How to get approved for credit cards as a college student (reader question)

Reader Sean asks the following question on the “Ask Lucky” page of the blog:

Hey Lucky, do you know how available are travel reward cards for people with little or no credit history? I’m a college freshman and aspiring FFer, but I’m not sure if I’d be able to get any of the lucrative credit cards you reconmend. Any advice? Thanks

Let me start by saying I’m no credit expert. I can only share my experiences, given that I was in Sean’s situation a few years ago, and I remember how frustrated I was. Everyone talks about how important it is to build your credit, but how can you build it when no credit card company will give you a chance due to lack of a credit history? It’s kind of like trying to find your first job when all the companies you apply to want to know about your job experience.

The thing I was most excited for when turning 18 was being able to apply for a mileage credit card (and the thing I was most excited for when turning 21 was… being able to rent a car), and on my 18th birthday I applied for a Citi AAdvantage Mastercard and got denied. Oops.

I quickly realized I’d need to start slow, so I then got a student credit card. It was a Discover student credit card (the exact card has been discontinued in the meantime), and my credit limit was $1,000. You shouldn’t have any issue picking up a student credit card, no matter how boring the rewards are (if there are any at all). One card several college aged readers have had no issue getting approved for is the Citi Forward Card for College Students.

Keep the card for about six months, and make sure you charge on it every month and pay your bills on time. Just be sure to keep your credit utilization low, so don’t spend more than 20-30% of your credit line, so you look like a responsible spender.

That’s exactly what I did, and then six months later I went to town applying for “big boy” credit cards. That first day I applied for the Starwood American Express and got instantly approved. I was shocked, so I did what any rational person would do — apply for more cards as if there’s no tomorrow. 😉

That same day I applied for the Citi AAdvantage Visa, Citi AAdvantage Mastercard, and United Visa, all of which I got instantly approved for.

So while that might be somewhat of an oversimplification, the key is to first apply for a student credit card. Then to actually get approved for cards after that, there are a few things to keep in mind:

Apply for a charge card if you can. While it’s only anecdotal, I’ve found that charge cards (as opposed to credit cards) are easier to get approved for. What’s the difference? You technically have to pay off a charge card every month, while you can finance a credit card. The logic is that you’re less of a credit risk to the bank, since you can’t finance something long term. The most common charge card I recommend is the American Express Premier Rewards Gold card, which plenty of young readers have gotten approved for with little or no credit history.

Become an additional/authorized user on a credit card if you can. If your parents have been long-time users of a certain credit card, ask them to add you to the card as an additional user, even if you won’t actually spend any money on it. It doesn’t always work, but sometimes the credit history will actually be applied to your credit score, which can drastically increase it. Even if you don’t spend a dime on the card, it can do wonders for your score (sometimes).

Personal income vs. household income. If you’re a college student you may very well “technically” live with your parents. Once you apply for the “big boy” cards, answer the questions on the application honestly, but keep in mind what they’re asking. Many credit card applications ask for household income as opposed to individual income, so take full advantage of that.

Hope that helps and let me know if you have any questions!

For more information on many of the cards mentioned above, see the “Best Credit Card Offers” page of the blog.

Filed Under: Advice, Credit Cards
  1. I second all of these (I think you and I are around the same age, Lucky).

    One more tip I would have is to apply for a no-fee card early on and to always keep that card open. The Citi Forward card you mentioned works, as do most Discover cards. I opened those at age 18 (well, maybe age 18 and 1 day :p) and those cards have stayed open and increased my credit rating because of the age on their accounts.

  2. This is another reason that you should open up credit card accounts for your kids. My folks did this when I was 5 and it really helped me a lot when I entered college. Length of credit history makes a big difference.

  3. Thats pretty much what I did too. I got a credit card my junior year of high school (cosigned with my parents, from my local bank, just a boring Visa) and then later applied and was approved for a Discover card, normal, not the student card. I later cancelled the original card from the bank and kept the Discover, which I switched over from the cashback rewards, to their Miles & More, its not much, but it works. I then later got the Delta Amex ‘classic’ (I fly them frequently from college to home, Arizona and Ohio). This year I upgraded to the Delta Amex Platinum. The Discover and Amex are great for me, I just worked my way up from basic to the nicer cards with more perks (but of course with fees!) Lucky is correct, pay it off all the time!

  4. Great advice, Ben!

    One large caveat under-21s should keep in mind: Under the CARD Act of 2009 you cannot get a card without an over-21 consigner or proof of income (proving this can be an onerous process). I was fortunate to get my first card right after turning 18 before this act went into effect, but had my credit limit cut from $5000 to $500 without ever carrying a balance or missing a payment. This makes it much harder to travel when each hotel puts a $200 block on your card for a few days and you’re changing hotels daily.

