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Credit Cards for International Students

Last Updated: January 18, 2023
5 min read

Key points about: credit cards for international students

  1. International students staying in the United States for an extended time may benefit from establishing a credit line.

  2. Some credit card issuers may accept an international passport instead of a Social Security or taxpayer ID number.

  3. Other options available include applying for a secured credit card and being added as an authorized user on someone else’s account.

Can international students get a credit card?

As an international student, you may face hurdles in applying for a credit card, but getting one is possible. Knowing what these hurdles are upfront can make the credit card application process easier. Here’s how to open a credit card in your name if you’re an international student in the United States.

Why international students might want a U.S. credit card

When studying in a new country, only part of your education takes place in the classroom. Much of your time can be spent immersing yourself in another culture: trying new foods, exploring new cities, and generally taking in everything the country has to offer. Of course, some of these things cost money, and it can be important to figure out smart ways to finance everything you want to do. Constantly withdrawing cash can be annoying, and if you’re planning to work or live in the United States for an extended period of time, establishing a credit line can be a smart move.

Even if you have a credit line in your home country, in the United States, your credit score—which includes your credit history—may be used to determine creditworthiness for things like renting or buying a home, financing a car, or applying for a job. Having a credit card can also give you access to perks, points, and reward offers, and may make it easier to handle your finances in the United States.

How to get a credit card as an international student

Learn the requirements to get a U.S. credit card

It’s common to need a Social Security number or taxpayer ID number, but some issuers may accept an international passport from an international student applying for a credit card.

Depending on the type of visa you’re studying under, you may be able to secure a Social Security number or obtain a taxpayer ID number, even if you’re not a citizen or have no plans to work within the United States. Applying for a taxpayer ID number through the IRS can be a valuable form of identification.

Your employer or school may also have suggestions. For example, Clodagh Hart, a native of Dublin, Ireland, who studied literature at the City University of New York, says that the international student office was invaluable for giving tips in navigating her financial life in the United States. “They see loads of students from different countries, and can tell you what information you need to bring to the bank, what sort of credit cards to look for, and how and why establishing a financial base in the US is important, even if you plan to go back to your home country,” explains Clodagh, who was only in the United States for a year before returning to Ireland.

Open a U.S. bank account

Did you know?

Opening a U.S. bank account, especially if you’re working in the United States or paying rent, utilities, or other bills, can be a smart move. Why? Opening a U.S. bank account as an international student can eliminate currency exchange fees, protect your assets, and make it easier to pay for things via check or debit card and manage bills online. In addition, setting up a U.S.-based bank account can prove to a would-be lender that you have assets in the United States, which is important if, say, you’re trying to rent an apartment. Opening a U.S. bank account can also be an essential first step in securing a line of credit for the future. The banker you work with may also have suggestions on credit card options, and having a bank account based in the United States can make it easier to pay your credit card bills.

Find out if you pre-qualify for a U.S. credit card

Applying for a credit card generates a hard inquiry that can lower your credit score. It’s better to find out if you pre-qualify, which means that a lender will let you know if you’re likely to get approved before you apply. Approval is not guaranteed, but it’s a way to get an idea of whether the credit card might be a good fit before you submit a formal application.

Submit a credit card application

Once you’ve decided you’re likely to meet a credit card’s requirements, you can formally apply. If you don’t get approved for your first choice of credit card, there may be other options.

Overcoming obstacles to international students getting a credit card

Become an authorized user

Even with a U.S.-based ID and bank account, a limited or nonexistent credit history may be a bump in the road. One strategy is to be added as an authorized user on someone else’s account. When Sid Gupta, a student at the University of California, Berkeley, first moved to the United States for undergrad, his aunt and uncle added him as an authorized user on one of their credit cards. “I always paid them back, but it was a good initial step in helping me build my own credit history,” says Gupta.

Apply for a secured credit card

Another option is applying for a secured credit card, in which your credit line will equal your deposit amount, starting at $200.1 For example, if a card has a limit of $500, you will have already paid $500 toward the card, “securing” the credit limit. This way, if you don’t pay back the balance in full, the issuer can use the security deposit to pay back the loan. Even though the card is secured, the way you use the card — keeping a low credit utilization and paying bills promptly—still allows you to build your credit history2. The Discover it ® Secured Credit Card can help you build credit with responsible use.2 If you use your secured card responsibly, your issuer may return your security deposit in full, and you may be able to transition to an unsecured line of credit. The amount of time it takes to transition from a secured to an unsecured line of credit varies by card issuer.

Build a credit score by using credit responsibly

One of the best ways to establish a good credit history is to establish good payment habits, including keeping a low credit utilization ratio (meaning not charging your card close to the credit limit) and paying your bills in full and on time each month. This may also help you secure more competitive credit card offers in the future. For example, Luisa Elton moved to the United States as an au pair after studying in her native Brazil. With a taxpayer ID, she was able to get a credit card—with a limit of $350.

“I made sure to always pay my bills on time. After six months, I requested a credit limit increase and was granted one.” While you should only request a credit line increase if you can reasonably pay back more money each month, Luisa’s experience shows that with responsible, mindful use of your credit card, you can have more flexibility with your card usage.


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