Being a college student, one of the most common questions I get asked after discussing my miles and points hobby is, "How do I get started?!". The land of credit cards and credit can seem like wading into a whole new mysterious world for a beginner. I will often tell my friends that the only way they can start reaping the benefits of credit card sign up bonuses is to start developing their credit. While student loans can help the average age of accounts for a students' credit score, it's unlikely you will be approved for any sort of major travel card without having held a credit card for at least six months. Given that fact, here are the top cards I recommend students (or those with no credit history!) to apply for when starting out.
#1: The Citi Forward Student Card
The Citi Forward card is practically everything a beginner could want with a starter card – No hassle to get or use, decent benefits, no annual fee. The last point might be the most important, meaning that a student can hold on to the card forever and use it to start a long average age of credit accounts, which makes up about 30% of your overall credit score. It's designed as a student card, so it should be no problem to be approved for.
And the benefits aren't bad either: 5x Citi ThankYou points at bookstores (Amazon counts!), restaurants, movies, and music; 1x on everything else. Given a student budget of mostly books and food, this card ranks nicely in the bonus category. You also receive an annual 1,200 ThankYou points for paying on time, which you should be doing anyway. The redemptions aren't great with TY points, but at worst you'll be getting 1 cent per point for gift cards, making any 5x purchases essentially 5% cash back. Not bad for your first credit card!
#2: The Discover IT Card for Students
I am a huge proponent of Discover as a credit card issuer, and this card was actually my first credit card back at the end of 2011. However, before reading further, you should be warned that Discover is still not accepted at most non-chain stores, so you if you live in an area with poor acceptance you may wish to reconsider. But Amazon does accept Discover, which is great if you find yourself shopping there quite a bit (Most major retailers accept Discover, especially online). This card has no annual fee, great quarterly cash back, and a nice shopping portal to boot. You earn 5% cash back on categories that rotate quarterly; for example, January to March was 5% cash back on restaurants on movies, while October to December is the very lucrative 5% back on ALL online shopping (yes, even Amazon).
The cash back is easily redeemed in $25 increments for a check or statement credit, or toward some gift cards at a 120% rate (I.E. $40 cash back a $50 gift card). I've found Discover customer service to be very helpful over the phone as well. Finally, the ShopDiscover portal actually has some pretty useful discounts for online shopping. GNC, for example, has 15% extra cash back when you click through the ShopDiscover portal and use your Discover card – and this stacks with any quarterly bonuses. Some other notable bonus partners include Apple and Walmart (both 5% more cash back). One small caveat is that Discover tends to give VERY small credit limits, so it's important to watch how much you're spending each month. On my first card, I received a $400 limit! Overall, however, the Discover IT Card is a great first card for students and one they can hold in their wallet for a lifetime without worrying.
And that's it for top student credit cards.
But the remaining options on the market are simply inferior. All other student cards, at the best, give a flat 1% cash back and that's it – obviously inferior to the above two products. If for some reason you cannot get either of the two above cards, I would look into your local credit union's offerings, which sometimes offer localized credit cards with 1% cash back and $150 bonuses for signing up.
Keep this information in mind when applying for your first credit card, and remember that this is the first step toward obtaining great credit – and thus the ability to later on apply for cards that can provide free airfare around the world! Once you have your card and pay off your bills responsibly, you should be able to start applying for some travel rewards cards in about six months. I hope this has helped, and feel free to leave a comment with your thoughts and/or experiences!