How a College Student with a Small Income Can Get Approved for the Best Travel Credit Cards

Posted By Trav

I regularly get emails from readers who are college students asking me how they can begin racking up frequent flyer miles and start traveling for free.  My standard response was twofold:

1.  It is great that you are getting started so early (something I wish I had done) but…

2.  They most likely won’t get approved for all the best travel credit cards out there (those listed on the Best Current Deals page) because their income is too low.

However, longtime reader Mark emailed me and alerted me to a way that college students with low incomes may be able to bypass that step and begin getting the best travel credit cards, like the Chase Sapphire Preferred or Chase United Explorer….


He explains it perfectly, so I’ll let him take it away:


Quick update on something cool.

My daughter is 21 and a senior at the local university now.  She has never applied for a credit card before and I decided to roll the dice and apply for the Chase Explorer Card for her. 

So, we applied online and of course got the “we’ll have to review your app and we’ll send you our decision in writing with 10 business days” reply.

Well, a few hours later, I had my daughter call the Chase reconsideration line.  Before she called, I wrote out a “script” for her to follow once she got the chance to say something to the Chase rep.  

When she called, the lady initially told her “I’m sorry you were denied because of low income” (which we had listed $ 3,000).  I had told her to be prepared for an initial denial but to be ready for an opening to “tell her story”.   

When she got an opening, bam, she let our script fly and nailed it !!  The lady was so impressed with her high GPA, her major (Music Education) and her leadership areas that my daughter was in that she said  “wow, let’s revisit this here”. 

She then asked if my daughter would want to list any scholarships that she earned for school as income and also if she could add any income that she might get from her mom or dad and so we slapped 15 grand more onto to her income and so she now had $ 18,000. 

The lady put her on hold and then came back and said “great news, you’re approved and you have a $4500 credit line”.

We were stoked !!

Anyway, feel free to spread this info with your followers – that if they have a student who doesn’t even had a card yet that they can get one (if they are prepared to tell the rep why – and be positive, energetic, etc.).

Talk to you soon.


My first thought was “WOW, THAT IS AWESOME!”

My second thought was “I can’t wait to tell all the other readers!”

I’ve always hated not having a better answer to all those ambitious college students looking to get a head start on the world of free travel, feeling like I always burst their bubble by telling them they’d most likely get denied for the best travel credit cards.

Now, it looks like I have another message I can tell them.

Three Most Important Things to Consider

This doesn’t mean that every college student out there should go thinking that they can go and get approved for every travel credit card out there.  There are three important points to consider from Mark’s email:

1.  Mark’s daughter got approved for a Chase card.

From my experience, and the experience of a lot of readers, Chase is BY FAR the most lenient when it comes to reconsidering you for cards that you’ve initially been denied for.

This is because you are always able to talk to a real person who has power to make the decision to approve you right then and there after hearing your reasoning.  This is not always true for American Express, and almost never true for Citi.

If I was a college student with a low income, I’d definitely limit my applications to Chase because the odds of a successful reconsideration by most other lenders is small.

Luckily, most of the best cards out there are offered by Chase, like the Chase Sapphire Preferred or the Chase Marriott, so this isn’t too big of a deal.

2.  Mark’s daughter played up her strengths.

In her case, this was her high GPA and leadership in various clubs and activities.  In your case, it might be something different, such as a great internship you’ve secured, a proven track record of community service and volunteering, or good academic standing.

Whatever it is, think of it ahead of time and then SELL YOURSELF.

As I mentioned above, the Chase representatives have the power to approve you on the spot.  They are looking for reasons to approve you, so give them those reasons!

This is no time to be modest or passive.  Highlight your strengths and your potential going forward.

3.  Mark’s daughter was able to pad her income so that it looked respectable.

She was originally denied because she had such a low income, which makes sense.  Credit card companies can’t justify giving a credit card to someone who only makes $3,000 a year because they know that person can’t put much spend on the card, and if they do spend alot, they won’t be able to repay it.

However, it seems that if they like you (remember, sell yourself!), they’ll help you work around this small income by allowing you to pad your income to look much higher than simply the salary that you make working at the university cafe or refereeing intramurals.

