In the U.S., you magically become a legal adult once you turn 18. While you may not feel any different when your 18th birthday rolls around, you have now earned numerous new rights and privileges — without needing parental consent.
One of those privileges is getting your first credit card.
It may seem overly ambitious, but applying for my first credit card when I turned 18 was easily one of the best financial decisions I made for my future. After all, learning to manage a credit card is an important step in taking charge of your own finances, so why not start as soon as possible?
While major life events like signing an apartment lease or applying for a car or mortgage loan may seem eons away, the truth is the best time to start preparing was yesterday — which means the second best time is today.
I’ll walk you through how I got my first credit card at the ripe age of 18 and how I was able to use it to set myself up for financial success.
How Credit Cards Work and Why You Want to Apply for One at 18
At 18 years old, you can legally apply for a credit card on your own. Credit cards are different from debit cards as you’re borrowing and spending money from the bank (rather than using money from within your own bank account).
Your first credit card will come with a low credit limit, likely under $1,000 to start. As long as you pay back your entire statement credit (or everything you charged to your card in a given month) by the end of your monthly billing cycle, you won’t accrue any interest or late fees. This is also how you improve your credit score over time.
Read more: How to Use a Credit Card Responsibly
On the flip side, if you fall into the trap of only paying the minimum amount each statement period — which is usually around $25 to $35 — the remaining debt will accumulate interest and negatively impact your credit score. Therefore, it’s crucial that you treat your credit card like it’s a debit card and remember to only charge what you can afford to pay off.
This may all sound intimidating, but if you get started at 18, you’ll have years of credit history by the time you become a working adult. I can’t tell you how many of my friends only used a debit card (or cash) in college, and by the time they graduated, they had no credit history to report. It then became very difficult for them to apply for a credit card later on — or, even worse, for them to show credit history to a landlord who requested it to qualify for an apartment.
Trust us: start now, even if you only charge your utilities and essential bills to your credit card. You’ll thank us later when you have an excellent credit score to show off.
How to Apply for a Credit Card at 18
No matter what age you are, applying for your first credit card can be confusing. It’s hard to know which credit cards you even qualify for when you have little to no previous credit history.
But if you’re at least 18 years of age, you have three options for your first credit card.
1. Apply for a Student Credit Card
If you’re currently studying in a two- or four-year college, you’re in luck: you can qualify for a student credit card despite having no credit history and a limited income. Student credit cards work just like any other “normal” credit card, except they’re designed for complete credit newbies who are studying in school.
This is the easiest path to getting your first credit card, and one that I would certainly recommend to all college students.
You can check out our list of the best credit cards for college students to find the right card for you.
2. Apply for a Secured Credit Card
If you’re not a student, another avenue to explore is to apply for a secured credit card. It’s slightly different from a traditional credit card as you’ll need to put down a deposit in order to open your account, and that will determine the credit line available to you.
Don’t worry — this deposit is fully refundable if you decide to close your account later and you don’t have an outstanding balance with the bank. Besides this mandatory security deposit, a secured credit card works the same way as a normal credit card.
The downside is that secured credit cards typically don’t come with any rewards. After months of building your credit score, you should consider applying for other options.
See our list of the best secured credit cards to find one that suits your credit-building needs.
3. Ask Your Parent or a Trusted Adult To Be Added as an Authorized User on Their Credit Card
If you don’t have enough money to put down as a deposit, a secured card may not be a viable option for you. Another option is for a parent or other trusted adult to add you as an authorized user on their credit card.
Depending on the card they carry, it may not cost them anything to tack on additional users. The only caveat is that they are the primary account holder, meaning they are ultimately responsible if you rack up charges that you can’t afford to pay. Similarly, if the primary cardholder isn’t responsible with their card payments, it may inadvertently hurt your credit score, too.
But if all goes well, adding an authorized user can be great for both parties. If their credit is good, you can inherit their credit history and improve your credit score. Meanwhile, the primary cardholder will earn all the rewards from your card spend.
Read more: Authorized Cardholders: Pros and Cons
When Can You Apply for Your Next Credit Card?
Your first credit card likely won’t be your end-all-be-all card. Eventually, you should open another card to expand your credit limit or earn better rewards.
Travel rewards credit cards are incredibly sought after and can finally be in arm’s reach once you’ve established your credit. If you are able to maintain stellar credit habits, we recommend that you look toward your next credit card after a year of opening your first card.
I followed this strategy and applied for the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card. Thanks to a year of credit history under my belt, I was instantly approved for the card. Since then, I’ve applied for other lucrative travel credit cards that have helped me see the world for a fraction of the cash price.
Read more: Best Credit Cards for Travel Hacking
Opening your first credit card is a huge responsibility, but it’s an undertaking that helped set me up for financial success in the long run. Like with most things in life, practice makes perfect, and my credit journey has helped me achieve an excellent credit score, proving to lenders that I’m a trustworthy borrower.
Featured image: ViDI Studio/Shutterstock.com