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Best Credit Cards For Young Adults

Of the hundreds of credit cards out there, only a select few are worth having in your wallet—if you can qualify. Here are our picks for the best credit cards for young adults, taking into account young people’s often limited credit histories, which may make it more difficult for them to get approved.

best-credit-cards-2As a personal finance blogger who has a lot of personal experience with credit cards (both good and bad), I get the question “What are the best credit cards for young adults?” a lot. Or some variation:

  • I’m a recent high school or college graduate, what credit cards are right for me?
  • What’s a good first credit card?
  • And when should somebody get a first credit card, anyway?

The best credit cards for young adults are cards that offer a good chance of approval without charging unnecessary fees.

Choosing the right card depends on whether you have already established a good credit score or not.

Signs you have good credit:

  • You’ve had a few open credit accounts (student loans, credit cards, or auto loans) for 3 years or more
  • You haven’t had late or missed payments in the last 2 years
  • You have never failed to repay a debt (charge off) or declared bankruptcy

If your credit score is in the 700s or very high 600s, you’re a candidate to apply for the cards mentioned here. If you’re still unsure, check your credit score before applying to a credit card.

If you have no credit history, you’ll need to read up on building credit for the first time. In some cases you’ll need to get a special type of product called a secured credit card that works like a debit card (with money you deposit in a bank account) but helps you build credit.

The best credit cards for young adults with great credit

Great credit usually means that you: 1). Have had open loan and credit card accounts for 5 years or more, 2.) Have had NO late payments in the last 2 years and 3.) Have not applied for credit more than twice in the last year.

Discover it® – Double Cash Back your first year

If you have great credit and want strong cash rewards, check out the Discover it® – Double Cash Back your first year card, which offers unlimited cash back and up to 5 percent in rotating categories. Read our full review. Note that this card requires a strong credit history but, if you have it, the combination of cash rewards, low interest rates, top-rated customer service, and late payment forgiveness make it an ideal choice for people new to credit. I carried the earlier version of this card — the Discover More card — for about eight years in my twenties.

Credit Needed: Excellent

  • We'll DOUBLE all the cash back you've earned at the end of your first year. So if you earned $101 cash back, we'll double it to $202—Automatically. Only for new cardmembers.*
  • 5% cash back in categories that change each quarter like gas, restaurants, home improvement stores and more -up to the quarterly maximum when you sign up.* 1% cash back on all other purchases.
  • 0% intro APR* on purchases & balance transfers for 12 months—then a variable purchase APR applies, currently 11.24% – 23.24%. A 3% fee applies to each transferred balance.
Intro APR
Purchases
Intro Term
Purchases
Intro APR
Balance Transfers
Intro Term
Balance Transfers
Regular APR Annual Fee
0%12 months 0%12 months 11.24% – 23.24% Variable* $0

Chase Freedom

Another great option is the Chase Freedom card, a card I currently use. It pays 1 percent cash back on all purchases with no limit plus 5 percent back on up to $1,500 in purchases on categories that rotate each quarter. There’s also a generous $150 bonus if you spend $500 on purchases in your first three months and a 0 percent introductory APR on purchases and balance transfers for 15 months.

Read more in our Chase Freedom review.

The best credit cards for young adults with average credit

Average credit usually means that you: 1). Have had open loan and credit card accounts for 3 years or more, 2.) Have had no more than one late payment in the last year and 3.) Have not applied for credit more than twice in the last six months. 

Capital One® QuicksilverOne® Cash Rewards Credit Card

If you are starting to build credit, the Capital One® QuicksilverOne® Cash Rewards Credit Card provides a good chance of approval at a modest annual fee with a well-known national credit card bank. Even better, you’ll earn 1.5 percent cash back on every purchase with no rotating categories or hoops to jump through. This card does feature a higher APR than others on this page, but is ideal if you’re going to pay your balance in full each month to avoid finance charges.

Learn more about the QuicksilverOne card here.

Barclaycard Rewards MasterCard®

The Barclaycard Rewards MasterCard® provides a solid rewards program to applicants with average to good credit. Note that you’ll need some credit history to get approved for this card, but if your credit falls just short of the “excellent credit” category needed for other cards, this card will get you 2x points on gas, groceries, and utilities and 1x points on all other purchases.

Credit Needed: Fair

  • 2X points on purchases for gas, groceries and utilities
  • 1X points on all other purchases
  • No annual fee
Intro APR
Purchases
Intro Term
Purchases
Intro APR
Balance Transfers
Intro Term
Balance Transfers
Regular APR Annual Fee
n/an/a n/an/a 25.24%* Variable $0

See all of our recommended credit cards here

What if I’m under 21?

Good question. In 2010, the US CARD Act created new laws designed to prevent some abusive practices in the credit card industry. Among these is a law that makes it more difficult for applicants under 21 to get a credit card.

The law requires applicants under 21 to either have a cosigner or prove their financial independence and ability to repay a debt. What this really means is, if you’re under 21, you should have either a cosigner or a documented income before applying for a credit card.

College students

If you’re a full-time college student, any of our recommended student credit cards are a good place to start. Most of these cards have no annual fee and offer somewhat relaxed application standards, as they’re designed for students who may not have much of a credit history yet.

No credit history

Regardless of your age or student status, if you don’t have any credit history yet (for example, you’ve never had a student loan, car loan, or credit card), you may have a hard time getting approved for any traditional credit card.

Secured credit cards are an exception to this rule, and they’re the best way to build credit for the very first time. At first, a secured card works more like a debit card; you deposit money into a bank account before you can use the card. The difference, however, is that the secured credit card will report your responsible use of the card to credit bureaus and help you build credit in a way that debit and prepaid cards do not. Learn more about the best ways to build credit for the very first time here.

