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What are the ways in which a new immigrant can begin building credit history in the United States of America ?

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Bear in mind that you will need a Social Security Number in order to open just about any kind of financial account there. If you aren't eligible for Social Security then you should still be able to get a Taxpayer Identification Number from the IRS, which for most purposes works the same way. –  Andrew Lott Mar 13 at 16:23
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@AndrewLott You don't need a SSN or ITIN to open a bank account. –  Philippe Leybaert Mar 14 at 3:56
    
Related/duplicate: money.stackexchange.com/q/20315/3960 –  Flimzy Mar 26 at 19:15
    
@PhilippeLeybaert really? I needed one. Although that was 2000/2001... –  Mark Mayo Mar 27 at 3:17
    
@MarkMayo A SSN/ITIN is needed for an interest-bearing account (so that there's a number to attach to the income reporting). It should be (and sometimes is) possible to open a simple checking account without one, although most banks just take the easy route and refuse all service without an SSN. –  Rob Hoare Mar 27 at 3:51

6 Answers 6

It is possible to build a reasonable credit history and score in about six months, but you have to be careful what you do.

  1. Try to get a mortgage at a financial institution that has special programs for foreign nationals. You will probably need to make a large down payment (25% or more). On top of that, many banks will offer you an unsecured credit card if you get a mortgage (in that case you can skip step #2)

  2. Get a secured credit card with a decent limit. Don't be tempted to deposit a very low amount in the secured savings account because your credit limit on the card will be too low. The higher your credit limit, the higher your credit score will be. $5000 or so would be a good start.

  3. Lease a car with a company like Intl Autosource. They specialize in serving foreign nationals without a credit history. They also report all your payments to the credit bureaus.

  4. Don't apply for loans, unsecured credit cards or store cards in the first 6 months, even if you get so-called "pre-approved offers" in the mail. You will be denied and that will affect your credit score. Also, if you're ever offered a "savings card" in a store and they want your social security number: politely decline.

  5. Don't ever give your social security number unless it's absolutely necessary. For example, when you sign up for a cellular plan with AT&T, they'll ask your SSN and run a credit check. That will affect your score. Simply get a prepaid plan for the first 6 months.

  6. In stores you will regularly be offered a discount if you sign up for a store card. Don't. They will ask your SSN and run a credit check, impacting your credit score.

  7. Even if you plan to pay off your credit card every month, try to make a payment before the billing cycle ends because the bank will report the balance to the credit bureaus. You should keep the reported balance below 30% of the credit limit on your card.

  8. Get an account at creditkarma.com to check on your progress. It's free. The only problem with creditkarma.com is that they only use data from TransUnion. If you want to track your credit reports and scores from the other 2 agencies (Equifax and Experian) you should get an account with them (not free!)

  9. Pay all your bills on time. Doing that will not build credit history but it will make sure there's no negative information on your credit report.

If you do all of that, you should have a decent score after about 6 months. At that stage you may consider applying for unsecured credit cards.

Even if you are able to get one or more unsecured credit cards later on, it may not be a bad idea to hang on to it for at least six months. Although FICO sources claim that a closed account still counts to determine your credit history length, there's conflicting information on the different credit bureau websites. Even if it doesn't influence your credit history length, keeping the account open does help to keep your total available credit at a higher level, decreasing your credit utilization and so it helps your score.

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The part about not canceling the secured card is a myth. Closed accounts will remain on your report for the next 10 years and are factored into the average age of accounts even if closed. Closing it will only affect your score inasmuch as it reduces your available balance, thereby increasing your utilization - the percentage of your available maximum balance that you carry. And if OP is following your advice to pay in full every month that will be of no concern. –  Jonathan Van Matre Mar 28 at 15:26
    
@JonathanVanMatre While a closed account will remain on your credit history, one of the factors to calculate your credit score is the age of your oldest open account. If your secured credit card was your first account, it will affect your credit score if you close that account. –  Philippe Leybaert Apr 3 at 14:23
    
OK, let's make sure we are talking about the same credit score. I am talking specifically of the FICO score, which is the one actually used in a significant majority of lending decisions. Your PLUS score or CreditKarma score or whatever other score may be calculated differently, but your FICO score cares not whether the account is open or closed, only whether it is on your report. I have citations, do you? –  Jonathan Van Matre Apr 3 at 14:29
    
I'm talking about the FICO score. But I'll soon find out if it's a myth or not because I closed my secured credit card yesterday (which is my oldest account) and I'm curious to see if it will affect my score. I'll let you know when I find out :-) –  Philippe Leybaert Apr 3 at 15:27
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It would improve your answer to at least edit it to acknowledge that FICO says X, but your feeling is that it's still better to be extra cautious. We are a reference site, after all, and the references are clear. It's not a question of me being right, it's a question of providing the most accurate information we can to OP and to future questioners who come seeking information. This is an oft-repeated myth whose repetition will never cease unless reliable reference sites like this one begin providing better information. There is too much superstition in the world of credit advice. –  Jonathan Van Matre Apr 3 at 16:32

I moved to the USA in the middle of the 2008 credit crisis, so this issue hit me hard. There are a multitude of things that you can do to build up a credit history.

  1. Apply for a secured credit card (as @gerrit also indicates), where you provide the funds to completely cover the credit limit of the card, so a $2,000 limit would require you to pay the card company $2,000 up front. So essentially you are providing the funds to borrow yourself. If you pay the card off every month, you will build a credit history. Typically after 12 months, unless you have other credit issues - the card company will convert the card to a normal credit card and return the initial investment.

  2. If you have any bills - say utility bills - in your name, make sure you pay them on time. Delinquent bills will negatively impact your credit score (but unfortunately paying on time doesn't positively impact your score).

  3. Stay in one residence where possible. Lenders like to see that you do not move around a lot.

  4. Pay for a credit report from a reputable business in your country of origin, ideally a business which also operates in the USA.

  5. If you can buy a house and get a mortgage. I know this sounds bizarre, but I found it easier to get a mortgage than to get a credit card - as I had a large deposit, and a house is security - a credit card is unsecured (unless you go with 1.

  6. If you are renting, there are schemes available for you to pay for your rent via a service which reports to credit agencies. If you are able to opt into such a service this might be an option.

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#2 doesn't help to build credit history. Only when you don't pay your bills on time will it negatively affect your credit score. If you pay on time, nothing is reported to the credit bureaus –  Philippe Leybaert Mar 13 at 14:44
    
@PhilippeLeybaert - mmm, some bad advice I was given. You are correct, so I have modified 2. –  iandotkelly Mar 13 at 14:46
    
#2 still applies, but it's more "don't ever let a utility account go into collections". Basically, don't ever let anything turn over to a collection agency if you can avoid it, and if it does, try to settle it as soon as possible (they'll often cut you a deal, since they bought the debt for less than it's actually worth). –  Tim Post Mar 13 at 14:49
    
@TimPost True, but it doesn't help in building a credit history. Paying on time is not reported to the agencies –  Philippe Leybaert Mar 13 at 15:04
    
In some countries (e.g. Sweden) the only "credit record" that exists is a negative one. So all they could tell the Canadians is that none of my bills have ever gone into collections. That might not be sufficient. –  gerrit Mar 14 at 13:49

I've recently started building a credit history in Canada, and I think it's the same.

The solution I have chosen is to take a secured credit-card. Through my financial institution (a credit union), I have fixed 500$ on a savings account. I need to fix these 500$ for one year, and during this year, these 500$ will be my credit limit. During this year, I shall use my credit card, pay my credit card bills, and thus build up a credit record. After one year of correct use, I will have a credit history and I will be able to apply for an unsecured credit card.

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(very long answer) The easiest method to build credit in the United States is to have someone with good credit co-sign a loan or credit card for you. If you do not have that option, the fastest way to build credit for yourself in the United States is through secured credit. Using this method you will find that it's actually quite easy to quickly build a strong credit history.

The more money you have to work with, the faster you can build credit.

To start with, Banks and Creditors are risk averse. By limiting their exposure to risk before you apply, you significantly increase the likelihood of receiving credit from them.

In the example of a bank, you'll be placing your money into a secure deposit account, and then using that account as a security to obtain a commercial or personal loan. In this case, you can add additional securities to sweeten the deal for the bank, such as the purchase of a car, where you pay 60% to 80% of the car's value, financing the rest. Alternatively you can request a smaller amount $500 to $2,000 towards the purchase of a computer, letting them know that you're interested in building your credit.

This is the best method, but it takes work, and a bit of creativity.

The next best thing you can do is to obtain a secured credit card. Use Capital One for this (absolutely do not use any other company - Capital One is the number one poor credit provider in the United States, and historically is rated higher than any other company in this area). Their expertise increases your chances of being approved, and also will allow you to establish a relationship with a company that can later offer you lower rate unsecured cards.

Note: There are companies other than Capital One that have been mentioned here. While they are not bad companies, the long term impact to your finances will be negative. That is why I recommend Capital One. Other companies, such as First Premier, will give you cards that cost hundreds of dollars per year. If you close that card as soon as you get a better card, then you lost the credit history (it is no longer current), and you will have paid absurd fees for nothing. Worse, some of these companies will damage your credit by crediting payments late or worse when you try to cancel the cards.

Just avoid them. Go with Capital One, get a secured card, and in six months that card will be unsecured, and likely also have a reasonable rate. After a year, you can always call in and lower the rate even further. This way you can keep the card and the history you built with it, and not lose your money in the process. Capital One is also a bank, so you can open deposit accounts with them.

This is the second best method, and usually takes very little work. All you need is a bank account and internet access.

Next, you can visit gas stations - like Chevron, Exxon, Mobile, Shell, or others (some are joint - like Exxon/Mobile - so do some homework and only visit one at a time). Here, you can get store credit, for example, to purchase gas. With this card you can fill up your own car as you need, which will slowly build your credit, or you can use the 'student method' to quickly build credit.

The student method is to also fill up your friend's cars (they pay you cash on the spot, and you fill up their car - immediately depositing the money in your bank, and paying down the card each time). This is because you are only likely to receive approval of $50 for your first card, or another small amount. By using the card to buy gas, but also things like chips, sodas, or whatever other snacks you might want, you are using the card a lot (by the way, snacks are a bad investment, but you're building credit, so you need to spend money).

The more the company sees you using the card, the more likely they will be to increase your card limits. After a month, having maxxed out and paid off your card several times, you can call them, and explain that your work involves a great deal of travel, and it would be so much easier for you if they would just bump your credit limit up to $150 so you didn't have to constantly pay down the balance to benefit from your card.

This is a very good method for building credit, though it will rarely ever be huge amounts of credit. I think the highest limit I ever had was from Exxon, for about $600 (so I could pay for car repairs once, I believe was the justification I used to bump the limit that high).

Following that, visit department store chains (JC Penny, Macy's, Sears, etc.). Of them, JC Penny has taken a hard hit in recent years, and is desperate to have business. They would likely finance you for something small. To do this, try to buy a pair of shoes, and apply for their store credit at the register. Companies are always more likely to give you credit when you're purchasing something from them with that credit.

This should be your last option. You will need to visit these stores in person, and the credit you receive can only be used outside of the stores. You'll need to use that credit to build credit - which often means purchasing overpriced items.

Keep in mind that you need to use credit in order to benefit from it. This is because your credit report will show your total credit limit, how much you have spent, and how much you could still spend.

If you show up as always at your limit, it indicates to creditors that you're struggling. On the other hand, if you have a lot of credit, but never use it, then creditors will not know if they can trust you. Because of this, when I'm counseling people to build credit, I encourage them to max out a credit card, make the minimum payment for that month that will not cause interest and balance fees to cause them to go over the limit, and then pay the balance off in full the next month. Overall They pay very little interest this way, but show a history of carrying credit. After a few months of this, you'll show a credit history that creditors will just love.

Alternatively, you could just max and may off the cards each month, avoiding the fees - but creditors do not like this as much.

Two other methods - one of which has been mentioned here already, are mortgages and businesses.

In the case of a mortgage, this is the worst advice you could possibly follow. You will be starting off with bad credit, and therefore hit with a very high mortgage rate. That means you will end up paying enormous amounts of interest (mortgage loans front load the interest, so you will only be paying interest for the first few years).

Much better you simply get a car loan, as it's a smaller amount to pay (so less interest overall), and it's a traditional loan, which means you'll be paying down the loan value with every payment.

In the case of a business, you can occasionally 'buy' good business credit through smart investment. I say smart, because you need to be smart about who you are investing in. For example, you could invest in an established business, on condition that you received a business credit card naming you. In this case you would be the authorized user of the card, thought the business would bear ultimate responsibility for paying the credit. You would benefit from being associated with a card that was used for business expenses and such, but tied to your name as the authorized user.

Finally, as I mentioned earlier, the longevity of credit is essential. If you leave America, you can still take your credit cards with you - just tell the company that you're moving with work, or whatever. As long as you pay the balances, you'll keep good credit, and be eligible for increases as well.

Good luck, and welcome to America. :)

Disclaimer: Any advice provided in this forum is just that - advice. It is free, and carries no guarantee or warranty of service. Use it at your own risk, and after applying your own best judgment.

In the event you would like more in depth and legally binding advice, please PM me for details on my company. Note that this is not in any way a solicitation, rather, there is only so much information I can take the time to provide at no cost. I have done my best to provide a thorough, unbiased, and honest description of services and methods. Those requiring more complex structures, such as that of business investment, require much more work. Additionally, they require my lawyer, meaning they're a service can't provide without billing for it.

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Your statement on mortgages is misleading. One week after I arrived in the U.S. (no credit history) I bought a house and got a mortgage with a pretty good interest rate (3.5%). The only condition was that I had to put down 25%, which is not that unreasonable. And if you do end up with a higher interest rate, you can always refinance after a year or so. –  Philippe Leybaert Apr 3 at 13:11
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Hi Philippe - given the context of the initial question, my statement on mortgages is very accurate. In your example, you put down 25% on a mortgage at a 3.5% rate - which, as you know, is only 'pretty good'. You lost money in that deal, because someone with established good credit would have saved at least $12,000 over 30 years on a $75,000 mortgage at 2.5%. That's 12% of your total home value - with which you could build a garage or buy a new car or motorcycle. I would be very surprised if the average reader here was comfortable throwing away 12% of their money on interest. –  H. J. Buell Apr 6 at 10:18
    
@PhilippeLeybaert - I also want to clarify that I mean no offense at all to you. You obviously have a degree of liquidity (cash money, for the layman reader), and financial expertise that most readers looking for advice on this forum don't have. position allowed you to buy credit - at the cost of $12,000 in additional mortgage interest, and at least $9,000 in the additional 1% interest would have earned over 30 years in any other investment other than home ownership. Few people reading this forum are able to invest $25,000 in credit, while losing more than $20,000 in fees and lost interest. –  H. J. Buell Apr 6 at 10:28

As @gerrit says, get a secured credit card. As soon as you can, get a regular credit card - you can use websites like creditkarma.com and creditsesame.com to get an idea of what credit cards you can use. Make that that you use the card regularly, and pay it off regularly.

There's a bit of a paradox - when you apply for an account, you take a hit to your credit score, but you need more accounts to have a good credit score. So apply carefully.

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If you have an American Express card from another country, you can "transfer" it to the US.

In addition to giving you an (unsecured) credit card in the US with a real credit limit that you can use to then start building your credit, American Express will report the date the account was opened as being when you first became a cardholder elsewhere in the world (presuming you have maintained continuous membership).

This means that you can end up with a credit history that pre-dates your moving to the US.

(In practice, they don't actually "transfer" the card, they just open a new card in the US. You can keep the foreign card or cancel it at your discretion)

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Also, I know for sure they will not do this for an AmEx card that was issued for business purposes (by an organization to an employee) as that would qualify as a corporate card. –  happybuddha Apr 4 at 6:23

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