USCIS recently began allowing immigrants to pay fees with credit cards. While this can be beneficial in many ways, it does offer its own set of challenges. For one, many applicants have difficulty securing a credit card in the first place.
Each year, more than a million immigrants are granted legal resident status in the U.S. — a feat that not only takes significant effort and paperwork, but serious financial expense, too.
According to the U.S. Department of Citizenship and Immigration Status, initial Visa and green card filing fees cost anywhere from $65 to upwards of $3,600. Once you add in attorney’s fees and other costs, most immigrants end up paying $3,000 or more to become a lawful resident in America.
Fortunately, USCIS recently began allowing immigrants to pay these fees with credit cards. While this can be beneficial in many ways, it does offer its own set of challenges. For one, many applicants have difficulty securing a credit card in the first place.
The costs of legal immigration
Immigration costs vary by the type of residency you’re seeking and other services and processing that permit might require. These fees range anywhere from $230 for relatives of nonimmigrants to $3,750 for certain entrepreneurs. Just obtaining a green card based on marriage costs nearly $2,000, not including legal fees.
All permit types require the USCIS Immigrant Fee, which costs $220, as well as a biometric screening fee of $85. This allows the applicant to be fingerprinted and photographed. Other fees will include:
- Processing and filing fees, which vary by type of immigration you’re seeking
- Various certifications, petitions and waivers required for your permit type
- Legal fees, including initial consultation costs, retainer fees or statutory fees, in certain states
Legal fees alone typically cost between $1,000 and $4,000 depending on the attorney and the services required. Some attorneys offer flat-fee based structures, while others work on an hourly basis or using a retainer.
Financing these fees with a credit card
Hopeful immigrants can finance these fees in a variety of ways. If cash is not feasible, a credit card can be a smart choice and is now an option on more than 40 different immigration-related fees and charges.
Though any card (including all four major brands) can be used to pay for these fees, balance transfer cards can be particularly helpful in immigration scenarios. With a balance transfer credit card, immigrants can:
- Cover their USCIS fees and charges now, but spread repayment out over time
- Roll other debts and balances into the card to streamline payments
- Enjoy lower interest fees than traditional credit cards
Keep in mind that credit card payments are not available on all USCIS fees. There are some charges that require other payment methods.
Getting a credit card
For some immigrants, getting a credit card can be difficult. For one, a person’s credit history doesn’t cross borders. Even with solid credit in your home country, you may still have difficulty proving your strength as a borrower in the U.S. To increase your chances, you’ll want to work on building up your credit in the U.S. before applying for a card (tips on that below).
You can also look to credit unions for help — specificallyminority-owned ones that work with underserved populations or those without much credit history. If you already have a bank account in the U.S., starting with that institution — and going in person to apply for the card — can be a good option, too.
If you opt to use a credit card to cover your immigration expenses, be sure to use the card responsibly. Only charge fees that are absolutely necessary and have a plan for how you’ll make your payments month after month. Failing to do so can hurt your credit — not to mention your financial options in the U.S. — in the long run.
The importance of building credit
Working on your U.S.-based credit can help you secure a credit card to cover those USCIS fees and charges. Remember, many Visas and green cards require regular renewal, so you’ll want a way to pay those expenses not just now, but years down the line, too.
To start, you might want to:
- Take out a secured card with a local credit union. Secured cards require you to put down a cash deposit up front to protect the card issuer. If you pay a $300 deposit, for example, you’ll have a $300 limit on the card to pull from. The deposit will remain in the card issuer’s till in case you fail to make payments each month. If you do pay on time (every time), you’ll eventually get your deposit back and will likely qualify for a traditional credit card.
- Automate your payments. Payment history plays a big role in your credit, and any delinquencies or collection actions can hurt your credit score significantly. If you can (and your bank allows it), consider automating your bill payments to ensure no payment falls through the cracks.
- Report your rent. Reporting your rent to credit bureaus can help you establish and build credit over time. If you rent, talk to your landlord about reporting your rent payments. If he or she won’t do it on your behalf, consider a self-service tool like RentalKharma or RentReporters.
- Become an authorized user. Does your spouse have good credit? What about a family member or other loved one? Ask them if you can become an authorized user on their account. If this isn’t possible, consider co-signing on a car loan or other purchase together. Your credit will see a significant boost just by association.
Not having credit — or worse, having bad credit — can significantly impact your options for paying your USCIS expenses. In the event you are able to secure a credit card or loan with your poor credit, it will likely mean higher interest rates and more paid in interest over time.
Working with your financial institution
Immigrants — particularly undocumented ones — have historically been wary of using American banks and financial institutions. In fact, according to a survey from the FDIC, 20 percent are “underbanked,” while 7.7 percent have no banking activity at all.
In some scenarios, it’s a trust issue, while in others, it may come down to language barriers or confusion about the banking process altogether.
Fortunately, many banks are working to be more inclusive for these residents, offering services in other languages and accepting ITINs rather than SSNs on applications. To make sure you choose a financial institution that can best serve your needs, consider:
- Language – Many banks – such as TD Bank, for example – offer bilingual banking. Look for an institution that offers banking in your native tongue or, at the very least, has online resources and customer support representatives who speak it.
- Accessibility – Though many banks offer online services and even digital credit card applications these days, it’s often not the best choice for immigrants. In many cases, going to a financial institution in person — meeting the bankers and having face-to-face conversations with them — can encourage a better working relationship and more financial options.
- Networking – Meet other immigrants in your area and ask about banks and financial institutions that have been immigrant-friendly in their experience. Where have they been able to get loans, secure credit cards and find good service?
Finding the right financial institution to bank with and establishing a strong relationship with it can open many doors as you build your life in the U.S. In addition to helping you secure a card to cover your USCIS fees, it can also help you buy a car, purchase a home, fund your education and many other major milestones in life.
Keeping fees to a minimum
Most USCIS fees are set in stone, but in some cases, you may qualify for what’s called a “fee waiver” on your application or other associated costs. This requires anI-912 application, as well as a demonstrated inability to pay your fees.
Receiving government assistance like SNAP or Medicaid counts as evidence in proving your inability to pay, as do tax returns or W-2s that show your income at 150 percent below the federal poverty level. You may also need to include details about any financial hardship you’re experiencing (due to eviction, unemployment, medical disability, etc.)
These waivers are only available on certain USCIS fees, though. Fortunately, other immigration-related expenses can often be negotiated or lowered through other methods.
If you want to minimize your costs, consider the following options:
- Look for pro bono attorneys. Some immigration attorneys may offer pro bono (meaning free) services to clients in certain scenarios. If you’re unable to find an attorney who will take your case pro bono, consider one that offers a flat-fee structure, rather than an hourly rate or retainer.
- Set up a payment plan. For any legal or other services you might need in your immigration journey, ask about setting up a payment plan. This can help spread out your expenses over time, making them more manageable.
- Shop around. Don’t just choose the first lawyer you come to. Shop around, compare your options and determine which attorney can offer the best services at the best price.
You should also establish a budget early on for your immigration path. Understand what you can afford and how you will cover the costs incurred.
The bottom line
The immigration process can be hard, long and expensive. Take the time to build up your credit, find the right support team and secure non-risky financing options, and you’ll be well on your way to residency.