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The best credit cards for international students [2020]

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Looking to build credit as an international student in America? A credit card designed for students might just be the answer.

The best credit cards for international students [2020]

Nova Credit receives compensation from third-party advertisers. This content is not provided by them. Any reviews, recommendations, opinions and analyses expressed in this article are those of the authors alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any card issuer.

Figuring out which credit card to get as an international student in the US can be tricky. To help, we compared student credit cards and found 6 top picks that could be good fits for international students: 

  • Best American Express Card for Students from Canada, the UK, India, Mexico and Australia: Blue Cash Everyday® Card from American Express
  • Best for Students Who Don’t Have an SSN: Deserve® Edu Mastercard for Students
  • Best for Rewards in the United States: Discover it® Student Cash Back
  • Best for Frequent Travelers: Bank of America® Travel Rewards Credit Card for Students
  • Best for Everyday Purchases: Citi Rewards+SM Student Card
  • Best for Motivating On-Time Payments: Journey® Student Rewards from Capital One®

Best American Express card for students from Australia, Canada, India, Mexico and the UK

American Express doesn’t have a student-specific card, but it does offer a rewards card without an annual fee, which could be interesting to students. Before, it was virtually impossible for students to obtain an American Express card. However, students with existing financial history from abroad may be eligible for an American Express card.

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Pros:

  • No annual fee.
  • You can earn an intro offer for a $150 statement credit if you spend $1,000 within three months of opening the card.
  • Earn 3% cash back at US supermarkets (on up to $6,000 in purchase each year), 2% cash back at US gas stations and US department stores, and 1% cash back everywhere else. 

Cons:

  • There’s a strict definition of what counts as a supermarket. You’ll only earn 1% cash back at warehouse stores, specialty markets, and superstores.
  • Has a 2.7% foreign transaction fee.

Important Note: On the American Express application page, you will have the option to click "I don't have credit history in the US" in the Social Security Number (SSN) field of the application page. When clicking this, you may be able to qualify for the card using your credit history from Canada, the UK, Australia, India or Mexico. No need to have built US credit to apply!

Best for students who don’t have an SSN: Deserve® Edu Mastercard for Students

The Deserve® Edu Mastercard for Students was created specifically for international students, although US citizens and permanent residents who are students can also qualify for the card. It may be an especially good option for students who don’t have authorization to work in the US and can’t get a Social Security number (SSN), and who don’t qualify for an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN), although you will need a US bank account.   

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Pros:

  • You don’t need an SSN or ITIN, or US credit history to qualify.
  • No annual fee or foreign transaction fee.
  • Earn 1% cash back on all purchases.
  • Offers cardholder perks, including a reimbursement for your first year of Amazon Prime Student (a $59 value). 

Cons:

  • Deserve reports your payments to only TransUnion and Experian, which are just two of the three major credit bureaus in the U.S.
  • Doesn’t allow for balance transfers or cash advances.

Best for rewards in the United States: Discover it® Student Cash Back

One of the top student cards in the US, the Discover it® Student Cash Back card offers a variety of rewards, including for good grades, without many fees. However, Discover requires an SSN from credit card applicants. 

Pros:

  • No annual fee or foreign transaction fee.
  • Earn 5% cash back on up to $1,500 in combined quarterly purchases at a changing list of merchants each quarter. Earn 1% cash back on all your other purchases.
  • Discover doubles your cash back earnings at the end of your first year as a new cardmember. 
  • Get an annual $20 statement credit if your grade point average (GPA) is at least a 3.0.
  • Reports your payments to all three major US credit bureaus. 

Cons:

  • You need an SSN to apply.
  • Discover isn’t as widely accepted as Visa, Mastercard, or American Express. 

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Best for frequent travelers: Bank of America® Travel Rewards Credit Card for Students

The Bank of America® Travel Rewards Credit Card for Students offers a large intro points bonus, good flat-rate rewards on every purchase, and extra rewards for Bank of America customers who have a checking or savings account. You can apply for Bank of America credit cards and bank accounts using an ITIN or your passport by visiting a bank branch or calling customer service. 

Pros:

  • No annual fee or foreign transaction fee.
  • Earn 1.5 points per dollar. Receive a 10% points bonus if you have a Bank of America checking or savings account. 
  • Receive a 25,000-point intro bonus (worth $250 in travel statement credits) if you make $1,000 worth of purchases within 90 days of your account opening. 
  • Redeem points to receive a statement credit for travel purchases starting at 2,500 points for a $25 statement credit.

