How to build credit in the US as a new immigrant

Moving to a new country comes with new and exciting challenges. One of those challenges can be putting yourself on solid financial ground. For many new arrivals in the U.S., establishing credit is high on the financial to-do list.

Your credit-building journey may begin with tasks such as getting a Social Security number (SSN) or ​​Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN), opening a U.S. bank account, or applying for a credit card. Then, the journey continues with responsible use of your credit and monitoring your credit reports and credit scores.

Keep reading to learn more about building credit in the U.S. as a new immigrant.

Key takeaways

  • Establishing credit in the U.S. can make it easier for immigrants to obtain a loan or other financial products.
  • Things like applying for a SSN or ITIN, opening a bank account, and applying for a credit card are critical first steps in beginning to build a credit history in the U.S.
  • Practicing good financial habits like paying bills on time and only applying for the credit you need can help build your scores over time.
  • If you have a credit history in your home country, you may be able to transfer it to the U.S. in some cases.

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Why building credit is important for immigrants

Credit affects so many aspects of our lives. Establishing a credit history can help an immigrant—or anybody else—buy a home, purchase a car, rent an apartment or achieve other dreams related to money.

However, those goals can be much more challenging to achieve if you lack a credit history.

Building a good credit score can help set the foundation for your ability to borrow money. This number tells lenders how likely you are to pay back that money on time. And depending on the credit-scoring company, a poor credit score may be below 580 while a good or excellent score may be above 670.

It’s worth noting that no one has just one credit score. Anybody with a credit history actually has multiple scores based on various credit-scoring models. Credit-score providers like FICO® and VantageScore® are two popular credit-score providers. 

These credit-scoring companies take information from your credit reports and apply a mathematical formula or model to come up with your credit scores. You normally have credit reports if you have a credit card or a loan from a financial institution.

Can you transfer credit history to the US from another country?

Like the U.S., other countries have credit scores. But credit-scoring systems can vary from one country to the next. 

If you have a credit history in your home country, in some cases you may be able to transfer it to the U.S. You’ll most likely need to partner with a global credit-scoring bureau in order to do this.

How to start building your credit history in the US

Building your credit can help you build a better future. But just like building a house, building credit takes time and work. This work could include obtaining an SSN, opening a U.S. bank account or applying for a credit card, as well as paying your bills on time.

1. Apply for a Social Security number, if possible

An SSN can help you build credit. That’s because credit card issuers and banks frequently ask for this number when you’re applying for a credit card or a loan. If you’re a noncitizen, you must be authorized to work in the U.S. in order to qualify for an SSN.

If you’re unable to get an SSN, an alternative is an ITIN issued by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). An ITIN is available only to certain nonresident and resident aliens, their spouses and their dependents if they don’t qualify for an SSN. Both an SSN and an ITIN contain nine digits.

2. Open a bank account in the US

A bank account likely won’t affect your credit score or appear on your credit report. But in some cases, a credit card issuer may require that you have a bank account.

Fortunately, you may be able to open a U.S. account with the bank with which you do business in your home country. A number of banks operate in the U.S. and around the world.

3. Apply for a credit card

Applying for a credit card can also be a big first step to begin building credit. While the absence of a credit history may mean it’s tough to qualify for a traditional unsecured credit card, you may be able to get a secured credit card. 

With a secured card, you deposit a certain amount of money in order to set up the account. The card issuer holds this security deposit, as it’s called, as long as the account is active. A $200 deposit might translate into a $200 credit limit. 

As you make on-time payments on a secured credit card, you build a positive credit history. This credit history can help you eventually graduate to an unsecured credit card, which does not require a deposit.

4. Avoid debt and late payments

Avoiding debt and late payments can also put you on the right track toward building a strong credit history.

When you don’t let a lot of debt pile up, it can benefit your credit utilization ratio. This shows how much of your available credit you’re using. And maintaining a low credit utilization ratio can improve your credit score.

In addition, you may want to carefully consider the risks of some kinds of debt, like payday loans, before applying. This type of loan is often not reported to the credit bureaus and won’t help you improve your credit scores. It also comes with extremely high interest rates—commonly up to 400%. If you fall behind on paying a payday loan, you could end up even deeper in debt.

Aside from avoiding too much or risky types of debt, making timely payments can help build credit. One or two late payments can result in late fees or interest charges. And payment history represents a sizable part of your credit score.

5. Pay rent and utilities on time

Paying rent and utility bills on time could also help you build credit.

A solid history of on-time payments for things like rent, phone, internet, electric and other utility bills may give you a better shot at qualifying for credit cards or loans. How? If you consistently pay these bills on time and this activity is reported to a credit bureau, it can reflect positively on your credit history. 

Not only must the utility provider report your payment activity to a credit bureau, but a credit-scoring company must include these bill payments in its calculations. But if your payments aren’t being reported, there are reporting services that might be able to help. 

Be sure to do your research or talk to a professional before you sign up. These companies can charge for their services, and you’ll want to know what information is being reported and who it’s being reported to.

But remember, there’s also a flip side. Falling behind on payments can lower your credit score, even if your bills aren’t being reported regularly. Depending on how far behind you fall, you could incur penalties or late charges, and your account could be turned over to a collections agency.

How long does it take to build credit in the US?

Building credit takes time. And there’s no magic formula for how long it takes. This is because credit scores and reports are based on your history with credit. And it takes time to build a record of that. 

But you can get a FICO score calculated within about six months of opening an account that reports to the credit bureaus. And it may take even less time to get a VantageScore. 

Once you’ve opened a credit card account or obtained a loan, here are some steps you can take to build your credit in a reasonable amount of time:

  • Make on-time payments. Set up automatic payments or electronic reminders for all of your bills to prevent late payments.
  • Spend responsibly. If possible, try to stay well below your credit limit. In fact, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, experts recommend keeping your credit utilization below 30% of your available credit. 
  • Consider keeping accounts open. Part of what determines your credit score is how long you’ve had credit. So the older your history with each card you have, the better.
  • Be careful with applications. Applying for a credit card usually triggers a hard inquiry on your credit. And that can affect your score. Try to apply only for the credit you need.
  • Check your credit reports. Keep on top of the information in your credit reports, as this information affects your credit scores. If you spot any incorrect information, work with your creditor or the credit bureau that produced the report to get the error fixed as soon as possible.

Building credit for new immigrants in a nutshell

Building credit and being responsible with your credit can benefit anyone, including a new immigrant in the U.S.

As you work to establish and build credit as you move to the U.S., it’s important to monitor your credit. CreditWise from Capital One allows you to check your TransUnion® credit reports and VantageScore 3.0 credit score without hurting your credit. CreditWise is free and available to everyone—even if you’re not a Capital One cardholder.

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