How To Get Approved For Credit Cards As A College Student

Filed Under: Advice, Credit Cards
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I frequently get emails from readers who are college students and don’t have credit cards yet, and want to know how they can take advantage of the great cards I talk about (including the sign-up bonuses, the bonus points on everyday spend, and the perks). I was in the same position not too many years ago, as I graduated from college in 2011. So I figured I’d provide some tips for college students wanting to apply for credit cards.

There’s no denying it can be extremely frustrating to get started applying for credit cards. Banks want to issue cards to people they know are credit-worthy, but how can you prove you’re credit-worthy when banks won’t give you a chance?

While it can be a bit of a process, there is a method to establishing your creditworthiness and maintaining a great credit score, and it’s probably not as hard as you think.

I figured I’d provide some tips to help college students get started. In no particular order:

Only apply for credit cards if you can do so responsibly

I think this is an important point to make before I say anything else. You should only apply for credit cards if you know you can pay off your balance in full each month and use them responsibly.

This was never an issue for me, since I’m not someone who naturally has the desire to spend a lot of money. But if you’re someone who views a credit card as “oh, this is what I get to spend for the month,” then don’t get one. You can really screw yourself over by getting in debt at a young age, and that’s not something you want to do.

So if you don’t think you can use credit cards responsibly, stop reading now!

Apply for a college credit card first

Chances are that the credit card offers for 50,000+ points are the ones which have you salivating, though realistically you probably won’t be approved for those off the bat.

Instead consider a college credit card. These are cards which likely won’t have much of a sign-up bonus, won’t have an amazing rewards structure, and won’t give you a huge credit line. But they’ll get you started on the right path, and set you up for credit success in the future.

For example, the Citi Rewards+℠ Student Card is a fairly good college credit card. It offers a sign-up bonus of 2,500 ThankYou points after spending $500 within three months, and has no annual fee. Obviously that’s not as lucrative as the Citi Prestige® Card or Citi Premier® Card (review) but it offers something, which is more than can be said about many other cards targeted at college students. It’s one of the best college credit cards out there.

Understand what impacts your credit score

Your credit score is made up of the following factors:

  • 35% of your score is made up of your payment history
  • 30% of your score is your credit utilization
  • 15% of your score is your credit history
  • 10% of your score is made up of the types of credit you use
  • 10% of your score is your request for new credit

As you can see, your overall utilization and payment history make up a big portion (65%) of your credit score. And those are things you can very easily manage.

Always, always, always pay your bills on-time. Set your payment date for a day of the month you’ll remember. Set a reminder in your phone, calendar, etc. You don’t want to miss your payment date.

Keep your utilization low

I feel like this is something which is specifically worth emphasizing as well, in addition to the above explanation of what goes into your credit score. Always keep your credit utilization low, as this can greatly impact your credit score. Let me explain in the form of an example.

If you get a college credit card chances are that your credit limit will be pretty low. So let’s say it’s $1,000.

If you spend $900 on the card each month, you’re utilizing 90% of your credit. That looks bad to the banks, since they’re saying “hmmm, they’re already almost maxing out their credit; it could be risky to give them more credit.”

Conversely, say you have 10 credit cards with a $10,000 credit line each. That’s $100,000 in available credit.

If you spend $1,000 per month on your credit card, that’s a utilization rate of 1%. Counterintuitive as it may seem, having such low utilization makes the banks more likely to give you more cards, since they view you as low risk. The logic is “they have a lot of credit and they’re using it responsibly, so we can give them more.”

This can be a huge factor in improving your credit score and determining your credit worthiness, so there are three tips I have:

<liPay off most of your bill before the statement even closes. Your utilization is typically measured when your statement closes, so by paying early you can lower your reported utilization rate.

<liTry to keep your utilization rate below 40%, if possible. In other words, if your credit line is $1,000, try to utilize no more than $400 of that revolving line.

Check your credit score

If you’re brand new to credit cards, pick up a single college credit card and spend on it for at least six months. This way you’ll have a good record of payments for several cycles.

At that point I’d recommend checking your credit score and seeing what it looks like. There are plenty of free services out there for checking your credit scores.

Before you even consider applying for more cards, make sure your score is at least 700, and ideally over 720 (give or take). If you’re not at that point yet, just keep exhibiting good behavior on your college credit card.

