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

It can be difficult for expats living in the US to improve their credit score. Often, they don’t have a credit history in the US, and this makes it hard to get started. In this blog post, we will discuss some tips on how to improve your credit score even if you are new to the country. Follow these simple steps, and you will be on your way to a better credit rating!

I had zero credit history and no social security number when I started living in the US, but after about five months, my credit score increased to 720+.

If you are not familiar with credit scores and the concept behind them, here is a helpful article (or feel free to Google some basics). I will also assume that you didn’t have social security number before and this is your first time applying/getting a social security number. Like me, after recently relocating to the US, you likely don’t have any payment history.

Here are some tips to help you improve your credit score as an expat in the US:

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

Since payment history has the biggest impact on credit score and you don’t have any credit history, it’s crucial to show financial institutions that you’re a dependable customer. This means always paying your credit card balance in full and before the due date.

Paying before your statement date not only helps reduce your credit utilization rate, but it also keeps you from missing a payment and damaging your credit score. To avoid this, set up automatic payments or put reminders in your calendar.

4. Sign up for an 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.

If you don’t already have a personal American Express card in your home country, this option won’t work for you. Amex evaluates if you qualify for a card in the US by using your credit history from your home country.

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 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 toward 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 you don’t own a property but rent somewhere. Renting helps your payment history­­ become stronger and more consistent when it 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 bills, and other regular bills

There are many benefits of auto payment for regular bills, including 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. These services look into your checking account history and identify if you have been paying bills regularly, which then boosts your score accordingly. I started using Experian Boost myself after 4-5 months, and saw an immediate increase in my credit score by 10 points.

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

If you’re looking to apply for a credit card with a new financial institution, keep in mind that doing so will result in a hard inquiry into your credit history. This will lower your score by a few points temporarily. Additionally, if you don’t have much of a credit history in the US yet, there’s a chance you won’t be approved for the new card anyway. Lastly, if maximizing the benefits of using credit cards is something you’re interested in (like earning sign-up bonuses or points/miles for travel), then do some additional research on which card to get and when before applying. 

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.
  • If you’re an Amazon shopper, consider signing up for their store card. You can earn different sign-up bonuses depending on which card you choose, but the cashback rate is always 5%.
  • The 5/24 rule is something to take into account when applying for a Chase credit card. What the rule entails is that if you’ve gotten more than five new credit cards within 24 months, your application will be automatically denied.
  • 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 understand your confusion regarding the three credit bureaus in America. To save you time, I recommend:

  • 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 bureau.
  • Don’t worry if you see your score jumps up and down (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 a 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. Feel free to leave your comments below.



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