  5. Definitely agree with your posting as well as AK & Steve.

    Also, pay close attention to the bullet about trying not to spend more than 20-30% of the credit limit. Don’t get yourself in trouble with a bill you can’t afford. Even if it means having to pass up on double EQM. 😉

  6. Pay your bills in full each month, don’t EVER let yourself carry a balance and have to pay interest, and when you do get to apply for the big mileage-bonus cards don’t blow your load in one day on too many cards if you can’t meet their min spend requirements.

  7. One note about getting added to your parents’ card to build credit: my parents added me to their primary card for just that reason, but it backfired because when I applied for my own card, I was rejected because the balance on “my” current credit card was much higher than my yearly college student income. I would suggest that parents add children to a non-primary card.

  8. I got my first credit card in college through Chase because I had a Chase bank account. Because I had a large amount in my savings account, they gave me a pretty high credit limit $6000.

  9. Lucky,

    Another way for college students to get miles and points is to make sure they do all their spending through portals. It’s definitely an underestimated way to earn points. It may not giver you the free flight that a sign-up bonus immediately gives you, but if you focus on the portals for the next four years you have a strong base. I personally find the AAdvantage portal to be useful. Portals can be used just for having a ff or hotel acct with each company – no cc needed. Just my two cents. Great post.

  10. Lucky, how would you answer the income question if it didn’t ask for personal or household income. When I applied for the Chase Sapphire Preferred, it asked for “income” and when you hovered or clicked the help button, it said, money available to repay these debts. What should we put in that case. Personal, Household, all the money we have in the bank?

  11. There is a miles-based credit card for college students called the Citi AAdvantage Bronze. A pro is that it has no annual fee but the con is that it only earns 1 mile for every $2 spent, while the other AAdvantage cards earn 1 mile per $1 spent.

  12. Hi, I’m a loan compliance officer and I have some additional information re: the Card Act. It is no longer permissible for a card issuer to ask for “household income”. They may simply ask for “income”…and they are obligated to form a reasonable belief that the applicant can afford the minimum monthly payment on the requested credit line. If the applicant is under 21, they must be able to make the payment using their own earned income, or provide an over-21 qualified co-signer or joint applicant. The new rules are intended to protect young people from predatory lending that can get them in “over their heads” financially.

  13. Thanks for the post Lucky. I was looking into the Citi Forward as well, seems like it’s one of the best options for first-timers.

    Does anyone know though, when using ThankYou points to book travel, does Citi actually buys revenue tickets for you that still qualify for earning miles?

  14. Just be aware AMEX charge cards have a 30% interest rate, great for points if you pay them off. Otherwise there much more painful than a credit card. Also I imagine failing to pay off the complete balance of a charge card may eventually make its way back to your credit score.

    Personally I’ve never paid interest on a CC, but occationally college age people lack a degree of financial sense so best be careful what you charge to it.

  15. I used to work in the credit card industry.

    Store charge cards like Sears are easy to get and a good way to get a credit history building if you can’t acquire a credit card.

    When applying for a credit card, banks usually ask for household income, so if you live with parents, or even in a house full of roommates, it is perfectly valid to tote up everyone’s income. The rationale is that the expense of running the household is paid out of all the incomes in the house, therefore you theoretically have more disposable income for paying off credit.

    Being an authorized user on a card will not build your credit history — you need to be a joint account holder.

    The easiest way to establish a credit history is to have a parent add you as a joint account holder on a card they use, even if you don’t get to use the account. As another commenter mentioned, it shouldn’t be getting heavy use when you go to apply for your own account.

  16. One of the provisions of the CARD Act is currently banks are indeed asking about the applicant’s income rather than household one.

  17. So do you suggest getting a charge card? I’m 19 and just got my first card from my Wells Fargo on campus about a week ago. What should by my plan of attack? Keep this card for a while, apply for the citi card, get a charge card? Suggestions?

  18. I clicked on your affiliate link to apply for a Citi Forward Student card, but the application page is exactly like the one for the regular Citi Forward card… How do I know which one I’m applying for? I don’t want to apply for the regular card, get denied, and my credit score drops…

    Also, do I have to be currently enrolled in college to be able to get the college card? I’m 19, and have no credit history, just like a college student…

  19. @ Scott — Sorry for responding so late, didn’t see this till now. In your shoes I would get the Citi Forward card for college students. As a student you should have no issues getting approved, and at the same time it will help you build your credit while earning you points.

    @ William — The landing pages appear to be very similar, though when you click “Apply Now” it will ask you if you’re a college student or not, which should make the difference. I believe you’re supposed to be a student to get approved for the card, though they don’t seem to have a way of validating that, so I assume you could get away with it even if you’re not a college student.

