Beginning a New Journey in the US: How to Build Credit for Immigrants
Moving to a new country brings new opportunities but also new challenges. Whether your change is temporary or permanent, understanding and incorporating credit into your financial life can be crucial to integrating into the U.S.
Credit histories can’t be imported from your home country, so you’ll likely need to start building it up again from scratch even if you previously had a good credit rating or none at all.
You’ll learn what you can do to create and maintain good credit as an immigrant, using a range of tools and resources to help establish your financial life in the U.S.
How a Lack of Credit Impacts Financial Access
Lenders use your credit score to decide if you’re a good risk to take on. Having a lack of credit or no credit rating at all could put you at a disadvantage for certain financial products and services, such as renting or buying a home or car, getting phone and internet service, and or even applying for a job. For immigrant entrepreneurs, it can also impact getting a loan to start a new business.
Financial Products and Services
Financial institutions and credit card companies want to ensure they’re working with consumers who have a proven track record of paying their debts back in a timely fashion.
If you don’t have a healthy credit score and history, your chances of being approved for loans and lines of credit will be reduced. You may also encounter difficulties in securing credit cards and even bank accounts.
Credit scores have a range between 300 and 850. A score of 700 or above is generally considered to be good.
Landlords and rental agencies typically review potential tenants’ credit reports. They look for a pattern of missed payments or other negative information on your credit reports that indicate you may not pay your rent.
If you have bad credit, the landlord or property manager may require you to pay a larger deposit or get a co-signer. They might even reject your rental housing application altogether.
Likewise, if you’re trying to get a mortgage, lenders review credit scores and reports from the three major credit bureaus as part of the application process. The higher your credit score, the better your chances of getting approved and a lower interest rate.
Home insurance also relies on credit information to determine rates and terms. A poor credit history could make your insurance more expensive or result in a denial.
Owning a Car
When buying or leasing a car, your credit score influences the rates available to you. The interest rate you pay on your auto loan is typically related to your credit score.
An excellent credit score often means better loan terms, while a poor credit score means higher interest rates or even denial of an auto loan altogether.
Credit history is also one of several factors auto insurance companies take into consideration when calculating premiums. Auto insurance companies will consider you less of a risk if your credit is good — and your premiums will be lower. The opposite is likely to occur if you have poor credit.
Some employers may look at your credit rating before offering you a job. They must get written permission before they can review a version of your credit report, but they usually do this to look for any major negative records or discrepancies.
This is more likely to happen if the job you’re interested in would involve handling money or some sort of security clearance. If your credit score is low, it may raise a red flag to your prospective employer about your ability to fulfill work obligations.
Identify Your Credit Needs
Showing that you are financially responsible allows you to take advantage of all the benefits that a good credit history provides. If you are only just starting to establish your credit, you’ll want to make sure that you’re building a strong foundation. If you have some credit history but it’s poor or not the best it can be, you’ll want to focus on rebuilding it.
Get a Credit Report
Whatever your situation may be, taking charge of your credit begins with obtaining a credit report.
A credit report contains your credit history, including your borrowing and repayment habits, which makes it different from a credit score. A score is a figure that represents the information in your report.
You can obtain a copy of your report from one of the three major credit bureaus that compile these reports: Experian, Equifax and TransUnion.
Are You Credit Invisible?
As an immigrant, you may not have any record of credit in the U.S. In this case, you’re considered “credit invisible,” which means you have to build up a credit history that will set you in good stead for financial opportunities and services.
While it can be difficult to qualify for financial services, there are still many ways to improve your situation, such as building up a payment history and making regular, on-time payments on credit cards and loans.
Figure Out Where You Need to Be
Use your credit report to discover where you are and where you need to be. Because each country’s credit rating system is unique to that country's culture, you may not be able to bring over any of your history to the U.S.
You should establish whether you’ll be starting from absolute scratch or if there is any credit you could transfer from your home country.
If you’ve never held a U.S. credit card before, some payments made in the U.S. are reported to credit bureaus. You may actually have a credit file you’re just not aware of.
Frequently Asked Questions on How to Establish Credit
Establishing credit in the U.S. as an immigrant follows many of the similar guidelines for American-born citizens, but there are a few unique circumstances that come into play.
Credit Cards as a Means of Building Credit
The best way to build credit is to use a U.S. credit card and make on-time payments. Your credit history will usually determine the kind of card you can apply for. Having at least some credit history means you will be more likely to apply for a beginner card that’s easier to get approved for. If you have no credit history at all, you’ll likely be better off applying for a secured credit card.
