Applying for a credit card without a Social Security number can be something of a hassle. Most credit card issuers will ask for your Social Security number on the application in order to ensure your identity. And, generally, only U.S. citizens and non-citizens approved to work here by the Department of Homeland Security can get one of those nine-digit numbers. For U.S. residents born outside the country, getting that little piece of plastic in their name can be a bit more challenging.

Why apply for a credit card? Because it’s like a Swiss Army knife for your finances: A credit card is a source of emergency funds if you’re short on cash, a handy method to pay for online and in-store purchases, and a way to start racking up rewards. When used responsibly, it can also help you build your credit history, so you can enjoy better rates from lenders down the road.

Key Takeaways

  • Some card issuers will accept an individual tax identification number (ITIN) or even a passport in lieu of a Social Security number.
  • Unless you have a credit history in the United States, you’ll want to look for cards marketed toward new borrowers.
  • If you have trouble getting approved, you can use a secured credit card to start building your credit history. 

However, for U.S. residents born outside the country, getting that little piece of plastic in your name can be a bit more challenging. Most credit card issuers will ask for your Social Security number on the application in order to ensure your identity. And, generally, only U.S. citizens and non-citizens approved to work here by the Department of Homeland Security can get one of those nine-digit numbers.

If you're not a U.S. citizen or non-citizen approved to work here and lack that number, fear not. There are still ways to get a credit card, although you have to follow a slightly different process.

Get an ITIN to Apply for a Credit Card

Before giving you a credit account, banks have to know who you are. In the United States, the easiest way to prove that is by handing over a Social Security number. Nevertheless, some issuers will also accept other forms of identification.

American Express and Bank of America, for example, are willing to use your passport. Others allow you to use something called an “individual taxpayer identification number,” or ITIN, that you can get from the Internal Revenue Service. It follows the same nine-digit format (XXX-XX-XXX), and you can use your ITIN where it asks for a Social Security number on the application.

To get one you’ll need to complete IRS Form W-7, which requires you to provide proof of your identity and document your foreign status. You can submit the W-7 in one of a few ways:

  • Mail it, along with supporting documentation, to the address on the form
  • Make an appointment at an IRS Taxpayer Assistance Center
  • Deliver it through an IRS-approved “acceptance agent,” such as a college or financial institution

Once you’ve sent in your Form W-7, you should get an ITIN in the mail within seven weeks.

Unlike Social Security numbers, ITINs don’t necessarily last forever. So even if you obtained one a while back—which may be the case if you needed to file a U.S. tax return—you should check to make sure that it’s still valid. For example, on Dec. 31, 2018, the IRS purged ITINs that weren’t used in 2015, 2016, or 2017 for a federal tax return. ITINs issued before 2013 with middle digits of 73, 74, 75, 76, 77, 81 and 82 also expired at the end of 2018.

Find the Right Card Issuer

Not every card issuer will accept an alternative form of identification, such as a passport or an ITIN, but several do. Among the major issuers that are more flexible in their requirements are:

  • American Express (accepts SSN, ITIN, or passport)
  • Bank of America (accepts SSN, ITIN, or passport)
  • Capital One (accepts SSN or ITIN)
  • Citi (ITIN allowed for some cards)

Having a valid ID isn’t the only hurdle you’ll need to clear. Some cards also require that you demonstrate a solid credit history before giving you an account, and that’s harder to do for new U.S. residents. That’s because card companies rely on reports from the three major credit bureaus: Experian, Equifax, and Transunion. Alas, these agencies don’t collect your borrowing history in a foreign country.

Consequently, you may be relegated to cards that cater specifically to consumers with little or no credit history. It’s one of the reasons that Capital One, in particular, is a popular choice for non-permanent residents. You can use an ITIN to apply for its platinum card, which comes with no annual fee or foreign transaction fees.

If you’re in the United States to study, you can also find any number of “student” cards meant for newer credit users. There’s a catch, of course. Cards like these tend to charge higher interest rates because a limited track record as a borrower makes you a more dangerous proposition for the bank. Therefore, you’ll want to weigh the benefits against that important drawback before signing on.

Having an ITIN may not be enough to get approved; you also have to meet the credit requirements of the card company, which might require building a credit history in the United States.

Building a Credit History

You can increase your options quite a bit by getting a co-signer or building a credit history in the United States before applying. By having someone else sign your application—someone with a good credit score—banks are taking on less risk that you’ll overextend yourself and default on payments. The catch is that you have to find someone who’s willing to put his or her credit status in your hands, as your co-signer is legally as responsible as you are for any card balances you accrue.

Alternatively, you may want to start building up your own FICO score by taking out a secured credit card. With these cards, you make an upfront deposit, which typically dictates the amount of your credit limit. It’s a good way for newbies to start leaving behind a payment record for the credit bureaus. After making consistent payments over a period of time—usually six months to a year—you may end up qualifying for the issuer’s unsecured card. Some banks automatically review your account every few months to see whether you’re eligible for an upgrade.

Yet another way to build your credit history is to become an authorized user on someone else’s existing account. As long as the primary account holder makes on-time payments, your credit score gets a nice boost. However, it’s important to realize that the opposite is also true. If you choose someone who uses too much credit or skips even an occasional payment, your credit report can get dented real fast (though, fortunately, you’re not liable for the debt itself). Needless to say, it’s a strategy you want to reserve for family members or others you know you can trust.

It’s also important to realize that not every credit card company reports account information to the credit bureau file of an authorized user. Unless yours does, you won’t be able to build your credit, so check with the company beforehand to see what its reporting policies are.

Alternatives to a Credit Card

If you can’t get approved for a credit card—or you really only need it to make cash-free purchases—a debit card may be just as effective. Traditional debit cards require you to obtain a checking account first, so you’ll still need to obtain an ITIN beforehand.

You can also opt for a prepaid card that uses the Mastercard, Visa, or American Express card networks. You simply add money to the card and reload it whenever you need more funds.

While they don’t require a bank account, prepaid cards offer many of the same benefits. Most are insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and come with apps that let you easily check your balance and review your transactions. New rules put in place by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau give users protection against unauthorized purchases, as long as the card is properly registered.

The downside is that you can’t build your credit history this way. Also, prepaid cards often come with a litany of costs—from monthly charges to reloading fees—that can add up over time.

Conclusion

You can only get a Social Security number if you are a United States citizen or authorized to work in the U.S. Fortunately, you may be able to get a credit card without one. In most cases that means applying for an ITIN and showing that you meet the credit requirements of the card issuer.