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Credit Cards

Take control of your financial future with these top 5 cards for recent college grads

Recent college grads should consider one of these credit cards that offer the chance to build credit, earn cash back or benefit from a promotional interest-free period.

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College graduation is anything but traditional this year thanks to the coronavirus pandemic. While it probably seems like much is out of your control right now — like future job prospects or renting a new apartment — there are certain financial milestones you can take to steer yourself in the direction you want.

Opening your first credit card is an important step on your journey to financial success and something you can do today. And if you already have a student card, now could be a good time to upgrade to a new card that's better suited for the needs of your post-grad life.

As a recent college graduate, you should aim to open a credit card with a low or no annual fee, especially if you don't have a job yet. Annual fee cards can be an unnecessary cost — and as your credit improves, there will be lots of time to enjoy a premium credit card one day. With this in mind, four out of the five cards we recommend below have no annual fee.

If you have no credit history or bad credit, you can start off with a secured card or a card that doesn't check your credit report. If you started building credit in college, you may have a fair, good or excellent credit score that allows you to qualify for a cash-back card or interest-free offer.

Before you apply for any of the cards below, check your credit score. This helps you narrow down the cards you may qualify for and makes the decision process a bit easier.

Now onto our list: Below, we review the best credit cards for college graduates, sorted by what credit score you need, so you can find the next card for your wallet.

Best credit cards for college graduates

Best card for fair and average credit

Capital One QuicksilverOne Cash Rewards Credit Card

  • Rewards

    Unlimited 1.5% cash back on every purchase, up to 6 months of complimentary Uber One membership statement credits through 11/14/2024

  • Welcome bonus

    None

  • Annual fee

    $39

  • Intro APR

    None

  • Regular APR

    29.99% variable

  • Balance transfer fee

    $0 at the Transfer APR, 4% of the amount of each transferred balance that posts to your account at a promotional APR that Capital One may offer to you

  • Foreign transaction fee

    None

  • Credit needed

    Average, Fair, or Limited

Terms apply.

Pros

  • Unlimited 1.5% cash back on every purchase
  • Redeem cash back at anytime and for any amount
  • No fee charged on purchases made outside the U.S.

Cons

  • $39 annual fee
  • High variable APR
  • No welcome bonus

Who's this for? Grads who started building credit late in college or are recovering from mistakes they made when they were younger may now have a fair/average credit score. If that's you, don't think rewards cards are out of reach. The Capital One QuicksilverOne Cash Rewards Credit Card (see rates and fees) requires average credit and offers a decent 1.5% cash back on all purchases.

While this card has a $39 annual fee, you can offset it by spending $2,600 a year on your card (see our methodology below). This might be manageable if you work part-time or full-time.

The QuicksilverOne Card is a good choice if you plan to travel outside the U.S. since there are no foreign transaction fees (see rates and fees) and it comes with travel accident insurance, auto rental collision damage waiver and 24-hour travel assistance services.

Check out the best credit cards for fair and average credit.

Best card for bad credit

Capital One Platinum Secured Credit Card

  • Rewards

    None

  • Welcome bonus

    No current offer

  • Annual fee

    $0

  • Intro APR

    N/A for purchases and balance transfers

  • Regular APR

    29.99% variable

  • Balance transfer fee

    $0 at the Transfer APR, 4% of the amount of each transferred balance that posts to your account at a promotional APR that Capital One may offer to you

  • Foreign transaction fee

    None

  • Credit needed

    No credit history

  • Terms apply.

Pros

  • No annual fee
  • $49, $99 or $200 refundable deposit
  • No fee charged on purchases made outside the U.S.
  • Flexibility to change your payment due date

Cons

  • High variable APR
  • No rewards program

Who's this for? If you have bad credit, the card options you have to choose from are typically limited. Your choices will likely include cards with annual fees and high interest rates or secured cards that require a deposit. A secured card, such as the Capital One Platinum Secured Credit Card (see rates and fees), is a great way to rebuild credit and work up to an unsecured card.

The Capital One Platinum Secured Credit Card is unlike other secured cards that require a minimum $200 security deposit. Cardholders have the opportunity to qualify for a minimum deposit as low as $49 or $99 deposit, based on your creditworthiness, and still receive a $200 credit limit. If you don't qualify, the minimum deposit is $200.

