Most banks require a Social Security number when you apply for a credit card. But if you don’t have an SSN, you still have options.
The best way to build good credit is to use the credit you have wisely.
But if you’re an international student or a new immigrant to the country, qualifying for a credit card can be a challenge. This is because many card issuers require a Social Security number (SSN) on the application. If you don’t have one, you won’t qualify for those cards.
There is hope, however.
Some credit card issuers will accept visa or passport information from applicants. Other card issuers will allow people to apply for a credit card with what is known as an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN), which can be used to file income taxes. You can get an ITIN without an SSN.
Social Security number vs. Individual Taxpayer Identification Number
SSNs are issued by the Social Security Administration to people born in the U.S. or are authorized to work in the country. New arrivals to the U.S. can apply for an SSN if they are approved to work in the country.
An ITIN is issued by the IRS and is used when people need to file their taxes. The number is given to nonresident and resident aliens and their spouses and dependents who can’t obtain an SSN but must still pay U.S. taxes. Nonresident aliens, for instance, might need an ITIN if they are engaged in trade or business transactions in the U.S. throughout the year since they need to file taxes on this income each year.
Using an ITIN as a workaround
If you are an international student studying in the U.S., you can apply for an ITIN even if you are ineligible for an SSN. You’d do this if you are in the country on an F-1 visa (students in traditional academic programs) or an M-1 visa (students in vocational programs).
To get an ITIN, you must first complete IRS Form W-7, also known as the IRS Application for Individual Taxpayer Identification Number. You’ll need to provide documents that prove your foreign or alien status and true identity. You can submit this information by mail or in person at an IRS Taxpayer Assistance Center.
Credit cards that don’t require a Social Security number
What you need to apply for a credit card depends on the issuer:
- American Express will accept applications from people with an ITIN or passport information.
- Bank of America will accept applications from people with an ITIN or passport information.
- Capital One will accept applications from borrowers with an ITIN.
- Chase allows applicants to use an ITIN in place of an SSN.
- Citi accepts applications from consumers with an ITIN.
- Discover requires applicants to submit an SSN.
Newcomers to the country or international students who get an SSN or ITIN may still struggle to qualify for a traditional credit card. Without a credit history in the U.S., international students and new immigrants are starting from scratch. And unfortunately, your credit history in a different country doesn’t automatically transfer to the U.S.
Building credit with a secured card
Galina “Allie” Petrova, an attorney in Greensboro, North Carolina, says newcomers to the U.S. and international students without a credit history here should consider secured credit cards as a way to help build credit.
A secured card works much like a traditional unsecured credit card, with one notable difference. When you take out a secured credit card, you must provide a deposit to the bank or financial institution issuing your card. That deposit acts as your card’s credit limit. If you stop making your payments, the bank behind your card can pay itself back by drawing on this deposit.
“That really is the best option for newcomers to the country to build credit,” Petrova said. “A secured card is limited. Your credit limit will usually be smaller. But it is a good way to slowly build your credit.”
Ty Stewart, CEO and president of Simple Life Insure in La Jolla, California, agrees that secured credit cards are often a good choice for immigrants. Since issuers have your deposit as insurance, they risk less when they approve you for a credit card.
“Criteria for these differ from traditional cards and often don’t require a long credit history,” Stewart says. “The model makes the approval rate on secured cards much higher.”
Andrew Latham, certified personal finance counselor and editor at SuperMoney.com, has firsthand experience navigating the U.S. credit system as an immigrant.
“It’s a Catch-22 situation,” he said. “You need credit to build your credit history, but you need a credit history to get credit.”
Latham didn’t qualify for any credit cards when he moved to the U.S. after spending most of his life in Spain and Nicaragua. He eventually applied for a secured credit card and qualified for one with a $200 line of credit. That wasn’t much spending power, but within six months, his credit score had risen enough to qualify for a no-frills unsecured card. After using this card to continue building his score, Latham chose a credit card with an expanded rewards program.
Other cards designed for credit building
But there are still some options to build a credit history without a secured card. Credit cards like the Petal® 2 “Cash Back, No Fees” Visa® Credit Card are designed to help applicants with no credit history build one without a deposit. And you don’t need an SSN to qualify.
The Petal card is designed to help people build their credit history. It accepts applications from customers with permanent residence in the U.S., an SSN or an ITIN. You must also be at least 18 years old (or at least 19 if you live in Alabama or Nebraska).
“Petal was created to help people get access to a high-quality credit card even if they don’t have a credit score,” Jason Gross, Petal’s CEO and co-founder, said. “This includes those who’ve yet to build credit in the United States but who are otherwise creditworthy.”
Unlike most cards designed for credit building, the Petal 2 Card offers cash back rewards. Cardholders will immediately qualify for 1% cash back on eligible purchases. But as you develop a history of making on-time monthly payments, that cash-back bonus will eventually reach up to 1.5% (after making 12 on-time monthly payments).
It is possible to get a credit card without an SSN, and you have different options depending on your situation. But whichever card you choose, it’s important to start building a credit history as soon as possible since it comprises 15% of your U.S. credit score.