Applying for a credit card without a Social Security number can be a hassle. Most card issuers require a Social Security number to ensure your identity. Generally, only U.S. citizens, permanent residents and non-immigrant workers authorized by the Department of Homeland Security can obtain the nine-digit number. 

If you're don't fit into any of these categories, fear not: there are still ways to obtain a credit card without a Social Security number. A credit card can be relied upon in an emergency, a convenient method to pay for online and in-store purchases, and a way to rack up rewards. When used responsibly, credit cards can help you build credit history, so you can enjoy better interest 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. 

Get an ITIN to Apply for a Credit Card

Before giving you a credit, banks need to check your identity. In the U.S., this is typically done with a Social Security number. Nevertheless, some issuers will grant credit without a Social Security number.

American Express, though a partnership with Nova Credit, can access credit reports in Australia, Canada, India, Mexico and the U.K. Other banks will accept an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) in place of a Social Security number. It follows the same nine-digit format (XXX-XX-XXX) and is issued by the Internal Revenue Service.

To get one, you'll need to complete IRS Form W-7, which requires proof of identity and documentation of foreign status such as a passport, a national ID card from your home country, or visa issued by the U.S. State Department.

You can submit the W-7 in one of a few ways:

  • By sending the W-7 and supporting documents via mail
  • By visiting an IRS Taxpayer Assistance Center
  • By using an IRS-approved Acceptance Agent or Certifying Acceptance Agent

Processing takes about seven weeks. Expect a longer turnaround time if you are applying during tax filing season or from overseas.

Unlike Social Security numbers, an ITIN won't last forever. If you obtained one previously you should check to ensure it remains valid. ITINs expire if they have not been used at least once in the past three consecutive tax years to file taxes. In addition, if your ITIN has middle digits ranging between 70 and 87 it is already expired.

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. Most card issuers require you demonstrate a solid credit history, and that's a challenge for new U.S. residents. This is because card companies rely on reports from the top three credit bureaus: Experian, Equifax and TransUnion. Alas, these agencies don't monitor credit histories overseas.

Consequently, you may be relegated to cards that cater specifically to consumers with little or no credit history. It's one reason why Capital One is popular among 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 U.S. to study, you can find any number of student cards meant for newer credit users. But there's a catch: cards such a these tend to charge higher interest rates because a limited track record as a borrower makes you a riskier proposition. 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 by having a co-signer or building a credit history in the U.S. before applying. By having someone else co-sign your application (someone with a good credit score), banks are taking on less risk that you'll overextend yourself and default on payments. You will need to find someone who's willing to put their credit status in your hands, as your co-signer will be as responsible as you are for any card balances you accrue.

Alternatively, you can start building your own FICO score by taking out a secured credit card. These cards require a deposit that typically dictate the amount of your credit limit. Secured credit cards are a good way to begin generating payment history for credit bureaus to monitor. After making consistent payments over six months to a year, you might qualify for the issuer's unsecured card. Some banks review your account every few months to see whether you're eligible for an upgrade.

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

Note: not every credit card issuer reports account information of an authorized user to the credit bureaus. Unless yours does, you won't be able to build credit, so check the reporting policies of your card issuer beforehand.

Alternatives to a Credit Card

If you can't get approved for a credit card, or you really only need one to make cash-free purchases, a debit card may be just as effective. Most debit cards are linked to a checking account, so you may need to obtain an ITIN beforehand. You can also opt for a prepaid credit card that uses the MasterCard, Visa or American Express payment networks.

While prepaid cards don't require a bank account, they offer similar benefits. Most are insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) and come with apps to check balances and review transaction histories. New rules from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau give users protection against unauthorized purchases, as long as the card is properly registered. The downside is you won't build credit history. Also, prepaid cards come with a number 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 U.S. citizen, permanent resident or non-immigrant worker authorized by the Department of Homeland Security.  Fortunately, you may be able to obtain a credit card without one. In most cases, this means applying for an ITIN and meeting the credit requirements of the card issuer.