Before calling, figure out how much money you actually bring in each, including scholarships that you get and also money that you may receive through other means, such as from your parents, grandparents, or other channels.

Then, if they ask about your income, you can tell them that you put down your “salary”, which is small, but that you actually have some additional income that will make you look much more attractive to the credit card company.

If they don’t ask, then suggest it to them by saying “I put down the actual salary I get from my part-time job, but I do have other areas of income” and list them, including scholarships.

A Word of Warning

While every single person should be constantly monitoring their credit score and making sure that opening cards isn’t affecting their score negatively, it is especially true for college students.

The credit score of a college student or someone with a very limited credit history will be even more susceptible to swings (both good and bad) based on their use of available credit and the amount of cards they open.

I’d strongly suggest that college students with a short credit history find the one card that they want the most and ONLY apply for that card.  Use it, always pay off your statement in full each month, and build up your credit for at least a year before considering another card.

While there are a number of people out there opening up card after card and pulling off App-o-Ramas, this type of behavior is not for people with a short credit history and/or a small income.

Don’t get greedy!

Realize that by starting in the frequent flyer mile game early, you are setting yourself up in a good spot to take advantage of free travel for the rest of your life…but only if you protect your credit and maintain a good score.

You’ve heard of the tortoise and the hare, right?  Just remember which one wins in the end!

Final Word(s)

Thanks so much to Mark for sharing the story of his daughter and for allowing me to pass it along to other readers who may be in the same boat.

Let’s hope that the experience of Mark’s daughter can be replicated by many other smart, talented, and ambitious college students who are on the ball enough to already be thinking about setting themselves up for free travel!

If you are a college student who has any experience with getting travel credit cards or if you know a college student or young person who has had experiences with applying for travel credit cards, I’d LOVE if you shared your stories, advice, and questions below!

That way, we can help even more people start traveling for free!

(pondering photo courtesy of striatic)


  1. haylishaw says:

    Thank you for this! I just applied for a card and was denied, but I have a lot of scholarships, expect my annual income to raise over $4000 this year and have a 3.78 GPA at a private college. I pay for college by myself out of pocket and have constant school payments that I would put on the card each month. I also have a lot of volunteer experience and moved away for college completely on my own. Its nice to know this could work for me! I plan on calling in the morning, so hoping for the best!!

    1. Trav says:

      @haylishaw- Awesome, good luck and let us know how it goes. Just be confident and state your case matter of factly. You have a lot going for you! *fingers crossed*

    2. Itren001 says:

      Student loans also count as a source of income. They may not be taxable, but the banks and lenders want to see what liquidity can be used to pay debt. Some lenders frown on this, BOFA, while others, Discover, encourage it. Credit experts say this is a loophole that was not closed back in the credit protection of 2009.

  2. haylishaw says:

    Unfortunately, they weren’t able to help me.
    I applied for American express. Is there a better credit card company with reward travel, that would be easier to obtain?
    I don’t want to have to start with a student card that gives me nothing.

    1. Trav says:

      @haylishaw- What did American Express tell you? They couldn’t reconsider you over the phone? And which Amex card did you apply for? I believe that Chase is probably your best bet. I know they have worked with other college students in the past, like the example in the post. I’d recommend looking at the Chase Sapphire Preferred card, assuming you can meet the $3k in 3 month minimum spend. It gives a good signup bonus and is really useful because you can transfer points to hotels or airlines, depending on your needs.

  3. fgadfg says:

    I would love to believe this article is real, but you CANNOT claim income for a credit application that isn’t taxable! I get money from my parents every month, but when I went though the credit process, they refused to look at it because it wasn’t claimed on my tax statement! So, sorry, but you lost creditability with this article.

    1. Trav says:

      @fgadfg- Where were you told that you can’t claim income that isn’t taxable? I’ve talked to multiple credit application folks who have said that claiming your scholarships IS fine on your credit application.

  4. luke says:

    I tried this, didn’t work. They said you must have a card with $5000 dollar limit before they will even consider you for the card.

