an introductory 0% APR on purchases and balance transfers for the first six months (then a variable 11.15% to 21.15% APR).

One caveat: You're only eligible to apply online if you already have a relationship with the bank, like a Wells Fargo checking or savings account

Best for international students: Deserve® EDU Mastercard for Students 

Card type: Unsecured

Annual fee: $0

Pros: Available to international students without a Social Security Number, straightforward cash-back earning, useful welcome bonus if you make Amazon purchases, cell phone protection, no foreign transaction fees

Cons: Other cards offer more rewards for spending

The Deserve® EDU Mastercard for Students doesn't offer remarkable rewards earning, but it's unique in that you don't absolutely need a Social Security Number to apply. That makes it an excellent pick for international students who wouldn't otherwise qualify for a US-based credit card. New cardholders can earn a free one-year Amazon Prime Student subscription (worth $59) after they spend $500 on purchases in the first three billing cycles.

The card earns 1% cash back on all purchases, but it comes with a number of valuable benefits, including cell phone protection when you use the card to pay your bill — you'll be covered for damage or theft up to $600 with a $50 deductible, up to $1,000 per year. The Deserve® EDU Mastercard for Students also offers rental car insurance and no foreign transaction fees.

Best for rotating bonus categories: Discover it® Student Cash Back

Card type: Unsecured

Annual fee: $0

Pros: Earn 5% cash back in categories that rotate every quarter, Discover Cash Back Match, rewards for good grades, no late fee on first late payment, get $50 for referring a friend, introductory APR offer, no foreign transaction fees, choose from a variety of colorful card designs

Cons: Card only earns 1% back on non-bonus categories, no welcome bonus

The Discover it® Student Cash Back can put a lot of cash in your pocket — if you're willing to do a little work for it. When you activate the bonus, you'll earn 5% cash back in categories that rotate each quarter on up to $1,500 in combined spending (then 1%), and 1% back on everything else. Discover's 5% cash-back categories often include popular merchants or types of purchases, like grocery stores, restaurants, and Amazon.

While the card doesn't offer a welcome bonus, Discover will match all the cash back you've earned at the end of your first year. You'll also receive a $20 statement credit each school year your GPA is 3.0 or higher for up to five years in a row, and if you refer a friend and they're approved, you'll get $50. 

With the Discover it® Student Cash Back, you'll get an introductory 0% APR on purchases for the first six months (then a 12.99% to 21.99% variable APR), and if you accidentally slip up and make a late payment, there's no fee the first time it happens (afterward, it's up to $40).

Best rewards: Discover it® Student chrome

Card type: Unsecured

Annual fee: $0

Pros: Straightforward rewards, Discover Cash Back Match, rewards for good grades, no late fee on first late payment, get $50 for referring a friend, introductory APR offer, no foreign transaction fees, popular 2% back categories, choose from a variety of colorful card designs

Cons: Only earns 1% back on non-bonus categories, no welcome bonus, low spending cap on 2% categories

The Discover it® Student chrome is almost identical to the Discover it® Student Cash Back, with one key difference. Instead of offering 5% rotating quarterly cash-back categories, you'll earn 2% back at gas stations and at restaurants (including cafes, takeout, delivery, and fast food) on up to $1,000 in combined purchases each quarter (then 1%). All other purchases earn a flat 1% cash back.

The spending cap on the 2% categories is quite low ($1,000 per quarter, or about $333 a month), but if you're able to maximize this bonus, it's worth an extra $20 per quarter. Students who don't spend a lot in these categories or who want better rewards across the board will likely do better with a different card.

Get rewarded for on-time payments: Journey® Student Rewards from Capital One®

Card type: Unsecured

Annual fee: $0

Pros: Earn 25% more cash back each month you pay on time, get statement credits for streaming purchases when you pay on time, no foreign transaction fees, automatic consideration for higher credit limits starting at six months

Cons: No welcome bonus, earning rate before on-time bonus is only 1% cash back

Most credit cards penalize you if you make late payments, but the Journey® Student Rewards from Capital One® takes a slightly different approach. While the card still tacks on late payment fees (up to $40), it also incentivizes you to pay on time by offering bonus rewards for doing so.

Normally, you'll earn 1% cash back on all purchases, but you'll get a 25% bonus (for a total of 1.25% cash back) each billing cycle if your account is not past due. There's no sign-up bonus, but — again, only if you pay on time — you can get $5 per month in credit when you use your card to pay for eligible streaming subscriptions in the first 18 months of account opening (for a possible total of $60).

Subscriptions must be billed monthly (not annually) to trigger the credit, and only certain services are eligible. That said, most popular subscriptions are on the list, including Amazon Music Unlimited, Hulu, Netflix, Prime Video, and Spotify.

Capital One will also automatically review your account to see if you're eligible for a credit limit increase, as soon as six months after you open the account.

Best for building credit: Petal® 2 "Cash Back, No Fees" Visa® Credit Card

Card type: Unsecured

Annual fee: $0

Pros: Earn up to 1.5% cash back when you pay on time, no fees for anything, bonus cash back at select merchants, possible to get approved with no credit history, reports to all three credit bureaus to help you build credit

Cons: No welcome bonus, earning rate before on-time bonus is only 1% cash back, no balance transfers or cash advances allowed

While not technically a student credit card, the Petal® 2 "Cash Back, No Fees" Visa® Credit Card is a good option for young adults with very limited or no credit history. The issuer doesn't just rely on traditional credit scores for approval — it will also look at other factors, like banking history, income, and savings. What's more, once you have the card, it's reported to all three major credit bureaus, which can give your credit score a boost over the long term.

This is another card that gives cardholders an incentive to pay on time. Starting out, you'll earn 1% cash back on purchases, but after making six on-time payments, you'll earn 1.25% back. After 12 months of paying on time, you'll get a bump up to 1.5% back. You'll also have the opportunity to earn bonus cash back (up to 10%) at select merchants.

Another bonus: The Petal® 2 "Cash Back, No Fees" Visa® Credit Card doesn't charge any fees, including for foreign transactions or late payments. However, the card doesn't offer balance transfers or cash advances like most others do.

Jasmin Baron is an associate editor at Personal Finance Insider, where she helps readers maximize rewards and find the best credit cards to fit their lifestyles.

Disclosure: This post is brought to you by the Personal Finance Insider team. We occasionally highlight financial products and services that can help you make smarter decisions with your money. We do not give investment advice or encourage you to adopt a certain investment strategy. If you take action based on one of our recommendations, we get a small share of the revenue from our commerce partners. This does not influence whether we feature a financial product or service. We operate independently from our advertising sales team.

Please note: While the offers mentioned above are accurate at the time of publication, they're subject to change at any time and may have changed, or may no longer be available.

Disclosure: This post is brought to you by the Personal Finance Insider team. We occasionally highlight financial products and services that can help you make smarter decisions with your money. We do not give investment advice or encourage you to adopt a certain investment strategy. What you decide to do with your money is up to you. If you take action based on one of our recommendations, we get a small share of the revenue from our commerce partners. This does not influence whether we feature a financial product or service. We operate independently from our advertising sales team.

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