Compare all of our recommended credit cards 

Published or updated on September 1, 2015

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About David Weliver

David Weliver is the founding editor of Money Under 30. He's a cited authority on personal finance and the unique money issues we face during our first two decades as adults. He lives in Maine with his wife and two children.

Comments

User Generated Content Disclosure: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

  1. Scott says:

    I’m 19 and I have three credit cards including the discover it card, honestly if you have no credit get a secured credit card and use it for about eight months and you should be elegable to get a better card as long as you use it right.

  2. Molly says:

    Hey there! I am looking into applying for another credit card. I have one through wells fargo and I do have a credit history through a student loan I used via a smaller state bank and my current wells fargo cash back card. I am looking into Chase or Citibank. Which one will not ding me the most after the first year with interest? Which one has the best rewards? Thanks!

  3. Jon Maroni says:

    David,
    I love the Chase Amazon.com rewards card, it allows you to build up points that we have used for books (a regular expense for my wife who is in graduate school). Do you feel that using a credit card responsibly is the best way for a young person to build credit? I’ve heard that it is wisest to avoid credit cards and focus on making your rent/student loan payments on time. Your thoughts?

  4. Travis says:

    I’m 19 with no credit history and just got approved for an American Express Gold charge card. I’ve been told that’s kinda crazy. Just wondering what’s going on. Did I slip through the cracks?

  5. caroline says:

    I need advice on credit and what i should do in regards to credit cards. i just recently turned 18 and need to start building credit since i have no credit. so i applied for a capital one credit card, i got denied for my first application so i applied for another credit card the secured capital one credit card because i saw that it said it helps build credit. i should of done my research before even applying for any card but at the moment i was so eager to get one, which wasn’t good. I got approved for the secured credit card from capital one and paid the one time fee to get my card. I feel stupid in doing that because shortly after applying i found out that there was a student credit card journey from capital one which is much more convinient for me because of its rewards and there isnt annual fees like the secured card has. I called them and asked to see if i can switch to the journey card but they said no because they are not similar cards. I want to know if i should close the secured card from capital one and open up the journey card. But i dont want to hurt my credit score.

    • David Weliver says:

      Hi Caroline, It’s hard to know whether you would’ve been approved for the Journey card or any other card at 18 with no credit yet. Although the secured card has fees, it’s not a bad way to start building credit, and has the advantage of helping you begin using a credit card without the risk of going into debt right off the bat.

      If I were you I would keep the secured card for 6 months or a year and then apply for a second card—perhaps a student card if you’re a full-time college student (a requirement for these cards). After you get that second card you can cancel the secured card. Let us know how it works out.

  6. Shelby says:

    Is the Capital One MTV Visa card a good deal for a student with established credit and a score of 724?

    Thanks

  7. Catherine Walker says:

    Hey,

    I wanna thank you so much. Not only did your recommendations help me in finally figuring out my credit score but also helped me in getting all my student loans in order. I’m a newly graduated engineer and needed help finding and figuring out my credit and getting a credit card. You helped me understand all of what I needed to know to start working on my credit. I’ve recommended your website to all of my college buddies. Thank you again, I was so lost and you helped figure things out without trying to put me into more debit like what some banks and credit companies try to do. :-) :-)

  8. S.T. says:

    Hey David– thoroughly enjoy your website– especially the credit card information. Thank you for your insight. I am a 27 yr old graduate student and I’m wanting to establish some credit. I have not had a major credit card yet, just a department store one (which I’ve always paid on time) and a 4 yr car loan. I was hoping this credit would give me enough to get a Chase Freedom Cash Back card, but I was turned down. My credit report did not reflect my car payments (I’m currently trying to get that corrected), but now I’m hoping to get any form of credit card started. My out-of-state graduate school is expensive (aka my loans are large), but I WILL pay the balance every month and at age 27, will not abuse it in any way. I’m just 15 months from a real job and hopefully a home someday, etc. Should I still go for a “student” credit card? A secured credit card? Cash back would be nice, but I would rather not get turned down again. Any help would be great…….keep up the good work!

    Thanks!

    • David Weliver says:

      ST, two things to consider: If you have a checking account with a smaller bank or credit union, pop into a branch and ask about their credit cards options. They may not come with rewards, but they may be able to approve you for a no-fee, unsecured card that’ll get you started. The other option is the Orchard Bank card shown on this page. They approve people with a wide variety of credit situations, and offer a secured card as a back-up resort. Depending on their assessment of your credit, their may be an annual fee, but after a year or two with this card you should be able to get approved for another one and cancel the fee-charging one. Good luck.

  9. Meghan says:

    I’m going to be a freshman in college, in the fall and I’m hoping to get my first credit card to help pay for some of my expenses. My parents have excellent credit (not sure if that makes a difference), but I’m just not sure which card is the best option

  10. brian says:

    i want to build my credit im in the national guard and i only plan to use the card if i already have the money and for gas. so please help me becuase im trying to start a family and really you need to have credit to do that, thank you for listning.

    • David Weliver says:

      Hi Brian, if you have a little credit history the Discover More card is a good first card even if you don’t use it often, sometimes it requires a bit more credit history to get approval though. You might check out Capital One’s site as they offer some cards for applicants with little/no credit history, although some have annual fees.

      Another option is to check with USAA. They have cards with programs designed for the military, and their service is supposed to be excellent.

      https://www.usaa.com/inet/pages/banking_credit_cards_main

  11. Heather says:

    I agree with your choice of the Discover More card. I’ve had one for about five years now and love it. The extra 5% cash-back bonus that changes every three to four months is a nice feature as well.

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