The good news is that you don’t need a Social Security number to get a credit card. The bad news is that you’ll probably have to establish a credit history in the United States before applying.
Credit cards are so ubiquitous that it can be difficult to get along without one. Not only do they make online and in-store purchases much easier, but they offer a variety of other benefits that can include everything from interest-free financing and complimentary rental car insurance to cashback rewards and free flights.
But credit cards can be difficult to get if you don’t have a Social Security number (SSN) or, more importantly, a credit history in the U.S. While some issuers require you to have a SSN, others accept alternative forms of ID, such as a foreign passport or an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN). However, very few will issue a credit card to someone who doesn’t have a U.S. credit history.
If you’re an international student, recent immigrant or anyone else in the U.S. who doesn’t have a SSN or even a credit history, don’t give up! You can still get a great credit card with the right approach.
A quick word of caution before we get started: Never use a fake or illegally obtained Social Security number. This is a serious crime that carries serious penalties. Law enforcement, banks and other institutions are on the lookout for this type of identity theft, and you will be caught.
SSN, ITIN or Foreign Passport
Social Security numbers were originally introduced to track the amount of money an individual has paid into the Social Security program. The amount you pay over your working life determines, in part, what your benefit will be when you retire. These days, Social Security numbers are often used to verify an individual’s identity and connect them to all sorts of personal information, including their credit history.
While there are other ways of tracking credit history, using a SSN is the standard. If you can, you should get a SSN as soon as possible. It’ll make the card application process much easier and open up more options.
U.S. citizens receive a Social Security number when they’re born, but noncitizens can also get one if they obtain legal status. To do so, you have to be authorized to work in the U.S. by the Department of Homeland Security. If you work and pay taxes in the United States but are otherwise not able to get a SSN, you can get an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) instead.
Some issuers allow credit card applicants to substitute an ITIN for a Social Security number. In fact, an ITIN is the same format as a SSN and can be used on some online forms. The process of getting this number can be difficult and time consuming, but you will have more options when applying for a credit card.
A few card issuers also accept foreign passports and do not require a SSN or ITIN. Your options will be even more limited with just a passport, but you can still get a card.
What About Your Credit History?
The next hurdle is your credit history. Even if you have excellent credit in your home country, a credit history that was established outside the U.S. does not apply to U.S. credit reports. In other words, you’ll have to start from scratch, and few banks are willing to give anyone a credit card if they don’t have established credit.
It is possible, though, that you’ve already built up a credit history in the United States, even if you didn’t have a SSN or ITIN. Some of the major credit bureaus use and match all of the information that’s provided by a lender, even if an SSN is not available. If you’ve been living in the U.S. for awhile and paying your bills regularly, you might already have some credit built up. It’s worth checking your credit report.
If you need to, you can build your credit history with a secured credit card. They aren’t as good as standard credit cards because you have to front your own credit line, and there’s usually an annual fee.
To get the BankAmericard Secured credit card, for example, you have to deposit between $300 and $4,900 into the card’s account. You’re maximum credit limit is determined by the size of the deposit. The card also has a $39 annual fee. Not ideal, but you might qualify for a standard credit card in as little as 6 to 12 months.
If you go this route, try to get a secured card from a major bank because they’ll report to all of the major credit bureaus. And remember that you have to use the card and pay your bills on time. It’s the only way to build a good credit history.
Banks that Accept Alternative IDs
If you have established credit in the U.S. and an ITIN, you’re in business. In fact, you may not even need an ITIN if you have a U.S. credit history. It’ll give you more options and make it easier to apply, but you can get some cards with just a foreign passport. Here’s a rundown of the card issuers that accept alternative IDs:
|Issuer||Required ID||How to Apply|
|American Express||ITIN or foreign passport||Phone|
|Bank of America||ITIN or foreign passport||Phone or BofA branch|
|Citibank||ITIN or foreign passport||Citibank branch only|
|Capital One||ITIN only||Phone|
Note that no issuer will accept an online application without a SSN, and some require you to apply in person.
Chase and Discover no longer accept applicants who do not have a SSN. And while Barclays does not officially require a SSN, their cards still tend to be hard to get. For that reason, it’s best to stick to Amex, BofA, Citi or Capital One.
Student Credit Cards
If you’re an international student, there are a few good cards available to you, even if you don’t have a credit history in the U.S. The SelfScore Achieve MasterCard is designed specifically for international students. You don’t have to have a SSN or a credit history, plus you can apply online and you’ll earn 1 percent cash back on all purchases.
The Citi ThankYou Preferred card for College Students is another solid option. You’ll have to go to a Citibank branch to apply, but you’ll get a small sign-up bonus, plus you’ll earn two points per dollar for dining and entertainment and one point per dollar for everything else. The card is part of the flexible Citi ThankYou rewards program.
If All Else Fails
What if you can’t get a secured credit card because you don’t have a SSN, ITIN or other accepted ID, but you want to purchase something from online retailer or another merchant who only accepts cards? Reloadable credit cards require a SSN or ITIN, but you could always get a Visa or MasterCard gift card. Unfortunately gift cards won’t help you build a credit history, they max out at $500 and you’ll pay a fee of $5 or more per card, but they are an option.