Capital One also automatically considers cardholders for a higher credit line in as little as 6 months with no additional deposit needed. This is a great incentive to maintain positive payment history.

Check out the best credit cards for bad credit.

Best card for excellent credit

Citi Double Cash® Card

  • Rewards

    Earn 2% on every purchase with unlimited 1% cash back when you buy, plus an additional 1% as you pay for those purchases. To earn cash back, pay at least the minimum due on time. Plus, for a limited time, earn 5% total cash back on hotel, car rentals and attractions booked on the Citi Travel℠ portal through 12/31/24

  • Welcome bonus

    Earn $200 cash back after you spend $1,500 on purchases in the first 6 months of account opening. This bonus offer will be fulfilled as 20,000 ThankYou® Points, which can be redeemed for $200 cash back.

  • Annual fee

    $0

  • Intro APR

    0% for the first 18 months on balance transfers; N/A for purchases

  • Regular APR

    19.24% - 29.24% variable

  • Balance transfer fee

    For balance transfers completed within 4 months of account opening, an intro balance transfer fee of 3% of each transfer ($5 minimum) applies; after that, a balance transfer fee of 5% of each transfer ($5 minimum) applies

  • Foreign transaction fee

    3%

  • Credit needed

    Fair/Good/Excellent

  • See rates and fees, terms apply.

Pros

  • 2% cash back on all eligible purchases
  • Simple cash-back program that doesn't require activation or spending caps
  • One of the longest intro periods for balance transfers at 18 months

Cons

  • 3% fee charged on purchases made outside the U.S.
  • Estimated rewards earned after 1 year: $443
  • Estimated rewards earned after 5 years: $2,213

Who's this for? If you worked hard on building your credit in college and graduated with an excellent credit score, you may qualify for some of the best cards. The Citi Double Cash® Card is our top choice for a no-annual-fee cash-back card with a simple, yet competitive rewards program.

Cardholders earn 2% cash back on all purchases — 1% when you make a purchase and an additional 1% when you pay your credit card bill. This is one of the highest flat-rate rewards programs available and lets you earn without having to keep track of bonus categories or activation.

In addition to rewards, cardholders receive free two-day shipping at select online retailers with ShopRunner, just like the Amex Cash Magnet Card mentioned above.

This card also provides one of the longest 0% APR periods for balance transfers at 18 months (after 19.24% - 29.24% variable APR). This can be helpful if you need to transfer debt from another non-Citi card. There is an intro balance transfer fee of 3% of each transfer (minimum $5) completed within the first 4 months of account opening. After that, your fee will be 5% of each transfer (minimum $5).

Check out the best credit cards for excellent credit.

Best card for no credit

Petal® 2 "Cash Back, No Fees" Visa® Credit Card

  • Rewards

    1% cash back on eligible purchases right away and up to 1.5% cash back on eligible purchases after making 12 on-time monthly payments; 2% to 10% cash back at select merchants

  • Welcome bonus

    None

  • Annual fee

    $0

  • Intro APR

    None

  • Regular APR

    18.24% - 32.24% variable

  • Balance transfer fee

    N/A

  • Foreign transaction fee

    None

  • Credit needed

    Fair, Good, No Credit

Terms apply.

Pros

  • No credit history required (if you do have a credit history, that does factor into the credit decision)
  • No fees whatsoever
  • 1% cash back on eligible purchases right away and up to 1.5% cash back on eligible purchases after making 12 on-time monthly payments; 2% to 10% cash back at select merchants
  • Credit limits range from $300 to $10,000

Cons

  • Card isn't for rebuilding credit, but it's good for building credit
  • No special financing offers
  • No welcome bonus
  • Estimated rewards earned after 1 year: $249
  • Estimated rewards earned after 5 years: $1,577

Who's this for? Recent grads who didn't have a credit card in college or who don't currently have any information on their credit reports need a card for people just starting out. Our first choice is the Petal 2 "Cash Back, No Fees" Visa Credit Card, issued by WebBank.

