If you are an international student attending college in the United States, earning approval for a credit card can help you establish a US credit score. This may allow you to apply for loans and financing and improve your qualifications for renting a home and applying for a job.
While you can usually use credit cards issued in your native country that allow purchases in the US, your credit use on those cards will not contribute to your credit score, as credit history cannot be reported until you open a credit account in the States. You may also be subject to international transaction fees when you use a foreign credit card in the US.
If you are planning on building a life in the US, applying for and using a credit card can build a foundation of credit history to power you through your residency.
How to get a credit card with a Social Security Number or ITIN
If you already have a Social Security Number or an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number, you should be able to apply for most credit cards. Simply include your number with your application to apply.
As with any credit card applications, your credit history, income, and other factors will be used to evaluate your application for approval.
How to get a credit card without a Social Security Number or ITIN
Most credit cards have requirements for their applications that include submitting a Social Security Number or Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN).
However, some credit card issuers provide cards exclusively for students that will only require your passport to submit an application. This can be an easy option for students that don't have long-term plans to stay in the US, but want to move some expenses to credit.
Act as an authorized user for an existing credit card
If you are unable to get a credit card in the US, you can see if a trusted family member or friend will add you to her/his existing credit card as an authorized user.
A cardholder can add an eligible user with a social security number or ITIN to their credit account as an authorized user, without relying on the authorized user's credit score.
As an authorized user, you will receive a credit card with your name on it and any expenses made will be charged to the account owner. Some credit card issuers may report the payment history of the credit card to credit bureaus for both the cardholder and the authorized user. This allows an authorized user to earn payment history for the card's use and build their credit score with every on-time payment.
While you should be sure to arrange with the cardholder any details about how you will use the card and how you will pay for any charges you make on the card, becoming an authorized user is a simpler way to have access to credit without a Social Security Number, ITIN, or credit score.
How to avoid credit card application rejections as an international student
Even if you have a Social Security Number or ITIN, credit card issuers may use various factors of your credit history to evaluate your application.
If your credit card applications are being declined, you can try applying for secured credit cards or you can take some steps to improve your chances of earning approval by reviewing the reasons you are being denied in your rejection letter.
Using secured credit cards to build credit
Regardless of whether or not you have a Social Security Number or ITIN, your application's approval will depend on other measures of your credit history.
When you find that your credit applications are declined, you may be able to get a secured credit card that will allow you to build your credit history and credit score. With secured credit cards, your credit limit is determined by a deposit you put down: allowing the card to be secured with your own funds.
Build your credit history and measures of income
Beyond the basic details that your name and Social Security Number/ITIN provide, credit card issuers will look for any credit history in your name while using your income as a measure of your ability to repay your debt or loan.
Building credit history is essentially showing your ability to pay your bills on time. For people without a high credit score, you can get started by applying for credit-builder loans (also known as starter loans) and secured credit cards.
Otherwise, increasing your income can give credit card issuers assurance that you can pay your bills: so working a part-time, on-campus job as a student can also improve your chances for credit card approval. Check with your advisor to make sure your job won't conflict with your student status.
Can an international student get a credit card in the US?
Here are your options for getting a credit card during your time abroad:
- Use your SSN/ITIN to apply for a US student credit card.
- Apply for US student credit cards that only require your passport.
- Act as an authorized user on an existing US credit account.
- Apply for secured credit cards or secured loans (such as credit-builder loans) to establish and build your credit history.
- See if you can get a part-time job on campus to increase your income and qualify for better credit card terms and rewards programs.
By selecting one of these options, you can begin to use a credit card in the States while building a foundational credit score that can help you as your residency continues. As you do, be sure to make on-time payments regularly to any credit accounts, as that is one of the largest factors in building a solid credit score.