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The best college student credit cards of 2020

CNBC Select analyzed 13 college student credit cards, digging into each card's perks and drawbacks, to find the best of the best based on your spending habits.

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A good credit score is essential when you're making many of the major life decisions that you face after graduation, such as renting an apartment or applying for an auto loan. Opening a college student credit card is a smart way to start building credit early while also taking advantage of rewards and special financing offers.

There are numerous college student cards available, each providing unique benefits for different types of students — from travelers and foodies to commuters and international students. Some cards are lenient with credit history requirements, meaning you may qualify with no credit history at all. You do have to be 18 to apply for a credit card and need to have a steady source of income.

If you're feeling overwhelmed by all the choices, don't stress. We did the research for you. CNBC Select analyzed 13 college student cards, digging into each card's perks and drawbacks, to find the best of the best based on your spending habits. (See our methodology for more information on how we choose the best cards.)

Here are CNBC Select's picks for the top college student credit cards:

Best for Cash Back

Discover it® Student Cash Back

Discover it® Student Cash Back
Information about the Discover it® Student Cash Back has been collected independently by CNBC and has not been reviewed or provided by the issuer of the card prior to publication.
  • Rewards

    5% cash back in different categories (gas stations, grocery stores, restaurants, Amazon and more) each quarter, up to the quarterly maximum each time you activate. Plus, earn unlimited 1% cash back on all other purchases

  • Welcome bonus

    Discover automatically matches all the cash back you earned at the end of your first year

  • Annual fee

    See terms

  • Intro APR

    See terms

  • Regular APR

    See terms

  • Balance transfer fee

    See terms

  • Foreign transaction fee

    See terms

  • Credit needed

    No credit history

*See rates and fees and our methodology, terms apply.

Pros

  • Generous welcome bonus that doesn’t have minimum spending requirements
  • $20 Good Grade Reward when you maintain a 3.0 or higher GPA during the school year (for up to five consecutive years)

Cons

  • The cash-back program requires you to activate bonus categories in order to benefit from earning 5% cash back
  • Discover cards aren’t as widely accepted as cards from Mastercard or Visa
  • You must be a U.S. citizen and college student to apply for this card

Who's this for? The Discover it® Student Cash Back card is a well-rounded card that offers college students enrolled in a two- or four-year college the chance to build credit, while earning rewards and receiving student-centric benefits. You must be over 18 and a U.S. citizen to apply.

Cardholders can earn up to 5% cash back on rotating categories (such as Amazon, gas stations, or restaurants), up to a $1,500 maximum each quarter (then 1%). All other purchases earn 1% cash back.

This card encourages you to maintain good grades by offering an annual $20 statement credit when you maintain a 3.0 or higher GPA (valid for up to five consecutive years).

Best for Travel

Bank of America® Travel Rewards for Students

Bank of America® Travel Rewards for Students
  • Rewards

    1.5X points per $1 spent on all purchases

  • Welcome bonus

    25,000 bonus points if you make at least $1,000 in purchases in the first 90 days of your account opening, which can be redeemed for a $250 statement credit toward travel purchases

  • Annual fee

    $0

  • Intro APR

    0% APR for the first 12 billing cycles on purchases

  • Balance transfer fee

    3% of each transaction with a $10 minimum

  • Regular APR

    16.49% to 24.49% variable

  • Foreign transaction fee

    None

  • Credit needed

    Excellent/Good

See our methodology, terms apply.

Pros

  • Strong welcome bonus of 25,000 points if you spend $1,000 in the first 90 days
  • Intro 0% APR for 12 billing cycles on purchases
  • No fee charged on purchases made outside the U.S.
  • You don’t have to be a U.S. citizen to apply for this card

Cons

  • No student-centric benefits or incentives to practice responsible credit behavior

Information about the Bank of America® Travel Rewards for Students has been collected independently by CNBC and has not been reviewed or provided by the issuer of the card prior to publication.

Who's this for? The Bank of America® Travel Rewards for Students is a great choice for college students who plan on studying abroad or traveling during breaks. The rewards program is geared toward travel, and cardholders earn 1.5X points per dollar spent on all purchases.

You can redeem rewards as a statement credit to cover the cost of travel purchases — a simple way to reduce the cost of taking a spring break vacation or buying a plane ticket home. There are no foreign transaction fees, making it an ideal card for students studying abroad.

Cardholders with a Bank of America checking or savings account can see added value with this card. You receive a 10% customer points bonus simply by having a Bank of America account. That increases the rewards rate to 1.65X points per $1 spent. Cardholders can redeem their rewards at any time and at any amount, including when shopping on Amazon.

This card also comes with a longer-than-average special financing offer of no interest for 12 billing cycles (then 16.49% to 24.49% variable APR). A full year of no interest is a great way for you to pay off new purchases over time, without incurring interest charges.

You must be 18 or older and enrolled in school (college, vocational or trade school) to qualify for this card.

Best for Gas Stations and Restaurants

Discover it® Student chrome

Discover it® Student chrome
Information about the Discover it® Student chrome has been collected independently by CNBC and has not been reviewed or provided by the issuer of the card prior to publication.
  • Rewards

    Earn 2% cash back at gas stations and restaurants on up to $1,000 in combined purchases each quarter. Plus, earn unlimited 1% cash back on all other purchases -  automatically

  • Welcome bonus

    Discover automatically matches all the cash back you earned at the end of your first year of account opening

  • Annual fee

    See terms

  • Intro APR

    See terms

  • Regular APR

    See terms

  • Balance transfer fee

    See terms

  • Foreign transaction fee

    See terms

  • Credit needed

    No credit history

*See rates and fees and our methodology, terms apply.

