Whether you’re temporarily moving to the U.S. for school or work, or making a long-term transition, you may be looking to open a new credit card. However, even for citizens and permanent residents, it can be difficult to get a credit card if you don’t already have a credit history in the United States.
Here's the good news: you can now apply for an American Express card using your international credit history from selected countries. This is one reason American Express cards could be a good option. Another is that Amex reports to all three credit bureaus, so you should start building U.S. credit history when you're approved for a card and use it responsibly.
Here are a few of our top picks on the Best Credit Cards for U.S. Immigrants:
Best for Dining and Travel: American Express® Gold Card
Best for High-End Travelers: The Platinum Card® from American Express
Best for Families: Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express
Best for Young Professionals Without Credit History: CreditStacks
Best for International Undergraduate Students: Deserve® Edu Mastercard for Students
Best for International Graduate Students: Discover® it Secured
Another Option: Ask Your Current Card Issuer or Employer
Best for dining and travel: American Express® Gold Card
If you prefer dining out or are frequently on the road, the American Express® Gold Card has rewards that will align with your usual spending. You’ll earn Membership Rewards points with your purchases, which you can redeem in a variety of ways, such as for cash back, gift cards, or to book travel. The options are usually using your points to book travel through American Express or transferring your points to airline or hotel loyalty programs.
How to apply with international credit history (applies to all Amex cards)
On the American Express application page, you will have the option to click "I don't have credit history in the U.S." in the Social Security Number (SSN) field of the application page. You can then also skip the SSN field. Amex will always check for your U.S credit first, but if they can not find a U.S. credit file they may enable you to transfer your international credit history as part of the application. This is available for newcomers from Canada, the UK, Australia, India or Mexico.
What the card offers: The American Express® Gold Card stands out with its rewards rates on purchases:
4 points per dollar you spend at US supermarkets on the first $25,000 in purchases each year (then 1x points)
4x points on restaurants worldwide
3x points when you book flights with amextravel.com
1x points on other purchases
Additionally, you’ll receive $10 in statement credits each month for purchases at select restaurants. Plus, $100 in statement credits to offset airline fees. The card also doesn't have a foreign transaction fee.
Potential cons to beware of: There is a $250 annual fee if you want to have the American Express® Gold Card. There are other travel-focused rewards credit cards that offer a variety of perks with a much lower fee. However, they may be more difficult to qualify for unless you’ve already established credit in the US.
The statement credits can also be tricky with the American Express® Gold Card. For example, the $10 monthly restaurant credit is only valid at a few chain restaurants and it expires each month (i.e., you can’t save up for one large meal). The airline-fee credits are also only for incidental fees, such as checked bags, and only apply to one airline. You can change your airline choice each January.
Best for high-end travelers: The Platinum Card® from American Express
The Platinum Card® from American Express is one of the company’s most well-known cards and it was one of the first premium cards on the market. It still offers a suite of benefits that appeal to frequent travelers who want a more luxurious experience, but it also has a high $550 annual fee.
What the card offers: Fitting for a travel-focused card, The Platinum Card® from American Express doesn’t have a foreign transaction fee. You can also use it to earn five Membership Rewards points per dollar you spend when you use the card to book flights with the airline or through American Express Travel.
Simply for having the card, you’ll receive gold status in the Marriott and Hilton hotel loyalty programs and have access to a variety of airport lounges. These benefits can make traveling much more pleasant as you could wind up with room upgrades, free meals, and have a relaxing place to work or unwind before and after flights.
The card’s statement credits can make the annual fee a little easier to swallow as well. You’ll get $15 in Uber Cash for rides in the US monthly (plus an extra $20 in December), $200 in airline-fee credits, and a $50 statement credit for Saks Fifth Avenue purchases twice a year. Once every four to four-and-half years you can also receive a statement credit for the cost for a TSA Pre✓ ($85) or Global Entry ($100) membership.
Potential cons to beware of: The annual fee is the biggest con to watch out for. Even with the statement credits and perks, you might not get enough value out of the card to justify spending $550 each year.
As with the American Express® Gold Card, the statement credits can sometimes be tricky to use (and if you don’t use them you lose the credit). You’ll also earn Membership Rewards points with the card. There are many options for redeeming points, but it’s best to use your points to book travel or transfer your points to a partner program and book a rewards flight or hotel stay.
