The Best Credit Cards for PhDs

As a PhD student, you might rule out the possibility of getting a credit card because you don’t make much money. However, credit cards are the most often used payment method in the United States, and they do offer some value. The complimentary insurance, points and sign-up incentives for US credit cards are advantageous. Many credit cards offer sign-up bonuses that can amount to hundreds of dollars when the card is first activated. You can also use the credit cards to make daily purchases that gives you cash back of your purchase.

This post was written by Chiungwei Huang (PhD in Chemistry) on behalf of Dr. Dave Maslach for the R3ciprocity project (check out the YouTube Channel or the writing feedback software). R3ciprocity helps students, faculty, and researchers by providing an authentic look into PhD and academic life and how to be a successful researcher. For over four years the project has been offering advice, community, and hope to students and researchers around the world.

Dave’s comment: I have a love / hate relationship with credit cards. My family mostly uses our debit card, but we do have a family credit card for special purposes related to travel. I also use it for conference travel because it gives us an extra month before we have to pay our bill. It takes 2 months for institutions to reimburse travel, so we are usually only 1 month out of cash. We do not use credit cards for regular purposes.

Why do I find credit cards troubling? You will easy get behaviorally sucked into overspending and not paying your bills will credit cards. Remember: They are marketing to you, and use them wisely. Not everyone should use them.

You cannot spend or points your way into wealth. Do not think of them as any wealth building tool.

I treat credit cards as the same category as alcohol, cheeseburgers, or pain-relievers in my life: I normally don’t use it, and am trending towards using it less, but on occasion, they make sense. Be very cautious – if done incorrectly, they can lead to massive loss in your life!

A person’s credit history is also important to Americans (Dave’s comments: It does not matter as most people think. You can live perfectly fine without credit. Remember: You cannot point your way into wealth. Do not get a credit card to get a credit history.). Many people in the US have a credit card — even a single person may have a number of cards for different uses (Dave’s comments: I would suggest that having more than 1 credit card is financially irresponsible in most cases). Using credit cards can effect your credit score. The credit report usually has a direct association to the interest rate on a mortgage, a vehicle loan, or the success approval of a credit card application when applying for more than one credit card. 

In light of this, if you are a PhD student, even an international student who has just arrived in America, you may consider applying for a credit card. Years of graduate school would be perfect for accumulating credits and be useful once you graduate and begin life after your PhD (Dave’s comment: Again, be cautious. I have met more people that have had longterm problems with credit cards than prosper from them. BE CAREFUL). Check out this blog post about living before and after a PhD: Things to Do and Think about Before Starting a PhD Program and What You Learn From Doing a PhD

In short summary, there are two benefits of using a credit card:

Benefit #1: Build your personal financial credibility

Properly using credit cards can help you establish good credit over time, allowing you to rent an apartment (You don’t need it, but it helps for some housing situations), buy a car or a house (Dave’s comment: We do not lease our cars. We save up for the car and pay full cash for it. Buy a reliable second hand car like a 2-3 year old Corolla, or ride your bike and take public transportation. Leasing is in general a poor financial idea. You are overspending.), and have a lower interest rate. Remember that credit is established through a track record of timely repayment of loans. For beginners, the simplest option is to use a credit card to cover daily expenses and always promptly pay monthly bills.

Benefit #2: Win Prizes

American credit cards provide a variety of rewards, such as cash and points. You can earn free cash rewards of your monthly living expenses and redeem points for and even exchange it for a free flight ticket to go on vacation, attend a conference, or visit family back home. Some credit cards offer a free sign-up bonus worth hundreds of dollars even right after you apply and activate the card.

(Dave’s Comments: WARNING. They are marketing to you. You cannot outsmart a credit card company. Do not fall for points gimmick.)

Choosing one (or more than two) credit cards

Here are different mindsets that help guide you in choosing a credit card:

  1. You are a busy PhD student and don’t want to spend time researching credit cards. You only need one credit card to cover your daily expenses, such as grocery shopping, refueling and meals. You can apply for a no-annual-fee card that covers other spending categories. The card can be kept for an extended period of time without having to worry about minimum expending requirements or annual fees.   
  2. You are still a busy PhD student who wants to use credit cards to earn points to exchange for hotels and airline tickets. The points would be used for vacations to celebrate any research milestone when publishing a paper, giving a conference talk, or simply taking a break from research. (Dave’s comment: NEVER make purchasing decisions because of points. We do not care about our points. It will never lead to wealth in your life. We only use it for occasional things like conference travel.)

Learn more about budgeting as a PhD student in this post: How to Survive Financially as a Graduate or Doctoral Student

Also check out this video on PhD student budgets: PhD Student Budget: Should You Invest In Stocks During Graduate School? ( Grad School Budgeting )

Applying for a credit card issued in the US requires a credit history and credit score, which is usually difficult for someone with no credit card using history. Just as you would not lend money to a stranger, banks don’t like the idea of lending money to someone with a blank credit history.

