If you’re an 18-year-old, you’re just beginning your journey into the credit world. But if you’ve found this article, your financial savvy is probably light years ahead of most of your peers.
It’s good to start building your credit history as early as possible. The sooner you can be approved for credit cards, the sooner you can amass various airline miles, hotel points, and cash back to achieve your goals.
We’ve picked the below cards for the most common situations you might find yourself in. Are you a student? Are you interested in free travel but can’t be approved yet for a travel credit card? Do you have literally zero credit history? No matter where you’re at, we’ve got the best options to help you succeed.
A warning first, though: you shouldn’t dive into credit cards unless you’re confident you have the mental horsepower to keep from overspending. Credit card debt is one of the worst things that can happen to you, financially.
Best credit card for 18-year-olds who want cash back: Citi® Double Cash Card
If simplicity is your goal, the Citi® Double Cash Card is a great option. It’s one of the all-time great cash back cards, with no complicated redemption processes that sometimes accompany other credit cards.
This no annual fee card offers a flat 2% cash back (effectively) for all spending. You’ll get 1% back when you make a purchase and 1% when you pay it off.
Data points show that the Citi® Double Cash Card is easy to be approved for. Personally, it was one of my first credit cards — though I did have a credit history when applying.
Best credit card for 18-year-olds who want to collect travel rewards: Chase Freedom Flex℠
If you want to collect travel points but don’t have enough credit history to be approved for a proper travel credit card, the Chase Freedom Flex℠ is your best option.
See, the card is marketed as a cash back credit card, but it actually earns Chase Ultimate Rewards® points — arguably the most potent travel rewards currency in existence. You can transfer them to valuable airline and hotel partners such as Hyatt, Southwest, United Airlines, and many others. But there’s a catch — you can’t unlock their full potential unless you have one of the following cards:
- Chase Sapphire Preferred®
- Chase Sapphire Reserve®
- Ink Business Preferred®
These cards tend to require very good credit for an approval. If your credit history doesn’t have the Tabasco sauce necessary for these cards just yet, you can still stockpile points in the meantime by using the Chase Freedom Flex℠ regularly.
It’s got astonishing earn rates for a no annual fee credit card:
- 5% cash back (5 Chase points) when you buy travel through the Chase Travel Portal
- 5% cash back (5 Chase points) on rotating bonus categories each quarter (up to $1,500 in purchases) when you activate the bonus
- 3% cash back (3 Chase points) on dining and at drugstores
- 1% cash back (1 Chase point) for all other eligible purchases
Add to this the fact that you’ll earn a $200 bonus (20,000 Chase points) after spending $500 on purchases within the first three months of account opening. If you use this card regularly, you could well have 100,000+ Chase points by the time you’re eligible to open a card like the Chase Sapphire Preferred®, which will unleash amazing travel rewards.
If you have the self-control to keep from cashing out your points for cash back, you could have a (nearly) free bucket list vacation waiting for you in a year’s time.
This card also offers benefits such as:
- Cellphone protection
- Car rental insurance (secondary in the U.S., primary otherwise)
- 0% intro APR for 15 months on purchases and balance transfers
I’ve had this card for many years and it’s one of the biggest workhorses in my wallet.
Best credit card for 18-year-olds with good credit history: Chase Sapphire Preferred®
If you’re one of the lucky 18-year-olds with an established credit history, you’re likely eligible for some the better products in the credit card world — namely, the Chase Sapphire Preferred®. I’ve had mine for eight years and it’s still one of my favorites.
One way to establish credit at a young age is to be added as an authorized user on someone else’s account — perhaps your parents’ or even a friend’s.
The Chase Sapphire Preferred® is one of the best all-around cards on the market, especially if travel is an aspiration. It comes with 60,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards® points after spending $4,000 on purchases within the first three months of account opening.
Its earn rates are as follows:
- 5 points per dollar for Lyft rides (through March 2025)
- 5 points per dollar on all travel purchased through the Chase Travel Portal
- 3 points per dollar on dining (including many delivery services), on certain streaming services, and for online grocery purchases (not including Target, Walmart, and wholesale clubs)
- 2 points per dollar on other travel
- 1 point per dollar on all other eligible purchases
This is the only card on our list that incurs an annual fee, however. You’ll pay $95 for the privilege of wielding this card — but here’s what you’ll get for that fee:
- Primary rental car insurance (this can save you $12+ per day, as you don’t have to buy the rental agency’s in-house insurance)
- Trip delay insurance (if your flight is delayed overnight or by 12 hours, Chase will give you up to $500 for expenses like lodging, food, etc.)