Secured Credit Cards
If you have no credit or poor credit, your credit card options are more likely to be limited. A secured credit card can help you repair your credit and establish a credit history, so that you can eventually qualify for an unsecured credit card.
You’ll need to send the issuer a refundable security deposit, which will usually be equal to the amount you have access to on the card. Once you've proven yourself — through a record of reliable, on-time monthly payments and responsible use of the secured card — you can then move on to an unsecured credit card.
Here are the steps to follow:
Explore your options for a secured credit card
There are dozens of secured credit cards on the market, so be sure to shop around and look for the best features.
The best ones have a low interest rate, low or no annual fees, and report to the major credit bureaus each month.
Compare the benefits various secured cards offer
The interest rate and fees of a secured card are most important, but if cards are equal in this respect, you should look for the one with better benefits.
Some benefits include rental car insurance, travel coverage, extended warranty coverage and protection against accidental damage or theft for purchases.
Make sure to calculate the security deposit and other fees
The security deposit you pay will depend on the credit limit you're offered, which will in turn depend on your credit score and savings.
If you don't already have the funds for a security deposit in the bank, save what you need by setting aside money each month, so that you have this amount before applying.
Be certain the card company reports payments to credit agencies
For a secured card to help build your credit history, it’s essential the card issuer reports your payments to at least one (and preferably all) of the three major consumer credit bureaus. If a card doesn't report your payment history to the credit bureaus, using it won't help you improve your credit scores.
If the one you're considering doesn't specify whether it reports to the bureaus, contact the card issuer to check.
Use your secured card just as you would any credit card
Remember that the goal of your secured card is to help you build credit. To do that, use your card a few times each month to make small purchases, and always pay your bill on time. Limiting your purchases helps make sure you can cover your monthly payments.
It’s advisable to set up auto payments to help make sure you don't miss a payment.
Keep your card credit utilization below 50%
Credit utilization, which is how much of your credit limit you are using at a given time, factors into your credit score. Credit card companies become nervous if they see you use too much of your available credit.
It indicates a higher debt-to-income ratio, which you are taking on too much debt in comparison to your income.
Other Card Options
There are other alternatives to secured credit cards that may be available to you. The best alternatives are unsecured credit cards that don’t require a security deposit for approval. But cards of this type can mean tougher approval requirements, higher fees and very little spending power beyond what you can readily afford in cash.
Also, you can’t increase your credit limit simply by paying more, which is the case when you add to a secured card’s deposit.
Unsecured Credit Cards
Unsecured credit cards are considered ideal for those who have no credit history or less-than-stellar credit, since they don't require a security deposit, and there are no associated fees, provided you pay on time.
With a card like Petal, you’ll also earn 1% in cash back rewards. This rewards structure helps instill responsible payment behavior. Another upside to applying for a Petal card is that the company uses information other than your credit score to evaluate your application, which means you don’t need to have credit history to apply for it. Petal will require access to your bank account to see your payment history and assess if you qualify.
Partially Secured Credit Card
Like the Secured Mastercard from Capital One, some cards still require you to back the card with a deposit before you are issued the credit, but the spending limit on it will far exceed what it would traditionally be on a secured card.
With a partially secured credit card, a credit card company only has a partial guarantee that it will be repaid if you, as the cardholder, max out the card. That’s why it’s rare for a secured card to be partially secured from the start.
Low-Interest Credit Cards
If you’re not able to pay off the full balance of your credit card each month, a low-interest credit card would be your next best bet. You will, however, need to have a good score to be eligible.
A low-interest rate credit card typically features either a low fixed interest rate, or a low fixed rate during an introductory period. You will then have a higher, variable interest rate once the introductory period is over. Many low-interest cards don’t charge an annual fee.
Credit Card Options for International Students
If you are a foreign student in the U.S. and under 21 years old, you can find credit cards designed for students.
The Deserve EDU Mastercard for Students doesn't require international students to have either a Social Security Number or U.S. credit history.
They evaluate applicants through an underwriting process and algorithm that values other factors, like your school and major, your likelihood of graduating and becoming employed, and the balance in your bank account. The annual fee is $0, and the card earns rewards.
Transfer a Credit Card From Your Home Country
Some international banks, such as Citibank or Barclays, may issue a U.S. credit card for clients moving to the U.S. There are innovators working in this space, like Nova Credit, that allows some immigrants to transfer their credit history from their previous country of residence, so American lenders, property rental companies and others can review it.
