Establishing Credit in the USA as a Foreigner

By Bell: 8 years ago when we moved from Australia back to Alex’s home state of Florida, we discovered how difficult it can be establishing credit in the USA as a foreigner. Even though I had a good job, I’d apply for a credit card only to be rejected. This was not because I had bad credit, but because I had never previously resided in the USA and proven that I could pay things on time. So like a 16 year old flipping burgers, I had no credit score, which was extremely frustrating. Even to obtain a mobile/cell phone contract in your own name you need credit. So if nobody will initially front you anything to establish credit, but you need credit to do many things, what can you do to expedite the process?

 Andrew Jackson on American money, establishing credit in the usa

Apply for an American Express Card in Your Home Country

After talking to other expats we discovered that the best thing you can do to help yourself in this situation is to apply in your home country for an American Express card. Use this card before you leave and be sure to pay it off. When you move to US, this is a card that will allow you to move your account to the US so you can start using it immediately and begin establishing a credit score straight away. The reason American Express works best is because they are international and not affiliated with private banks. And contrary to popular belief, international banks do not talk to discuss your credit score- so you may have a great credit score in your home country, but that doesn’t matter at all in your new country (unless you have loads of money up front of course).

Getting Bills in your Name

If you choose not to do this it is going to be tough. The other ways to obtain credit is to have bills in your name. But even to get a bill in your name with a zero credit score is going to cost you. We put the electricity in my name to help build my credit score, but we had to pay a deposit up front of $250 US to do this. After 12 months, they will give you your money back as long as the bills have been paid on time. 12 months is pretty generous though, for the electric companies pockets.

Credit Union Issues

Our lovely credit union was also being difficult, even though they could see a regular salary going into my account, along with a growing savings. After many months they still told me I didn’t have credit so I couldn’t have a credit card. Their suggestion was that I buy a secured credit card with our money, use it as though it was a regular credit card (so keep topping it up) and that would allow me to establish credit. Secured credit cards can be a means to establish credit but often they involve fees. Eventually, I just threatened them by saying if they wouldn’t even issue me a small limit credit card, there was no way on Earth we’d consider using them for a home or car loan in the future. They heard this and decided to give me an unsecured card with a $1000 limit! Losing out on good customers for home and car loans for banks is bad business…so don’t hesitate to threaten them with this if you’re being jerked around without good reason.

Buying a Car: Establishing credit in the USA

We’ve had friends tell us that they bought a car, paying mostly in cash and therefore were able to secure a small loan to begin establishing credit. Others were fortunate enough to have a boss help them by essentially going guarantor when they were renting their apartment.  Given the current banking crisis, we’re not sure where the banks got off making things so difficult for me in 2005 given they were handing out loans like French fries, but that was how it was for me even back during the ‘free money’ times. If you have additional tips on how to quickly establish credit in the US please share them in the comments.

Eventually Apply for Credit Cards with Travel Rewards

Play the credit card points game and use bonus point sign ups for free plane tickets! The most popular card among travel hackers is the Chase Sapphire Reserve. The card also includes complimentary priority pass lounge access with free food, drinks and wifi. The annual fee seems steep at $450, but it includes $300 in travel credits. The 50,000 bonus point sign up is good for $750 in travel credit, enough for a free plane ticket to Ireland! They’ll also compensate you $100 for free Global Entry and TSA pre-check to skip airport lines.

The Delta Skymiles American Express Gold Card is free the first year and just $95 each year after. They’re currently giving a 60,000 mile sign up bonus which is enough for a free flight to Ireland! You’ll typically need around 25,000+ miles for free domestic flights. Often for 35,000 miles you can score a free flight to the Caribbean or Central America. There are other perks to having the Delta SkyMiles AMEX Gold Card, like free checked bags when you pay with the card for Delta flights.

Once you build credit, you can even start earning free international flights. We our article on How to Fly Around the World for Free. We also recommend reading ‘What You Need to Know for Your First Visit to the US’ over on Brianne Miers’ A Traveling Life.

