How Immigrants Can Access Financial Services

Access to banking is important for establishing good financial habits and avoiding the high fees often associated with alternative financial services. While opening a bank account is seemingly simple, it can present a challenge for immigrants, including those who are new to the United States and have limited English proficiency, as well as individuals who enter the country without documentation.

Collectively, there are 44.9 million immigrants in the U.S., 10.3 million of whom are undocumented. Understanding banking rights can ensure that immigrants are able to access the banking products and services they need.

Key Takeaways

  • There are an estimated 44.9 million immigrants in the United States, including 10.3 million undocumented immigrants.
  • Many immigrants may not understand their banking rights or how to open a bank account, particularly if they lack the necessary documentation to do so.
  • Language barriers can also inhibit immigrants from seeking out the banking products and services they need to better manage their money.
  • Being unaware of their banking rights can potentially cost immigrants hundreds or even thousands of dollars in unnecessary fees.

Bank Accounts and Immigration Status

One of the most commonly asked questions that immigrants may have is whether it’s possible to open a bank account without a Social Security number. The short answer is yes, it’s possible to get a bank account without a Social Security number if you’re able to provide other forms of supporting documentation or identification. The typical information that banks need to open a new account include your:

  • Name
  • Date of birth
  • Address
  • Identification

In place of a Social Security number, it’s possible for immigrants to open a bank account using an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN). This number, issued by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), is designed for people who do not have and are not eligible for a Social Security number. ITINs are issued regardless of immigration status and can be used to open a bank account.

An ITIN does not authorize you to work in the U.S., nor does it provide eligibility for Social Security benefits or qualify a dependent for Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) purposes.

You can apply for an ITIN if you are:

  • A nonresident alien who’s required to file a U.S. tax return
  • A U.S. resident alien filing a tax return
  • The dependent or spouse of a U.S. citizen/resident alien/nonresident alien visa holder
  • A nonresident alien claiming a tax treaty benefit
  • A nonresident alien student, professor, or researcher filing a U.S. tax return or claiming an exception

The IRS has a web page about how to apply for an ITIN.

Credit Cards and Loans for Immigrants

Getting a credit card or loan can help to meet financial needs and can be a way to establish and build a U.S. credit history. Immigrants have the right to apply for loans and credit cards, and a number of banks and lenders offer them. There are, however, some limitations and exceptions.

For example, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients are ineligible for federal student loan programs. However, they may be able to obtain private student loans from banks or other lenders, as well as personal loans or auto loans. Meanwhile, other noncitizens may be able to successfully apply for federal student loans if they can provide sufficient documentation.

Certain Native American students born in Canada with a status under the Jay Treaty of 1789 may also be eligible for federal student aid.

Qualification for private student loans, personal loans, auto loans, or mortgage loans can vary from lender to lender. For example, no verification of citizenship or immigration status may be required if the application can provide an ITIN and proof of income. A passport or other identification may also be requested to complete the loan application.

As far as credit cards go, a number of financial technology (fintech) companies have developed credit products specifically for people who don’t have a Social Security number. Applicants may use an ITIN instead to get approved. If they’re able to open an account, they can then use that to establish and build a credit history, which could make it easier to qualify for loans.

MAJORITY is a mobile banking app designed just for immigrants that includes personalized access to banking with no overdraft fees or foreign transaction fees.

Mortgages for Immigrants

Buying a home typically means getting a mortgage, and immigrants have the right to apply for a home loan in the U.S. The biggest challenge with getting approved is being able to meet the lender’s qualification requirements with regard to employment history, credit history, and proof of income. If you don’t have a credit history in the U.S., for instance, that can make it more difficult for lenders to assess your creditworthiness.

Opening a bank account with an international bank that has U.S. branches or with a U.S. bank can help you to establish a financial history. Again, you can open a bank account with an ITIN, and your lender may allow you to apply for a mortgage using your ITIN as well. Doing your research to compare mortgage options can help you find a bank that’s willing to work with you.

Offering a larger down payment could make it easier to qualify for a mortgage in the U.S. when you have immigrant status.

Can I open a bank account without a Social Security number?

Yes, you can legally open a bank account whether or not you have a Social Security number and regardless of your immigration status. A number of banks and credit unions accept a wide range of identification documents, including an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN), to open a bank account.

What is an ITIN?

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) issues ITINs to people who are required to file tax returns and are not eligible to get a Social Security number. The ITIN can be used in place of a Social Security number when opening a new bank account or applying for certain loans and credit cards.

Do I have to show immigration papers to open a bank account?

No. Banks and credit unions should not ask you to prove your immigration status to open a bank account. If you believe that a bank or another financial institution is discriminating against you based on your immigration status, you can file a complaint through the Federal Reserve System’s Consumer Complaint form online.

Can illegal immigrants have a bank account?

Yes, undocumented immigrants to the United States have the right to open a bank account. Again, banks should not need you to prove your immigration status to open an account.

The Bottom Line

Immigrating to the U.S. can be an opportunity to expand your horizons, and it’s important to understand what banking rights you have. Opening a bank account can be the first step toward building a solid financial foundation, and it can make it easier to apply for loans and credit cards later on.

Article Sources
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  1. American Immigration Council. “Immigrants in the United States.”

  2. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. “Can I Get a Checking Account without a Social Security Number?

  3. Internal Revenue Service. “Individual Taxpayer Identification Number.”

  4. Federal Student Aid. “Many Non-U.S. Citizens Qualify for Federal Student Aid.

  5. U.S. Embassy and Consulates in Canada. “First Nations and Native Americans.”

  6. University of Minnesota Extension. “Building Credit without a Social Security Number.”

  7. MAJORITY. “All-in-One Mobile Banking for Migrants.”

  8. Federal Trade Commission, Consumer Advice. “Credit Discrimination.”

  9. Federal Reserve System. “Consumer Compliance.”