Credit Card Options for International Students & Immigrants

Credit Card Options for International Students & Immigrants

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Though it’s not always easy, foreigners living in the United States can get a credit card. One’s immigration status will dictate the number of options available. Most immigrants and international students may be able to apply for secured credit cards or become authorized users on somebody else’s account.

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Best Option for International Students: Deserve® Classic Mastercard

One unique option available to international students is turning to alternative scoring credit card companies, such as the Deserve® Classic Mastercard. The card has no annual fee and fairly average interest rates. Because it also doesn't require users to have a social security number, the Deserve® Classic Mastercard is one of the best credit cards for international students.

The card will help international students build up a credit score by reporting their payments to one of the three credit bureaus. It works as a great alternative to other options because it’s inexpensive. The Deserve® Classic Mastercard doesn’t require a security deposit unlike some other options for non-student immigrants.

Currently, the Deserve® Classic Mastercard comes with a special promotional offer. If you charge an Amazon Prime Student membership to the card, Deserve will reimburse you the fee for one year. That represents a $59 value, which is on par with the value of sign-up bonuses we see from top student credit cards.

Why It's Challenging for International Students to Get A Credit Card

International students may have a tougher time getting a credit card than most immigrants – it all depends on their age. Federal regulations in the United States place strict rules when it comes to lending to individuals below the age of 21, whether they are a U.S. citizen or not. Therefore, some international students will have this additional hurdle to get through to get a card. Students will need to provide proof of income or provide bank statements showing their funds. Banks use this information to make sure the student has the capitol required to pay back any debt they take on through the card.

Additionally, the most popular student credit cards in the United States, such as the Discover it® Student Cash Back, require you to enter a social security (SS) number at the time of application. Anyone with work authorization in the United States can apply for an SS number. Therefore, it’s possible for certain individuals with an F-1 visa to qualify. However, if they aren't working, international students need to rely on cards like the Deserve® Classic Mastercard.

Options for Permanent Residents & Immigrants

Permanent residents and temporary immigrants may qualify for a credit card, provided they have one of two things – a social security number or a individual taxpayer identification number (ITIN). Unfortunately, not all banks in the U.S. will accept an ITIN as a substitute for an SS number.

Issuer

Allows Credit Card Applications With ITIN?

American Express

Yes

Bank of America

Yes

Barclaycard

No

Capital One

Yes

Chase

Yes

Citi

Yes

Discover

No

US Bank

No

Wells Fargo

No
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Without any prior credit history, immigrants may also need to rely on secured credit cards. These products are intended to help individuals build up their credit score over time. The biggest downside to these cards is that they require the user to put down a security deposit. Once your credit score climbs to about 680, you can begin applying for better credit cards.

If You Have a Social Security Number: Discover it® Secured Credit Card

The Discover it® Secured Credit Card is one of the best secured credit cards in the United States. It comes with a rewards program, which is unusual for cards of this type. Users get 2% cash back at Gas Stations and Restaurants on up to $1,000 in combined purchases each quarter, 1% unlimited cash back on all other purchases - automatically. As with all secured credit cards, you’ll need to put down a security deposit. The minimum for this card is $200. Your credit line will be equal to the amount of your deposit. Remember that Discover does not allow individuals to apply using an ITIN, so you will need to have a social security number to apply for this one.

Highlights

  • 2% cash back at Gas Stations and Restaurants on up to $1,000 in combined purchases each quarter, 1% unlimited cash back on all other purchases - automatically
  • Free FICO® Credit Score

If You Only Have an ITIN: Secured Mastercard® from Capital One

Immigrants who only have an ITIN may want to consider signing up for the Secured Mastercard® from Capital One. The card comes with $0 annual fee and a flexible credit line. Making the minimum required security deposit of $49 can get you an initial credit line of $200 (access to an authorized bank account is required to make a refundable minimum security deposit of $49, $99 or $200). The more you deposit the higher your credit line will be. This is better than most other secured credit cards that often only give you a credit line at a 1:1 ratio to your security deposit. Unfortunately, this card doesn’t come with any cash back or rewards program.

Highlights

  • $0 annual fee
  • Flexible credit line
  • CreditWise® allows you to monitor your credit score

Options for Undocumented Immigrants

Undocumented immigrants must rely on credit cards that don’t require a social security number or, in some cases, an ITIN. This can be difficult to find. Certain credit unions and community banks may help people in this situation find a credit card. Large institutions in areas with high immigrant populations have also reportedly allowed undocumented residents to open credit card accounts. However, this is a gray area with nothing official on-record. There is no law stopping financial institutions from issuing credit cards to undocumented immigrants. However, because the topic is highly polarizing in the United States, most large banks choose to not publicize such practices.

If you're struggling to find a credit card, you should turn to credit unions or advocacy groups specifically dealing with aiding undocumented immigrants. These may have channels set up to specifically help people in this situation. Apart from that, the only other option for undocumented immigrants is to become an authorized user on someone else's credit card account.

Becoming an Authorized User

The easiest way for most people to obtain a credit card is to become an authorized user. Anyone can do this, whether they are an international student or an undocumented immigrant. The practice works as follows. Someone with an open credit card account can authorize you to make purchases on it. The bank issues you a credit card with your name on it, and will also typically report your name to the credit bureaus. Most authorized user forms don't ask for a social security number. They only rely on an individual's name, address and date of birth.

The most challenging thing about this approach is that you'll need to find someone willing to make you an authorized user. The main account holder is taking on a great risk by adding you. They will be responsible for all debt posted to this account, even if you are the one to make the purchases. In most cases, authorized users are the main account holder's spouse or family member.

Before Searching For Options Beware of Predatory Lending

Immigrants searching for a credit card need to be vigilant and carefully examine any contracts or cardmember agreements before applying. Take extra care to understand all the fees and charges associated with a new account. Immigrants and international students are at an increased risk of being targeted by predatory lenders. Historically, economically disadvantaged people have been offered extremely high interest rates and fees. In some cases, these extra charges were violating federal law.

As a general guideline, you should not accept credit cards with purchase APR higher than 29%. A card may come with an annual fee, though it should be less than $50. Other types of fees are not common. Origination, monthly membership or upkeep fees are generally a sign of a card being a so-called fee harvester, and should be avoided.

Joe Resendiz

Joe Resendiz is a former investment banking analyst for Goldman Sachs, where he covered public sector and infrastructure financing. During his time on Wall Street, Joe worked closely with the debt capital markets team, which allowed him to gain unique insights into the credit market. Joe is currently a research analyst who covers credit cards and the payments industry. He earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Texas at Austin, where he majored in finance.

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How We Calculate Rewards: ValuePenguin calculates the value of rewards by estimating the dollar value of any points, miles or bonuses earned using the card less any associated annual fees. These estimates here are ValuePenguin's alone, not those of the card issuer, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the credit card issuer.

Example of how we calculate the rewards rates: When redeemed for travel through Ultimate Rewards, Chase Sapphire Preferred points are worth $0.0125 each. The card awards 2 points on travel and dining and 1 point on everything else. Therefore, we say the card has a 2.5% rewards rate on dining and travel (2 x $0.0125) and a 1.25% rewards rate on everything else (1 x $0.0125).

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