The Petal 2 Visa Credit Card doesn't set credit requirements, so if you have no credit history you could qualify for this card over alternatives. During the application process, you may be asked to link bank accounts so the creditor can review your bank statements and other data, such as bill payments and earnings. If you have a history of paying your other bills on time, or if your bank account shows regular income, WebBank will consider this in your application.

But keep in mind, if you do have a credit history, it will factor into the credit decision.

Beyond a unique application process, the Petal 2 Visa Credit Card forgoes many common credit card fees. There are no annual fees, no late payment fees and no foreign transaction fees.

Plus, cardholders can earn 1% cash back on eligible purchases right away, which can increase up to 1.5% cash back after making 12 consecutive, on-time monthly payments. This is a great way to encourage timely payments, which is the most important factor of your credit score. Cardholders also receive 2% to 10% cash back from select merchants.

Check out the best credit cards for building credit.

Best card for good credit

American Express Cash Magnet® Card

Information about the American Express Cash Magnet® Card has been collected independently by Select and has not been reviewed or provided by the issuer of the cards prior to publication.
  • Rewards

    Unlimited 1.5% cash back on all purchases

  • Welcome bonus

    Earn a $200 statement credit after spending $2,000 in purchases within your first 6 months of card membership.

  • Annual fee

    None

  • Intro APR

    0% for the first 15 months on purchases and balance transfers from the date of account opening

  • Regular APR

    19.24% - 29.99% variable

  • Balance transfer fee

    $5 or 3% of the amount of each transfer, whichever is greater.

  • Foreign transaction fee

    2.7%

  • Credit needed

    Excellent/Good

See rates and fees, terms apply.

Pros

  • No annual fee
  • 0% intro APR offer

Cons

  • 2.7% fee on purchases outside the U.S.
  • Cash back comes in the form of a statement credit (with a minimum redemption of $25)

Who's this for? If you have a good credit score and want to earn cash back while benefiting from special financing offers, the American Express Cash Magnet® Card is a great choice. It requires good to excellent credit and offers 1.5% cash back on all purchases.

Plus you can earn a $200 statement credit after you spend $2,000 in purchases in your first six months from account opening, which is a nice added perk if you can reasonably meet the requirements.

The Cash Magnet also offers a great introductory 0% APR on purchases for 15 months from the date of account opening (then 19.24% - 29.99% variable APR, see rates and fees). This provides you with over a year to pay off new purchases.

Cardholders can also take advantage of discounts at select merchants via Amex Offers and  free two-day shipping from over 100 retailers with ShopRunner.

Check out the best credit cards for good credit.

Our methodology

To determine which credit cards offer the best value, CNBC Select analyzed popular credit cards available in the U.S. We compared each card on a range of features, including rewards, welcome bonus, introductory and standard APR, balance transfer fee and foreign transaction fees, as well as factors such as required credit and customer reviews when available. We also considered additional perks, the application process and how easy it is for the consumer to redeem points.

CNBC Select teamed up with location intelligence firm Esri. The company's data development team provided the most up-to-date and comprehensive consumer spending data based on the 2019 Consumer Expenditure Surveys from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. You can read more about their methodology here.

Esri's data team created a sample annual budget of approximately $22,126 in retail spending. The budget includes six main categories: groceries ($5,174), gas ($2,218), dining out ($3,675), travel ($2,244), utilities ($4,862) and general purchases ($3,953). General purchases include items such as housekeeping supplies, clothing, personal care products, prescription drugs and vitamins, and other vehicle expenses.

CNBC Select used this budget to estimate how much the average consumer would save over the course of a year, two years and five years, assuming they would attempt to maximize their rewards potential by earning all welcome bonuses offered and using the card for all applicable purchases. All rewards total estimations are net the annual fee.

While the five-year estimates we've included are derived from a budget similar to the average American's spending, you may earn a higher or lower return depending on your shopping habits.

Don't miss: What to do if you have no credit after college

For rates and fees of the American Express Cash Magnet® Card, click here.

Information about the American Express Cash Magnet® Card has been collected independently by Select and has not been reviewed or provided by the issuer of the card prior to publication.

Petal 2 Visa Credit Card issued by WebBank.

For Capital One products listed on this page, some of the above benefits are provided by Visa® or Mastercard® and may vary by product. See the respective Guide to Benefits for details, as terms and exclusions apply.

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