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Not having a Social Security number can be a serious stumbling block when you want to apply for a credit card, since most card issuers specifically ask for one on your application.
But there are ways to get a credit card without a Social Security number. In fact, some alternative credit cards readily advertise that they don't require one. This can be a huge benefit to the right applicant, especially to international students who may lack both a U.S. credit history and a U.S. Social Security number.
Here's what to know about your options and where to look.
1. Get an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number
In general, only U.S. citizens and noncitizens authorized to work in the U.S. are eligible for a Social Security number. But you’re “generally not required” to provide one if you don’t have one, according to the Social Security Administration.
Instead, you can obtain an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number, or ITIN, which is available regardless of your immigration status. It follows the same nine-digit format as a Social Security number (XXX-XX-XXXX) and can be used in place of one on credit card applications.
The Petal® Visa® Credit Card, for example, does require applicants to be U.S. residents, but you can apply with either a Social Security number or an ITIN. Petal's issuing bank, WebBank, can also decide to consider more than just your credit scores, which is good news if you have little or no U.S. credit history. It can weigh creditworthiness using a proprietary algorithm that takes into account your income, as well as your savings and spending. The card offers a rewards program, and the annual fee is $0. Terms apply.
2. Ensure you meet credit history qualifications
Of course, even if you do have a Social Security number or taxpayer ID number to put on a credit card application, that alone is not enough to guarantee approval. Most traditional credit card issuers will also look at your credit history, and that creates an entirely different challenge, especially for non-U.S. citizens. Even if you had a positive credit history in your country of origin, foreign credit history typically can’t be transferred to the United States. As far as most American credit card issuers are concerned, you have no credit history at all.
Nerd tip: American Express credit cards are an exception and may be on the table for immigrants and expats in the U.S. with no Social Security number. That's thanks to a feature the issuer launched in 2019 with a company called Nova Credit that can translate some international credit reports into U.S.-equivalent credit reports during the online application process for AmEx consumer cards. If you've already had a credit card or loan in an eligible country (Australia, Canada, India, Mexico or the United Kingdom, as of this writing), then a Social Security number is not required for approval.
If you have a Social Security number but a thin credit file, you may need to start building your U.S. credit history by applying for a secured credit card. With these cards, you provide a deposit, usually $200 or more, that the issuer holds in case you don't pay your bill. In most cases, your deposit becomes your credit limit — put down a $500 deposit, for example, and your credit limit is $500.
You'll also need income to qualify for a credit card. Card issuers want to see that you'll be able to pay for things you charge. If you're 21 or older, you can list any income to which you have access, including that of a spouse or partner. If you're under 21, you can list only your own income on a credit card application.
3. Consider cards that don't require a Social Security number
Some credit cards issuers use nontraditional underwriting to approve you without a Social Security number, or even a credit history. Here are some of our favorites:
Deserve® EDU Mastercard for Students
International students don't need a Social Security number to apply for the Deserve® EDU Mastercard for Students, nor do they need a U.S. credit history. They can apply using other documentation, including a visa, passport or specific school documents. Deserve is able to evaluate creditworthiness using its own underwriting formula, weighing factors such as the school you're attending, what you're studying, how likely it is that you'll graduate and get a job, and what your bank account balance is. The $0-annual-fee card earns rewards and charges no foreign transaction fee, and NerdWallet named it its best credit card for international students for 2020.
Brex Card for Startups
The Brex Card for Startups could be ideal for the right business owner. It doesn't require a Social Security number, nor will Brex pull your credit during the application process. Instead, you'll be asked for an Employer Identification Number and access to bank information. To determine your creditworthiness, Brex looks at funding and cash flow, including things like a company's cash balance, where it spends money and who its investors are. Also key with the Brex Card for Startups: It doesn't require a personal guarantee, meaning there's no founder liability if the business goes under. The card earns rewards and has an annual fee of $0
The Jasper Mastercard® is designed for working professionals who are new to credit. With some exceptions, you don't need a Social Security number to apply upfront and can do so instead with your passport and visa information and proof of U.S. income. You will, however, be required to get a Social Security number and report it to Jasper within 60 days of activating your card. (Applicants who have lived in the U.S. for one year or longer will have to provide a Social Security number with their application and undergo a credit check.) The issuer evaluates applicants based on factors like debt-to-income ratio. It doesn't earn rewards, but the annual fee is $0*.
4. Build your credit, with or without a Social Security number
Even if you don't have a Social Security number, the major U.S. credit bureaus will use other information about you, such as your name, address and birthdate, to gather information about your credit activity all in one place.
To build good credit, you’ll need to show positive payment history over time. This means making regular purchases and paying off your balance on time every month.
It takes about six months of credit activity for a FICO credit score to be created. Once you have a FICO score — the score most commonly used by lenders to determine your creditworthiness — you may find a wider variety of credit cards available to you. You could move up to an unsecured credit card (one that doesn't require a deposit) and eventually cards that offer juicy rewards.