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Do I Need a Credit Card in the US if I'm an International Student?

Literally yesterday, I asked my dad how to transfer money to pay monthly purchases on my credit card. I think that’s about the extent to which I have been taught finance in my family—you’re supposed to pay back everything you bought on your credit card the same month you made those purchases to avoid having to pay interest. I mean, sure, my family throws around fancy finance terms at the holiday dinner parties, but during those times I’m either at the kids table (because we all know 20 constitutes sitting with children) or completely ignoring the words I don’t recognize or know. This means most conversations are composed of prepositions and the nouns are all white noise of ignorance.

Anyway, I’m sure you get it—my literacy in anything financial is about as dismal as it gets. This article explores frequently asked questions when it comes to much of the process to get a credit card in the states and what prerequisites are needed.

Am I planning on staying in the US after graduation? If you plan on staying in the United States for an extended period of time, it might be worth it to get a credit card in the US. Otherwise, a lot of international banks offer brands that are accepted in the US (Visa, MasterCard, American Express, etc.). Getting a credit card in your home country requires significantly less effort than going through the process in the states.

How do I go about getting a card for myself? Because you were not born in the states, you will not have a social security number. A social security number is a number formatted 000-00-0000 that is unique to each individual and used as a type of identification for Social Security benefits and other identification purposes in the United States of America. If you are studying on an F-1, J-1, or M-1 Visa and are eligible to work in the states, you can apply for a social security number. In order to get a proper social security card you will need a promise of legal employment on campus or off so your card allows you to work. Otherwise you will receive a card that says you may not work. Regardless, both social security cards can qualify you for a credit card at a bank that offers cards to international students.

Is it easier at one bank than at another for me to get a credit card? Citibank does not require international students to have a social security number in order to apply for a credit card. They also have a service called Citibank Global Transfer which makes it easier for international students to send money back and forth between themselves and their parents.

What kind of card should I expect? Most likely, you will get a secured credit card. This means you place a deposit into the bank and the same amount of money will be your credit line. For example, if you deposit $1,000, your credit line will also be $1,000. This isn’t like a deposit into a checking account; the money you will spend is not coming from that chunk of money, it sits in the bank collecting interest as long as you pay your bills.

What should I do with the credit card once I have received it? Once your card is activated, GO CRAZY YOU HAVE ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD WOOHOO!! But, no. Actually, you should be very careful to not spend more than you have on your card. Making small purchases and paying back those purchases at the end of the month every month will build up a credit score allowing you to eventually have a credit card that is not secured and has better returns.

Getting a credit card in the US as a foreigner can be quite challenging. Your best bet is to get a card from your home country which is widely accepted in the US. If that fails, try using Citibank or applying for a social security number and going down that path. Don't forget to maintain a healthy credit score through regular payments and by not over spending, and definitely try to be more financially savvy than I am.

Photo Credit: Sean MacEntee
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