- Baggage delay insurance (if your bag is delayed by six hours or more, Chase will give you $100 per day — for up to five days — for essentials like clothes and toiletries)
- 10% anniversary point bonus
- Up to $50 in statement credits toward hotel stays booked through Chase
- $10 per month in Gopuff credit through December 2023
Best credit card for 18-year-old students: Bank of America® Customized Cash Rewards Credit Card for Students
Similar to secured credit cards, student cards trade off strong return rates and lucrative benefits for relaxed application requirements.
If you’re an 18-year-old who is enrolled as a student, the no annual fee Bank of America® Customized Cash Rewards Credit Card for Students has some features that you won’t find on other student cards.
For one, the card’s got an unusually large bonus of $200 after spending $1,000 on purchases within the first 90 days of account opening.
You’ll also get 3% cash back in the category of your choice:
- Online shopping
- Home improvement/furnishings
You can change your category once each calendar month, which is especially handy as your biggest expenses will likely change periodically.
For example, during most of the year, you may choose to earn 3% back on dining. But when you begin shopping for the upcoming school year, you can change your category to online shopping. And when planning for spring break, you can change your bonus category to travel.
You’ll also earn 2% back at grocery stores and wholesale clubs, and 1% back on all other purchases.
The Bank of America® Customized Cash Rewards for Students even offers a great intro APR: 0% for 15 billing cycles for new purchases and balance transfers.
Read more: Best credit cards for college students
Best credit card for 18-year-olds with no credit history: Discover it® Secured
The no annual fee Discover it® Secured Credit Card is a great option for 18-year-olds with no credit history.
Banks are more willing to give secured credit cards to young people (or anyone, for that matter) who don’t yet have a lengthy track record of responsible credit usage. That’s because with a secured card, there’s virtually no risk for the issuer.
Here’s how a secured credit card works:
- You give the bank a cash deposit.
- The bank gives you a card with a credit line equal to your cash deposit.
- Your credit card works as any other card, but if you can’t pay your bills, the bank just keeps your cash deposit.
- If you cancel your card — or build enough credit to warrant an unsecured card — you’ll get your cash deposit back.
Most secured credit cards don’t offer any rewards for spending. The main selling point of secured cards, after all, is the fact that they’re so easy to acquire. Which is why the Discover it® Secured stands out, offering 2% cash back on restaurants and gas stations, and 1% on everything else.
Discover will also double the cash back you earn during the first year of cardmembership, effectively making the return rate 4% and 2% during the first 12 billing cycles (or 365 days, whichever is longer) after account opening.
The card doesn’t have many noteworthy ongoing benefits, but you’ll find some basic and helpful tools to help you cultivate a good credit history, such as:
- Free FICO score
- Instantly freeze your account if you lose your card
- Free alerts if Discover finds your Social Security number on the dark web
- $0 fraud liability guarantee
If you’re in the market for a secured credit card, this is one of your best bets.
Read more: Best secured credit cards
Why should you get a credit card at 18?
Age 18 is the absolute earliest you can be approved for a credit card. If you’re financially precocious, you probably already use a debit card or a prepaid spending card — and you’re perfectly happy using that.
So why is it important to open a credit card once you turn 18?
Opening a credit card is an excellent way to begin cultivating a credit history. The sooner you begin building credit, the better shape you’ll be in (if you use your credit responsibly) when it comes to important milestones years down the road, such as:
- Buying a car
- Renting an apartment
- Opening your own business
- Buying a house
- Opening a personal loan for things like wedding expenses or redecorating your house
- Opening premium credit cards, which can save you several hundred dollars per year (if you use them wisely)
If you wait until later in life to start this process, you’ll likely be flat-out denied for things like this. I didn’t open a credit card until I was in my early 20s — at the time when I wanted things like an apartment and a car. Guess what happened?
- The apartment I wanted required proof that I would be a responsible tenant. Part of their demands was proof of a healthy credit history. I didn’t have anything to show them.
- The car dealerships I visited couldn’t find a bank that was willing to give me an auto loan, because without a credit score, I was too big of a risk.
Had I opened a credit card at 18 and developed a good credit score, I could be years ahead of where I am in certain areas of life. Building credit as early as possible is extremely important.
How to get a credit card at 18
So, you’re intent on getting a credit card early. Now here’s the problem: it can be extremely difficult to be approved at age 18. Leave aside the fact that you don’t even have a credit score yet. There are other issues for you to worry about.