    1. luke says:

      maybe they changed their policy since then.

      1. Trav says:

        @luke- which card did you apply for?

        1. jared says:

          The wrong card. Some of the Chase cards have a 5000$ limit, like the sapphires. The freedom cards do not have this limit. Not going to get approved for these higher dollar cards without income. But the might reconsider you for another card if you ask.

  5. Angela says:

    “When she got an opening, bam, she let our script fly and nailed it !! The lady was so impressed with her high GPA, her major (Music Education) and her leadership areas that my daughter was in that she said “wow, let’s revisit this here””…
    So why would a “Music Education” increase one’s chances of getting approved? If i were the customer representative and i heard about the leadership abilities and high gpa… so far so good.. and then oh….. you say you’re a music major? That screams to me that you have no idea about how economics works to have majored in such a thing, and that you are likely to be working a minimum wage job that doesn’t require a college degree upon graduation.
    I don’t know the person mentioned about the music education.

    1. Trav says:

      @Angela- I think it was more the fact that she had all those things going for her (high GPA, leadership, plus having a major picked out and working towards it) rather than the major itself. I wouldn’t say Music Education itself would give you a leg up over other majors.

      I would argue that just because you are a music education major (or any major for that fact) doesn’t mean you can’t know about economics or that you’ll end up destitute or working minimum wage. We all know that most of the people who come out of college don’t end up working in their major anyway (I’m a history and education major and I run a website about neither of those things!).

    2. Marianne says:

      It’s one of the more difficult majors. Pretty much everyone accepted to a music education program has already proven themselves to be responsible and good at time management (which could easily lead to good money management).

  6. Tam says:

    I just gave chase a call five minutes ago. THIS WORKS! Thank you!

    1. Trav says:

      @Tam- Congrats…what card did you get?

  7. gabe says:

    Hello, I called and got denied twice then i read this article. What can I do? College student 4.0 excellent credit. However my credit establishment was too short.

    1. Trav says:

      @gabe- Unfortunately, if you called twice and followed the instructions here and still got denied, there isn’t much you can do. I’d suggest waiting another 4-6 months and trying again.

  8. Ita Maulani says:

    I was thrilled to find this article. With little fund, a student could travel abroad. It is very interesting. Anyone happy to know this great way.
    I have been twice to go abroad. However, I used own expense.
    What you described is traveling abroad using a credit card without having to prepare a lot of money. With limited money, we could go abroad. This is really interesting.

    1. Trav says:

      @Ita Maulani- Thanks, glad it helped you!

  9. Kennedy W. says:

    Is it possible to call after getting declined from an instant approval card like the Journey card?

    1. Trav says:

      @Kennedy W. – No reason not to try to calling. Can’t hurt.

  10. EY says:

    So I just graduated from College and have a job lined up starting in October. The Position requires me to travel abroad for 6 months, so I was thinking about applying for the Chase Sapphire Preferred card for its travel benefits. Until then I work part time, don’t make that much money, and have a credit card.

    So my question is, is it okay to write down the income I will make at my future job before actually making that salary?

    1. Trav says:

      I think that would be fine. However, you should make sure you will be able to meet the minimum spend requirement, which has to be done in the first three months. If you don’t think you will be able to make the minimum spend based on your current financial situation, then you won’t receive the bonus points.

  11. Justin says:

    I went to chase yesterday and calmly went in and explained this to over drafted my account a few times and it was completely my fault. The lady gave me back (3) overdrafts fees. Then I seen the credit cards sitting on the table, and I explained I worked and go to school and would love a great card to pay my bills and build credit and rewards. Boom I got the chase freedom card with a line of 4500

    I do have a job making 38k
    I’m full time student
    I do have a car I financed through Volkswagen
    But I had no history of building credit besides the car (got it in January)

    I don’t know if that helped or not.

    All you have to do is look the part and be polite, and usually things swing your way.

    Good luck

    1. Trav says:

      @Justin- Great, thanks so much for sharing. You’re right, being polite is definitely key. These are real humans making these decisions, so the more you can get them to like you, the better chance you have. Congrats on the Chase Freedom card!

