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It may just take a little more legwork.


Key points

  • If you work in the United States, you can apply for an Individual Tax Identification Number (ITIN), which can replace an SSN on a credit card application.
  • If you lack a credit history here, however, you may need to start with a secured credit card or apply for one from an issuer that does business internationally.
  • Some student credit cards have been created especially for international students.

If you are a US citizen, it is likely that you received a Social Security Number (SSN) shortly after you were born, as your parents likely applied for one for you at the same time your birth was registered and you received a birth certificate. This nine-digit number is an important piece of your vital data.

The Social Security Administration (SSA) created the Social Security number in 1936, and it was originally designed as a way for the federal government to track your income and issue retirement benefits. Today, however, it is the key to unlocking much of your personal and financial life, and as such, you will be asked for it when applying for a personal loan, mortgage, or other financial product. But what if you don’t have a social security number and want a credit card? There are different strategies you can try.

You may be able to use an ITIN

Only citizens and permanent residents are eligible for Social Security numbers, but there is an alternate number issued to those who live and work in the United States who are not citizens. This is called an Individual Tax Identification Number, or ITIN. This tax processing number is issued by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), and anyone who needs it can apply to the IRS using Form W-7. ITINs are issued regardless of immigration status and are only used for federal tax reporting. And US citizens who don’t have a social security number for some reason aren’t eligible for an ITIN.

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If you are applying for a credit card, an ITIN may replace a Social Security number on the application; it’s even nine digits, like an SSN. However, just because you have a unique nine-digit number to log into a credit card application doesn’t mean you’ll be approved. You will also need a credit history, and the following option might be right for you.

You can apply for a secure credit card

One of the pitfalls of applying for a credit card without an SSN is that you may not have a credit history. The solution? You need to establish a credit history, and opening a secured credit card using your ITIN may be the answer. Secured credit cards work by requiring a security deposit when you open the account. Your chances of being approved will be higher, even if you don’t have an established credit history, because of the security provided in the form of this security deposit.

However, your credit limit is often equal to the security deposit, so secured cards usually have a fairly low limit. Let’s say you open a secured card and your deposit is $500. This becomes your credit limit. If you keep your credit utilization rate low and pay off your card every month, you will increase your credit and, depending on the card, you may be able to switch to an unsecured credit card after a while.

You can turn to an international credit card issuer

Another way to get approved for a credit card without an SSN is to apply with a card issuer who also offers credit cards outside the United States. American Express and Citibank are two such companies. If you have a credit history with either in your home country, this will be considered when you apply for a US credit card with that card issuer. However, you may need to take a few more steps than usual to apply for these companies. Try calling or applying in person at a bank branch, if possible, so you can explain your situation to a human representative. This should make the overall app experience easier.

If you are a student without SSN, you have a special option

Some student credit cards are designed specifically for international students, and you will only need your passport, student visa, and immigration forms to apply. However, you will probably also need a US bank account to hold the credit card. Student credit cards have similar settings to secured credit cards, such as low limits, although they generally don’t require a security deposit. They are for low-income people who are new to using credit and want to build a good credit history.

Credit cards are a useful financial tool, and it is possible to apply for and be approved for them, even without a social security number. You will just have to do a little more legwork during the application.

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