Understanding how to get a credit card can already be overwhelming, and the process can seem even more daunting as an international student.
However, it’s not an impossible feat. There are avenues available, and some of the most common include getting a Social Security number (SSN), an individual taxpayer identification number (ITIN) or becoming an authorized user on someone else’s account. Having access to credit is important for small conveniences like making purchases when cash is not always handy, and it can be a key step in establishing yourself in the U.S.
Can international students get a credit card?
In short, yes, though there are notable factors that go into how international students get credit cards. When applying for a credit card, whether you’re an international student or not, most issuers will check an applicant’s credit history. Most applications will also require an SSN, though some issuers will accept an ITIN or even a visa.
The Credit CARD Act of 2009 is a major piece of credit card legislation in the U.S. that prohibits students under 21 years old to be the primary holder of a line of credit unless they have an adult cosigner or can prove their ability to repay their debts. You can usually demonstrate your ability to repay by securing employment, such as a part-time job on campus.
Tips for getting a credit card as an international student
As an international student applying for a credit card, you may need different application materials, including your student visa, ITIN and unexpired identification. However, you still need to prove yourself as creditworthy, so here are a few more tips:
- Open a U.S. bank account: A big part of getting approved for a credit card is proving you have a source of income. Establishing a monetary base in the U.S. by opening a checking account is a positive signal to lenders.
- Establish credit with new credit reporting tools: Once you have a U.S. bank account, you can use tools like UltraFICO™ and Experian Boost to report positive account activity to credit bureaus — like utility bills, subscriptions and rent payments — which can help boost your credit score.
- Get a part-time job: Depending on your student visa, you may be able to secure part-time employment, which will qualify you for a SSN and serve as your proof of income for getting a credit card as an international student.
How to get a credit card without an SSN
Though most credit card applications will require an SSN, there are different ways you can gain access to credit without one. Here are three options to get a card without an SSN:
- Request an ITIN. Some credit card issuers will accept this number for a credit card application if you do not have an SSN. You can request an ITIN through the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).
- Become an authorized user. If you know someone who is willing to let you become an authorized user on their card, you’ll then have access to credit this way. Your primary cardholder should understand that they are chiefly responsible for any debts you accrue.
- Get a bank-issued credit card. It may be easier to apply for a credit card issued by the bank with which you open an account — the established financial relationship works in your favor and your chances for approval may be higher.
Credit cards for international students
As an international student, you have options when it comes to applying for a credit card. Some of the most common are the following:
- Student credit cards: These cards are crafted with students’ needs in mind, offering modest rewards on popular spending categories like dining, entertainment and streaming services. There are also lower barriers of entry, meaning you can be approved with limited or no credit history. Student credit cards are best geared toward international students who have a steady income already established and who plan to stay in the U.S. for a longer period of time.
- Secured credit cards: A secured card is one that is backed by collateral and usually requires a cardholder to put down a security deposit. This deposit will often serve as the card’s credit limit, shielding lenders from some risk. A secured card can be an excellent credit-building tool over time as you work to establish a credit history in the U.S.
- Prepaid credit cards: With a prepaid card, you won’t need to have a bank account linked to the card in any way, as you’ll load any funds directly onto the card whenever needed, similar to how you would use a gift card. The amount you have to spend on the card will always be the amount you deposit. Prepaid cards best suit international students looking for a short-term option and who don’t have an interest in opening a U.S bank account or building up a credit history.
How undocumented immigrants can get a credit card
There are no laws that prohibit lenders from offering lines of credit to undocumented immigrants. Similar to international students, these individuals can use proof of employment or an ITIN to apply if they find a bank that is willing to work with them. While some banks will work with undocumented immigrants to grant them access to a credit card, you can increase your chances of getting a card by obtaining a driver’s license or securing other forms of identification like an SSN or a passport.
The bottom line
It may take some work, but you can access credit cards as an international student or undocumented immigrant. Leveraging alternative forms of identification like ITINs, passports and visas are paramount. International students can open a U.S. bank account, sign up for a prepaid card or become an authorized user on someone else’s card. Some banks will work to provide credit cards for undocumented immigrants, and you can increase your chances of approval by getting a driver’s license or another form of identification.
With a few solid workarounds, there’s a way for most people to access these credit-building tools.