If you’re a foreign national living in the United States, you’ll want to apply for a credit card to build good credit. However, you probably don’t have a Social Security number, which all credit card applications ask for.
Lucky for you, issuers can’t legally require you to provide a Social Security number if you don’t have one, according to the Social Security Administration. Instead, you can use an individual taxpayer identification number (ITIN), which is another nine-digit identifier that functions similarly to a Social Security number.
Getting an ITIN
The Internal Revenue Service issues ITINs to foreign nationals who need taxpayer identification but aren’t eligible for a Social Security number. An ITIN won’t change your immigration status or make you eligible for Social Security benefits, but it will make applying for a credit card possible.
To apply for an ITIN, fill out the application, which you can find on the IRS website. You can mail in the application, or bring it to an IRS-approved acceptance agent or an IRS taxpayer assistance center, located in cities across the United States. You’ll need to include proof of identity and foreign status; a passport or visa satisfies both. After you submit your application, you’ll receive a letter from the IRS within six weeks containing your ITIN.
Applying for a credit card
Once you have your ITIN, you’re ready to apply for a credit card. Issuers can’t deny you for applying with an ITIN, but they can deny you for lack of credit history. Foreign credit doesn’t transfer to the United States, so you’ll need to start building credit from scratch. You can do this by obtaining a secured credit card. They’re easy to qualify for even if you have no credit history, because they require a deposit to secure the line of credit. There are also some credit cards offered specifically to recent immigrants, and they don't require a Social Security number.
Once you have a credit card, use it responsibly and pay it off on time and in full. Once you establish a fair credit score, you can apply for an unsecured card and enjoy lower fees and interest rates, as well as card rewards.
The takeaway: Applying for a credit card is more difficult without a Social Security number, but it’s certainly possible with an ITIN. Once you have an ITIN, you’ll have to build credit with a financial product such as a secured card before applying for a typical unsecured credit card.
More from NerdWallet
Image via iStock.