Banking and Establishing Credit in the U.S as an Expat 

March 20 , 2021 by: Leah Martin

Moving abroad is not easy. There are many challenges and learning curves when becoming an expat and banking is one of them. Upon arriving in the U.S you will need to establish credit. Just because you had credit in your home country does not mean it will cross-over to your new home in America. You will have to open a bank account and get a credit card to build credit. This can be challenging to do with no previous credit record. This is known as a “catch-22”.

To help make this process as seamless as possible, we have outlined steps and strategies below to open a bank account, get a credit card and establish credit.

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How to open a bank account

A bank account will allow you to pay bills with ease, sign up for automatic withdrawals, and can help you build credit. There are plenty of banks across the U.S, and you can walk into any one and open a bank account. A few of the largest banks include Bank of America, Wells Fargo, and Citigroup.

There are two types of bank accounts: checking and savings. You should first open a checking account. This is used for day-to-day banking like paying bills, depositing paychecks, and withdrawing cash. If you want to save money, you will open a savings account for long-term savings. Many jobs will ask for your checking account information and directly deposit your paycheck into your bank account.

To open a bank account, you will need identification that shows your U.S address, full name, date of birth, and an ID number. You can use a driver’s license or Social Security Number card. If you don’t have these, ask the bank what forms of ID they accept as they will likely have alternatives.


There are often monthly fees for having a bank account, and there could be charges every time you withdraw money from an ATM or a different branch. To avoid any costly surprises, ask what the fees are before opening a bank account.

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How to get a credit card and establish credit

In America, you need to have a credit history, also referred to as established credit. This means you have a history of money loans or bills that you pay on-time. When you pay your bills on time, you will have good credit. If you miss payments or do not make the minimum payment, you will end up with bad credit. Good credit is needed to sign up for a mobile phone plan, rent or buy a home, or get a credit card.

The fact that you often need a credit history to get credit can cause a great deal of confusion and leave many expats wondering – how do I build credit?

The first step is to obtain a Social Security Number (SSN) or an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN). These numbers are used to track your credit history, so you will not be able to build credit without one. These numbers are also needed to get a job and pay taxes.

After acquiring your SSN or ITIN, you will need to get credit. As you know, this is the most challenging part because you don’t currently have any. Fortunately, there are some ways to work around this.

One option is to get a secured credit card. Because you do not currently have any credit, you will need to provide a security deposit and will be given a small line of credit. Many large banks will issue one. Use this card frequently, but never max it out and always pay the balance on time. This will build credit. It does take time so you will need to be patient. You should start to establish credit within a few months.

Depending on your country of origin, you may be able to apply for an American Express credit card using your credit history from your home country. Eligible countries include Australia, Canada, United Kingdom, Brazil, India, Korea, Mexico, and Nigeria. If approved, you can then use this credit card to help establish credit in the U.S.  Once you have established credit, you can apply for credit cards through U.S. banks and financial institutions. If you are not from one of the above-listed countries but already have an AMEX card, you may be eligible for a Global Card Transfer, which would essentially turn your credit card into an American credit card. This program is open to more countries.

Another option is to have someone co-sign. In some cases, you may be able to get an unsecured credit card or a loan by using a co-signer. If you have family or friends in the U.S. that have already established credit, they could co-sign for you. This essentially puts them on the hook for unpaid bills and could potentially damage their credit as well as your own if you don’t pay, so it is critical you stay on top of it.

Lastly, you can build credit by becoming an authorized user of a friend or family member’s credit card. This is the riskiest method as your credit score will become a reflection of theirs. Therefore, if they don’t pay their bills on time, this will negatively affect your credit. Ideally, you should only do this if the credit card owner has a long and positive credit history.

Once you have credit, you must practice good credit-building habits to build a score.

Keep your balances low, pay bills on time and use credit cards frequently, if you have them. After several months you should have established credit for yourself. You can monitor your credit reports and rating for free online using a service like Annual Credit Report, which uses all three national credit reporting agencies; Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion.

As you can see, although it may take a little longer, there are several ways you can begin banking and establishing credit in the U.S. as an expat.


Kate Manigold

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