Disclosure: This article contains some affiliate links, where we receive a share of the revenue from certain purchases.  

13 thoughts on “Establishing Credit in the USA as a Foreigner

  1. I’m not sure, but a way could be opening an American trading account from the original country, and after moving to the US changing the address data accordingly.

    1. Hmmm that is a really good suggestion, I’ll have to ask around and see if that would work, or if anyone else knows that would be fantastic 🙂

    1. Thank you for reading and for the comment. This is very true. And some of these tips are also applicable to Americans trying to build or re-build their credit. I know in Florida many apartment complexes are desperate for new tenants because of over construction in certain areas so many complexes can be flexible with people who need a place to live. Then of course there is keeping that good credit and all it takes is some bad luck to lose it.

  2. Our Chase banker was able to get the normal credit score requirements waived for us, for a $1500 card, on the basis of our having a high balance (>$10k) in the checking account at the time. High balance requirement, but only needs to be there at the time you apply – we managed it by applying just before putting down our rental deposit and first/last months’ rent. Might work well for others just arriving and about to do that. Citibank is another great option, because they get the situation and have special approval processes for foreigners that don’t rely on credit scores, especially if you have a Citi account somewhere else. Good luck!

    1. Hi Gab, that is a great idea as you are right most people would have a good amount when they arrive for rent and what have you. I didn’t know that they high balance didn’t need to be there that long. This is really useful advice, thank you!

  3. Hi

    I have just applied for an AMEX card in South Africa as I am moving to the US in a few months.

    However they have told me they cant simply move the account to the US?

    Anyone else have a problem with the suggestion above?

    1. Hi Steve, we’re sorry to hear this. Perhaps AMEX has changed the rules, or the AMEX rules in South Africa are different from those in Australia, where we based this advice from.

      Worst case a good job contract will be able to score you a rental agreement with someone in the US, and an apartment will then score you the ability to have utilities in your name. It’s a building process, and it just takes a bit of time. The more money you have, obviously the easier all of this is. We didn’t have very much money when we moved from Australia to the US 9 years ago. We just moved to Boston after 6 years in Europe and found things easier because we kept good credit in the US with credit card payments, etc.

      Best of luck with your move to the US and please let us know if we can help with something else!

  4. Great post.

    I have done the same, had an AMEX in Australia with a 6 year history, barely used it. When I moved to the US I got an AMEX here via their global transfer service and in the first credit report my score was in high 700’s, even showing as if I had a 6 credit history in the States.

    Now I’ll focus on building it further and hopefully I can help my girlfriend to build her credit history as well.

    1. Hi Miro, thank you for commenting and sharing your AMEX story! That is great that worked out for you. We certainly wish we had known in advance you could do that 🙂 Good luck on building your girlfriends credit score too as it is crazy how much you need that score for here. At least these days you don’t need to have a score as much for a cell phone with all the pay by the month providers that are around.

  5. I have found that a few places allows Canadians apply for cards. JC Penny gave me and my wife each a store card. I was shopping there and they asked if we had a Penny card, I said no and we were Canadian. SHe said its fine we accept you. Applied and got a $700 store card.On vacation in Florida, My wife went to Jared and they asked if she wanted a card. She applied and they gave her $9,000 credit!!! We do not have social security cards, and no formal usa address. I am not sure if this will build USA credit rating, however was nice to get credit there!

    1. Hey Steve, thanks for sharing this. That’s a sweet deal for Canadians! We had no idea about this. The credit agencies must have a way to check Canadian credit on the spot, otherwise that’s crazy that you can be extended $9,000 of credit at a jewellery store without a social security card and US address. Sounds very straight forward for Canadians who move to the USA to build American credit. Great to know!

  6. Hi, I’m from Colombia and i’m planning to move to US, i have in my country a Visa Credit Card with Over US$10K of credit, could it helps to something to move my account to US or to build my American Score?
    Thanks

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