  20. Hmm, so if I say I’m not a college student, I’ll essentially be applying for the regular Citi Forward card, and most likely be denied… Yes, I don’t understand how credit card applications work at all- one could put down anything, whether they fudge their annual income, rent/mortgage, etc. The credit card co.’s have no way of knowing all that info…

  21. @ William — To the best of my knowledge they’re processed differently based on whether you list yourself as a college student or not. At least that’s my understanding. Ultimately you can put whatever you want on a credit card application. If any part deviates especially from your credit history/score, they might ask for verification. If they do, you don’t have to respond if you don’t want to. Keep in mind that denials don’t show on your credit score. Instead it would just an inquiry.

  22. Wait, I was told otherwise- that every time you apply for a credit card, it lowers your credit score by a few points or so. Would you recommend applying for both the regular and college student versions of the Citi Forward card, and just see what happens?

  23. @ William — Sorry for any confusion, let me clarify. When you apply for a credit card your score takes a hit of a couple of points usually for the inquiry. My point was that there’s no additional penalty for being denied.

    In your shoes I would apply just for the student version first and see what happens.

  24. @ Lucky – Thanks for all your help! I just applied for the student card, so we’ll see what happens…

  25. I just called Citi to ask about the status of my application, and they said they’re waiting for me to send proof of my enrollment at a college/university (student ID, tuition bill, etc.). I wasn’t told about this when I applied, so I would have never found out had I not called, so I’m not sure if that’s entirely accurate.

    I received a rejection email from Citi, but that was on the basis of “too many inquiries” on my credit report (I’m trying to GET a credit card…). I called them back about this, explaining my thin credit file situation, and they “overrode” the denial based on inquiries and put my application back into the system. Good deal!

    Now this guy says they’re waiting on proof of enrollment from me? I think something fishy is going on here… Do you have any insight on this? Have credit card co.’s been known asked for proof of enrollment?

  26. I applied for the citi credit card for students but how long do i have to wait to get approved?

  27. @ Deseree — After you submitted the application did it have a message that told you, maybe?

  28. Capital one student credit card approved me the first time, it has a $30.00 annual fee but it helped me get started.
    They didn’t need any additional information it just came in the mail, this was 6 months ago and now I just got approved for the discover credit card.

  29. Hi,

    I am wondering what you would put on the amex application. I am a college student in Canada and have a student credit card which I’ve been using for about 8 months now. I went onto the Amex site and in the application under employment there is no student option in the drop down list. So what I am asking is as a student what do you put under employment.


  30. Hi, I raman,I m a final year engineering student at bhubaneswar.
    I have a student account in axis bank. and I want to take a credit card.
    so how should I take that?
    and I also dont know much about plans,interests,terms & conditions for about credit cards.
    please help me.
    waiting for your kind reply.
    thank you

  31. Hi, I’ve tried applying Discover it card. It got me denied. Even though I don’t have an income and I’m really frustrated that I want to apply a credit card. I’m 19 now. I have a hard time to answer “minimum income” in application even though I put my financial aid amount in my minimum income. It would not let me have a Discover it card. I wonder why. I wonder if you could help me, I’ll be appreciated.

  32. Hello,

    Ok soo here is where I differ, I got my first credit card just a year ago…im 25 (yikes) does that make a difference?? I’ve had a heard life and never paid any attention to my credit till now. I’ve been working my butt off paying off debt and keeping balances down, I REALLY want a discover student card…like bad!!! lol credit score is around 560-600 does any one think i stand a chance? I’m sure it will raise once I pay off a few more things and get keep my payments on time, thinking about applying at the end of the year. Any advise?

  33. But even in the case you will get all the BigBoys cards as a student, which seems to be the easier part in my eyes, how can you spend all the required amounts in order to qualify for all the bonuses? I don’t get it? Much thanks in advance! Regards, Mario J.

  34. @ Mario Jähn — Back in the day there were ways to “manufacture spend,” though that’s not as easy anymore. Reaching minimum spend is definitely tougher than in the past.

  35. How do I decide which card to apply for? I am in college and already have a Discover card. I have a good credit score, but I am going to be studying abroad for 1 semester in Europe. I want to apply for a travel credit card (for the points and the no foreign transaction fees). I am deciding between the BankAmericard Travel Rewards and the Capital One VentureOne Rewards card. Both have no annual fee and no foreign transaction fees. For capital one, i get 1.25 miles per $1 and 20,000 bonus miles once I spend $1,000 in the first 3 months. For the BankAmericard, I get 1.5 miles per $1 and 20,000 bonus points if I spend $1,000 in the first 90 days. If I make a Bank of America checking account (which I do not have and do not really plan on getting one), I will get 10% extra miles. I do not know how either cards miles can be redeemed or where. I would really appreciate any help

  36. Timely article – I am thankful for the details , Does someone know if my business might be able to acquire a sample Online cob questionnaire form version to work with ?

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