How To Build Credit As An Immigrant

One thing I wish someone told me as soon as I moved to the USA was how to build credit as an immigrant. I learned by trial and error, and a lot of Google research. When new to a country, immigrants are credit invisible meaning that we do not exist within the financial system.  We start from ground zero and unfortunately, many immigrants get credit without knowledge of how to use it to our benefit. If you’re new to a country or if you haven’t built credit and you want to go about building good credit, this post is for you.

Why Is Good Credit Important?

In the United States (and in many countries around the world), good credit makes life easier and less expensive. This goes beyond borrowing. Can you go without using credit at all? Technically, yes. if you have cash on hand to make every purchase including cars and homes. Unfortunately, most of us are not in the position to do so, especially not new immigrants building new lives. The state of your credit can affect the following:

  • Your ability to secure a job (Some employers check)
  • Your ability to secure your desired apartment
  • Your ability to get a car loan with reasonable interest rates
  • Your ability to purchase a home for you and your family
  • Your ability to get loans to start your business

With a few intentional actions on your part, you can build good credit as an immigrant. Making the right moves right away is wonderful but even if you’ve made some mistakes, you can course-correct. With time, you can build excellent credit. Here are five ways to build credit as an immigrant using credit cards.

5 Ways To Build Credit As An Immigrant Using Credit Cards

1.Get A Credit Card

Applying for a credit card is almost often the first foray into building credit. It certainly was mine. As an international student, I applied for my first credit card after I’d had my checking account with the same bank for about a year. In that time, I had established some history of getting my paychecks from my $8 per hour on-campus job, and history of paying rent. I was able to get an initial credit of $300 which then grew to $800 and so on. I still have that credit card today as it is my longest form of credit in the United States.

When new to credit cards, consider applying for a no-fee credit card that offers rewards. If you can, automate those monthly payments to avoid any late payments and by all means, avoid using your credit card for cash advances. Catch this podcast episode on how to improve your credit score today.

2. Apply For A Secured Credit Card

If you can’t get approved for a regular credit card, then a secured credit card might be a great option for you in the short term. A secured credit card could help you build credit history as a new immigrant. Secured credit cards are specifically targeted at those new to credit or those looking to rebuild credit.  A secured credit card looks and acts like a regular credit card except that the card owner puts down a security deposit for the credit card account. The credit line will then be equal to this deposit.  As you use the card, you make monthly payments and your payment activity is reported to the 3 credit bureaus, building your credit history. After 6 months of positive history, many lenders will reassess your creditworthiness and may consider returning your security deposit.

3. Transfer over as an American Express Holder In Another Country

This option is available for immigrants that may have established good credit in other countries through the use of an American Express credit card. When you move abroad, you can take your card and credit history with you. You must have an eligible American Express Card, a home address in your new country, and a home phone number in your new country. I love that American Express makes this option available and it certainly benefited me when I moved from the US to the UK and needed a credit card. I was able to get a British Airways credit card because of my Delta Airlines American Express Card.

4. Get Added As An Authorized User On Someone Else’s Credit Card

While this is a common way for parents to help their kids get great credit right away, I personally was not aware of this as an option for a long time. This option is not limited to parents and their children. Many credit card users can add a second person as an authorized user on their credit card. This can help build credit ONLY if the primary cardholder has good or excellent credit. Otherwise, the new user would take on less than ideal credit and it would not be worth it. The authorized user would receive a credit card in their name and would be authorized to make purchases using the card. However, the primary cardholder would be held responsible for all payments. 

As such, there needs to be a high level of established trust between the primary cardholder and the authorized user. The most common scenarios are where the new user gets a card but does not use it at all. This prevents any potential issues with unauthorized spending. This remains a great way to begin to build credit.

Can You Build Credit As An Undocumented Immigrant?

The short answer is, yes you can, with an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN). An ITIN is a tax processing number only available for certain nonresident and resident aliens, their spouses, and dependents who cannot get a Social Security Number (SSN). It is a 9-digit number, beginning with the number “9”, formatted like an SSN (NNN-NN-NNNN).

To obtain an ITIN, the IRS form W-7 must be completed and mailed, submitted at a walk-in office, or processed via an IRS Acceptance agent.  See more information on the IRS’ website on how to apply for an ITIN.

Once you have an ITIN in hand you can apply for a credit card with an issuer that accepts ITINs. Here is a list of issuers/cards in the USA that do not require social security numbers.

Credit Cards in the USA That Don’t Require Social Security Numbers

  • Capital One Platinum Credit Card
  • Journey Student Rewards From Capital One
  • Deserve EDU Mastercard for Students
  • Capital One QuicksilverOne Cash Rewards Credit Card
  • Chase Freedom Unlimited
  • Capital One Quicksilver Secured Cash Rewards Credit Card
  • Bank of America Travel Rewards

How To Use A Credit Card Responsibly

Once you have a credit card as a new immigrant, it is fairly easy to use it to build credit but it is also fairly easy to make costly mistakes. Here are a few starter tips to using your credit card responsibly;

  1. Use your credit cards to make purchases but stick to purchases that you can afford to pay off each month.
  2. If you cannot afford to pay the full amount, at least make sure you make the minimum payment on time.
  3. You can have one credit card, or you can have a couple. I personally have 3 credit cards and only got my third card (a travel rewards credit card) last year. I personally like to keep a number that I can manage.
  4. Whatever you do, do not use your credit card to take a cash advance, the fees are HEFTY.
  5. Avoid maxing out your credit card if you can avoid it (your utilization affects your credit score)

How To Build Credit As An Immigrant Beyond A Credit Card

A credit card is often the first/easiest way to establish credit in a new country particularly in the United States. After a period of paying bills on time, making credit card payments, then the next step might be to get an installment loan. The most common installment loan would be a car loan.

With your good credit, you should be able to get a car loan with good to great loan terms and interest rates. Even if you’re able to fully pay the car in cash, consider taking the low-interest loan to further build your credit.  That way, when it is time to get a mortgage or business loan, you’re positioned to get the best rate, which means that you’d be using the financial system to your advantage.

While no one sat me down to have the conversation about building good credit, I was fortunate to have made a few mistakes very early on. I learned to build good credit before I needed to make a big purchase (my first car).

If you’re new to building credit, I hope this helps give you some direction on starting your journey as an immigrant. If you’ve made a few mistakes, that’s okay. You can build better credit starting now. Go forth and prosper!

What questions do you have about building credit as an immigrant?


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