When I was 15, I signed up for a chaperoned month-long bicycle tour. Before leaving, my parents made sure that I was carrying a credit card — I was an authorized user on their account. The idea was that I could always use the credit card instead of cash if I needed to pay for a meal or any crucial supplies.
Many of the kids on that trip were stunned to find out that I had my own credit card. Perhaps their parents didn’t think a minor could (or should) have a one. But it was a smart move by my parents, and it helped me on more than just that bike tour.
What’s the minimum age to obtain a credit card?
You must be 18 years old to open a credit card account as a primary or joint account holder: There is no credit card for kids. And even then, the CARD Act of 2009 places special conditions on applicants ages 18-21. These young adults must prove that they have the means to repay the loan, or they must have a co-signer who’s 21 or older.
Nevertheless, children below the age of 18 can become authorized users under their parents’ (or anyone else’s) account. Authorized users can make charges to an account, but they aren’t legally obligated to pay them. Then again, an authorized user can’t make any account inquiries or redeem rewards.
There’s no industry-wide standard for the minimum age of an authorized user. Some parents have reported receiving cards for their children as young as 7 years old, while others note that they’ve been able to order cards without even being asked for the birth date of their authorized users. On the other hand, American Express requires authorized users to be at least 15 years of age.
How old should an authorized user be?
In America, there’s a raging debate about how old children should be just to go unsupervised for even brief periods of time, with parents being scolded or even reported to authorities for letting them play in a park without supervision. In response, author Lenore Skanzy has written a book and begun a moment to promote Free Range Kids, who are more self-reliant.
As a parent myself, I know we’re the best judge of when our children are mature enough to handle a credit card responsibly. But as a credit card expert, I’d recommend parents introduce credit card use to their child well before he or she will actually need to carry a card.
This process can start with letting a child “borrow” a parent’s credit card to make a small purchase — if only to learn how the card works. Parents can also show their child how they pay their credit card bills, explaining carefully that everything charged on the credit card must be paid back with money they’ve earned.
Only then should a parent provide an authorized card for their child — and I’d recommend only for specific and agreed-upon purchases. If parents are afraid their child will rack up costly charges, purchase a gift card with a small balance or obtain a debit card that offers parents the ability to set a spending limit. While I could imagine a 7-year-old child being responsible enough to use a credit card for small purchases, it’s still hard for me to envision a situation where a child that young would actually need a credit card.
For most children, ages 10-13 is about the time they’d first venture into a store without an adult, perhaps to buy fast food or see a movie. Parents with children who are maturing less quickly or haven’t displayed sufficient responsibility might want to wait even longer and exert more supervision when doing so.
On the other hand, it would be a mistake to actively deny even the most challenging teenagers debit and credit card use until age 18. That will only lead to uninformed and irresponsible use of credit as an adult.
So whatever you do, parents, don’t do nothing. That’ll come back to haunt you.