How to apply for a credit card without a Social Security number

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In a Nutshell

Think you can’t apply for a credit card without a Social Security number? Here’s the truth: Just because you don’t have a SSN doesn’t mean you can’t establish a credit history in the U.S.
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As an international student, new immigrant or other noncitizen, you may have given up trying to apply for a credit card when you got to the application box asking for your Social Security number.

Called an SSN for short, this unique nine-digit number is assigned to individual U.S. citizens (along with some temporary and permanent residents) to track their earnings and benefits. Generally, you need a Social Security number to get a job, collect Social Security benefits and gain access to some other government services. Banks and credit card companies may also ask for your SSN when you apply for a new credit card, as it helps them verify that you are who you say you are.

But what about noncitizens? Are they simply out of luck when it comes to applying for a credit card?

“It can be tough to get a credit card as a person who doesn’t live here,” says Linda Sherry, director of national priorities with the consumer education and advocacy organization Consumer Action. “Other countries don’t have the same system as we do here when it comes to establishing credit, and it’s hard for anybody to trust you when they don’t know your credit history.”

As the Social Security Administration notes, generally only noncitizens authorized by the Department of Homeland Security to work in the U.S. can get an SSN.

Fortunately, there’s more than one way to get a credit card without a Social Security number. Some credit card companies accept an alternate form of identification in lieu of an SSN. Read on to learn how to get a credit card without a Social Security number and how you can start building a credit history in the U.S.

1. Apply for an individual taxpayer identification number, or ITIN

If you’re unable to get a Social Security number, you may still be able to apply for a credit card by using an individual taxpayer identification number, a tax-processing ID number assigned to individuals by the Internal Revenue Service.

Depending on the bank or credit card company, you can sometimes use an ITIN instead of a Social Security number when applying for a credit card. There are a few easy ways to apply for an ITIN.

After applying, sit tight. You should hear back from the IRS within seven weeks if you qualify and your application is complete.

2. Choose banks that accept an ITIN or alternative identification

Credit card issuers aren’t required to ask for a Social Security number on the card application, but many do anyway. The good news is that some issuers will accept an ITIN instead. Here’s a quick rundown of issuers and where their policy currently stands on this.

American ExpressAccepts an ITIN or SSN.
Bank of AmericaAccepts an ITIN, foreign passport or other government-issued ID. Requires SSN for online applications.
CitiFor certain cards, Citi will accept a copy of one of the following: passport, national ID card or other valid government-issued ID. Must apply in person at a Citibank branch.
Capital OneAccepts ITIN or SSN.

3. Check your credit

No matter which form of ID you use, you’ll want to check and make sure your credit report is accurate because there could be inaccurate information harming your credit. Among other factors, a credit card company will look at your report to determine whether you qualify for a particular card.

“Wait a second,” you might be asking, “do I even have a credit report?”

Even if you don’t have a Social Security number, you might. For example, major credit bureau Experian matches all the information provided by a lender even if no SSN is provided.

Will my foreign credit history transfer to the U.S.?

Even if you don’t have an SSN or ITIN, you still could have a credit report available. But U.S. credit reports only contain information on U.S. lenders and creditors, says Nancy Bistritz-Balkan, a spokeswoman for Equifax. That means you may not have an adequate U.S. credit history to get approved for a credit card.

4. Apply for a credit card

If your U.S. credit history reflects that you’ve consistently paid your bills on time, go ahead and apply for a credit card that will accept an ITIN or other documentation.

But if you think your credit report doesn’t contain enough information for an issuer to approve you — or if your credit history shows late payments or other factors that may affect your credit negatively — you can begin to establish a credit history through a secured credit card.

With a secured credit card, you pay a cash deposit that usually determines your credit limit. These cards are designed to help you build credit with responsible use, so be sure to make payments on time and in full. Many secured card issuers submit your activity and payment history to the major credit bureaus, so this can be a good way to build a solid credit history.

5. Can’t get approved for a credit card? Consider a prepaid card.

If you can’t yet get approved for a credit card but still want a safer and more convenient way to pay than cash, a prepaid card could be the answer to your prayers — or at least a good payment alternative in the meantime.

While they aren’t technically credit cards, prepaid cards offer a way to keep your money in one place and pay with plastic when that’s the best and easiest option. Prepaid cards can be used in the same ways you might use a traditional credit card — to pay bills online, dine out or book an airline ticket.

Heads up, though: You generally can’t build credit with a prepaid card, because your payment history usually isn’t reported to the major credit bureaus.

Bottom line

Being new to the U.S. can come with a huge set of challenges when it comes to building credit. Don’t get too discouraged, though. Some credit card companies allow non-U.S. citizens to apply with other forms of identification, such as an ITIN or government-issued passport.

If your lack of an adequate U.S. credit history keeps you from getting approved, applying for a secured credit card may be your best bet. Use it responsibly, and you could be on your way to an unsecured credit card further down the line.

About the author: Deb Hipp is a freelance writer with a bachelor’s degree in English and creative writing from the University of Missouri-Kansas City. When she’s not writing about personal finance and news, she enjoys traveling to seas… Read more.