Q: Can you apply for a credit card without a social security number? How can immigrants/non-citizens legally get one?
A: Not too long ago someone on the forum from Canada was asking this same question. But whether you are from Canada, Mexico, or another country… this is a dilemma you are going to face.
Is a Social Security number required for a credit card?
To answer your first question, generally you cannot obtain a credit card in the United States without a Social Security number or equivalent. However this is a grey area because here is what is says on the Social Security Administration’s website, Publication No. 05-10096:
“Although many companies, such as banks and credit companies, may ask for your Social Security number, you are generally not required to provide one if you don’t have one.”
So according to SSA you are “generally not required” if you don’t have one. But what’s not specified on that document is whether or not it’s legal to require an alternative from of identification. Well, since we’re knee deep in government regs here let’s turn to the Patriot Act to answer that…
SEC. 326. VERIFICATION OF IDENTIFICATION.
(b) STUDY AND REPORT REQUIRED- Within 6 months after the date of enactment of this Act, the Secretary, in consultation with the Federal functional regulators (as defined in section 509 of the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act) and other appropriate Government agencies, shall submit a report to the Congress containing recommendations for–
(1) determining the most timely and effective way to require foreign nationals to provide domestic financial institutions and agencies with appropriate and accurate information, comparable to that which is required of United States nationals, concerning the identity, address, and other related information about such foreign nationals necessary to enable such institutions and agencies to comply with the requirements of this section;
(2) requiring foreign nationals to apply for and obtain, before opening an account with a domestic financial institution, an identification number which would function similarly to a Social Security number or tax identification number;
That last sentence basically makes clear that if you don’t have a Social Security number, you need something equivalent. But what might that be?
A possible alternative: Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN)
This is a tax payer ID number that is considered to function similarly to a Social Security number. It won’t entitle you to Social Security benefits, but rather its purpose is for federal income taxes, but can prove that you are at least a resident alien. Here is what the IRS says about them:
IRS issues ITINs to individuals who are required to have a U.S. taxpayer identification number but who do not have, and are not eligible to obtain a Social Security Number (SSN) from the Social Security Administration (SSA).
ITINs are issued regardless of immigration status because both resident and nonresident aliens may have a U.S. filing or reporting requirement under the Internal Revenue Code.
Once you have a ITIN number, you should legally be able to apply for a credit card without a social security number.
How to get a credit card using an ITIN
Keep in mind that you will be starting with a fresh slate once you get your ITIN, so you will probably have to start out with a secured credit card. This is a credit card where you put up a security deposit, thus offsetting any risk to the card issuer when they are unable to gauge your credit quality. The card issuer then will provide you with a credit line equal to this security deposit. The deposit is analogous to collateral for a regular type of loan. They often involve fees, as well but usually they aren’t too onerous. But on a positive note, secured credit cards typically offer guaranteed approval even if you have no credit history (but you will still need your ITIN to qualify). After you have managed the account responsibly for a year or so, you might be able to qualify for something better – a regular unsecured general use credit card that does not require a deposit and has no annual fee.
If you have an ITIN, a bank does have a right to deny your credit card application if you have no credit history yet (in the same way a bank is allowed to deny applicants using a Social Security number who have no credit history). However, a card issuer or bank does not have a right to refuse acceptance of your application for using an ITIN instead of a Social Security number. If you get hassled for applying under an ITIN here are some things you can remind them…
- Inform them you have terminated your SSN legally in accordance with 20 CFR 3 A7 404.1905, or you do not have one period.
- Inform them that the bank can not be held legally responsible by anyone for failing to obtain a SSN from you if other valid identification (like an ITIN) is provided, pursuant to 31 CFR 103.34(a)(1).
- Inform them that pursuant to 26 CFR 301.6109-1(c) they are under no legal federal or state obligation to specifically obtain a SSN from you, and doing so is actually against federal SSA policy.
- Inform them that 42 USC 408 makes it a felony to use threat, duress, or coercion to try and force a person by fear or deceit to provide a SSN.
Without a social security or ITIN?
Lastly, if you want to apply for a card without a Social Security number and without a ITIN, then you will be out of luck. Re-loadable prepaid debit cards will also require a Social Security or ITIN. If you really, really must have plastic to buy things online or offline then your only option would be a gift card issued by Visa, MasterCard or American Express. These can be purchased in various fixed amounts up to $500 either online or from retailers like Walmart, Target, Walgreens or CVS for a nominal fee ($4.95) and used for purchases anywhere Visa/MasterCard is accepted. These gift cards are not re-loadable, though, so you would need to buy new ones when they were used up.
Last updated on July 30, 2014