Don’t go too fast

Let’s say your credit score is looking good and you decide to apply for a card. Don’t go crazy and apply for a bunch of cards at once immediately. Your credit score is still pretty volatile when you only have one card, since minor things can have big impacts on your credit.

Instead get maybe one or two cards, and and continue to exhibit good behavior. Your score could go way up from that, as your available credit increases and your overall utilization decreases.

Know which cards to apply for first

Once you’re ready to apply for the lucrative cards, there’s a method to how you’ll want to apply. This is entirely anecdotal, since it really does vary by consumer. But in general I find that if you have a limited credit history, Chase and Citi cards are tough to get approved for. American Express cards are often easier.

Don’t cancel your college card right away

If you do get approved for a premium credit card, don’t immediately cancel the college credit card you had, which may not have been so rewarding. One aspect of your credit score is your average age of accounts, so you’ll want to hold onto the card you’ve had the longest for as long as possible. That will help balance out your age of accounts if you were to apply for new cards.

Many college credit cards have no annual fee (like the Citi Rewards+℠ Student Card), so there’s not really any downside to holding onto the card.

It’s a marathon, not a race

Using credit cards properly can be extremely rewarding. But know that it’s a marathon and not a race. If you’re a college student you probably won’t be successful in applying for a dozen lucrative credit cards tomorrow.

Instead just exhibit good behavior and start slow at first, and long term you’ll likely be very successful. Over time applying for more cards can help your credit score, rather than hurt it. I have dozens of credit cards and my credit score is in the top 2%.


Why is that? Because I pay my bills on time, I have some cards I’ve been holding onto for a long time, and my credit utilization is really low (I have hundreds of thousands of dollars in available credit, but spend only a very small percentage of that every month).

If you have any questions on the above, let me know below!

Anyone have any other tips they’ve found useful in getting college students approved for credit cards?

The comments on this page have not been provided, reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any advertiser, and it is not an advertiser's responsibility to ensure posts and/or questions are answered.
  1. Get no-annual-fee cards right now and keep them open forever. Length of credit history and average age of accounts are the two factors that take the most time to build. Opening a few lines now and keeping them open puts you on autopilot for maxing these out later in life. Hell, don’t even spend on them. 🙂

  2. Many schools, especially public schools, around the US also have their own credit unions or banks. As a college student, these institutions offer credit cards with relatively low maintenance fees. While they may not earn the student points or miles, they usually offer relatively generous cashback, which can be of greater use to first time credit card holders. On top of that, the starting credit limits on these offers are relatively low and they offer free, personal financial counseling too. On top of that, these smaller institutions are easier to work with on a daily basis as opposed to the large corporate banks.These are great ways to build a good credit report and good supplements to the offers highlighted in the article above.

  3. let’s promote student debt.

    Did you even read the post?

    You should only apply for credit cards if you know you can pay off your balance in full each month and use them responsibly.

  4. Oh c’mon. I get that this is a source of revenue and in exchange we all get access to a free website with some excellent posts. I do appreciate that. But along with massive students loans, is it adviseable to offer advice on how to also pile on credit card debt so that young ppl can spend their first 10-15 years after graduation being debt slaves to bankers?

  5. As John accurately points out, the advice is not to “pile on credit card debt.” Quite the opposite–paying with a credit card and “pay[ing] off your balance in full each month” is really the equivalent of paying cash with a 30-day delay (shorter if you follow Lucky’s advice of paying before the billing cycle closes). If the user can maintain that discipline, it’s a good way to build a credit history, and maybe even earn points or cash back.

  6. Start small. Get an annual fee-less CC from the bank you keep a checking/savings account open with. Always pay in full and on time. Then start expanding to student cards with no annual fees from other banks. I think you are realistically looking at about 18 months before you can start applying for regular cards to earn sign up bonuses, etc.

  7. Ben,

    You have hardly ever mentioned Discover. I know they aren’t into the miles business, but my first card was a Discover student card, which I have since had changed to a more lucrative Discover card. It worked great for me and was simple cash back. Do you have anything against Discover or is it just coincidence?

  8. As a college student who has benefited from Lucky’s advice over the years, let’s do away with the fear-mongering “you’re encouraging credit card debt!!!!” posts.

