Foreign exchange students can build a US credit score

To Her Credit columnist Sally Herigstad
Sally Herigstad is a certified public accountant and the author of "Help! I Can't Pay My Bills: Surviving a Financial Crisis" (St. Martin's Press, 2006). She writes "To Her Credit," a weekly reader Q&A column about issues involving women, credit and debt, for, and also wrote for MSN Money, and, and has guested on Martha Stewart Radio and other programs.

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Question for the expert

Dear To Her Credit,
I'm a 20-year-old college exchange student from China. I expect to be here in the U.S. for at least four more years going to school. Can I get a credit score, even if I am not a U.S. citizen? Should I even bother?  -- Mei

Answer for the expert

Dear Mei,
Yes, you can have a credit score as an exchange student. You may already have one. Credit scores are an important part of our financial lives in America, and if you plan to be in the United States for very long at all, you should pay attention to yours.

You may not be worried about buying a home -- a primary reason people try to boost their scores. However, four years is a long time. If you start graduate work, you could be here longer. A good score can make a huge difference for you.

Michael Abramsky, senior consultant at, says, employers, insurance companies and lenders all look at your credit. "So if she ever plans on applying for a job, obtaining financing for a vehicle or getting insurance for said vehicle, a good credit score will save her money and open many, many doors."

There is no requirement that you be a U.S. citizen to have a credit score. Abramsky says that anyone with a tax identification number (TIN) can have one. "Both F-1 and J-1 students can apply for either a tax ID number or a Social Security number," he says.

If you don't already have at least one credit card, consider applying for a card that caters to newcomers and first-time cardholders. You don't need a large credit limit -- in fact, a lower limit can make it easier to stay out of debt.

When you get the card, be very careful with it. Don't spend money on the card just to get the benefits of a good credit history. You could buy a tank of gas or a week's worth of groceries once in a while, and then pay it off before the grace period is up. Carrying a balance from month to month won't help you build your score any faster.

Be sure to keep your balance low throughout the month, especially when you might want your score to look its best. That's because you don't know when in the month the bank will report to the credit bureaus, and it always seems to be right after a person buys airline tickets or a new sound system. You can always make more than one payment in a month to keep your balance low if you need to. Abramsky recommends that you keep your balance at no more than 20 percent of your credit limit.

Another way to boost your credit score is to ask your landlord, cellphone company and so on to report your history of on-time payments to the credit bureaus. They are not obligated to do so, but it doesn't hurt to ask. With relatively little effort, but a lot of consistency paying your bills, you can build a credit score to be proud of. Best of luck to you in your studies and as you take care of your credit!

See related: New citizen tips for building good credit

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Updated: 02-21-2019