Pros

  • Unique welcome bonus that doesn’t set minimum spending requirements
  • $20 Good Grade Reward when you maintain a 3.0 or higher GPA during the school year (for up to five consecutive years)
  • First late payment fee is waived

Cons

  • 2% cash back on gas and restaurant purchases is limited to $1,000 in spending each quarter
  • Discover cards aren’t as widely accepted as cards from Mastercard or Visa, so you may run into issues trying to pay at certain merchants
  • You must be a U.S. citizen to qualify for this card

Who's this for? If you want all the perks of a Discover card but you don't want to deal with activating bonus rewards categories each quarter, you should consider the Discover it® Student chrome. It has a strong rewards program for college students frequently filling up their gas tank or dining out, with 2% cash back on up to $1,000 on each category each quarter (then 1%). All other purchases earn 1% cash back.

In addition to matching all cash back you earn in the first year after opening your account, Discover gives cardholders an incentive to maintain good grades by offering a $20 statement credit for up to five consecutive years when students maintain a 3.0 or higher GPA.

You must be a U.S. citizen over 18 and enrolled in a two- or four-year college in order to qualify for this card.

Best for Small Purchases and Supermarkets

Citi Rewards+℠ Student Card

Citi Rewards+℠ Student Card
On Citi's secure site
  • Rewards

    Earn 2X ThankYou® points at supermarkets and gas stations for the first $6,000 per year and then 1X points thereafter. Plus, earn 1X points on all other purchases.

  • Welcome bonus

    Earn 2,500 bonus points after you spend $500 in purchases with your card within  3 months of account opening; redeemable for $25 gift card at thankyou.com.

  • Annual fee

    $0

  • Intro APR

    0% APR for the first 7 months on purchases

  • Regular APR

    14.49% - 24.49% variable on purchases and balance transfers

  • Balance transfer fee

    3% of each balance transfer; $5 minimum

  • Foreign transaction fee

    3%

  • Credit needed

    Good

See our methodology, terms apply.

Pros

  • All purchases round up to the nearest 10 points
  • Get 10% points back on all of your redemptions for the first 100,000 ThankYou® Points you redeem each year
  • Welcome bonus worth $25 gift card

Cons

  • 3% fee on purchases made outside the U.S.
  • Short intro 0% APR period on new purchases

Who's this for? College students who make frequent, small purchases should consider the Citi Rewards+℠ Student Card, which offers a unique "round up" feature. For every purchase you make, points are rounded up to the nearest 10 points. So, a $2 coffee earns 10 points and a $21 dinner earns 30 points. This clever feature allows you to maximize rewards without any additional action on your part.

In addition to rounding up, you get 10% of your points back for the first 100,000 ThankYou® Points you redeem per year. If you redeem 25,000 points in a year, you get 2,500 of those points back — enough for a $25 gift card. You can redeem points for gift cards, travel rewards or shop with points on Amazon and Best Buy.

This card also has a strong rewards program for supermarket and gas station spending with cardholders earning 2 ThankYou® Points per dollar spent up to a $6,000 annual maximum (then 1 point per dollar spent).

You must be at least 18 and currently enrolled in college to qualify for this card.

Best for International Students and No Credit History

Deserve Edu Mastercard

Deserve Edu Mastercard
On Deserve's secure site
  • Rewards

    1% cash back on all purchases

  • Welcome bonus

    None

  • Annual fee

    $0

  • Intro APR

    None

  • Regular APR

    18.74% variable

  • Balance transfer fee

    N/A, balance transfers are not available

  • Foreign transaction fee

    None

  • Credit needed

    N/A

See our methodology, terms apply.

Pros

  • Free year of Amazon Prime Student (up to $59)
  • No social security number needed to apply, perfect for international students
  • No credit history required, great for credit newbies
  • No foreign transaction fees

Cons

  • No special financing offers
  • No welcome bonus

Who's this for? The Deserve Edu Mastercard is the rare college student card that is geared toward international students. It also doesn't require applicants to have any credit history or a social security number, so it's a good option for students who lack these typical application requirements. You must be over 18, enrolled in college and have a U.S. bank account.

While this card has one of the more barebones rewards programs with 1% cash back on all purchases, cardholders do get a year of Amazon Prime Student for free — valued at $59. This is a great money-saving perk that will let you enjoy free two-day and same-day shipping, discounts at Whole Foods and access to Prime Video and other Amazon Prime perks.

This card is also good for people with little or no credit history, and it doesn't require you to have a cosigner or make a security deposit.

Cardholders cannot make balance transfers or take out cash advances.

Best college student credit cards

Category Credit Card
Best for Cash BackDiscover it® Student Cash Back
Best for TravelBank of America® Travel Rewards for Students
Best for Gas Stations and RestaurantsDiscover it® Student chrome
Best for Small Purchases and SupermarketsCiti Rewards+℠ Student Card
Best for International Students and No Credit HistoryDeserve Edu Mastercard

Our methodology

To determine which cards offer the best value for students, CNBC Select analyzed 13 of the most popular credit cards available for college students looking to build credit.

We compared each card on a range of features, including: credit limit, rewards program, introductory and standard APR, welcome bonuses and foreign transaction fees, as well as factors such as required credit score and customer reviews when available. We also considered any special student-centric programs that offer incentives or extra rewards.

Because it's unusual for college student cards to have robust rewards programs, we did not analyze how many rewards points you can earn in the first year. For students who are looking to build their credit history and develop strong financial skills, it's more important to practice good credit card habits — spending within your means, paying your balance on time and in full — than try to optimize your points balance.

Editorial Note: Opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the CNBC Select editorial staff’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any third party.