How to Build a Credit Rating in the U.S. – One Option

For an expat, getting a credit card in the U.S. requires a bit of strategy. (GDA via AP Images)

Gone are the days when you could ask the landlord to put it on the slate or tell the restaurant manager that you’ll pay the next time you’re in. That kind of trust takes years to build up anywhere, and right now you’re just another badly-tipping Brit.

Here in the U.S.A, the whole concept of credit begins with something utterly intangible, though it’s something that will be used to measure and judge you as soon as you step foot on American soil: the credit rating.

I found out about this the hard way (as have many Brits I have spoken to) that it doesn’t matter how much money you have in the bank, how many U.K. credit cards you own, or what job you’ve snagged — you won’t be able to get a U.S. credit card straight away.

Credit card applications came through the letterbox as soon as I arrived in the States, of course, and, since I was fed-up of paying extra charges for using my UK credit cards, I filled in the first form and waited for the shiny piece of plastic. But it was a no-go.

Time and time again, I was refused a credit card — even by the two banks I had opened accounts with — so I went to Target to get a store card for some essentials. Again, permission denied. Now I was panicking, having to endlessly carry cash and racking up the charges, while using pre-paid credit cards as a holding measure. So I took a deep breath and went into my bank.

Turns out every time you are refused a line of credit, lose a card, or pay a bill late, that information goes onto your credit report, which calculates your all-important credit rating, a score from 300 to 850. The higher your score, the “better” you are, and the less “risky” you appear to the bank/credit card company/gas company. Some employers may even check your credit report too.

Needless to say, my credit rating was zero. Toxic. Dead people had a better score. Worse than that, it was a Catch-22 situation:

Bank: “We can’t give you a credit card because of your credit rating.”
Me: “So how do I build up my credit rating?”
Bank: “By getting a credit card.”
Me: “Okay, so give me a credit card.”
Bank: “We can’t give you a credit card because of your credit rating.”

The solution was a Secured Credit Card: your bank issues you a “credit card” with a set figure as collateral from your own account (I got $750, but it can be $500-1000). You’re told to use the card regularly and pay it off well above the minimum monthly amount, regardless of what the requirements are. Keep that up for six months, don’t EVER miss a payment (as that’s a huge red flag), and you’ll likely be issued a credit card with a larger limit. I just wish I had known about it from day one. (Note: don’t even think of applying for anything before you have your Social Security number.)

Monitoring your credit report is important because you can check any errors, especially if your card is lost or stolen or you experience identity theft. Three companies deal with credit reports – Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion – and the good news is that they will issue you with one free credit report per year. (Ask for one from a different company every 4 months; I always do). Also, if you need to place a “freeze” or “hold” on one of your credit cards — again a free service — any of the three companies will alert the other two as well.

What other tips do you have on building a credit rating?

James Bartlett

James Bartlett

James Bartlett writes about travel, film and the weird and wonderful side of living in L.A. He has been published in over 90 magazines and newspapers including the Los Angeles Times, the LA Weekly, Los Angeles Magazine, Angeleno, Hemispheres, Delta Sky, Westways, Variety and Bizarre. He is also a contributor to BBC radio and RTE in Ireland, and is the author of Gourmet Ghosts - Los Angeles, a "history and mystery" guide to bars and restaurants in L.A. - details can be found at

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  • DB

    In addition to the secured card. We found that Volkswagen were prepared to give my wife a car loan after just 1 month residency. I seem to remember they could look at your UK credit rating. This definitely seemed to boost her US credit rating as it climbed faster than mine.

  • Anne

    If your spouse can get a credit card then have another one issued, from that account, in your name in order to build up a credit rating.
    Also the Virgin Atlantic AmEx card is very expat friendly, even to the point that is doesn’t insist on a social security number (other validation requirements are needed though)

  • Mark

    It never occurred to me that there was any problem until I read this. I’ve been here three years, and all my cards are joint with my American wife. However, the first one was held by her longterm before we arrived, so perhaps that got me the foot in the door without ever realising. I’ve since been approved for a car loan, a couple more cards, and a mortgage, and apparently my rating is very good.