Best for families: Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express
American Express has several cash-back credit cards, which you can use to earn cash back on a variety of purchases. In particular, the Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express offers bonus cash-back earnings in categories that could appeal to younger adults and families.
What the card offers: Using the Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express, you can earn:
6% cash back on the first $6,000 you spend at US supermarkets each year (1% cash back after that).
6% cash back on qualified US streaming services
3% cash back at US gas stations
1% cash back on other purchases
The card offers one of the highest earnings rates at supermarkets, making it a good pick for individuals or families who frequently purchase lots of groceries. If you’re amongst the many people who prefer streaming services to traditional cable or satellite TV, the streaming service bonus category is also appealing.
Additionally, you may be able to earn a $250 statement credit as an intro bonus if you use the card to spend $1,000 within three months of opening your account.
Potential cons to beware of: There is a $95 annual fee, and the annual spending cap that applies to cash back at US supermarkets may be limiting for large families. The card’s 2.7% foreign transaction fee could also be off-putting if you want to use the same card in and outside the US.
Also, be aware of the limitations on what counts as a supermarket. Specialty markets, such as a wine shop or butcher, might not qualify, and superstores (such as Target) or warehouse clubs (like Costco) aren’t part of this category.
Best for young professionals without credit history: CreditStacks Mastercard
CreditStacks was founded in 2015 and offers just one credit card. However, that credit card is created specifically for professionals who are relocating to the U.S.
What the card offers: The CreditStacks Mastercard will have a $5,000 credit limit, no annual fee, and doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees. It also comes with Mastercard cardholder benefits, including travel and mobile phone insurance.
One of the potentially most appealing factors is that you can get approved for the card up to 60 days before you move to the U.S. As a result, you’ll be able to move knowing you have a card available to help you buy whatever you need during and after the transition.
While revolving a balance can still be expensive, the CreditStacks Mastercard has a lower APR than some other cards for people who don’t have credit in the US.
Potential cons to beware of: You can’t earn rewards with the CreditStacks Mastercard, which may make it less appealing than other credit cards. CreditStacks also only reports your account and payment information to Equifax, and having the card won’t help you build a credit history with TransUnion or Experian.
Best for international undergraduate students: Deserve® Edu Mastercard for Students
Deserve, originally named SelfScore, was founded to help international students get a credit card while in the US The company now offers three different credit cards, including two cards that don’t require a Social Security number or credit history to qualify for. We have a more in-depth article on credit cards for international students here.
What the card offers: The Deserve® Edu Mastercard for Students could be a good fit for international students studying in the US You don’t need to have a Social Security number or US credit history to qualify (although, if you do, it will be considered). Instead, you can link your bank account during the application process and Deserve will analyze your financial history to determine if you qualify for the card and your credit limit.
Cardholders will be eligible for a variety of perks, such as discounted renters insurance, free cell phone insurance and a lifetime total $59 reimbursement to cover the annual cost of Amazon Prime Student.
The Deserve® Edu Mastercard for Students doesn’t have an annual fee or foreign transaction fees that some cards charge on purchases made outside the U.S. or in non-U.S. Dollars. You’ll also earn 1 percent cash back on all your eligible purchases.
Potential cons to beware of: The Deserve® Edu Mastercard for Students has a high annual percentage rate (APR). The APR can help you understand the annual cost carrying a balance based on your card’s interest rate.
If you pay your bill in full each month, the interest rate won’t be applied to your balance. However, if you think you may make large purchases and then take several months to pay off the balance, you might wind up paying a lot of interest based on your APR and a different card could be a better fit.
Deserve will also only report your account and payments to two of the major three US credit bureaus, TransUnion and Experian. As a result, you won’t establish or build your credit history with Equifax. If you apply for a loan or different credit card in the future and the company wants to review your Equifax credit report and a credit score based on that report, it might not find anything, and you might not be able to get approved.
Best for international graduate students: Discover® it Secured
Discover doesn’t have as much of an international presence as Visa, Mastercard, or American Express, but most major retailers and online stores will accept it in the U.S. The Discover® it Secured is a secured credit card, a type of card that’s created for people who have a poor or no credit history and want to build or rebuild their credit. Secured cards work just like unsecured cards, but require a refundable security deposit when you open the account.
Did you know?