    My first credit card was through Bank of America, and I got it the day I turned 18. Tiny credit limit, 1% cash back, no signup bonus. Had it for a year before I was approved for the AmEx PRG. That was two years ago, and I’m now the proud owner of numerous additional “flagship” cards. I always pay my balance in full, I keep my utilization low, and I’ve not yet had an application denied.

    Personal responsibility is key. If you are the type of person who isn’t yet ready to manage your personal finances, then no, you’re probably not ready to have your own credit card. But if you educate yourself on the costs/risks, play by the rules, and know your limits, then you’re golden, and the payoff can be handsome. But again, this is about *personal responsibility* and knowing yourself.

  9. The reason I was most irritated that my US Airways Dividend Miles Bank of America Signature Visa was converted to a BarclayCard was that I’d had it for a LONG TIME. Suddenly I was no longer a Bank of America customer with years of standing, but a brand new BarclayCard customer. I was very disappointed that Bank of America refused to let me maintain my existing account, even without the airline benefit. They said I was welcome to apply for a new account. No thanks.

  10. A Titanium card? How the cuss did you qualify for this?

    Build your credit now! My parents had NO debt, even their house was paid off, but found it hard to even rent a car since they had no credit cards. They were the perfect credit couple but no one knew. They’ve since used their credit to their benefit. Start early.

    As for Credit Utilization, it seems to be based per card account too. I had a significant credit limit on an AMEX Delta card, I never use it. I started ramping up usage on an AMEX Everyday card and didn’t think that it had a low credit line. My credit score dropped 30 points nearly overnight. I called AMEX and moved most of the unused line from the Delta card to the Everyday card, credit score climbed 30 points. Am I wrong thinking credit score looks at utilization by account?

  11. College junior w a Prestige card, limit 6500. Started with a free cc from bank of america, graduated to sapphire preferred, reaping all of the travel rewards during my term abroad. Anything is possible.

  12. Excellent and quite a practical post. I think it is a good idea to train youth on financial management early in their life – including management of credit, establishment of credit scores and avoidance of debt in addition to managing expenditures. Parents should play a role and provide supervision to their children in this subject, when necessary. My father helped me to open my first joint bank acct. and obtain a joint credit card at the age of 15 to teach me some aspects of financial mgmt. There are many student cards available with restricted credit limits so that a student can establish a credit score without incurring debt.

    The knowledge on how to maintain financial stability is helpful to students when they leave college and experience life-changing events such as, but not limited to, marriage, mortgage, and relocation. The main points to reiterate from this post imo: spend wisely, pay bills on time, and go slow. I own somewhere in the vicinity of 40 credit cards currently, but I obviously do not use them all on a regular basis; however, I still keep them since they help with my credit history because my credit utilization is extremely low and as such most of my expenditures are business related. In contrast, I had 1 card when I was 15, and that too shared with my parents.

  13. Lucky, I can’t remember which post it was exactly; but I remember you saying that the SPG AmEx card was one of the first ones you signed up for when you turned 18. Of course, parameters may have changed since then, but the SPG card is a card with an annual fee and a pretty generous sign-up bonus. It would seem that such a young person would not be approved for a card like that. The reason why I ask is because I turn 18 in May and I have been saving up money to take a trip to Nepal this summer. I expect to spend about $5500 in all ($2300 for the ticket, $3200 for the program and other expenses) and obviously I would like to get as many points as possible for that money. Ideally I would like to buy the plane tickets on the AmEx PRG for the 25,000 points/$2000 promo and 3x bonus for airfare and then pay the program/misc costs with the SPG card for the 25,000 starpoints/$3000 promo. I’m not optimistic about getting approved for either of those cards though. More than likely I will probably have to settle for a college card but it seems like such a waste to me spend $5.5k on something like the College ThankYou card.

  14. So you’re telling me there’s a chance?

    20 year old movie references aside, this trip could prove to be valuable to me for reasons other than getting to spend a month overseas experiencing a fascinating culture. Regardless of whether I could get the cards or not, this trip would put me over the threshold for Star Alliance Gold; and since my FFP is Asiana Club that status would be good for two years. If I could get approved for the right cards and get sign-up bonuses that would be icing on the cake. 🙂

  15. Lol at all this hand-wringing about this website promoting student debt. There are plenty of college kids out there who aren’t borrowing for school.

