As you plan your move to the United States, organizing your finances is likely a top priority. While you can use many Canadian credit cards and debit cards in the U.S., you may end up paying a a foreign transaction fee (often around 2.5% to 3%) on every purchase in non-Canadian dollars.
Opening a U.S. credit card can help you avoid that fee and build your U.S. credit history in the process. Whether you’re planning to move for good, go back and forth or only have plans to stay temporarily, your U.S. credit history can make it easier to rent an apartment, get a job, start a business or take out a loan in the States. In this article, we explain how you can get started.
Open a U.S. bank account
While you won’t necessarily need a U.S. bank account to apply for a credit card, having an American bank account can simplify your financial life from managing cards to paying bills. You won’t have to worry about currency conversion fees (or do the mental math on exchange rates!) as you compare your income and expenses. And if you’re working or receive a stipend at school in U.S. dollars, you’ll likely want a secure place to store and save your money.
Although you’ll need a Social Security number (SSN) before you can qualify for some bank accounts, that’s not always the case. You may be able to apply with other identification documents, such as your passport and visa.
You can also initiative the process of opening a U.S. bank account before your big move as many major Canadian banks offer accounts specifically for people who will frequently travel between Canada and the U.S. If you’re already banking with one of the Big Five—BMO, CIBC, RBC, Scotiabank or TD—ask a banker about their cross-border accounts. Lean more about the best best banking options for Canadians in the U.S. here
Opening U.S. checking and savings accounts with the same financial institution you use in Canada can make it easier (and quicker) to transfer funds between your accounts. Plus, having all your money in one place can mean there’s less to think about while managing your finances.
Establish your U.S. address
You’ll need a U.S. address to apply for a U.S. credit card. The address could be your home address, or school if you’re studying in the U.S. and live in school-provided housing. Even if you’re temporarily staying with a family member or friend, you may be able to use that address if it’s where you’re receiving mail at the time.
If you haven’t found a permanent home yet, you may be able to sign up for a post office box (P.O. Box) and receive all your mail at a local post office. However, due to customer identity verification laws, you can’t use the P.O. Box address to apply for many types of financial accounts and products.
You can always update your address with the credit card issuer if you move again, and you can sign up for electronic statements and mailings to avoid the snail mail (and save a few trees). Still, be sure to update your address with the issuer whenever you move as they may need to send certain notifications through the mail.
Obtain an ITIN or an SSN
You’ll generally need either an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) or Social Security number (SSN) to apply for a credit card in the U.S. You’ll enter one of these tax identification numbers on the application, and the credit card company will use it to help verify your identity and pull your credit history.
The government assigns U.S. citizens a SSN when they’re born, and the number acts as a national identification number. It’s used to pay taxes and receive social services from local, state and federal organizations—similar to Social Insurance Numbers in Canada. In fact, they’re both nine digits long.
As a non-U.S. citizen, you can qualify for an SSN if you’re authorized to work in the U.S. For example, if you’re in the U.S. on an F or M student visa and have work authorization, you should also apply for an SSN.
In contrast, an ITIN is issued to people who don’t have work authorization in the U.S. and aren’t eligible for an SNN, but still need a number for federal tax forms. Students with an F or M visa that receive a scholarship or grant while studying in the U.S. can apply for an ITIN.
You may also be able to apply for an ITIN if you have other types of non-wage income while in the U.S., such as lottery or gambling winnings, or income from contract work or self-employment. Dependents and spouses of U.S citizens, resident aliens and nonresident alien visa holders can also apply for an ITIN.
Once you receive either an SSN or ITIN, you can use the number when filling out your credit card application. Even though it’s also nine digits long, don’t use your Canadian SIN in its place—that could be fraud as you may be entering a U.S. tax identification number that doesn’t belong to you.
Here’s a helpful guide that breaks down which major banks, credit unions and credit card issuers require an SSN and which will accept an ITIN. A few card issuers will alternatively let you apply for a credit card using your Canadian passport if you don’t have an SSN or ITIN. However, you may need to visit a bank branch or be limited to certain cards.
Use Nova Credit and your Canadian credit history
Most U.S. credit card companies will want to review your credit history before approving or denying your credit card application. Unfortunately, they’ll only look at U.S. credit history—which you likely don’t have if you’ve never taken out a loan or opened a credit card in the U.S.
However, thanks to a partnership between Nova Credit and American Express, you can apply for U.S. Amex credit cards using your Canadian credit history.
To do so, look for the checkbox under the Social Security number section of the American Express card application. Clicking the box allows Nova Credit to share your Canadian credit history with American Express, which can then make a decision based on the information. You’ll generally find out if you’re approved or denied within a few minutes.
Here are a few of the best credit cards from American Express, which include cards that don’t have an annual fee, offer rewards programs or have great cardholder perks. As with any credit card application, review the card’s terms, features and fees before applying.
Look into other credit cards for U.S. newcomers
In addition to applying for an Amex card using your Canadian credit history, you can also look for cards that are part of the Visa, Mastercard or Discover credit card networks. There are also issuers that don’t require a strong U.S. credit history, or, in some cases, any credit history.
Secured credit cards are sometimes an option, as these are generally targeted at people who are building their credit for the first time (U.S. citizens and newcomers alike), and people who want to rebuild their credit. However, secured cards require you send the issuer a refundable security deposit, and they may have higher interest rates and more fees than unsecured cards.
There are also a few card issuers that will connect to your bank account and analyze that information rather than (or in addition to) your credit history to determine your eligibility. Some of the options include rewards cards that offer bonus points on certain types of purchases. However, they may only connect to U.S. bank accounts, so even these options could be limited if you haven’t already used a U.S. bank for some time.
You can review the Nova Credit credit card shop to see the card offers that we recommend for newcomers to the U.S.
We’ll customize the results after you indicate that you’re moving from Canada, and you can filter the results based on your preferences (such as no annual fee or cash back rewards). Click the “Apply Now” button to start a new credit card application when you see a card that matches your needs.
Use your card to build your credit history
A credit card will only help you build credit if the card issuer reports your information to at least one of the three major consumer credit bureaus in the U.S., Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. These companies gather and organize all your information and create credit reports, which are the basis of your credit scores in the U.S.
If you’re trying to build credit in the U.S., try to get a card from an issuer (like American Express, Chase, Citi and Petal) that report to all three bureaus. Most major banks and credit card issuers do this, and it’s generally not a big concern. However, a few smaller issuers and secured card companies only send your information to one or two bureaus, or none at all.
When your information doesn’t get sent to a credit bureau, the bureau can’t use it to create a credit report for you, or add it to an existing credit report.
For example, say you get a credit card that reports to Experian and TransUnion, but not Equifax. You use the credit card, always pay your bill on time and build a good credit history. You may even monitor your credit scores and watch them increase over time.
If you apply for a new credit card or apartment and the company tries to check your credit by pulling your Equifax credit report, it won’t get anything back—no report and no score—and you might not get approved.
The company could try to check either Experian or TransUnion, and then approve your application based on that credit report and score. However, especially when you’re first starting to build credit, it’s best to avoid this potential issue by starting with a card that reports to all three bureaus.