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How Old Do You Have to Be to Get a Credit Card?

You must be 21 or older to be able to obtain a credit card without restrictions. However, you can get a card when you're 18 and even before
Author: Baruch Mann (Silvermann)
Baruch Mann (Silvermann)

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Baruch Silvermann is a financial expert, experienced analyst, and founder of The Smart Investor.  Silvermann has contributed to Yahoo Finance and cited as an authoritative source in financial outlets like Forbes, Business Insider, CNBC Select, CNET, Bankrate, Fox Business, The Street, and more.
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Author: Baruch Mann (Silvermann)
Baruch Mann (Silvermann)

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Baruch Silvermann is a financial expert, experienced analyst, and founder of The Smart Investor.  Silvermann has contributed to Yahoo Finance and cited as an authoritative source in financial outlets like Forbes, Business Insider, CNBC Select, CNET, Bankrate, Fox Business, The Street, and more.
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What’s the Minimum Age for a Credit Card?

There is a lot of confusion regarding the minimum age requirements for a credit card. Some people believe that you must be at least 21 years of age, while some others have the conviction that you have to be 18 years old to be able to incur in a credit card agreement.

According to the Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure Act, which was signed in 2009, you must be 21 years of age or older to be able to obtain a credit card without restrictions. However, the truth is that you can get a credit card when you're 18 and even earlier.

There has been a lot of debate regarding whether a person that is as young as 18 should be able to manage credit cards on their own, mostly for the dangers that entail irresponsible credit card management and the consequent damage that can be caused to credit scores.

Thus, 18-year-olds can have a harder time getting one, mostly because of documentation approval matters.

How Old Do You Have to Be to Get a Credit Card
It's possible to get a credit card under 21, but it will likely require income documentation or a co-signer (Photo by Antonio Guillem/Shutterstock)

Why It May Be Difficult to Get a Card When You're Under 21

In general terms, there is a process you must undergo whenever you want to initiate any type of banking procedure. In most cases, you have to pick a credit card, present determined documentation, wait for the bank’s approval, and that is it.

While getting a credit card under 21 years old is legal, it will likely require income documentation or a co-signer. Banking institutions are rather risk-averse, meaning that whenever they have to engage in an agreement with a customer, they will first analyze all the possible risks that encompass them and ultimately come to a decision.

There is a common misconception that 18-year-olds are irresponsible and unprepared for such important financial responsibilities. Nevertheless, statistically speaking, it is much riskier for a bank to take in an 18-year-old customer who barely has any employment history—let alone credit history—than any other older, financially-savvy individual.

Can I Get a Credit Card Before 18?

Contrary to what most people believe—and many information sources claim—you can get a credit card under the age of 18 as an authorized user, all following Section 301 of the aforementioned Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure Act of 2009.

In a few words, it claims that any person under the age of 21 can get access to a credit card, but must present the following documentation:

  • Written Application: A written application letter for the card issuer. This written application must contain a co-signer’s signature. This means that you cannot open it on your own if you are younger than 18. 
  • Co-Signer: The co-signer must be able to assume—and repay—all of the debt in case it goes unpaid by the user. This indicates joint liability for the account’s debts before the consumer turns 21. The co-signer can be a parent, spouse, legal guardian, or any other person that wants to assume this responsibility.
  • Checking Account Information: You can also submit your financial information claiming that you have the means to pay for the obligations that arise from the use of the account as an alternative.

In short, you can apply for a credit card if you are under 18, but under those given conditions.

credit card under 18 need a co-signer
It's possible to get a credit car under 18. However, you have a co-signer.

Can I Get a Debit Card Before 18 Without Being an Authorized User?

When you are 18 years old, you can open an account, as you are an adult by US standards. This implies that you can open an account and employ a debit card without a care. Debit cards are different than credit cards, but provide the main functionality  – the ability to shop and purchase goods and services at almost any store in the U.S.

If you are younger, the only ways in which you can open an account are by either being the authorized user to an existing account belonging to your parent or legal guardian, or you can simply set up a new account as an authorized user alongside the aforementioned figures. 

There is, nonetheless, an exception to this. In case you are an emancipated minor (this is akin to a “divorce” from the parents while still underage) you can opt to apply for an account that permits you to make use of a debit card. You must prove that you have the means to pay for any obligations that ensue from its utilization, though.

What Is the Right Age to Get Your First Credit Card?

There are diverse opinions about what is the best age to open a credit card. Some believe that 18—or even younger—is sufficient, as some folks think that responsibility is a character trait ingrained in personality, not in the biological age of a person.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, many others judge this inadequate, as they are inclined to reflect that you must gain some experience before you earn your credit stripes.

Here are some valid reasons why you should get your card closer to the age of 18:

  • Credit establishment and building. Credit cards are an easy, convenient, and fast way to build credit and there are many cards for customers with no credit history.
  • It teaches you how to manage your budget well.
  • You learn that your actions have consequences. If you make deliberate mistakes, you will definitely face repercussions.
  • You learn the value of money.

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Why You May Want to Get Started as Soon as Possible?

Getting a credit card under 21 seems to be a prowess not apt for the faint of heart to an average person. However, you have to consider that though it can be perilous in nature if done wrong, it can also reap considerable rewards when done right too.

