Getting approved for US credit cards, even without an SSN or ITIN, is a lot easier than you might imagine. This is good news as the US credit cards market is by far the best in the world. In this article, I explain how to use the AmEx Global Transfer program to get your first card and start building US credit history.
AmEx Global Transfer
Despite the name, AmEx very much is a global company, issuing credit and charge cards in dozens of countries. For practical reasons, they do not allow card accounts to be transferred between countries. They do, however, allow your first card application in a new country to be considered based on your existing global history with them. This is a very useful feature if you are looking at getting credit cards in multiple countries, including the US.
To qualify for the service, you need to have an active card account with AmEx and at least three months of history (I strongly recommend waiting until you have at least a year). Co-branded and debit cards do not qualify (for example, the Scotiabank AmEx or the Serve).
If you have credit history in Australia, Canada, India, Mexico or the UK, you can apply even if you have existing history with AmEx. Your application will be processed via Nova Credit.
In addition, to apply for a US AmEx you will need to have access to a US address, a US bank account in your name and a US phone number before you can apply for a US card. No proof of address is usually required, AmEx will instead set up a conference call with you and your bank if they need to verify it. Do note that the US bank account must be in your name and must be “real”. TransferWise works for bill payments but cannot be used for address verification. I have written a guide that covers how to open US bank accounts, you can read it here. I have also written guides that cover how you can get a US phone number via Google FI and how you can get a US address.
Once you have all of the above, simply log into your AmEx account and navigate to the bottom of the page. Change the country to the United States and go to the cards page. Select your preferred CREDIT card and click on the “apply now” button (avoid charge cards until you have built some US credit history). I personally recommend the Hilton cards (Surpass and Aspire), they offer excellent value relative to their annual fees and have no forex fees. Before filling in the application form, make sure to accept the offer to use your global history instead of your local history.
In most cases, you can expect your application to be automatically approved within 1-3 business days. If you have not received an approval email after 3 days, give the Global Transfer team a call using this number.
As soon as you receive the approval email, you can link your new card to Apple Pay and Google Pay via the AmEx US app. You can also begin using the card for online purchases. Your physical card will show up in the mail within 7-15 business days. Do not forget to activate your card benefits (for example, Priority Pass) as they are not always activated automatically.
After your sixth monthly statement has posted, AmEx will start showing your FICO score in the app. That is right, you do NOT require an SSN or ITIN to build credit history in the US and to get a FICO score.
Before you apply for additional cards with AmEx, you should wait until your score reaches 750. You should also ensure that your monthly statements are always paid on time. If you have an SSN or ITIN, you will be able to apply online. If you do not have an SSN or ITIN, you will need to apply over the phone.
To apply for cards issued by other banks, you should first apply for an ITIN, link it to your AmEx account and wait for a billing statement to post (so that your ITIN gets tied to your US credit history). It is possible to apply without an ITIN at certain banks but that must usually be done in person. I have written a guide that covers how to apply for an ITIN, you can read it here.