Student credit cards

If you can handle your finances responsibly, the right student credit card could help your money management at college or university.

Key points

  • Only consider a student credit card if you're confident you can manage one
  • Student cards typically have a modest credit limit
  • Don't be swayed by marketing gimmicks - look for low interest rates and other key product features
  • Use a smart search tool to find cards you qualify for and to avoid damaging your credit rating
  • Try to clear the full balance every month but, whatever you do, make sure you meet minimum payments

Keeping control of your finances at university is no easy task, and students need to think carefully about whether using a credit card would tempt them into financial irresponsibility.

The consequences of that could be very serious, but if used correctly credit cards could help your college or university years be more fiscally manageable.

The key is to be able to clear the full balance at the end of every month.

That way, you can benefit from all the advantages of using a credit card without paying the penalties, and without risking falling into expensive debt.

If that proves impossible, whatever you do make sure you pay off at least the minimum required every month.

How do student credit cards work?

Student credit cards will largely operate in the same way as standard credit cards and will have many of the same features.

As such, they could help you spread the cost of purchases by taking advantage of the extra time you have to make payments, you'll benefit from consumer protection laws, and a card could prove particularly handy for things such as travel, booking and online purchases.Credit cards

Some credit cards also offer rewards, and student-specific ones may tailor such benefits to the market with things such as discounts at youth-focused retailers, or for travel.

If that's the case, make sure that a marketing ploy isn't distracting you from considering the key features associated with such an important financial product.

Students should search smart for credit cards

If, like many students, you're considering a credit card for the first time take a look at our beginners' guide and read up a little on credit ratings before proceeding.

Many students are young and their credit history may not be the most attractive - if, that is, they've had chance to build up a credit history at all.

This will make them ineligible for many of the more attractive credit card deals on the market... and making a rejected application can damage your credit rating further.

Using's smart search tool could help you to avoid rejection.

Smart search allows you to make a soft search for a card, which can show you the cards you're likely to qualify for before you proceed with a formal application.

As well as helping you avoid failed applications, a soft search won't leave an impact on your credit history.

Criteria for student credit cards

The criteria for obtaining a student credit card will differ between providers, so make sure you meet the requirements outlined before applying for any plastic.

Student credit card providers may be flexible with the usual restrictions when reviewing applications; some cards may work similarly to credit builder cards and be tailor-made for people who haven't had a credit card before.

Be aware that certain products will require you to already have a student current account with the card provider to be approved for the best interest rates.

Introductory periods

Beware of introductory periods. Products with introductory interest periods or offers - for instance, 0% on purchases for 12 months - may be appealing when you take out the card, but you'll be switched to a less favourable interest rate when the period ends.

Circumstances change and you must remember that when your introductory period ends you may not qualify for such an attractive deal next time

"If your card does have an introductory rate, make sure that you know when it ends and consider paying off the balance or switching to another card with a lower interest rate before this happens," said's Matt Sanders.

You may be able to do this by applying for a balance transfer card, which may also have a low rate or 0% introductory offer, but there are important qualifications to this guidance.

Always remember to factor the balance transfer fee you'll have to pay into your calculations.

What's more, circumstances change and you must remember that when your introductory period ends you may not qualify for such an attractive deal next time.

Advantages of student credit cards

It's worth considering the pros and cons of any type of credit card before applying, because if you're not able to pay off your debt on time you'll be facing high charges that could outweigh the benefits of having the card in the first place.

Helps to build up your credit historyHow to improve a credit score

If managed responsibly, a credit card can help you to build a credit rating.

A good credit rating can gain you access to more attractive deals on financial products and can help if you need to take out more major products such as a mortgage or loan in the future.

Purchase protection

When you make a purchase between £100 and £30,000 on a credit card you'll be protected under section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act.

Emergency payments

Having a student credit card can be useful for any unforeseen emergency payments, for example if your car breaks down or you get an unexpectedly high bill.

Use before your loan comes in

If you're struggling to make ends meet at the end of each term, you could use your credit card on a temporary basis to make sure that you don't slip into the red on your current account and get charged an unauthorised overdraft fee.

Student credit cards tend to have a higher interest rate attached to them as they're seen as a risk to the lender
Matt Sanders,

Account extras

"Certain products may have extra incentives for taking them out," said Sanders.

"For example, a card could offer travel insurance cover, reward and voucher schemes or warranty coverage to draw you in.

"But don't be tempted to take out a card based purely on an incentive, as the most important feature is likely to be the interest rate."

Remember also that extras tied to a card may not be appropriate to your needs, or you may already have the extra from another source - read more in our article on premium credit cards.

Disadvantages of student credit cards

Interest charges

It's important that you clear the balance on your plastic every month or you'll be charged interest, which could become very costly.

"Student credit cards tend to have a higher interest rate attached to them as they're seen as a risk to the lender, so shop around to find the right plastic for you with the lowest interest rate possible," said Sanders.How to make your credit card work harder for you

Credit limit

The credit limit on a student credit card may be quite low compared to other products, as lenders consider it riskier to lend to students with little or no income.

Withdrawing cash

If you want to withdraw cash using a credit card, you'll generally be charged an additional fee which varies according to the provider, so this could be very expensive compared to using your debit card.

Also, be aware that interest is usually charged from the day you make the cash withdrawal, unlike purchases which may have an interest-free period.

Could negatively affect your credit rating

Although the right plastic could help to build up your credit rating, it could also have a negative effect if you're not able to at least make the minimum monthly payments.

Always make sure that you can comfortably pay back the debt each month before thinking about taking out a credit card.

Overseas charges

As with a standard credit card, make sure you check for fees for using your student credit card abroad, as there may be additional fees or commission charged for the privilege.

Alternatives to student credit cards

You may want to consider a student account with an interest-free overdraft. This allows you to borrow up to a certain limit without getting charged and could be attractive for students.Cutting the cost of loans

On 27 October, 2014, analysed student and graduate accounts listed on the matrix of independent financial researcher Defaqto.

The research showed that, out of 27 accounts, 96% offered an interest-free overdraft, and 70% of those had an overdraft limit of £2,000 or over.

Also, 52% of the accounts analysed had an interest-free overdraft which lasted for five years or more.

Remember that once you've left university, you may be switched to an overdraft that charges interest, or the limit may be reduced as you're expected to gradually clear your outstanding debt.

It is also possible for students to take out personal loans, but you should think carefully before landing yourself with that kind of debt - read more in our article on personal loans for students.

By Abbie Laughton-Coles