The Best Credit Cards for New College Grads

Selecting the right piece of plastic depends on your spending habits, lifestyle, and credit history.

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If you’re graduating this spring, there’s one thing you probably want as badly as a job: a credit card. That’s because the new credit card regulations, as well as the credit crunch and stepped up limits on how card companies can market on campuses, have made it harder for college students to own their a piece of plastic. But as soon as you graduate into the real world and start earning income, the world of credit opens up, and credit card issuers try to woo you with the intensity of a street hustler selling sunglasses.

Choosing the best credit card out of hundreds is no easy task. Just as with first apartments, one size doesn’t fit all. Step number one is to try to predict whether you will carry a balance. If the answer is yes, then you’ll want to focus on finding the lowest interest rate card available. Of course, ideally the answer will be no, so you can avoid paying interest and fees, but sometimes recent grads ring up a bit of debt as they find their footing.

[See The Best Credit Cards for College Students.]

If you plan to pay off your balance in full each month, then you have more flexibility to look for extra perks that your card can provide, from rewards to cashback to travel insurance. CardRatings.com, which compares credit card offers, recently released its top picks for credit cards for college students. The list is based on the fact that many new grads have little credit history, need funds to help launch their new lives, travel often, and have relatively large entertainment expenses.

Here are the top picks, according to CardRatings.com:

For recent grads who are on the road a lot: The Discover Open Road Card, which offers a zero percent teaser rate, one percent cash back on all purchases, and bonuses for gas and restaurant purchases as well as a $75 gift certificate to Restaurant.com (for a limited time).

For recent grads sprucing up their first apartment: The Sony Card from Capital One, which offers electronics and entertainment rewards, bonus points for Sony purchases, and up to 10 months with a zero percent interest rate.

For recent grads who spend a lot on movies and restaurants: The Citi Forward Card, because it offers extra reward points for spending at restaurants, movies and bookstores, as well as extra perks, such as a lowered interest rate, for paying on time and signing up for online-only banking.

[See the best personal finance stories from around the Web at the U.S. News My Money blog.]

For recent grads who are planning big, overseas trips: The Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card, because it doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees and offers more flexible airline mile rewards. Miles earned don’t expire and can be used on any airline and on any day.

For recent grads with no credit history: The Orchard Bank Classic MasterCard, because it sends E-mail and text messages to remind card users to pay their bills and stay below their credit limits and provides frequent credit bureau updates to help users build their credit history more quickly. Customer service is available by phone or online and the online interface makes it easy for users to track their purchases and follow a budget.

Graduates looking to build their credit history can also do so by serving as an authorized user on their parents’ credit accounts or putting utility bills and other accounts in their own name. They can also use a secured card, which essentially functions like a debit card and is pre-loaded with cash.

In addition to researching recommendations such as the ones mentioned above, college grads should also do their own customized research on comparison sites, including  BankRate.com, Credit.com, CreditCards.com, CardRatings.com, IndexCreditCards.com, and NerdWallet.com . These sites make it easy to search by factors that matter most to you, such as low interest rate or travel rewards.

Before applying for a new card, consider checking out your credit report to make sure there are no errors. You can get your report free of charge once a year from annualcreditreport.com. And don’t rush too quickly into your decision, either, because opening and closing accounts until you settle on your favorite card can hurt your credit score.

The bottom line: Many college grads need new credit cards shortly after graduating, and taking the time to choose the right one can help get your post-collegiate life off to a shiny new start.

Kimberly Palmer (@alphaconsumer) is the author of the new book Generation Earn: The Young Professional's Guide to Spending, Investing, and Giving Back.