  12. JB says:

    I am an undergrad Engineering student and 25, and have only 1 card opened in
    2008 which I’ve never used, plus deferred student loans as my credit history. My TU score was 707, and I applied for Sallie Mae MasterCard and was declined last week. I called for reconsideration a couple days later and they asked me my major and the agent actually said “Wow!” But when she asked my income, I gave my $7200 because that is what my 2014 Tax says. She told me basically that my income is too low and to call back when I make more (but she said it in very polite manner). I happen to have a 3.0 GPA and am President of a student organization and have some scholarship money as well as family supplemental income. I’m calling back tomorrow to mention this, and we’ll see what happens.

    1. Trav says:

      @JB- DEFINITELY call back. Use all those things you told me to your advantage. And just be confident in it…you should be able to get approved. Good luck!

      1. JB says:

        I called back and this time explained that I previously used my income from taxes and I actually make more money now and also have several thousand in my savings account though it’s all from student loans. This put me up to about 11K income which seemed to be the bare minimum Sallie Mae (or maybe for Barclay’s?) And they approved me for a $250 line of credit, which is better than nothing! Now my plan is to use it for no more than $80 each month to stay right around 30% for credit utilization. I’m hoping after several months I can increase the line.
        Thank you so much Travis for your article! I’m glad I found it and was spurred on not to give up!

  13. Jesse says:

    I called Chase’s backdoor recon line when applying for the sapphire preferred, and was told matter-of-factly that my income is too low – I didn’t know I could tell him that I’m in college and have a 3.8 GPA! I’ve heard I can call the reconsideration line again – would that work? Also, I make around $17,500 annually, working part time at a bank. I wasn’t aware that wouldn’t be enough for a lower-limit card with chase.

    1. Trav says:

      @Jesse- Yes, you should try to call back in. It never hurts. Sometimes, you’ll get a rep who is just nicer or is willing to work with you. I usually call 3x. If after the third time it doesn’t work, I give up.

  14. Abbasi says:

    Trav, thanks a lot for posting this helpful article. I am currently a full-time student at a private university. My overall scholarship adds up to $34,000 and my pocket money is another $5000-6000 a year totaling at $40,000. I currently have two credit cards both almost a year old. I want to travel abroad and want to know which credit card should I apply for to maximize my rewards. thanks

    1. Trav says:

      @Abbasi- Yeah, I would look at getting the Chase Sapphire Preferred as long as you can hit the minimum spend requirement. If you can, that’s your best overall card, and Chase is pretty good about offering credit cards to students who are in good standing and have scholarships and all.

  15. RM says:

    I tried this for the United card, but at first they said my income was too low, and they don’t count scholarships (the lady may not have understood the difference between scholarships and financial aid). When I called back and talked about having a good GPA, she said that the biggest thing was the lack of credit history. Do you have any advice?

    1. Trav says:

      @RM – I’d try one more time. My rule is to always try 3x. Mention to them that you yes, you have a lack of credit history but that you are a student who will be graduating with honors and you’re on your way to getting a good job (throw in anything you do that makes you sound good and is true) and that you want to start building up your credit and you’ve heard from multiple people that Chase is the best bank.

      So you would like this card because you want to start a banking relationship with Chase and keep them as your bank for the future.

      See if that works.

  16. Joann says:

    I’m an MD student (doctoral medicine program). I have over $70,000 in scholarships and loans to cover my expenses as we are not allowed to work outside of our program. I travel internationally quite frequently to attend conferences, research symposiums, and do volunteer medical work. The day I graduate I will be a Doctor and I’ll be making 6 figures. I applied for Chase Sapphire and was denied. I do not currently have my own credit card but I am an authorized user on an account that has both a history and 40k credit limit. I also have my loan accounts from the past 3 years. I’ve NEVER missed a payment and have a very high credit score. Should I just call back and hope to get a better person?

    1. Trav says:

      @Joann- Yep, that’s what I’d do.

