Can I build credit without a Social Security number?

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Can I build credit without a Social Security number?


If you don't have a Social Security number (SSN), you may wonder if it's possible to build credit and apply for credit products in the United States. The answer is yes, it might be possible -- but it can be a time-consuming, complex process.

However, the fact that this is an option may be good news for international students and other foreign nationals who aren't eligible for a SSN and want to establish credit in the U.S.

Credit files contain many identifying data points.

Your credit score is generally based on your credit report, and your credit report is a record of your activity with credit accounts, such as loans or credit cards. Once you have one or more credit accounts, your activity can be sent to the credit bureaus, and they may create a credit file for you.

Credit bureaus such as Experian and TransUnion use multiple data points, such as your full name, recent addresses, employment history and date of birth, to match you to your credit file.

A Social Security number can be helpful because it's a unique identifier, but it's not required.

Stuart Pratt, president and CEO of Consumer Data Industry Association (CDIA) says the credit bureaus his organization works with use as much identifying information as they can to match a person to an existing credit file - or create a new file.

It can be difficult to build the credit for a credit file without an SSN because some lenders and card issuers won't accept an application for a loan or credit card without one. However, there are options.

An ITIN may make the process easier.

So you may be able to start your credit file without a SSN - but can you apply for lines of credit without one?

It depends. Some financial institutions allow you to apply for loans or credit cards with an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) instead of an SSN. An ITIN is nine-digit tax-processing number that's issued by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) issues ITINs to noncitizens who need to file a federal income tax return but don't qualify for an SSN.

ITINs are issued regardless of immigration status. However, it's important to note that they don't authorize work status or grant Social Security benefits.

When applying for a loan or credit card with an ITIN, you may need to provide additional identification, such as a copy of your passport, ITIN card or a bill with your home address.

Depending on the issuer and whether you have a previous relationship with the company, you may be able to apply online, over the phone or at a local branch.

What happens if you get an SSN?

Depending on your circumstances, you may have an ITIN and then get a Social Security number.

For example, if you're a foreign student or scholar who's in the U.S. and receive a scholarship, fellowship, one-time payment, grant or stipend, you may need to use an ITIN to file a tax return.

If you then become eligible to apply for a Social Security number and it's granted to you, you must stop using your ITIN and notify the IRS.

You can do so by visiting an IRS office, or writing a letter to the IRS and mailing it to:

Internal Revenue Service,
Austin, TX

Include your full name, mailing address, and ITIN, along with a copy of your Social Security card and a copy of the Notice of ITIN Assignment if you have it. The IRS will add your prior tax information to your SSN and void the ITIN.

But what happens to the credit that you've built while you had an ITIN?

Jason Gross, co-founder of Credit Bridge, a company that helps immigrants and people with thin-files build credit, says, "The credit you build should stay with you, even after you move from an ITIN to an SSN."

When you add a SSN to an account or open a new account with your SSN, the number may be reported to the credit bureaus by a lender if they report other identifying information about you and your account.

However, your credit history isn't automatically updated by the credit bureaus once you acquire your SSN. To ensure that any reported data includes your new SSN and any history you've built with your ITIN, you can update your information with your current lenders or card issuers.

You can also send a letter to each of the major credit bureaus, Equifax, TransUnion and Experian, informing them of your new SSN. Include identifying information, such as:

  • Your full name.
  • Date of birth.
  • A copy of your ITIN.
  • Your previous addresses.
  • A bill with your current address.

Sending letters could help facilitate the updating of your credit files, especially if you don't have credit lines open. Credit bureaus may respond by mail confirming the update, or requesting additional information if they have trouble finding your file or can't identify you.

If you haven't heard from them within two to four weeks, contact the bureaus directly by phone.

Bottom line

It may be possible to apply for lines of credit if you have an ITIN and not a SSN -- some lenders and credit card issuers accept applications from people without Social Security numbers.

Credit reporting agencies track you using multiple points of identification - not just by your ITIN -- and if you do get a SSN they can add it to your existing credit history.

About the Author: Louis DeNicola is a personal finance writer and educator. In addition to being a contributing writer at Credit Karma, you can find his work on MSN Money, Cheapism, Business Insider and Daily Finance. When he's not revising his budget spreadsheet or looking for the latest and greatest rewards credit card, you might spot Louis at the rock climbing gym in Oakland, California.

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