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 for a non-U.S. citizen 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.
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A featured pick from our partner 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
3x points when you book flights directly with airlines or with American Express Travel
Up to 12 complimentary months of an Uber Eats Pass subscription when you enroll with your Gold Card by 12/31/21
Additionally, you’ll receive $10 in statement credits each month for purchases at select restaurants. 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).
A featured pick from our partner 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 $695 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 earn 10x points on eligible purchases at restaurants worldwide and when you Shop Small in the U.S., on up to $25,000 in combined purchases during the first six months. You can also 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.
With this card, you’ll have access to The Centurion® Network, which includes 40+ Centurion Lounge and Studio locations worldwide. These benefits can make traveling much more pleasant and provide a relaxing place to work or unwind before and after flights.
The card also offers access to Uber VIP status and up to $200 in Uber savings on rides or eats orders in the US annually; $200 in airline-fee statement credits per year; and $25 back on select Equinox memberships every month.
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 $695 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.
You can find a detailed overview about the pros and cons of the Amex Platinum Card in our review: Who should and who shouldn't get the American Express Platinum Card?
A featured pick from our partner for family spending: 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: The Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express has a $0 introductory annual fee for one year, then $95. Some of the benefits include:
Earn a $300 statement credit after you spend $3,000 in purchases on your new Card within the first 6 months.
Buy Now, Pay Later: Enjoy $0 plan fees when you use Plan It® to split up large purchases into monthly installments. Pay $0 plan fees on plans created during the first 12 months after account opening. Plans created after that will have a plan fee up to 1.33% of each purchase amount moved into a plan based on the plan duration, the APR that would otherwise apply to the purchase, and other factors.
Low intro APR: 0% for 12 months on purchases from the date of account opening, then a variable rate, 13.99% to 23.99%
Earn 6% cash back at U.S. supermarkets on up to $6,000 per year in purchases (then 1%) and 6% cash back on select U.S. streaming subscriptions.
Earn 3% cash back on transit (including taxis / ride share, parking, tolls, trains, buses and more) as well as at at U.S. gas stations, and 1% cash back on other purchases. All cash back is earned in the form reward dollars and can be redeemed for statement credits.
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.
Potential cons to beware of: There is a $95 annual fee after the first year, and the annual spending cap that applies to cash back at U.S. 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 U.S.
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.
A featured pick for young professionals without credit history: Jasper / CreditStacks Mastercard
CreditStacks was founded in 2015 and offers just one credit card and rebranded to become the Jasper Card. This credit card is created specifically for professionals who are relocating to the U.S.
What the card offers: The Jasper Card will have a credit limit of up to $5,000, 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.
You can apply without an SSN, but you will need to provide your passport, visa information and proof of U.S. employment. After you obtain your SSN, you have to provide it to Jasper within 60 days of card activation.
Jasper recently launched cash back earnings of up to 6% if you refer friends successfully to Jasper. You start with 1% cash back and get an extra 0.5% for a full year for every friend you bring on board. You'll receive your cash back automatically every month as a statement credit after three on time payments. You can earn cash back as long as your account is in good standing. If your account is past due, cash back will be locked. Also, note that your cash back maximum varies based on your credit limit. You can learn more about their cash back terms and other fees in their disclosures.
While revolving a balance can still be expensive, the Jasper card has a lower APR than some other cards for people who don’t have credit in the U.S.
Potential cons to beware of: You can’t earn other meaningful rewards with the Jasper Mastercard, which may make it less appealing than other premium credit cards mentioned in this article that could be available to some newcomers. Jasper 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.
A featured pick from our partners 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.
A featured pick 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 perfect for new immigrants, 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.
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 for new immigrants. 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 an 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 an 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 responsibly
There are many reasons to want a credit card as an immigrant. 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.
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