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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?

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By James Bartlett
James writes about the weird and wonderful side of living in L.A. and can be found at