The Best Credit Cards for First-Year University and College Students

The Best Credit Cards for First-Year University and College Students

Congratulations! You’ve graduated high school and now you’re taking the next big step in your life. Starting post-secondary education involves a lot of firsts – it may be the first time you’re living away from home, the first time cooking for yourself consistently, and perhaps the first time you have a job and are managing your own money.

As you roam the halls of your new institution of higher learning, you’ll likely come across many company booths advertising student credit cards, likely with some kind of incentive attached.

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These types of promotions can be enticing, and while there are benefits to getting a credit card while you’re young (learning financial responsibility, building credit history, etc.), there are some things you should know before signing up for just any type of card.

One RateSupermarket.ca editor remembers when she signed up for her first student credit card:

“I desperately wanted one, mostly just so I could fit in and look cool. When my plain grey card finally arrived in the mail, I went out and dared to put $30 worth of charges on it. I didn’t care what its real purpose was or whether it had any perks. After all, I paid off my balance in full every single month and made sure I kept everything well under the card limit.

Now, 13 years later, I can thank that little grey card for teaching me a lot of financial responsibility. Because I paid all my bills on time and never incurred interest charges, my credit score is excellent. I am proof that your first student credit card can initiate good habits for life, but you have to choose wisely. One mistake I made was not reading the fine print before signing up, and then wondering why I had small additional charges every month. Turns out I had balance protection insurance – something I didn’t really need. My card also carried a higher than average interest rate for a student card.”

With that in mind, let’s take a look at what students in 2017 must consider before signing up for any credit card. Just remember – you have to be at least 18 years old to be a primary cardholder in Canada.

Prepaid vs. secured vs. unsecured credit cards

You should understand the difference between a prepaid credit card, a secured credit card and an unsecured credit card.

  • Prepaid Cards: These are cards where you pay the full balance upfront. That balance is the maximum amount that you can spend and the amount available lessens as it’s used. The concept is pretty similar to a debit card. However, these cards don’t allow you to build credit.
  • Secured Cards: These secured credit cards work almost the same way as prepaid cards, except you’ll be charged a monthly interest rate – usually between 14.8 and 19.8 per cent – and you can use them to establish credit.
  • Unsecured Cards: Once you’ve proven yourself to be a responsible cardholder, you can apply for an unsecured card, which is not secured by any deposit or collateral. The company trusts that you have the means to repay your debt, based on your history.

Best cards for students building credit

You might be thinking, “Building credit? That’s so adult!” But it’s important to start off on the right foot while you’re young. This is also very crucial if you’re new to Canada. If you’re looking to build credit so you can save up for a big purchase in the future, there’s no better time than the present to do so.

Capital One® Guaranteed Secured Mastercard®

A good option is the Capital One® Guaranteed Secured Mastercard®. Since this card is guaranteed, you don’t need any credit history to apply for it. It allows you to establish your credit rating, make purchases online and by phone and access cash from any ATM around the world displaying the Mastercard logo (which can be useful during those spring break trips!). Keep in mind though that there is a $59 annual fee.

CIBC Classic VisaTM for students

If you’re not a fan of the annual fee, another option is the CIBC Classic VisaTM for students. It comes with $100,000 common carrier accident insurance, allows you to get cash advances up to $1,000 and is compatible with Visa payWave – a great feature to have if you’re making small purchases. It also gives the user the option to set it up as either a secured or unsecured card.

Keep in mind that not all credit-building cards are right for students. Many of them are geared towards those who want to improve their poor credit history. Before signing up for any card, ask questions and read all the fine print to ensure the card is right for you.

Best rewards cards for student lifestyles

If a credit card has “student” in its title, chances are you can find a good match. Many financial institutions have cards designed with a student’s needs and lifestyle in mind, and they generally don’t carry an annual fee. Before signing up for the first one you see advertised on campus, think about your spending habits. How much money will you need to spend each month, while taking housing, food, clothing, toiletries, course materials and entertainment into account?

BMO SPC Mastercards

BMO offers two cards for students with a good-standing credit score – the BMO® SPC®‡ CashBack Mastercard®* and the BMO® SPC®‡ AIR MILES®† Mastercard®*. Both cards include a free SPC membership that allows you to save 10 to 15 per cent at participating retailers.