Nova Credit works with the top global consumer credit bureaus in countries like Mexico, India, Australia, the United Kingdom and others.
Here are some steps to follow if you’re going to try to bring over your credit history from another country:
Find out if you qualify for the American Express Global Transfer program
If you’re an American Express customer in your home country, this Global Transfer program uses your existing American Express account as a basis for your application in the U.S.
You may have access to other American Express cards that someone new to the U.S. may not have because of your history with the card in another country.
Consider visiting the Nova Credit marketplace
You can see which credit cards you can apply for by using your international credit history. Nova Credit is collaborating with partners to help with student loans, car loans, apartment rentals and more.
Have your essential details ready
You’ll need your U.S. address (not a P.O. box), a phone number and a government-issued ID (an SSN, an ITIN, a green card, a visa, a passport or a US driver’s license) to complete an application online or over the phone
After you’re approved
You can decide to keep your foreign account open or you can close it. Processing an application can take more than a week, so it’s advised not to rely on receiving your new card instantly.
Enlist a Friend or Family Member to Co-Sign a Credit Card With You
If you are turned down for a credit card on your own, you may have better luck if you ask someone you trust to co-sign with you. This is a better option than asking to be added as an "authorized user" on someone's existing card account, since not all credit card issuers report authorized users to the credit bureaus.
There are also different formulas used to calculate credit scores, and the track record of authorized users doesn’t always fare well.
There are also some potential risks to be aware of:
It could leave your relationship vulnerable
Co-signing means the other person agrees to pay your debt if you default. They’re responsible if you fail to pay and this can put both of you at risk if you miss a payment.
The co-signer’s credit is on the line
Your loan and payment history on the card will show up on a co-signer’s credit report. That person may see a temporary hit to their credit score, but more than that, any missed payment will negatively affect their credit score too, which has the potential to wreck their credit.
There may be long-term impact
A co-signer may be rejected for credit if they need to apply for it at a later stage. A potential creditor will factor in the co-signed loan to calculate their total debt levels and may decide it’s too risky to extend them more credit.
Many card issuers don’t even allow co-signers
If this is the case, you’ll have to investigate other choices.
Non-Credit Card Ways to Establish Credit
There are other options besides using a credit card to establish credit as a foreigner or immigrant. Investigating whether these may benefit you in the long run, as they offer useful alternatives to accessing a greater array of financial services and products.
- Ways to Build CreditWhat It Entails
- Use of employmentShowing you hold a steady job and receive a regular paycheck is one of the surest ways to boost credit. Keep your pay stubs and always pay your taxes.
- Look into rental paymentsIf you always pay rent on time and your credit needs a lift, sign up for this service with a company like RentTrack or PayYourRent that allows you to report your rent payments to the credit bureaus. There may be one-time starter fees associated with this service, along with monthly payments.
- Apply for credit building loansThese loans work as a series of savings-account deposits that help improve your credit standing. You pay the lender in monthly installments, which are reported to the credit bureaus and builds your credit history. You’ll receive the money in a savings account at the end. But you won’t get all your money back since these loans tend to charge interest rates that can often be high.
- Join a credit unionCredit unions tend to be less focused on profit because fellow customers own them. When you join one, you may be asked to make a small savings deposit, but you may have an easier time getting approved for a loan. Credit unions are known for being more personal, and will consider more than just your credit profile. Be aware they are also known for not having the most competitive rates on personal loans.
Monitoring and Building Your Credit
Once you’ve begun establishing credit, you need to make sure you protect your score and regularly monitor it to see how you are doing. It’s a good idea to continue to improve your score as you progress. The better your score, the better access you’ll have to loans and lower interest rates.
Here are eight tips to help you monitor and build your credit:
Learn how to navigate the three credit reporting bureaus
Get a free yearly credit report from the three credit reporting bureaus (Equifax, TransUnion and Experian) and be sure to fix any errors, as soon as you see them.
Familiarize yourself with your report regularly. It's important to make sure your credit report is accurate, so your credit score can be too.
Always pay your bills on time
Building credit relies on making on-time payments. This is essential if you’re going to build the trustworthiness lenders need to see in order to give you the credit you’re looking for, on favorable terms. If need be, set up an automated pay system so that you’re not behind on this.
Pay your bill in full whenever possible
This is important for two reasons: it reduces the amount of interest you pay, and it shows the credit card companies you are a responsible borrower and can be trusted.
