8 Banking Options for College Students

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If you held a part-time job in high school, you may have a bank account or even a credit card in your name. But if you didn’t work — maybe you just cashed those babysitting checks — you may not be used to dealing with more than just some money in your pocket.

In college it’s a different ballgame: 23 percent of full-time under-graduate students work 20 or more hours a week, and most college students work at least a few hours a week. Rather than blowing your hard-earned cash, you may need to save some of it for tuition, books and other college-related expenses.

The best way to do that is to make sure you choose the banking solution that’s right for you. That’s exactly what my wife and I are helping our daughter do as she prepares to attend college this fall.

Based on our research, here are the main banking options for college students, along with some of the good and bad things about them.

College Students’ Banking Options

The banking options are endless. Nearly all large banks offer student-specific solutions alongside their more traditional options. Here’s a quick breakdown of the main options available to students:

Capital One 360 Money Account

I’ll start with the option our daughter will be using this fall as she goes off to college. Described as a teen checking account, the Capital One Money account is ideal for college students. Both of our children have used the Money account since Capital One 360 bought out ING Direct, and it has been an excellent tool to teach them financial responsibility.

Here are the Pros and Cons of the Money account for college students:

Pros

  • No fees or minimum balance requirements;
  • 38,000 fee-free Allpoint® ATMs and 2,000 Capital One® ATMs;
  • Earns interest;
  • Allows parents and their children to manage the account together;
  • Easy to transfer money to and from the account online;
  • Free MasterCard® Debit Card (with PayPassTM) for all purchases & text alerts when transactions are made.

Cons

  • Cannot deposit checks at a Capital One Bank or ATM.

The one negative listed above requires some explanation. Capital One bought out ING Direct to form Capital One 360. Capital One and Capital One 360, however, are technically two separate banks. I think the time will come when checks can be deposited at Capital One branches, but I know from personal experience that it’s not possible at the moment. The good news is that you can deposit checks with your smartphone, which is what we do. You can also set up direct deposit.

Bluebird by American Express

Bluebird College Student Card

Bluebird by American Express

The Bluebird® by American Express is another banking option for students that offers virtually no fees and a lot of features. It’s offered by American Express and Walmart, and it has several advantages for college students.

Pros

  • Virtually no fees;
  • No ATM fees if you use a MoneyPass ATM (but only if you have direct deposit set up);
  • Can add money via direct deposit, bank transfer, or smartphone;
  • Can add cash at most Walmart stores;
  • Subaccounts that allow parents and teens to have a card;
  • Includes many American Express benefits such as purchase protection, fraud protection, and roadside assistance.

Cons

  • Does not pay interest;
  • Free ATM only if you have direct deposit set up;
  • American Express is not accepted everywhere.

Here’s a video that describes all of the Bluebird features:

School Bank Card

Nearly 900 colleges and universities in the U.S. have debit card relationships with banks and other financial institutions, according to the N.Y. Times. Sometimes these debit cards look like regular debit cards, and they may include your school’s logo. Or your school may turn your student ID into a debit card.

While these debit cards are convenient — you can often load your student loan disbursements directly onto them — they aren’t usually the best option. In fact, many of these cards charge hidden fees, such as the $38 per overdraft fee charged by the major player Higher One.

So don’t just accept your school’s debit card arrangement. Instead, read the fine print and shop around before using one of these cards:

Pros

  • Gives you easy access to student loan disbursements;
  • Is easy to use around campus;
  • On some campuses, use of your student ID/debit card may net you discounts.

Cons

  • Lack of transparency means you may not be aware of all the associated fees;
  • Higher fees are charged for typical college student financial behavior, like using another bank’s ATM or overdrawing an account.

Traditional Checking Account (National Bank)

Many large banks, like Citi and Chase, offer checking account options made just for college students. These accounts may offer lower fees than traditional banking accounts through these same banks.

For instance, the Chase College Checking account waives the $6 monthly fee until you graduate, for up to five years after you open your account, as long as you have a monthly direct deposit coming into the account.

Wells Fargo has a similar option, which waives the typical $3 per month service fee to students who link the account to a Wells Fargo Campus ATM, maintain a daily balance of at least $500, or post direct deposits of at least $25.

Such affordable options as these can be great for college students, who need to make the most of every dollar. Still large for-profit banks may charge higher fees on other things, such as overdrawing a checking account or getting money out of a different ATM, according to Forbes.

Nevertheless, this is the option we’ll choose for our daughter. She already has the Money account from Capital One 360, which as noted above is an ideal choice for college students.

Pros

  • Student account options are often cheaper than traditional accounts;
  • ATMs and banks are widely available with large, national banks;
  • You can get both checks and a debit card;
  • Online banking can make managing your money easier;
  • Many offer excellent checking account promotions.

Cons

  • Hidden, unexpected fees can drain your available cash;
  • Customer service at some of the larger banks can be less personal and more hit-and-miss than at smaller credit unions;
  • A checking account won’t help you build credit.

Traditional Checking Account (Local Credit Union)

Smaller local credit unions often offer accounts similar to the large banks’ and may have student checking options on hand. The difference is that credit unions often come with lower fees for everything from ATM withdrawals to overdrafts.

Also, credit unions are often known for their more personable feel. Because they’re smaller institutions, they may cut you some slack if you have financial troubles.

Plus, building a relationship with a credit union now could help you later if you need a loan. Credit union lending requirements tend to be less restrictive, so you may be able to get a loan even without stellar credit.

