If you don’t have citizenship, permanent residence, or a worker’s visa in the US, then you’ve probably found yourself in a difficult position when asked to present a Social Security number. Not having a Social Security number can be a major obstacle when applying for jobs, loans and credit cards, but that doesn’t mean it has to be a dealbreaker for your finances. A federally recognized identification number and a credit history are all you need to get a credit card, and both of those are easy enough to acquire, regardless of your immigration status. With enough planning and coordination, you should be able to acquire your first American credit card within the next 12 months. Here’s our guide to getting a credit card for anyone who doesn’t have a Social Security number.
Get an ITIN
Even if you’re not eligible for a Social Security number, you’re almost definitely qualified to get an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN). In many respects, ITINs are practically the same as SSNs: they’re administered by the IRS, used for tax-related recordkeeping, and they follow the same exact nine-digit format (XXX-XX-XXXX). The only real difference is that non-citizens who do not have a work visa still qualify for ITINs. All of this is specifically intended so that non-citizens can use their ITIN in place of an SSN whenever asked to present a federal identification number. So when a credit card issuer asks for your SSN on a credit card application, you can enter your ITIN instead, and feel confident that that will be sufficient.
The IRS deliberately makes it as easy as possible for non-citizens to acquire an ITIN, since it’s practically impossible to pay income taxes without one. Applications can be made in person at an IRS assistance center, through a certified acceptance agent, or by mail. You can read more about your options and instructions on how to apply for an ITIN here. Once you’ve applied, it should take no more than two months to hear back from the IRS.
Establish a Credit History
Now that you’ve got a taxpayer ID number, you’ll need to establish a credit history before applying for a card. Credit histories are crucial because they prove to potential lenders that you are a reliable borrower who pays their debts in a timely fashion. Without a history, you won’t have a credit score, which is one of the first requirements on any application for an unsecured credit card. Since American credit bureaus do not recognize any foreign credit history, you’re probably starting fresh if you haven’t borrowed any money from a US-based lender.
You have a couple of options for establishing a credit history. You can get a secured credit card, which is specifically designed for people who need to build their credit score or do not have a credit history. These cards require you to provide a security deposit — usually between 200 and 500 dollars — that the issuer holds onto as collateral in case you fail to pay your bill. The amount of your deposit will also serve as your credit limit, assuring the issuer that they’ll never actually lose money on your account. If you regularly and responsibly use this account to pay for bills and purchases, you should be able to establish a credit history (and therefore a credit score) in about six months. And that money you deposited when you opened the account is always just a phone call away — if you’ve paid your bills in full and decide you need your deposit back, you can have it fully refunded by closing the account at any time.
Even though secured credit cards are the most commonly used method for establishing credit history, they’re by no means the only one. Credit-builder loans are another great way to build credit, but like secured cards, they require you to make a sizable deposit upfront, which will be returned at a later date. Newer services, like Deserve and Self Lender, offer great alternatives to traditional methods of credit-building, since neither requires you to make a payment upfront. Self Lender is exactly what it sounds like — it requires you to make monthly payments for a one- or two-year period, at the end of which, you’ll receive all of your money back, and a small chunk of interest to boot. Assuming you make all of your scheduled payments on time, you’ll have gone a long way towards exhibiting that you’re a dependable borrower.
Apply for the Right Card
Once you have an ITIN and an established credit history, it’s finally time to start thinking about acquiring an unsecured credit card. You’ll want to do as much as you can to maximize your chances at approval, since a rejected application will hurt your score and damage your chances of getting the card you want in the future. That means that you’ll probably want to wait before applying for travel rewards cards, which require an “EXCELLENT” score (750-850). Instead, try to apply for a card that only requires an “AVERAGE” or “GOOD” score (between 600-750) — plenty of great rewards cards fit this bill, and offer a solid shot at approval. Be sure to check your score with one of the three credit bureaus and take a look at your free credit report so that you can know where you stand — if you notice any irregularities, you might need to fix an error in your report.
The Bottom Line
Not having a social security number is definitely a hurdle in the credit card application process, but it’s far from a dealbreaker. With an ITIN and an established credit history, you should have no trouble applying for credit cards with great rewards. And once you’re approved for your first unsecured credit card, you stand to gain a great deal from the various benefits of owning a credit card.