From zero credit history to a score of 720+: 8 tips to build a credit score for expats living in the US

Hi there,

I recently relocated to the US for work. I have been here for about 6 months. In this post, I will share what I have learned about credit scores and specific tips to build credit score fast for expats, living in the US.

For what’s worth, I started from zero credit history and no social security number to a credit score of 720+ after about 5 months of living in the US.

I will assume that you know what credit score is and the basic factors impacting credit score (If you need help, take a look here or just do some basic Google searches). I will also assume that you didn’t have social security number (SSN) before and this is your first time applying/getting a social security number, as you relocate. Since like me, you recently relocated to the US, you didn’t have any payment history.

So what should you do?

1. Get a City National Bank credit card as soon as possible

As mentioned in my relocation tips to the US, contact City National Bank before you relocate and sign up for a credit card with them.

City National Bank specializes in working with expats who are about to relocate to the US, so they won’t ask for unnecessary paperwork that they know you don’t have.

Amongst the different types of credit cards they offer, my recommendation is a basic one, without the annual fee. Because what you want is not the benefits, but a large enough credit limit and a card soon so that you can start to build a credit history. When you activate your card and start charging purchases to it, your credit history starts.

A large enough credit limit will help with your credit utilization rate. Without any credit history in the US, typical banks or providers (like American Express, Chase, Capital One, etc…) will only give you a credit limit of less than $5k to start. City National Bank can give you a higher credit limit than that.

2. Set up banking relationships with Chase

Knowing that it is very likely you will try to get a credit card with Chase within 6-9 months, I recommend setting up a checking or saving account with them. This way they start to have your information in the system.

3. Keep utilization rate low by paying your credit card balance in full, sooner than the due date

My assumption is that since payment history is the biggest factor affecting credit score and you don’t have any credit history, the more you can demonstrate to financial institutions that you are a reliable consumer, the better it is for your credit score. That means paying your credit card balance in full and even paying it before the due date.

If you have enough cash, paying before the statement date will also help to reduce your credit utilization rate, which is another important factor.

4. Sign up for American Express credit card

The reasons I recommend this are:

  • American Express cards are amongst the most sought-after because of the benefits, especially for travel.
  • Because of your lack of credit history, it is very unlikely that other banks or financial institutions will give you a credit card within the first few months of arriving in the US.
  • City National Bank credit card benefits are not great so the sooner you can start using another credit card with better benefits, the better it is for you.

This option may not be available to you though because it only works if you already have a personal American Express card in your home country, before your relocation to the US. Amex will use the credit history in your home country to evaluate if you qualify for a card in the US.

You can read more about different options here on Amex global card relationship website. You may need to call them on the phone vs just applying online.

What you need before you can call Amex in the US:

  • Social security number: do not call them before you receive your SSN.
  • Have your existing/old Amex card from your home country ready so that you can give them the card number when asked.
  • Other personal documents as they will ask for some forms of ID.

Which Amex card to get depends on your needs. But I assume that since you relocate to the US, that means you may need to travel back to your country to visit families and friends, so getting an Amex platinum card is good. It has a lot of travel benefits. And the signup bonus is very good too.

Once your Amex credit card is activated, then your Amex credit limit will count towards your total credit limit. So if you pay the balance on time or even before the due date, it will help your utilization rate.

5. Ask your landlord to report your rent payment to the credit bureaus

By saying this, I assume that you don’t buy a property but rent somewhere. Since you are going to make regular payments monthly, it helps your payment history when your rent is reported to the credit bureaus. Many real estate management companies do this as part of their regular service/contract so just check with yours.

6. Set up auto payment for the utility bills, phone bill, and other regular bills

There are many benefits that go with auto payment for regular bills (like the peace of mind). With regards to building your credit score, by using a consistent checking account to pay for bills, after a few months, you can start to use Experian Boost or other similar services to boost your credit score for free. Basically, they look into your checking account payment history to identify if you have been paying bills regularly and then boost your score accordingly.

I started using Experian Boost after about 4-5 months and it did work. My score increased by close to 10 points or something.

7. Don’t rush into opening too many credit cards

First of all, every time you apply for a credit card with a new financial institution, there will be a hard inquiry into your credit history and it will reduce your score by a few points temporarily.

Secondly, given how limited your credit history is in the US in the first few months, you may not be approved for a new credit card anyway.

Thirdly, if you are into maximizing the benefits of using credit cards like earning sign-up bonuses, points/miles for travel, etc… then you may need to do some additional research on which card to get/when.

Now, if you want some quick tips, here they are:

  • After getting your Amex platinum card, wait for a few months before opening a suitable Chase card like the Chase Sapphire Preferred or Chase Sapphire Reserve. Depending on the sign-up bonus at the point of application, you can select either of these.
  • Get an Amazon Store card if you buy a lot on Amazon. They have different sign-up bonuses for different cards too. But this is a 5% cashback so it’s good.
  • Chase has the 5/24 rule so make sure you take this into consideration. The 5/24 rule means Chase will not approve your new credit card application if you have gotten more than 5 new credit cards over the past 24 rolling months.
  • Before signing up for a new card, look at the sign-up bonuses and see if it is worth it.

8. Sign up for free accounts with all three credit bureaus

I know, why there are three separate credit bureaus! That is the question I asked myself too. Well, we won’t go into the context behind the three separate credit bureaus in the US, what I recommend are:

  • Sign up for free accounts with all three of them: Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion
    • This will enable you to monitor your credit scores across all three bureaus free of charge.
    • You can check your credit scores every other week or every month to see how they change, depending on each credit bureaus.
  • Don’t worry if you see your score jumps up and down (like between 15 – 20 points/month) in the first few months. I guess it is normal because of the lack of credit history so the system needs time to monitor and adjust.
  • If you want to explore more, you can sign up for a free account with credit karma as well.
    • You can see both your TransUnion and Equifax credit scores in one place. And Credit Karma can help to estimate your chance of getting approval for different financial products.
  • After signing up with the three credit bureaus, if you want to avoid random financial institutions pulling your credit data and sending you unsolicited offers, you can freeze your credit reports. Freezing your credit report will not affect your credit score. You will need to freeze your report individually for each credit bureau though so in total 3 times.

Last but not least, I recently created this group on Facebook called Asian Expats in the US so that we can share/discuss more tips directly. Feel free to join.

That’s all from me for now.



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