As an international student, you may face hurdles in applying for a credit card, but it’s possible to get one. 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.

Identify Credit Issuer Requirements

Different banks have different requirements for opening up a line of credit, but it’s common to need a social security number or taxpayer ID number. Other issuers may be able to accept an international passport or national ID card, but requirements vary by issuer. Knowing the bank’s requirements and which ones you can meet can help determine what sort of credit card you can get.

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. Typically, credit card companies aren’t required to ask for a social security number, but many do anyway. 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 back to Ireland.

Open a U.S. Bank Account

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 can 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 important 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.

Get the Right Credit Card for You

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.

Another option is applying for a secured card, in which you pay a security deposit up front that’s equal to the amount of your available credit line. 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 will be able to use the security deposit to pay back the loan. Even though the card is secured, the way you use the card — keeping a low utilization, paying bills promptly — still allows for you to build credit history. 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 unsecured line of credit varies by issuer.

Use Credit Responsibly

One of the best ways to establish 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.

Published June 16, 2016

Update January 11, 2021

Legal Disclaimer: This site is for educational purposes and is not a substitute for professional advice. The material on this site is not intended to provide legal, investment, or financial advice and does not indicate the availability of any Discover product or service. It does not guarantee that Discover offers or endorses a product or service. For specific advice about your unique circumstances, you may wish to consult a qualified professional.