When should you get a credit card? How do you get approved for your first credit card? Do you need to start with a secured credit card first?

Love them or hate them, credit cards are a fact of financial life. They can make tracking spending effortless. Just as easily, they can blur the line between how much money you have and how much you can spend—leading you into debt.

And even avoiding credit cards altogether is not without risk; you may need credit history to buy a home or lease an apartment, purchase insurance, or even get hired.

Hence these frequently asked questions:

  • When should you get your first credit card?
  • When should you use a credit card?
  • How do you get a credit card for the first time?

When should you get your first credit card?

The best time to get a credit card is before you need one. College or shortly after graduation is a great time to start with a student credit card, as long as you have the required income to repay your purchases.

If you’ve already graduated, that’s no problem. There are many great first credit cards available for young professionals—just be sure to pay attention to the credit requirements and start with a card that offers a good chance of approval.

I got my first credit card when I was only 17 and still in high school. It came as part of a banking package at my family’s credit union. I’m pretty sure my parents were cosigners until I turned 18, at which point I became the sole signature on the account.

Getting a credit card this early had pros and cons, but in my case, it was mostly bad. Like lots of people who don’t know better, I quickly used my credit card as a way to “print money”, buying stuff I couldn’t afford and setting the stage for eight years of going deeper and deeper in debt.

Cruelly, although I was going into debt, by making minimum payments on time, I was also building good credit at a very young age. By 18, I had my second credit card, and soon after my third—this one with a $11,000 credit limit (as a full-time college student with virtually no income). For these reasons, you absolutely need to be very careful with credit cards. If you don’t trust yourself, then hold off!

Should my parents add me as an authorized user on their credit card?

If your parents are supporting you through school or as you find work, they can (and should) make you an authorized user to make charges to their credit card account so that you don’t incur debts on your own you can’t pay.

Being an authorized user on a parents’ account can help you build credit yourself, even if you never use the card. Just make sure your mom and/or dad is good with credit themselves: As an authorized user, their late payments or high balances could hurt your credit instead of help it.

Often times, parents want grown kids to have their own credit cards “for emergencies,” but there’s no reason this card can’t be the parents’ account as I described above.

So what if you’re earning your own income and no longer have access to the bank of mom and dad? Don’t focus on getting a credit card to finance an upcoming trip or furnishings for your new apartment, but do consider getting one to continue building a good credit history.

To reiterate, apply for a card either:

  • When you start making a decent income or
  • You’re a college student 18 or older with at least some part-time income

How to get your first credit card

If you’ve been an authorized user on your parents account for a couple years, it will be easier to get approved for the credit card of your choice when you’re ready for your own.

If you have a full-time income, you should have your choice of some of the best credit cards available.

Stick with cards intended for people with fair credit or, if you know your credit is good, good credit. If it’s your first credit card, it’s unlikely you’ll get approved for a card needing excellent credit.

Capital One credit cards make excellent first credit cards.

If you’re a student and have at least a small part-time income, opt for one of these student credit cards. Student cards are just as good as regular credit cards and student cards have relaxed approval requirements.

Once you start working, the Jasper Mastercard® is a great option. With the Jasper Mastercard®, your approval is based on many factors, including your income, rather than focusing just on your credit history. Best of all, you’ll be building credit while you use it. Just pay your bill on time each month and the information will be reported to Equifax and TransUnion, strengthening your score. And to top it all off, the Jasper Mastercard® offers 1% cash back on all eligible purchases, and your rewards earnings will automatically be credited to your Jasper account each month (assuming your account is active and in good standing).

Pay attention to credit requirements! Your options are different based upon whether you’ve had credit before.

Getting a credit card with no credit history

If you do not have any credit history, getting your first credit card can be a catch-22. You need one to build credit but you can’t get one without credit history.

Consider visiting a branch of the bank where you have a checking account. Talk to somebody in person and tell them you don’t have a credit history but want to start building one with a credit card. They may be able to get you started with a low-limit credit card or they may offer you a secured credit card—an account that requires you have cash in a bank account to cover any purchases you make with the card.

Unlike a debit card, secured credit cards do build your credit. And, in most cases, you can ask your bank to upgrade your account after a year or so of responsible usage.

You can also apply for a secured credit card online. These cards are designed for applicants building credit and require a security deposit before you begin using the card. After a year or so of responsible use, you’ll get the deposit back and can upgrade to a regular “unsecured” credit card.

Read more: How to build credit for the first time

Beware of really bad “bad credit” offers!

Whatever you do, avoid credit cards aimed at people with really bad credit.

Pay attention to cards claiming to be for bad credit that charge annual fees of $100 or more. There’s really no reason to get these cards. Most of them are incredible rip offs with multi-hundred dollar fees, misleading claims, and terrible customer service.

