When it comes to navigating the world of credit cards, college students are in a unique position. On the one hand, they are a very special class of consumer, banks prize college-educated customers and offer them better credit card terms than their credit standing would suggest they merit. On the other hand, the new the CARD Act makes it harder than ever for college students to qualify for credit cards, since most of them are under 21 years old. So, what’s a college student to do?

Build Credit ASAP

Not getting a credit card shouldn’t really be an option. While it would be easiest to simply wait until they turn 21 to begin their careers with credit, doing so would mean sacrificing valuable credit-building time. Every month that a consumer has an open credit card account in good standing means positive information is relayed to his major credit reports, providing evidence of fiscal responsibility and in turn, boosting his credit score. 

Beginning the credit-building process as early as possible is crucial because having a solid credit score will become apparent as soon as graduation day comes, maybe even before. If students want the option of taking out a loan, leasing a car, renting an apartment or landing a job that involves a security clearance or the handling of money, they better focus on finding a way to get their hands on the most efficient credit-building vehicle around: a credit card.

How to Overcome the CARD Act

The CARD Act stipulates that most students under 21 must have an adult co-signer to open a credit card, so this crowd has two options as it relates to opening a credit card. First, college students who have the monthly income or sufficient savings to cover a credit card’s monthly minimum payments (usually around $15) after paying their other monthly financial obligations don’t have to do anything other than apply for a student credit card. Everyone else can ask a relative or close friend be a co-signer. This person must simply be over 21 and have the independent assets or income required to cover the monthly payments.

Find the Right Credit Card

Once students determine how to clear the CARD Act hurdle, their next challenge becomes finding the right credit card for their needs. The first round of elimination should include all cards with monthly or annual membership fees. Students typically aren’t the most flush consumer demographic, and no annual fee student credit cards allow them to accomplish their primary goal: minimizing the cost of credit building.

The type of card a student picks depends on whether she plans to pay the bill in full every month and can therefore focus on rewards, or whether she needs to lower the cost of already-incurred debt or avoid interest on an upcoming big-ticket purchase. We have listed the best student credit card for each need below:

Rewards: Journey Student Rewards from Capital One – Offers 1% cash back across all purchases as well as a 25% rewards bonus each month that the cardholder pays the bill on time, making it essentially a 1.25% cash back credit card and comparable to some of the best cash back credit cards.

0% Purchase APR: Discover Student More Card – Gives users nine months to pay down significant purchases before an interest rate kicks in.

Balance Transfers: Pentagon Federal Credit Union Platinum Credit Card for Students - Although this card is offered by a credit union and requires that you pay a $15 membership fee, it also offers 4.99% interest on balance transfers for 24 months and has a 3% balance transfer fee. This card therefore affords students the time they need to pay down transferred balances, given their limited incomes. For students looking for a balance transfer credit card at this point in their credit career are on the wrong path. In order to build credit as efficiently as possible, students should strive to pay their bills in full every single month.

Finally, it is important to note that, regardless of what credit card students pick, the most important thing is to make on-time monthly payments and not let the card lead to wild spending habits. After all, while a credit card is the most efficient credit builder, if used recklessly, it could damage a student’s already limited credit standing.

Odysseas Papadimitriou is the CEO of credit card comparison website Card Hub.