  • Andy

    We found Macy’s were quite willing to give us a store credit card early on (only with a $400 limit) and that was one thing that helped us. We also got a secured credit card and after a couple of years were able to get a regular credit card. One other tip – if you do need to borrow money it’s best to do it on your UK cards to prevent damaging your US credit rating. The whole thing is ridiculous really … you could have huge debt in the UK and a great credit score in the US or vice versa.

  • carrie

    I contacted a bank in the US that had a sister bank in the UK who I had a credit card with. I suggested that they check with the UK arm of the company on my credit worthiness which they did. They then opened me a credit card account in the US with no security and a limit of $3000. I used it, paid it, used it, paid it…built my credit up really fast.

  • Carl

    I got an American Express card in the UK then converted it to a US card when I finally moved here, worked well and my US credit score went up quickly.

  • Chris

    Trying to buy a car before you’ve got credit history is difficult unless you’ve wads of cash. I used International AutoSource which got me zero percent loan with Ford Credit against a new Focus and arranged for me to pick up the car at a local dealer. Only had to put 10% down. Catches – you have to arrange for a new car (only a few makes are represented) and make arrangements BEFORE you move to qualify since your credit is based upon your non-US history.

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  • MissViv

    Oh my goodness where were these pages ten years ago when I first moved to the states??????

  • MHM

    James, this is a great tip, and one that Americans with low or bad credit utilise as well. My brother is in the US Marines which paid him very little whenhe first enlisted. We sometimes refer to it as a “pre-paid” credit card, but your bank will usually be happy to hook you up with it, and since it’s more like a debit card than a true credit card, you can’t go over you limit accidentally. Six months is the magic rule.
    Also, the problem with most Amex cards is they are “charge” cards, not “credit” cards (except the Optima I think), and therefore must be paid in full every month. Since you are not showing a line of borrowing, you are not showing responsbile behaviour with ‘credit’ per se, and therefore an Amex card usually doesn’t count in assessing your credit worthiness. At least that’s traditionally been the case.
    I would think that by now the really big banks like JP Morgan Chase, Citibank, or HSBC have enough of an international presence that they could facilitate a card if you open an account with them. Best of luck.

  • John

    I work for a bank in the US and they would not even give me a card initially. I went to Capital One to get a secured card with aim of spending about 50% of it each month and paying off. Tip: to raise credit rating quicker dont Max out your card. However, i was delighted to find Capital One offered expats cards and i didnt need the secured card at all. Was given a $500 limit. 6 months later i’m inundated with other offers, admittidely at extremely high APR’s

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  • mary

    credit cards frighten me

    Whenever teachers tried to explain how credit works in school I was like “uh peace out muthas Ima go be Thoreau in the woods now see you in a year or two”

    I dunno how England works but from what I can tell America works by hooking you into horrible cyclacle debt

  • Miranda

    I work for a company that has a great model to help expatriates build credit – a social security or tax identification number is required, but established credit history is not. The company, UpgradeUSA, offers laptops on a monthly payment plan, and each payment is reported to all three major credit bureaus in the United States. It’s a flexible program that can be canceled or paid early with no penalties and it’s online-only. We are active in four states right now – California, Florida, New York, and Texas – and we hope to be live in a few more soon. Check out the website here: – you can contact someone by chat, email, or telephone and we are available to answer any questions you may have! Hope this helps in the quest for credit here in the US!

  • Seascape

    Very helpful article as if you arrive in the US with a great job and salary, you might not even think there’d be a problem getting small car loans or credit cards. It was 10 years ago, but I found getting a UK Amex and then applying for a US one worked (the Amex Blue), getting a credit card through a work organization (mine was the American Chemical Society) (even with a laughably small $ limit) worked.
    The thing I wish I knew from the start is to get the US driving license very soon, instead of waiting months. This, together with the social security number, is the passport to all applications, even a supermarket loyalty card! Seriously, I was denied opening a bank savings account using my UK passport as ID, as they ‘didn’t know who I was’.
    No, I haven’t got over it yet.

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  • JayDeeGee

    the credit system in the states is crappy…imagine building a credit without getting a credit. Whats worse is everytime you apply for credit there’s a hard inquiry on your account and that further lowers your score…now who’s bright idea was that! These Americans don’t get it do they…they are pulling money off the consumers and then they frown that economy ain’t growing!!!

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