Summary

The best time to get a credit card is as soon as you’re able to afford any charges you make and handle credit responsibly—meaning not charging more than you can pay and remembering to pay your bill on time each and every month.

If you’re in school, look at student credit cards for a first credit card. If you don’t have any credit history yet, you may need a secured credit card to start. If you have some credit history already, but not a lot, look into credit cards from Capital One first.

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About the author

Chris Muller picture
Total Articles: 163
Chris has an MBA with a focus in advanced investments and has been writing about all things personal finance since 2015. He’s also built and run a digital marketing agency, focusing on content marketing, copywriting, and SEO, since 2016. You can connect with Chris on Twitter.

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16 comments
Jo says:

Thanks for the advice! I have a question about how paying off credit cards affects a credit score. We pay our credit card off every month, but always make payments through out the month (2-3 per month). Often, when the statement closes for the month, we have no balance because it is already paid off. Will the credit bureau see this as usage? Is this keeping us from building our score?

Emanuel B says:

Very, very insightful, I just recently graduated high school, and while living under my parents roof, they made sure that anything i wanted, it was paid for with cash. Anything that had to do with loans, credit, etc they made me stay away from. I joined the military one year later and was finally self-sufficient and realized i couldn’t do anything without credit! I got my first credit card yesterday, and I am looking forward to building credit. Thanks for the advice, very helpful.

Misty says:

Hi, I am 18 and at the moment I do not have a credit card. I have been thinking about getting one to build my credit for months now but I want to make sure I am completely ready for this kind of responsibility. I have had my part time job for a little under a year, ever since my first check my savings account has never been below $100 (for the past months it has stayed around $500 which is good for an 18yr old). I am a full time student, I maintain good grades (striving for the A) so I dont think i would struggle with a credit card. I pay my own cell phone bill, and insurance. Also everything else I want and need i have to buy (gas,food,netflix,xboxlive,clothes, toiletries… EVERYTHING). By paying for everything own my own I know money doesnt grow on trees and I know debt is a big issue (cousin obsessive with loan companies). I would treat the credit card just like my debit card. Ijust want to build my credit so when I am out of school with a steady job in my major I can afford my dream home, so do you think it would be okay for me to get a limited credit card or should I wait a few years?

Leah says:

I’m 22 and I do not have a credit card which I am glad for. I live at home with my parents, I’m a full time student but I don’t have plans to graduate for a few more years (late bloomer in the college department), I never have a steady income and I’m a relatively impulsive shopper when I do. I’m lucky to say that I have under $5,000 in student loans and hope to keep it that way with the use of as many scholarships and grants as I can.

I watched my sister and her husband fall into severe debt after relying on credit cards to get them through their first few years of marriage and parenthood. The result was disastrous but they are finally getting things turned around, paid off, and there credit is slowly starting to rise. They have been my biggest warning to to not take credit cards lightly.

I’m hoping to get a steady job so that I can move out on my own (even if it’s into a house with 40 roommates) simply because while living with Mom & Dad is financially nice, I am a big girl and it’s too easy for all involved to act like I’m still in high school. After a year of successfully living financially solid and sticking to a budget and building a savings cushion, then I can get a credit card to use on small stuff. And if at any moment I start to lose control then that card will have an untimely meeting with the scissors and I’ll have to go back to relying on what I know I have.

Carl says:

I applied for my first card when buying my laptop/electronics for college, so I had just turned 18. Best Buy offered me a $2,300 limit on the card (my dad signed on as a guarantor, allowing me some wiggle room with the limit on a first-timer card), which was more than enough to cover the laptop, software, accessories, and insurance. After all was said and done, I had practically maxed out my first card walking out the door, which wasn’t ideal.

After paying off the card (interest free for 18 months on purchases of $500 or more) in less than a year, I had built up my credit enough to apply for my bank’s student credit card. I received this without much hassle, and the card has a limit of $2,000, which I hardly ever use, is paid off in full each month if used, and is most definitely my “back-up” card.

I recently (January, 2011) applied for the AmEx Zync card, which is my go-to card for any and all incurred expenses. It’s incredibly easy to track my spending, and has no pre-set spending limit, but is somewhere in the vicinity of $10,000, I believe. Frankly, having a card that needs to be payed off in full each month limits my spending, and I really think twice before every expenditure. I’m ashamed to admit that I play a little game with myself to see how low I can go with my spending each month, but this goes to hell when summer comes around, as I end up paying for rent, groceries, and utilities, something which I’m not used to, as a college student living in the dorms (yes, I know… welcome to the real world).

The Oil Barron In Training says:

I got my first card when I was 18. It was an AmEx Blue for students and had a $500 limit. At the time I was working at a bank and had proof of income. My job also made me painfully aware of the pitfalls that come with credit cards. I used it solely to build credit. I would only buy gas on the card and made sure to pay it off every month. Pay day was what I called my financial day. Every time I got paid, I would pay my card off on the same day, it was just an easy way to remember.

