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How to Get a Credit Card For a New U.S. Immigrant

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Running a small business or just being an everyday consumer can be difficult without having a credit card.

It can help pay for things before you have the money in hand, such as business owners who need to buy supplies before being paid for their services.

But getting a credit card can be difficult for immigrants who are new to the United States, whether they’re recent arrivals or legal, permanent residents who have been in the U.S. for years.

More than 1.1 million people legally immigrate to the U.S. each year, according to the Migration Policy Institute.

Such legal immigrants can have difficulty getting credit, and people who come to the U.S. illegally as undocumented immigrants can have more problems getting credit.

While it’s not illegal for lenders to offer illegal immigrants a credit card, it may be controversial.

Some banks may require citizenship or a Social Security number, or SSN, to issue a credit card, which even legal, permanent residents may not have.

While there’s no legal requirement to verify citizenship, immigration status, or SSN, lenders can choose to do such verifications as a way of checking the credit history of such applicants.

Instead, lenders usually ask for proof of employment or an individual taxpayer identification number, or ITIN, to prove identity and to weigh if someone is a good risk for credit.

Lack of credit history

New immigrants who haven’t yet used credit products in the U.S. can face their first hurdle in getting a credit card by lacking a credit history — or at least one that credit reporting companies can easily find.

Without such access, the agencies can’t compile a credit history and the applicant is left with a “thin” credit file or no file at all, according to a report by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in July 2016 about financial education programs for immigrants.

If they have accounts in good standing in their home countries, the data may not transfer to America so it can be considered by U.S. lenders.

They may also have damaged credit, just as nonimmigrants can, because they don’t understand the costs or impact of missed payments and the importance of credit scores in obtaining credit.

Some immigrants are confused about the documents needed to open accounts. A survey of Latin America immigrants found that 25 percent believed that opening a bank account required a SSN or driver’s license. In fact, some banks accept foreign passports, consular IDs or other alternative forms of identification, the CFPB says.

For immigrants who can’t get a credit card in the U.S., here are some ways they can overcome the requirement by some banks to have a Social Security number. Here are some other ways to get a credit card:

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Alternative identification

Some credit card companies ask for a SSN, but others will accept alternative forms of identification. An individual taxpayer identification number, or ITIN, is the most common option. It’s a number the IRS issues to nonresident and resident immigrants.

Banks may be more lenient than credit card companies in accepting alternative ID. Another option is a Matricula Consular, a card that countries such as Mexico, Guatemala and Argentina issue as identification. The cards are issued by some governments to their citizens who are living in foreign countries

A 2012 FDIC survey found that a majority of banks accepted a non-U.S. passport or some other nontraditional form of ID from prospective customers, according to the CFPB.

Credit card companies aimed at immigrants

Some credit card companies have credit cards designed specifically for immigrants. They can have lower credit score requirements, might not require a co-signer and need little to no credit history.

The Deserve Edu credit card for international students doesn’t even require a SSN. It can be a good starter card for someone who pays their balance in full each month.

A credit card called CreditStacks targets relocating professionals. A SSN isn’t required and applicants can be approved before moving to the U.S.

Get a co-signer

Adding a co-signer to a credit card application can make approval easier. A relative or trusted friend with a strong credit history guarantees that your debt will be paid if you fall behind on payments.

This reduces the company’s risk of you missing payments, and increases the likelihood of approval.

Be an authorized user

On the other side of the two-person application option is becoming an authorized user on someone else’s credit card.

You can use the card, make payments and build your credit over time. Your account activity is added to your credit report, helping you build a positive credit history.

This option can also backfire for both people using the card. If the authorized user makes purchases that the original cardholder didn’t approve, the original cardholder is still responsible for making payments. They’re also liable if the authorized user doesn’t make a payment.

Secured credit cards

If you can’t get a regular credit card, then a secured credit card may be easier to get and can help you build a credit history so that you can get a regular credit card someday.

Secured cards require users to deposit money into an account that acts as their credit limit. Deposit $500 and you can charge up to $500 in purchases. Once you hit your limit, you can’t make more purchases until you make a payment.

Without credit, immigrants can have a difficult time buying a home or car. A credit card can also be a lifeline for immigrants starting a business in the U.S. For immigrants seeking legal status in the U.S., having a credit card can be part of a paper trail that helps them establish residency.

Whatever their reasons for wanting a credit card, immigrants have options that can make establish credit in the U.S. possible.

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