For example, there’s this thing called the Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility and Disclosure Act of 2009. In it is a law stating that anyone under the age of 21 who opens a credit card must have one of the following:
- A cosigner with established credit who is willing to pay the card if you’re unable to do it
- Ample proof of steady income to show that you’ll have no problem paying off the card yourself
The second bullet is a bit fuzzy. See, there’s no actual strict limit to how little you can make and still qualify for a job. In fact, it’s up to issuers to determine for themselves what is a sufficient income to pay off a credit card.
The rule of thumb is that you must at least have a part-time job. Presumably, that can mean anything through which you’re receiving consistent paychecks with a predictable dollar amount. Whether you work at McDonald’s or babysit a few times per week, it’s possible for you to be approved for a credit card if the issuer thinks you can at least keep up with minimum payments.
As previously mentioned, one great way to be approved for credit cards at age 18 is to become an authorized user on the card of someone who already has good credit. That’s because your credit score will adopt the good habits of the primary cardholder. You can literally build a good credit score without doing a single thing!
If your parents are willing to add you to one of their credit cards, you could go from a nonexistent credit score to a stellar one within a year. A reason they might be hesitant to add you is that an authorized user spends the money of the primary cardholder. You can tell your parents to add you and simply cut up your card when it comes in the mail. Again, you don’t have to do any spending yourself to cultivate a credit score.
Read more: Authorized cardholders: the pros and cons
Best practices for your first credit card
A credit card is a big responsibility, but a necessary one in today’s world. Here are a few quick tips to help you use it responsibly.
Don’t spend above your means
This is extremely easy for credit cardholders of all ages, not just 18-year-olds. You’re issued a credit card with hundreds — perhaps thousands — of dollars, and within the first week you’ve contracted tennis elbow from all the swiping.
Just because you can buy something doesn’t mean you should. Getting into the habit of making purchases you can’t pay for will get you into trouble in a hurry.
Read more: How to use a credit card responsibly
Pay your bill each month (and in full)
This point is directly linked to the previous one.
Don’t pay for anything you don’t have the cash for. It’s best to treat your credit card like a debit card. Make a purchase, and when the transaction posts to your account a day or two later, pay it off.
There should never be a scenario where you’re carrying a balance from one month to the other. Doing this will cause you to be charged interest — which is obscenely high with most credit cards. If you’re paying interest, you’re lighting your money on fire.
Even more important than paying off your bill in full is to at least make the minimum payment each month. Failing to do this will completely wreck your credit, and these negative marks can stay with you for years.
Keep your balance as consistently low as possible
One of the biggest factors that makes up your credit score is “credit utilization.” This makes up 30% of your credit score, and essentially looks at:
- The amount of credit available to you
- The amount of credit you’re using
Ideally, you will be using no more than 30% of your available credit. That means if you have one credit card with a $1,000 credit limit, you should never have a balance of more than $300, or your credit score could be negatively affected, albeit temporarily.
That’s not always easy to do. Sometimes life calls for big purchases. There’s nothing wrong with buying that $600 flat screen — but be sure to pay down the balance as soon as possible to get yourself within that 30% credit utilization sweet spot.
Read more: What’s your credit utilization ratio?
Keep your card open for as long as possible
Another activity that factors into your credit score is your length of credit history, which accounts for 15% of your score. It looks at the average age of your credit.
If you’ve just opened your first credit card, be sure to keep it open for as long as possible. It is the strongest pillar of your credit history, as it’s the oldest credit line you’ve got.
I opened my first credit card from my local credit union about 10 years ago, and I’ve still got it. It’s a horrible card — it doesn’t earn rewards, the credit limit is still relatively low compared to my other cards, and it’s got a ghastly logo on the front.
And despite all that, I plan to never cancel it. It’s got no annual fee, so it’s free to keep forever. It’s a big factor in my length of credit history.
One note about this: if you plan to do the same and keep your first credit card even after you’ve graduated to bigger and better cards, be sure to swipe your old card once every six months or so. Many banks will proactively cancel a credit card that hasn’t been used in a year or two, and sometimes they won’t even tell you they’re doing it. If you were to have your credit card canceled on you, it could ding your credit score unexpectedly.
A charge here and there will prevent this from happening.
The five credit cards listed above are perfect for any 18-year-old situation you may find yourself in: whether you’re interested in cash back or travel; whether you’ve got no credit history or lengthy credit history due to being an authorized user on your parents’ accounts; or whether you’re a college student trying to build your credit independently.
Once you’ve achieved a credit score worthy of more premium credit cards, be confident in how you handle credit before applying for loads of new cards. Spending above your means is easy to do — and it can cripple you financially.