You can use your international credit history to apply for a U.S. credit card
Credit history used to stop at the border—until now. Your existing international credit history could help you get credit in the United States.Learn More
What the card offers: The Discover® it Secured Card is one of the few secured cards that’s part of a rewards program. You can earn 2 percent cash back on your first $1,000 worth of combined purchases at gas stations and restaurants each quarter, and earn 1 percent cash back on all other purchases. Discover will also double your cash back earnings at the end of the first year.
The card doesn’t have an annual fee or foreign transaction fee. Discover also reports your payments to all three major credit bureaus and can send you a free FICO® Score based on your TransUnion credit report with your monthly statement, allowing you to track your credit score over time.
Potential cons to beware of: As with other secured credit cards, you’ll need to make a refundable security deposit to open your card account. The card’s credit limit will be equal to your security deposit (e.g., a $500 security deposit means your account will have a $500 credit limit). Once you’ve built your credit history in the US, you may qualify for an unsecured credit card. You’ll get your refundable security deposit back when you close this card account (assuming you’ve paid off your credit card bills).
You’ll also need a bank account and Social Security number to apply. You may be able (and required) to get a Social Security number if you’re eligible to work at your university or off-campus with the school’s approval.
As with other rewards and secured credit cards, the Discover® it Secured Card has a high APR, which can make revolving a balance especially expensive.
Another option: ask your current card issuer or employer
You may have years of credit experience in your home country, or be moving to the U.S. with a high-paying job lined up. Your current financial relationships and employer may be able to help you get approved for a new card in the states.
Several card issuers and banks, including American Express, BNP Paribas, Citi, and HSBC have transfer programs for their relocating customers. Additionally, some employers in the U.S. have relationships with local credit unions or banks. You could ask your company’s human resources department, or whoever is helping you with the relocation, about options.
If you don’t currently have a credit card and there aren’t any employer-based options, consider one of the non-student-specific cards listed above.
How to get a credit card without a Social Security number
Many credit card applications will ask you for a Social Security Number (SSN). However, you don’t necessarily need a SSN to complete an application or qualify for a credit card.
Some issuers, such as Deserve and CreditStacks, are very clear about being able to apply without a SSN. As mentioned above, American Express enables it as long as you can apply with international credit history from select countries. Other major card issuers may also let you apply using a non-US passport or another form of government identification to verify your identity.
If you’re not eligible for a SSN, you may be eligible for an Individual Tax Identification Numbers (ITINs). For example, if you received a taxable scholarship you’ll need an ITIN to file your United States tax return. Depending on the card issuer, you may be able to use an Individual Tax Identification Numbers (ITIN) rather than a SSN during the application process.
Even if you don’t have a SSN, you can still build credit in the U.S. if you have a credit card, loan, or another credit account that’s reported to the credit bureaus.
The major credit bureaus can use your name, address, and other identifying information to create a credit profile and tie your accounts to your credit reports. Your credit profile can also be tied to your SSN if you get one in the future.
As an alternative to a credit card, you may be able to get a prepaid card and use it like a credit card. However, prepaid card issuers won’t report your account information to the credit bureaus and having a prepaid card won’t help you build your credit history.
How to use your new credit card effectively
There are many reasons to want a credit card. Perhaps you want to be able to easily shop online, you’re building credit in the U.S., or you’re planning on making a large purchase and paying it off over time. You might just want a line of credit in your pocket as a backup in case of an emergency.
Whatever your reason for getting a card, responsible and proper card use can help save you money and improve your credit profile. Here are a few simple tips to remember:
If you can, pay off your balance in full each month to avoid paying interest. And don’t worry, you don’t need to carry a balance to build credit (that’s a myth).
Even if you can’t pay the monthly bill in full, be sure to always make at least your minimum monthly payment. This will help you avoid late payment fees and negative marks on your credit reports, which can hurt your credit scores.
Read your credit card’s terms and agreements pages, which will list the card’s fees, APR, and details about its rewards programs.
Using a large portion of your available credit line can hurt your credit scores, even if you pay off the balance each month. If you’re focused on improving your scores, try to only use a small portion of your credit line or making early payments and bringing down the card’s balance before the end of each monthly statement period.
Learn more about rates and fees for the American Express® Gold Card, The Platinum Card® from American Express, Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express, CreditStacks Mastercard, Deserve® Edu Mastercard for Students and the Discover® it Secured card.
Find the credit card that’s right for youExplore credit cards
More from Nova Credit: