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As a long-term expat, my credit history in the US is sparse as most of my expenses are in my country of residence (along with credit cards, mortgages, monthly payments of all varieties, etc.).

While there are many ways for foreign immigrants to get around the lack of a credit history, returning expats are not a blank slate, but since many countries do not exchange credit history, there may be a long (decade or more) gap that would make your credit less favorable than what it would be in your country of residence.

When living abroad as a US expat, is there any way to maintain a credit history in the US or to otherwise make it easier to get something like a mortgage upon moving back to the US?

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  1. Keep your existing accounts open
  2. If you have no existing credit in the US, get some
  3. Pay off your bills on time
  4. As a last resort, talk with American Express

Keep your existing accounts open

If you have existing cards and bank accounts, do not close them all before leaving the country or while abroad. If you do not use the account for months, it may be marked as inactive, and will not be a benefit, so be sure to regularly use your credit if you have it.

Set up a line of credit

If you don't have a credit card (maybe you went abroad prior to turning 18, or your left the US with bad credit and couldn't get a card, relied on debit, or never needed one), then you can apply for a secured credit card which can be obtained with a US bank account and address and a bit of capital.

Pay off your bills

Since you need to use your cards regularly, make sure you pay off the resulting debt that comes from using the cards regularly. Late payments and carrying revolving debt can lower your payment (especially if the debt is a large portion of the credit limit you have across all cards), so making small regular payments may be preferable.

Consider American Express

According to this 2007 article citing an American Express spokesperson, American Express will consider an existing relationship with them in another country when applying for a credit card in the US, even with a lack of US credit history:

Alfonso reassures existing card members that American Express would do everything in its power to make the transition seamless. A new application doesn't negate a previous relationship, she says.

...

Alfonso says that at American Express, every application is evaluated case by case, even when an American credit report is not available. "We definitely want to be able to establish income verification from a reliable source," she says. "But every application is evaluated on its own merits. It is not one size fits all."

This may apply to other international banks (like Citibank or the like) which issue credit cards in both the US and your country of residence, so you may consider asking when considering which cards to apply for.

2

Nothing prevents you from keeping a US bank account and using a US credit card. You can keep some regular expenses from online services (e.g. Skype credit) tied to the US credit card, which will get you to make regular transactions. Even better, having a US credit card when on home leave allows you to avoid the currency exchange fees on your foreign credit card.

As explained in the answers to one of the questions you liked, it is not so much the amount, but the duration and the reliability of your dealing with credit card debt that is key in building the credit history. So keep your oldest US credit card active, and pay off the small, but somewhat regular bills on time, and they'll still love you when you come back.

If you have left the US without getting a credit card, you may always be able to get a secured card on home leave (open a bank account, park enough money that you don't pay monthly fees, use that parked money as collateral for your credit card, open a second account at the same bank using which you pay off any credit card debts to avoid going under the monthly fee limit), and start building a credit history.

  • Yes, but (to the best of my knowledge) you need to be a US resident to apply for cards in the first place. While I definitely think that's good to put out there, paying off a Skype credit each month isn't likely to get people beating down your door to offer you a several-hundred thousand dollar mortgage when you show back up in the US. At least I assume that's the case. If it isn't, could you please edit to expand on your answer? Thanks in advance! – jmac Mar 31 '14 at 6:50
  • @jmac if you're an expat - don't you already have a US credit card? You can always get a secured one. The lenders will look more on the length of the history and the credit/debt ratio, not the nominal amounts. – littleadv Mar 31 '14 at 6:56
  • Perhaps I am an 80 year-old man who left the US prior to the credit revolution. Or maybe I left the US prior to being 18 and able to apply for credit cards. Or maybe I was never a strong believer in the concept of credit cards and preferred cash. Or any other reason. If getting a secured card is a way to solve the issue, editing that in to your answer would be appreciated! – jmac Mar 31 '14 at 6:59
  • @jmac: I have edited my post. – Jonas Mar 31 '14 at 7:06
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    @jmac so which one is it? Are you 80 or 18? Hypothetical questions is not a good fit for SE sites. – littleadv Mar 31 '14 at 8:38

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