While the SPC CashBack Mastercard (one of the nominees for Best Student Credit Card at RateSupermarket.ca’s Best of Finance Awards 2016) gives you one per cent cash back on all card purchases, the SPC Air Miles Mastercard earns 1 Air Mile reward mile for every $20 you spend on the card.

It may not sound like much, but it is essentially free money for making your necessary purchases. Any savings are good savings when you’re a student.

Scotiabank SCENE®* Visa* card

Another option that isn’t specifically listed as a student credit card but may fit your lifestyle is the Scotiabank SCENE®* Visa* card, which allows users to earn SCENE points on everything you buy. Those SCENE points can go towards free movies or be used at participating restaurants and retailers.

President’s Choice Financial Mastercards

Or, for those students living on their own and buying more than just mac n’ cheese to eat for dinner every night, there are some great grocery rewards options. If you shop frequently at Loblaws-owned grocery stores (Loblaws, No Frills, Shoppers Drug Mart, Fortinos, Real Canadian Superstore, etc.), you could benefit from the President’s Choice Financial®Mastercard®, President’s Choice Financial® World Mastercard®, or the President’s Choice Financial® World Elite Mastercard®.

None of these cards have annual fees, and they are great for earning PC points on your everyday shopping. PC points can then be used for items sold in participating grocery stores where President’s Choice products are sold.

The President’s Choice Financial®Mastercard® earns 10 PC points for every $1 spent anywhere you shop, while the World Mastercard and World Elite Mastercard earns 20 and 30 PC points respectively for every $1 spent at participating stores where President’s Choice products are sold.

Note that 10,000 points equates to $10 in free groceries. So in the case of the President’s Choice Financial®Mastercard®, this can be attained after spending $333 on the card (likely the price of a textbook or two). Keep in mind, though, these cards all carry a 19.97% interest rate – in line with those aimed at customers with credit history. And speaking of which, all of these cards do require you to have some credit history, but some issuers often skip the “no credit, no card” rule. It’s always best to check with the issuer before signing on the dotted line.

Use your President’s Choice Financial® Mastercard® for your everyday purchases and you’ll earn PC® Points towards free groceries and more*. Plus, for a limited time, when you apply through RateSupermarket.ca and activate your card, you’ll get a $100 e-gift card in addition to the PC Financial® Mastercard® welcome offer of up to 20,000 PC points.1 That’s $20 worth of PC points towards your groceries! Redeem PC points at participating grocery stores where President’s Choice® products are sold.

Tips on using your student credit card

In order to build credit and minimize debt, make sure you pay off your balance in full every single month. Also avoid cash advance features if you can as these waive the usual grace period for interest – meaning you are charged interest right away. The more debt you incur at a younger age, the more likely you will still be paying it off well into your 30s or even your 40s.

It may be tempting to charge everything to your new card, but avoid spending more than you can afford to pay off in full every billing cycle. It is especially important to learn this habit if you aren’t working and are still reliant on the bank of mom and dad. And when it comes to rewards, don’t sign up for a card that doesn’t meet your needs and interests. For example, travel rewards cards – some of the most expensive cards on the market – don’t help you if you don’t plan to go on vacation. This can weigh you down with fees and ultimately defeat the purpose of building your credit.

Finally, you don’t want to go for the first credit card that’s offered to you. Just because it comes with a free backpack, doesn’t mean it’s a good card. And really, what use is a backpack if you already have one? Do your research beforehand and be smart with your money when you get that credit card, as you will build up skills that will last a lifetime.

This post has been updated.

*Minimum redemption is 20,000 PC points (worth $20 in free rewards) and in increments of 10,000 PC points thereafter, at participating grocery stores where President’s Choice products are sold. Some redemption restrictions apply. See pcplus.ca for details.

1Apply online and when you receive your PC Financial Mastercard credit card, you will also receive four welcome coupons or offers each worth 5,000 PC points. Use your PC Financial Mastercard and redeem each coupon or offer to receive 5,000 PC points with any purchase at the checkout in participating grocery stores where President’s Choice® products are sold. See coupons or offers for full details. Coupons or offers have no cash value. For all offers, allow 2-3 weeks from qualifying purchase for bonus PC points to be awarded. Each offer is limited to one per new PC Financial Mastercard account and may be terminated or changed at any time without notice.

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Credit Card News / Credit Card Reviews / Credit Cards / Credit Cards 101 / Growing Your Money / Lifestyle / Lifestyle News / Personal Finance / RSM News / Using Your Credit Card / Your Budget / Your Credit Score

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