Immigrants moving to the United States can face some special challenges in getting credit cards. Some immigrants come from countries where credit cards are not as commonly used, so they may not have an established credit history. Others may be concerned or confused about exactly what kind of paperwork or documentation is needed in order to apply for a credit card.

But, simply put, new immigrants to the U.S. may get a credit card if they have the proper documentation to complete the application process.  Consider these key points that new immigrants to should keep in mind when applying for credit cards:

1. Do You Have a U.S. Credit History?

2. What Credit Cards Are Right for Immigrants?

3. What Paperwork Do You Need for a Credit Card?

1. Do You Have a U.S. Credit History?

U.S. credit card issuers require people to go through a credit card application process, where the bank/credit card company evaluates your financial history and your overall ability to repay the borrowed money, based on your consumer credit report and credit score. Your credit score is based on how much existing debt you have, your payment history, and other factors.

However, many immigrants may not have a U.S. credit score yet, due to differences in the credit reporting systems between different countries. If you do not already have an existing credit card or other credit account — like a car loan or home loan in your name — that has already been open for at least six months, you might not have any “credit history” that shows up in the U.S. credit reporting system.

To see what’s recorded in your U.S. credit history, you can request a free credit report. For immigrants, building a credit history is an important step in getting established within the U.S. financial system.

2. What Credit Cards Are Right for Immigrants?

Immigrants to the U.S. have several options for acquiring a credit card. What’s available will depend on that person’s particular financial situation. Some of the more common credit card options for immigrants include:

  • Become an authorized user. One option to start building credit would be to become an authorized user on someone else’s existing credit card. (The actual credit card holder is still responsible for any charges you make.) Bear in mind that if the primary cardmember on this account (typically a family member or friend) fails to make payments on time, that negative credit history may be reflected on the authorized user’s credit report as well. If you go this route, make sure the person who makes you an authorized user on their card is responsible and reliable with their own credit use.
  • Apply for a secured credit card. If you lack credit history or have a poor credit history and have not been able to qualify for an unsecured credit card, you might consider applying for a secured credit card. This card is a real credit card — not a prepaid or debit card — and requires a refundable security deposit. If you are approved, start with a small cash deposit (possibly as low as $200) and, if you use your card responsibly and pay your bills on time each month, eventually you may move on to an unsecured credit card with a higher credit limit.
  • Apply for an unsecured credit card. If you have a positive U.S. credit history, you can apply for an unsecured credit card like those offered by Discover, with rewards programs and perks, such as cash back or miles.

As part of your research, it’s a good idea to compare credit card features to help decide which option is right for you.

3. What Paperwork Do You Need for a Credit Card?

The short answer? It varies. Many credit card issuers will require a proof of identity in order to process your card application. Talk to a few lenders to see what specific proof of identity is required before choosing to apply.

After you have selected a potential credit issuer, you can begin the credit card application process at their website. But, before you apply online, do your research and be sure you understand your goals in acquiring the card.

Getting credit cards for immigrants can be challenging, but with careful planning, research and responsible financial management, you can prove your creditworthiness and get started in building your credit history. Acquiring a credit card can be an important step to helping secure your financial future in the U.S.

Originally published October 10, 2017.

Updated February 27, 2020.

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