Now that I am 2 years into my career, I have an AmEx Gold card with no set limit. I use my card for absolutely everything I can. I am naturally a saver, so I don’t have problems with racking up charges. By putting everything on it, I can easily track all of my purchases. Plus, I build up enough points to more than make the annual fee worth it. I also have a Corporate AmEx that I get to collect points on and combine with my personal points.

My theory is that you should match your credit card situation to your spending habits. If you are a compulsive spender, then you should get a credit card with a low limit, that you know you can easily pay off every month. If you watch your money carefully, then you are probably good to get a big credit card. You just need to limit your risk by being truthful about your habits and vigilant with your money.

Brian says:

I got my first card at 16 and used it mostly for gas and occasional purchases. It had a very low limit and I’m sure my parents were cosigners.

Now I use one for every purchase I can. I use a 1.25% cash back rewards card for most of the purchases and use a Discover for purchases in whatever 5% cash back category they have going at the time. I always pay the balance in full each month, and I end up with a few hundred dollars of rewards each year.

Haley says:

I got my first credit card before my junior year in college. I did it for rewards at first, but after my parents started having trouble covering all of my college expenses I started having to carry a balance (disappointing since I worked many many jobs while in school). My goal when I graduated was to pay it off by the end of the summer, so I sucked it up and worked and put a strict 1/3 of my paycheck towards the balance until it was paid. I don’t regret using it because I never used it for things I didn’t need. I still don’t have a full-time income though I’m over a year out of undergrad. I have a few credit cards, one of which is providing us with a stellar discount for our honeymoon. I think if you are smart you can use them to your advantage, but you have to know your limits as far as being responsible. I never buy things with the credit card unless I have the cash in my account to pay for it.

Adam says:

I got my first credit card in high school. I was put on my parents card for emergencys. The first card I got in my name was at 18 on my way to college. I always paid my bill in full and now I have about 6 credit cards to maximize the value of points. I have an AMEX Green Card, Chase Sapphire Preferred and Amex Blue Cash as my main rotation. I pay them all off in full and love the benefits I get from paying everything I can with Credit Cards.

David Weliver says:

Glad a couple of you liked the cartoon. Occasionally I can’t resist including one. Perhaps all all the doodling I did in school will pay off 🙂

Tommy says:

As usual, great advice. I’m in my late 20s and have never had a credit card; getting one had been my next goal, but I’m sort of in that catch-22 phase, even still. This post has definitely helped. Thanks!

I got my first credit card at 21 — about a month after I graduated college. I paid it off quickly at first, but at some point, it got away from me and before I knew it, I owed $3,500. I wish I would have built up more savings before I got a credit card, but I do think I learned a valuable lesson from getting into debt in the first place.

I also loved the cartoon, too. 🙂

I got my first credit card at 17 too. And would probably do the same thing, it was great practice for 6 months before I headed across the country for college. Where I definitely needed a credit card in case of emergencies.

Kristen M says:

I am 24 years old and just got my first credit card a few months ago. I only use it for gas and groceries but I make sure that I can pay most of it off every billing cycle.

Arthur P. says:

David, great cartoon!!

Credit cards can be a great tool, but only if you have full time income. That was my problem.

I got my first credit card through the credit union I work at, with a great 3.99% for the first 6 months. It was the beginning of my fall into the pit of debt slavery. As and employee, I got a $5000 limit and started using it up. I racked up a nice balance and after realizing how much in interest I would pay now that the APR was 11%, I got a signature loan to pay the balance off and set myself up for paying the debt down.
That’s when I should have put the card far far away, but didn’t.

By then, I was used to being able to buy anything I wanted, when I wanted it. So, I kept using my credit card, making minimum payments while the rest of my part-time paycheck was covering the loan.

I wouldn’t do it the same way, now that I know what being in debt really is. You become a slave to your creditors, your employer, and to yourself.

I wouldn’t advise anyone to get a card before they hit their 20’s. When you do, make sure you get a card that offers legitimate rewards program, and do pay most of it off each month. And that, of course, means buying only what you need, or can afford to buy with cash.

Chris says:

I got my first credit card at 18 right before I graduated high school. It came in conjunction with my checking account. It only had a $500 limit but it allowed me to be able to pay for books, gas, and the few other necessities I was responsible for without having to run up large bills. I use my credit card perhaps too much now though. I’m never sure whether to use my credit card or my debit card on purchases. I have the money in the bank to do either but I have it in my head that using my credit card is better because it will help build my credit. Right now, I am 21 and getting ready to graduate college. I’m looking to get a new credit card with a higher limit and more benefits like cash back rather than rewards points that I cannot keep up with 90% of the time.