  17. rodney says:

    As a underwriter, I dont give a damn about your leadership skills or GPA. Come on, an underwriter job is to minimize risk for the bank without turning off business. If parents have decent income (total of 100k or more, it is reasonable to put down 28,000 per year as income you have access to (that is the amount parents can gift you without anu tax consequences)

    1. Trav says:

      @rodney- Interesting point. In my experience (and in many others) it’s definitely helped to have all that stuff (GPA, leadership, etc.) Maybe different underwriters are different?

  18. Sonya says:

    Why is it so hard for people to get approved for credit cards? I just applied to chase, I’m a college student, listed my income as $4000, and today I got a letter that said to call them in order to continue with the process, I talked to a customer service member and she said I was approved! I didn’t have to sell myself or jump through loopholes to get it. Why is everyone else having issues? I’m genuinely confused I didn’t know it was that difficult to get a credit card.

    1. Trav says:

      @Sonya – First off, congrats. Glad you got approved. Everyone and every situation is different. Honestly, sometimes it just comes down to the representative you talk to. Some are nice and willing to work with you (like yours was) and some aren’t. But really glad you got approved!

  19. John says:

    It’s amazing how making a phone call can make a difference. College student here. I recently applied for the AAdvantage Aviator Red World Elite MasterCard and was immediately denied by Barclays. Gave the reconsideration line a call and was just asked why I was applying for the card and how often I paid off my credit cards (every month of course!). 30 seconds later I was approved. Looking forward to the 60000 AA bonus miles.

    1. Trav says:

      @John – Awesome, huge congratulations. Like I always say, it can’t hurt to ask. And if they aren’t nice, you call back and try someone else out. Doesn’t always work, but little bit of perseverance can pay off in a big way sometimes!

  20. MR says:

    Just my personal experience.

    First of all, I’m an international student who had no SSN or credit history in the United States.

    When I visited the Citi branch on campus to open a bank account, the banker said in passing that they offered unsecured credit cards for college students, even if they’re non-US citizens without SSN.

    But the process of making the application itself was the most interesting. I told the banker I had no income (apart from a modest merit scholarship), and any allowances from my family were deposited in my bank account in my home country, which I used with my international debit card.

    He just said, “Well, I’ll just say that you earn $50,000/year, and that you hold $6,000 in savings.”

    Several weeks later the card came in the mail, albeit with a low CL…although it was more than enough for daily expenses.

    With a US bank account, my parents have since started wiring the tuition and allowances to my account, and I’ve also gained on-campus employment, and thus an SSN.

    I’m hoping that I can leverage that in a couple of months, after I build my credit history some more, and get accepted for one of the United Airlines co-branded Chase cards.

  21. SoCal Dad says:

    This is a great thread and with my oldest son heading off to college this Fall, we are in the market for a CC (eyeing the Southwest card as he’ll be out of state and SWA has a lot of flights in/out, great prices, and easy change options). That is a Chase card as well!

    But I had question on this comment above from the “underwriter”: As a underwriter, I dont give a damn about your leadership skills or GPA. Come on, an underwriter job is to minimize risk for the bank without turning off business. If parents have decent income (total of 100k or more, it is reasonable to put down 28,000 per year as income you have access to (that is the amount parents can gift you without any tax consequences).

    Is he suggesting that we have our kids actually list on the original application that their income is the combination of: job income, scholarships, AND up to $28k which could be gift money from mom/dad?? Wouldn’t that not be truthful meaning you could end up getting denied?

    Or should the application only list job income, then expect the denial, and then call Chase and talk about the other money, etc. My son will be on ROTC scholarship which includes full tuition, books, fee, and monthly stipend, as well as a scholarship from the school which will cover his housing. He has a lot going for him and is essentially guaranteed a job after college (in the military). I just wasn’t sure what the thoughts were here around all the other money (scholarships, stipend, gift money) and if that should only be used when talking with them or filled out on the online application.

    Thanks for great article and glad it appears to keep working!

  22. Tracy says:

    Does my on-campus employment count as an employee on a loan application?
    I am looking to get a debt consolidation loan with a lower interest and am not sure if my campus job counts as employment.

    1. Trav says:

      @Tracy – Yep, I would definitely say it counts!

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