If you do carry over a balance from month to month, paying early can reduce your interest cost and continue to show responsible behavior.
Receive credit for timely cell phone and utility bill payments
Making timely rent and utility payments will not help build credit, but if you opt into Experian Boost, this information can be used to show your credit-worthiness.
Adding a cell phone and other non-traditional accounts to your credit reports can also update your credit score in real time.
Keep credit card balances low
A high utilization rate could indicate to lenders that you’ll have trouble paying your bills on time, so a lower utilization rate is generally best for your credit scores.
Lenders prefer a credit utilization ratio of 30% or less, so make sure you’re not spending too much of the limit that’s been given to you. The best credit utilization ratio is below 10%.
Don’t apply for new credit if you don’t need it
Avoid applying for multiple credit cards or loans at the same time, as this can cause a small, temporary drop in your score. Each application will require a pulling of your credit report, which will indicate that you’re trying to access too much credit at one time, and this may raise alarm bells.
It’s recommended you try to space applications out by about six months, if you can.
Keep credit card accounts open
Even if you’ve paid off a credit card in full, consider keeping it open and having a small balance on it. This can help your account age, since the older your credit history, the better.
If you established accounts a long time ago and have been able to manage them responsibly, it demonstrates to lenders that you’re less risky than someone who doesn’t have a very long credit history.
There is always information available to improve your financial knowledge and ability to establish and maintain a good credit report and score.
Reach out to one of the many nonprofits or governmental agencies for help if there’s a particular aspect to building credit that you’re struggling with.
Expert Insight on Immigrants Building Credit
It can take a lot of time and patience to navigate the U.S. financial landscape, but once you start, you’ll be able to improve your ability to get ahead. MoneyGeek spoke with industry leaders and advisors for their expert insights on how to build credit as an immigrant.
- What are the biggest obstacles when it comes to building credit as an immigrant in the U.S.?
- What are some of the best or overlooked ways immigrants can build or continue to build a good credit rating?
AFC®, Co-Creator and Co-Founder at Immigrant Finance & Immigration Attorney, Social Entrepreneur, Financial Educator and Financial and Online Business Coach
Compliance Manager and Director of Education at Cambridge Credit Counseling Corp. and Member of the Board of Directors at The Financial Counseling Association of America (FCAA)
Program Coordinator, Immigrant Integration at UnidosUS
There are many resources, from nonprofits to government programs, available to help immigrants build credit reports and improve credit scores.
- Immigrant Finance: This online platform empowers immigrant families with personal finance education, online business development and community support. You’ll find tons of resources here and on their podcast.
- The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau: This government agency has audio files of its publications on credit, including How to Rebuild Your Credit, in Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, Tagalog, Russian, Haitian Creole, Spanish and English. It also has a useful newcomer’s guide to managing money.
- UnidosUS: This Latino civil rights and advocacy organization serves the Hispanic community through its research, policy analysis, and state and national advocacy efforts, so you’ll find plenty of materials on its website tailored to help Latino immigrants.
- Credit Builders Alliance (CBA): CBA is a network of nonprofit organizations, many of which serve immigrants. Their nonprofit lender members have experience in lending money to those who are credit invisible, making this site useful for those who have no credit history at all.
- The Mission Asset Fund (MAF): This nonprofit aims to create a fair financial marketplace for families in need and offers assistance in many ways, including loan programs that help you build your credit.
- Immigrants Rising: Immigrants will find numerous resources on this site for building credit individually or as a business.
- Urban Institute: This research organization provides many news stories about the latest credit information and issues that affect immigrants.
About the Author
- Consumer Financial Protection Board. "Data Point: Credit Invisibles." Accessed April 26, 2021.
- Consumer Financial Protection Board. "Credit Reports and Scores." Accessed April 26, 2021.
- Experian. "How Can Immigrants Build Credit." Accessed April 26, 2021.
- Immigrant Finance. "How Immigrants Can Get Credit Cards and Build Their Credit History in the U.S." Accessed April 26, 2021.
- Migration Policy Institute. "Frequently Requested Statistics on Immigration in the United States." Accessed April 26, 2021.
- National Immigration Forum. "Immigrants as Economic Contributors: Immigrant Entrepreneurs." Accessed April 26, 2021.
- Nova Credit. "Building Credit." Accessed April 26, 2021.
- Pew Research. "Key Findings About U.S. Immigrants." Accessed April 26, 2021.
- University of Minnesota Extension. "Building Credit Without a Social Security Number." Accessed April 26, 2021.