You can obtain your first credit card in one of the three ways:

  • Apply for a secondary card 

Parents and family members can assist you in applying for a secondary card that’s supplementary to their primary cards. However, you need to keep in mind to the limitation. If the family members fail to pay their bill or exceed their credit card limit, you may be inherited their low credit score. You can request to deactivate your secondary card once you’re able to apply for a card on your own, which your future credit history will not be influenced by the past family history. (Dave’s comment: While this is possible, it generally a bad financial idea. You want to be financially independent from anyone to reduce your liabilities. DO NOT DO THIS.)

  • Apply for a secured Credit Card

You deposit money in the bank to ensure you have enough money to pay off your credit card bill, and the bank issues you a credit card with a very low credit limit. (normally no more than $500). (Dave’s comment: This is an okay idea.

  • Apply for a card on your own

If you’re looking for your first card but don’t have a social security number, SSN, which is likely for international students who just arrive in the US, these are the options you can use.

  1. Deserve Edu 
    1. It’s ideal for international students who are unable to obtain an SSN in a timely manner or no credit history
    2. $30 credit card churners: You can earn $30 after making a purchase with the card that’s made within three months of activating the card
    3. Other benefit: 1% cash back; No annual fee; First year of Amazon Prime service
  1. BoA Cash Back Rewards 
    1. You can apply without a credit history or SSN, but it is recommended that you go to a Bank of America branch to apply on-site in addition to depositing an amount into BoA’s checking account for a successful approval. 
    2. 2% cash back in market shopping; other shopping with 1%
    3. No annual fee
    4. Note: there will be a 3% foreign transaction fee. (Don’t use BoA if you are out of the country!)
  1. If you have SSN, Discover I.T. credit card would be a good option.
    1. You can apply without a credit history.
    2. Besides 1% cash back, every quarter there’s a 5% cashback in certain categories. For example, you can earn 5% cashback on and Digital Wallets between October and December in 2022. 
    3. There’s a double cash back for the first year. For example, if you get $1000 in cash, you will earn an additional $1000
    4. No annual fee
  1. If you’ve been using credit cards and have a couple of them, you can consider the Chase Freedom Flex credit card.
    1. You can earn $200 after making a purchase of $50 with the card that’s made within three months
    2. Start accumulating credit point and transfer the points to airline and hotel points: Chase Bank’s Ultimate Rewards (UR) credit card points will not expire unless you close the credit card and do not transfer the unused credit card points to other accounts.


  • If you don’t have a credit history or an SSN, applying for Deserve edu online is the simplest option. Otherwise, you can apply for a BoA Cash Rewards card at one of the BoA branches. Applicants with no credit history who wish to apply for this card are normally required to make a deposit with BoA.
  • If you don’t have a credit history but have an SSN, Discover IT is great newcomer card. The 5% reward each quarter makes it well worth keeping for a while. You can apply it online.
  • When you’re ready for an advanced credit card and have a good credit history and score, the Chase Freedom Flex is a good choice for credit points for free hotels and airline tickets.

Dave’s comments: Here is what we did. Both my wife and I do not use a credit for anything other than usual purchases, such as travel. WE DO NOT USE CREDIT for almost all purchases.

We had a basic, no frills credit card from our bank. In Canada, we used the basic credit from Royal Bank of Canada. This is good enough for you.

When we transitioned to the USA, we still used a basic credit card. We have a basic credit card from Royal Bank of Canada in the USA (RBC USA) when we made the transition to the US. The reason was that they used our Canadian credit score which was good to help us transition to the US. Even today, we do not use it for anything other than conference travel.

Recently (September 2022), we are experimenting with a Capital One Venture X card – we paid about $400 for an annual fee. The reason we are trying this credit card is mainly for travel. We are doing more travelling and we wanted to get access to the airplane lounges.

As of now, I have been unhappy with the Capital One Venture X card. We are contemplating cancelling the Venture X card. It has been a hassle. In both airports (London and Atlanta), I could not get into their airport lounges. I also had poor customer service when I called to cancel a hotel we booked for Hurricane Ian when the hurricane changed course.

However, we will likely experiment with the card for a year to see what happens. Perhaps, will let you know then.

Lastly, keep in mind that you should not apply for any credit card. Banks evaluate your applications based on your credit history, credit score, and the number of cards you’ve activated in the last few months to two years. If they reject one of your applications, your credit score may suffer as a result. It is always best practice to use the same credit card for all purchases on your first card, and to begin applying for other credit cards after accumulating credit history and a good score.

Check out this blog post about life after a PhD: What You Learn From Doing a PhD and this video for more insight.

Does Life Get Better After A PhD? (Life After Getting Your Doctorate)

Recent Posts