  16. @me and @RoloT – There are a lot of 18 year-olds out there (I am the father of one) who ARE responsible spenders and have been taught by their parents to earn points and bonuses by only putting on a credit card what they would otherwise pay cash for. For many people, signing up for cards doesn’t mean taking on debt.

  17. Not sure where you get the 40% utilization number, but everything I’ve read points to 2-10% as the ideal range. What I do is pay off big purchases as I go, so as to minimize the chance a large balance gets reported.

  18. Do you know if under 21 is a no-no when it comes to applying for cards? I started with the card you put up above last year as a freshman; this year Citi upgraded my card to a TY Premier with around 6 times the original limit (3000ish CL now). My score’s been consistently above 720. I’m planning on applying for an AA card later this year, but i’m just afraid being under 21 will impact my chances…

  19. Put your college kids as an extra card holder on your credit cards (if you trust them). My son has an over 750 score 🙂 And was able to build credit on his own. We was able to maintain this score even after we removed him from our card.

  20. I am a college student (19 y/o) and have a FICO of 750. I have been in the CC game for almost a year now and have to say that it can help college students in many ways to (1) learn about how credit can leverage student loans in the long run, (2) get miles for travel / study abroad and (3) create a better financial relationship between parents and their teen/young-20s children. I first got the DL Amex when it was at 60k and added both of my parents as users. We all contributed expenses and paid everything off. We did the same for the AA Citi at 50k, SPG Amex, and others. It works perfectly because now I, as a student, know what is acceptable in terms of spending, and I also watched my own credit score raise from 670 to 750 in about 6 months. Now, I have over 15 CCs under my own accounts and the accounts of my parents, and overall am able to get the most out of everyday purchases. My friends, though, think I am crazy, although some of them see how it pays off when I am able to travel on the cheap with more frequency.

  21. I am 20 and a college student, I came to US when I was 17 and I have 8 credit cards (CSP, IHG, 2 HILTON, COSTCO, AMEX EVERYDAY, BOFA CASH, DELTA ) And I have great credit history, did not apply for few cards from so that I can get freedom and Ink from Chase (5/24 rule). I have about 4,00,000 hotel points and 2,00,000 UR & MR points and many gold, diamond or platinum statuses. I have 6 no annual fee card so that I never have to cancel them and it can help me for future.

    I also want to start a website for helping people. I have friends who do not take credit seriously and I want to help other students. I plan take a few more credit cards around 5-6 AFTER I get approved for Freedom and Ink.

    One thing to tell every student, it is not hard to get cards and build credit. You just have read blogs from beautiful people who tend to help others to travel this beautiful world.

  22. @Anthony

    1. Applying for credit too frequently hurts the credit score.

    2. What’s your credit utility fraction overall? For example, I utilize less 2% of my available credit for work and personal expenditures. How much of your credit do you use?

  23. @Jared – Good question.

    I guess that varies depending on the credit card. On one extreme I’ve got a card with a $20K limit, and on the other one with a $3K limit. At times I’d go pretty close to my limit on the smaller cards, but never the bigger ones.

    It seems like a bit of a catch 22 though. Based on Lucky’s advice, if I utilise the credit I’ve been issued, it’ll adversely affect my rating. Likewise if I increase my credit limit to ensure I don’t utilise it, it’ll adversely affect my rating as well.

  24. And charge something to those “sock drawer” cards once a year or so, especially the ones with no annual fee. Citibank recently cancelled my Citi Dividend card without warning because I hadn’t used it in 2-3 years. Since it was one of my oldest cards, once it ages off my credit report, it may impact my credit score.

  25. My first credit card was the Citi Forward that earns 5X points on all dining, entertainment, and book stores. Combined with the premier card, it’s a great way to rack up TY points.

  26. @Anthony

    Just try to limit your overall credit utilisation to under 30%. Generally, banks will increase your credit limit once they see you are able to handle it. For example, one of my banks increased my credit limit six fold after three years of using their card. Also, do you have any loans, mortgages or financed expenses? Those are also considered credit and typically affect your credit score adversely at the start until you establish a year or two of consistent on time payments.

  27. Quick question, I am a college student and wondering what I enter for my annual income. My parents are willing to pay my bill every month so do I put their income? I do not have a job, just a 24/7 student. Do I put the amount that they give me every month to spend?

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