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How to build credit when you’re not a US resident

Summary

Getting a U.S. address and Individual Taxpayer Identification Number are the first steps

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QuestionDear Opening Credits,
I am a person who is trying to build credit in the U.S.A. Unfortunately, I don’t work or live here. I just come by often. Is there any possible way of building credit without having a Social Security number? – Cesar

 

Answer

Dear Cesar,
To have a credit history, a company would need to send information about your actions with a credit or loan product to the credit reporting agencies. The easiest and fastest way to create a positive credit rating is usually with a credit card. Get one, charge occasionally, pay on time and keep the balance at zero, and you’ll have a positive credit rating.

To qualify for your own credit card, though, you’ll need to have what the credit issuer is seeking in an applicant – and at the very least that includes a United States address. Such a requirement makes perfect sense. An unsecured credit card is an inherently a risky product to grant. If you don’t pay a debt that you incur with it, the issuer only has only two methods of recourse. The first is to sue you for the balance owed, then attempt to force a payment with a court order. The second is to sell the account to a third-party collection agency, which purchases the debt for a fraction of the balance. Because no lender wants to do either of these, it will want to be as sure as possible that you will adhere to the terms of the contract before extending the credit line.

Living outside the country is cause for concern. You might just charge up the card and then leave for good. That makes you a particularly risky customer, even if you know you would never do such a thing. However, I called a few credit card companies on your behalf and asked how you might proceed. The answer: As long as you can list a legitimate U.S. address where you reside when you are in the country and can get mail there, you should be fine.

Regarding your lack of a Social Security number, as long as you have an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN), it’s not necessary. If you don’t have an ITIN yet, visit the IRS website for the application process.

Presuming you have a genuine address here and get the ITIN, here are a few ways to obtain a credit card:

  • Begin with a bank or credit union account. You can open a checking and savings in the U.S. If you sock money away and keep the checking account in good standing, the financial institution may be willing to also extend you a credit card. A credit union that caters to an immigrant population is a great place to start.
  • Consider a secured credit card. A credit card issuer might allow you to take out a secured card instead of an unsecured one. With it, the credit line is guaranteed by the amount you put down as collateral, so the lender’s risk is automatically minimized. Most issuers send information about a secured cards to the credit reporting agencies, but not all do. Before applying for a secured card, call to make sure.
  • Become an authorized user. The majority of credit card issuers allow account owners to assign authorized users. If you know of someone here in the U.S. who has a credit card and who is willing to make you an account guest, great. The information about that account will show up on your credit reports. The only problem is if the account is mismanaged, as it will harm all cardholders’ credit ratings.

After having and using a credit card for a few months, check your credit reports on annualcreditreport.com. You should see that account listed. The longer it’s showing a perfect payment history and no debt, the better your credit rating will be. After six months, you will have a credit score, and if you keep paying bills on time, it will be a good one that will qualify you for other types of credit.

See related: 5 questions every authorized user should ask

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Published: March 30, 2016

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