On the flip side, credit unions are harder to access because they don’t have as many branches or ATMs (though many reimburse or don’t charge ATM fees). But more credit unions are offering online banking to help negate this issue.

Pros

  • Similar, affordable checking account options for students;
  • Often charge lower, fewer fees;
  • May be more flexible and understanding if you have financial problems;
  • Often offer the same debit card and online banking privileges as larger banks.

Cons

  • Aren’t available everywhere, so can be hard to work with if you’re traveling;
  • May have fewer options for different types of accounts.

Prepaid Card

Prepaid cards can be a way to bank without a bank. These cards, which look and spend like credit or debit cards, allow you to load cash and spend it as needed. Most allow for direct deposit of your paychecks, which can make them more convenient.

Prepaid cards can be quite convenient for college students. In fact, some college’s student IDs double as prepaid cards (rather than debit cards). These cards can also be a good way to force yourself to stick to a budget, because you can’t spend more than is available on the card.

Prepaid cards, unlike credit cards, don’t charge interest (because you’re not going into debt) and don’t require a credit check.

On the other hand, prepaid cards can come with some pretty high fees. Some have high opening fees, monthly maintenance fees, and fees for loading the card. So you must do your research to find the best prepaid card options before you decide which card to use.

Also, if your parents are giving you some spending money for school, prepaid cards can be helpful. Some offer the option for parents to load money onto the card for the student to spend.

Pros

  • Easy to get, no credit check required;
  • Won’t let you overspend;
  • No debt or interest building up;
  • Spend like credit or debit cards online and in person;
  • Can be easy to reload and check balances;
  • Can offer credit-card-like rewards;
  • Parents can load money on student cards.

Cons

  • Don’t help build your credit history;
  • May come with high fees.

Credit Card

While you don’t want to run up a bunch of credit card debt, when used wisely credit cards can be a decent option for college students. New credit card rules mean that some cards come with longer zero-percent APR promotional periods and better rewards.

If you don’t have much of a credit history, you may need to apply for a specialized student credit card, like the Capital One Journey Student Rewards Card or the Discover It for Students Card. Since cards like these are designed for students, they don’t require a high credit score to get.

Credit cards can help you build your credit history, as long as you use them well. Some, like the Capital One Journey Card, give you free access to your monthly credit score so that you can track your score.

Pros

  • Help you build credit;
  • May have long zero percent APR periods to take advantage of;
  • May come with cash back or other rewards;
  • Often offer online account management.

Cons

  • Can be tempting to go into debt;
  • May have high interest rates after the introductory period;
  • May be more difficult to get without a credit history.

Using Parents’ Account

If you can’t get an account on your own — or if you mostly rely on your parents to fund your school-related costs, anyway — you may become an add-on to your parents accounts. In fact, if you’re applying for any sort of credit, you may need to have your parents apply as co-signors so that you can leverage their credit history.

It’s usually easy to get a credit card issued to you from your parents’ account, but you will need to be careful of your spending. After all, your parents will ultimately be responsible for your spending, and you don’t want to take advantage of them.

You may also be able to use your parents’ checking account, or a secondary checking account set up with your name on it, for your banking needs. This can be helpful if your parents want to transfer a set amount of money to you each month, especially if they can link the secondary account to a savings or primary checking account.

Pros

  • You don’t need to have great credit;
  • Your parents can hold you accountable for your spending decisions;
  • You can easily get money from your parents when they need to give it to you.

Cons

  • This doesn’t help you build your own credit or banking history;
  • Parents will also have access to your money if you deposit into a joint account.

Which Is Best for You?

Now that we’ve laid out the basic banking options for college students, it’s up to you to decide which is best for you. If you’re like many students, your best bet is probably a combination.

For instance, if you want to develop good spending habits but also need to save money, consider a checking account and a prepaid card. Deposit your checks into the checking account, and then transfer a small, set amount of cash to your prepaid card to spend.

As long as you don’t otherwise touch your checking account, you won’t overspend, and you’ll have some money stashed away for larger school expenses.

One thing to note: if you’ll have any money at all to save, open a savings account. Set aside money to pay down student loans, to buy your first home, or just for an emergency. You’ll be glad you did.

Published or Updated: July 28, 2014
About Rob Berger

Rob founded the Dough Roller in 2007. A litigation attorney in the securities industry, he lives in Northern Virginia with his wife, their two teenagers, and the family mascot, a shih tzu named Sophie.

Comments

  1. Gary says:

    As a college student, I found the best solution was a direct bank. I am with Ally, who refunds all of my ATM fees, so it doesn’t matter if I am at home or school in that sense. With mobile deposit options, I really don’t need a local branch, especially in college.

    • Rob Berger says:

      Gary, thanks for the input. I have an Ally account, too, and have been very happy with it. And the mobile deposits, which Capital One 360 also has, is a great feature. Although it’s still a bit weird to me to deposit a check and still have the check. I never quite feel comfortable getting rid of the check, even after the deposit clears!

  2. I have always had the best experiences with credit unions and would recommend them to anyone, especially college students. I had an issue with an ATM eating my cash recently and my account was credited within an hour of me calling them just based on my word. I am not 100% sure if a traditional bank would provide the same service.

  3. I have a credit union that has worked out quite well. I can deposit checks with my phone, but also can pull out money from almost any credit union atm. Capital One 360 is also a good bet.

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