For instance, if you are 18 years old, and you are beginning to cement your financial status for the future, building credit is one of the best actions you can undertake. So, if done judiciously, it can help you down the road.

But there are many other reasons for getting started as soon as possible with credit cards:

  • You gain experience. The sooner you get started, the more experienced you will be later on. This is certainly going to help you later when you need to make important financial decisions.
  • You learn the value of responsibility! As much as we want to deny it, most of the understanding we gain regarding this aspect is by trial and error. Credit cards give you a real sense of responsibility and ownership for your actions.
  • You build credit history. Length of credit history matters for credit scores. The sooner you get started, the better your chances are at building a good credit score.
  • You reap more benefits. Better loan interest rates, benefits such as lower maintenance fees, and others that simply make your life easier.
  • You can save money. You can use credit card points to to get a bunch go rewards.

What Are the Risks? And How Can You Avoid Them?

Credit cards can be thought of as hammers: You can either use them to secure a nail, or you can use them to break a window. Likewise, with credit cards, the way in which you use them makes the difference. 

If you are planning on getting a credit card, especially at a reasonably young age, you have to know the risks and limitations associated with them:

  • You can rack up considerable debt. Since credit cards function upon the premise of having a bank institution lend you money and you returning it—plus interest—in the future, that can potentially lead to debt. Always spend what you can pay in full and do not go overboard.
  • You can damage your credit score. If you make late payments—or do not repay at all—you run the risk of ruining your scores. Always pay before payments are due.
  • Interests can be much higher than for other financial instruments. Look for the different credit card service providers, and compare cards and issuers to see which one works best for you. Also, use credit cards responsibly once you get a hold of them.
  • They oftentimes have hidden costs. You must always be careful with this. You must always read the fine print before signing any agreement. Whenever you have questions about any clauses, seek for counseling to grasp a better understanding.
  • You are prone to suffer online fraud. Do not insert any sensitive information online of your credit cards. If you do so—i.e., to make a purchase—make sure the site is reputable, and that it is part of a well-known payment network.

In this chart using data from Urban Institute, you can see that the age group 43 to 47 carries the highest average credit card debt. This age group has almost double the credit card debt of their under 32 year old counterparts or seniors aged 68+.

 

Signs You Might Be Ready to Get a Card

There are numerous telltale signs that you are ready for your first credit card, and most do not rely on your age, but rather on your character and sense of responsibility. 

Here are a couple of good ways to properly assess whether you are ready or not:

  • You are a consistent money-saver. You always find a way to save some dollars and have favorable money-saving qualities. Being able to delay gratification for the sake of responsibility is a clear-cut sign.
  • You are an overall responsible person. Besides financial aspects, you also have other areas of your life under control. For example, you can take good care of your pet, or you are applied to school.
  • You seldom shop impulsively. Still, a bit of occasional indulgence hurts no one. However, if this is not the norm, you are sensible with your spending, and you reflect on the usefulness of each purchase, which is a good indicator of financial responsibility.
  • You have an emergency fund. Life can sometimes throw you off balance. But that does not matter because you are covered. Emergency funds can help you avoid defaulting on your payments.
  • You are an organized individual. You keep your bedroom neat, your car looks mint, and you take your general personal appearance in stride. But unfortunately, the organized ones have the upper hand when it comes down to credit cards. 
  • You understand how a credit card works—APRs, interest rates, maintenance fees, etc. If you are acquainted with these words, you are ready for a credit card.

Can I Get a Prepaid Card Before 18?

You may also be wondering if getting a prepaid card before the age of 18 is possible. Many people go for this option, as it is a great way to dip your toes and take your first steps into the financial world. It proves to be a happy medium between complete financial liberty and absolute restriction.

Prepaid cards are debit cards you can load with money to pay basic expenses. Many parents give their children prepaid debit cards under the condition they prove themselves to be suitable for this.

If you are a minor, you can get a prepaid card, but you must become an authorized user. This means that your parent or legal guardian will also assume this responsibility with you.

When you get a prepaid debit card, you will manage to expand your economic capacities, and you will also gain the benefit of not having to carry so much cash around with you. Visa and Mastercard offer this service.

How to Choose Your First Credit Card?

There are many notions to give thought to before choosing your first credit card company. As a rule of thumb, before electing any credit card company, you should evaluate your reasons for acquiring a credit card in the first place. Getting one without a specific aim is the financial equivalent of playing with fire and expecting not to get burnt.

Once you have laid out what you plan to accomplish with it, and the general uses you are going to incur in, you can proceed to choose your first card by following some of these steps:

  • Assess your credit possibilities and limit yourself to your available options.
  • Look for different issuers and compare cards for beginners. Some offer some advantages at the expense of other downsides too.
  • Try taking a “bare bones” approach to the companies you choose. It is best to go for traditional service providers instead of store-oriented cards. The former ones will help you build credit and will give you global benefits.
  • Examine the terms and conditions. As tedious as this is, it can spare you more than a headache in the long run. Read carefully.
  • Make a decision and fill in the application form!
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Baruch Mann (Silvermann)

Baruch Silvermann is a financial expert, experienced analyst, and founder of The Smart Investor.  Silvermann has contributed to Yahoo Finance and cited as an authoritative source in financial outlets like Forbes, Business Insider, CNBC Select, CNET, Bankrate, Fox Business, The Street, and more.
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