Cons:

  • While you can redeem points for cash rewards, you get at a lower rate of .6 cents per point rather than 1 cent per point for travel statement credits. You can also redeem points for gift cards, but there isn’t a predetermined rate. 
  • You might earn more rewards with a different card, especially if you don’t want to open a Bank of America account. 

Best for everyday purchases: Citi Rewards+SM Student Card

If you expect to use your new credit card for everyday purchases, the Citi Rewards+SM Student Card’s rewards program could be especially appealing. The points you receive from purchases get rounded up to the nearest 10 points. For example, a $2 coffee gives you 10 points, while an $11 lunch turns into 20 points. You may be able to apply for using an ITIN or passport at a Citi branch. 

Pros:

  • No annual fee.
  • Earn 2 points per dollar on the first $6,000 in purchases each year at supermarkets and gas stations. Earn 1 point per dollar on all other purchases. 
  • Points on purchases get rounded up to the nearest 10 points. Additionally, get 10% of your points back on the first 100,000 points you redeem each year. 
  • There’s currently an intro offer for new cardmembers to earn 2,500 bonus points if you make $500 worth of purchases within your first three months. 
  • Redeem points for gift cards, travel, or when shopping on Amazon.com or BestBuy.com at a rate of up to 1 cent per point. 

Cons:

  • Has a 3% foreign transaction fee.
  • Points may be worth less than 1 cent each if you don’t redeem them for gift cards.

Best for motivating on-time payments: Journey® Student Rewards from Capital One®

The Journey® Student Rewards from Capital One® offers cash back rewards to cardholders, and incentivizes cardholders to make on-time payments with an offer of extra cash back. You can apply using an ITIN or SSN.

Pros:

  • No annual fee or foreign transaction fee.
  • Earn 1% cash back on all purchases. Or, earn 1.25% cash back on all purchases during months when you make the monthly payment by the due date. 
  • Potential credit line increase after five on-time monthly payments.

Cons:

  • High annual percentage rate (APR). Even if you make on-time payments, you may wind up paying high interest charges if you don’t pay your bill in full each month.
  • There’s still a late payment fee of up to $39. 

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Additional features to consider 

As you compare credit cards, also review the cardholder benefits from the card issuer (e.g., Deserve, Bank of America, Citi, and Capital One) and card network (e.g., Visa, Mastercard, American Express, or Discover). 

The benefits can vary depending on the credit card, even when you’re comparing two cards from the same card issuer or that are part of the same network, but they may include:

  • Extended warranties on purchases you make with the card
  • Cell phone insurance if you pay your monthly phone bill with the card
  • Zero liability on unauthorized purchases 
  • Free access to your US FICO credit score
  • Travel accident insurance

Additionally, some credit cards offer a 0% intro APR on purchases. When you open a card with a 0% purchase APR offer, your purchases won’t accrue interest during the intro period as long as you make at least the minimum monthly payments. After the end of the introductory period, the standard APR will apply to your card’s balance and any additional purchases.  

While the intro APR feature might save you money if you have to make a large purchase now and pay it off over time, it’s best to get in the habit of paying your credit card bill in full each month. This type of responsible use can save you money on interest and help you establish a positive credit history.  

Having trouble getting approved? Try a secured card instead

Student credit cards are designed for college students, and credit card companies realize that students might not have a long credit history, high credit score, or large income. In some cases, a student credit card will be the cardholders first credit card and, like international students, the applicant might not have any credit history. 

However, card issuers will often still try to pull an applicant’s credit report and might not approve an application from someone who doesn’t have good credit or shows other signs of poor creditworthiness, such as a low income compared to their monthly bills.  

If you’ve tried to get a student card and were denied, you might want to consider a secured credit card instead.  

Credit card issuers create secured credit cards for people who are rebuilding their credit or have no credit history. With a secured credit card, you’ll need to send the issuer a refundable security deposit, which will generally determine your card’s credit limit. A larger security deposit can lead to a higher credit line, but you can find options that allow you to get started with a $49 to $199 deposit. 

Secured cards work like unsecured cards and paying your bills on time can help you build credit. Depending on the issuer, you might receive a credit limit increase or get your security deposit back after you show consistent, responsible use. Otherwise, you’ll get the money back when you close your account, assuming it’s in good standing and you don't have an outstanding balance.  

If you’re studying in the United States, you probably have plenty of reasons for wanting a credit card. A credit card can be a convenient and safe way to make purchases online and it can give you access to extra funds if you’re in an emergency situation and need money. Additionally, having a credit card can help you establish and build credit in the US, which could be important if plan on staying in the US after your studies or might want to return later. 

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