In this article, we’ll discuss how savvy Canadian consumers can go about obtaining their very first US-issued credit card.
Once you get your first US card, you’ll start building credit history in the US, and eventually you’ll be eligible for most, if not all, of the credit cards in the US marketplace.
If you’re looking to rack up the sky-high signup bonuses on US credit cards to travel the world, having access to US credit cards as a Canadian can be useful in many circumstances. Here’s how to get your US credit file up and running.
In This Post
- Why Get US Credit Cards?
- Step 1: Get a US Address
- Step 2: Get a US Bank Account
- Step 3: Get Your First American Express US Card via Nova Credit
- Step 4: Get an ITIN
- Step 5: Build Your Credit History
Why Get US Credit Cards?
If you’re at an intermediate level in the Canadian credit card game (or wherever you live outside of the US), it’s worth exploring the possibility of getting into US credit cards.
As the world’s most lucrative market for credit card rewards, US-issued credit cards offer bigger welcome bonuses, better cardholder benefits, and a much wider range of points redemption options – dramatically increasing the range of travel rewards that are available to you.
For example, consider that American Express Canada only offers 11 airline and hotel transfer partners in total.
Meanwhile, Amex US has a whopping 21 partners, including several powerful programs that we don’t have access to in Canada – like Emirates Skywards or Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer for booking Emirates First Class or Singapore Suites, respectively!
US credit cards can also give you a major leg up when it comes to other meaningful benefits along your travels, like hotel elite status or airport lounge access.
For example, a single US-issued card can give you instant top-tier Hilton Diamond status, whereas you’d need to stay 60 nights with Hilton per year to earn this status organically!
Needless to say, if you’re serious about raising your travel game on a global level, you absolutely need to get involved with US credit cards.
Step 1: Get a US Address
First off, you’re going to need to have a residential address that’s domiciled in the United States.
If you have family or good friends down in the US – lucky you!
As long as they agree to let you use their address, you can ask them to forward your mail periodically, pick it up yourself when you visit them, or simply ask them to take pictures of your mail and send it on to you.
For the rest of us, getting a US address is as simple as using a mail forwarding or mailbox service.
Our recommended service is 24/7 Parcel, which has facilities in Washington State (close to Vancouver) and Niagara County in New York (close to Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, etc.)
While 24/7 Parcel mainly offers parcel receiving and pickup services, the Niagara Falls location will also forward your letter mail for US$1.50 per envelope plus postage (typically US$2.70 in total for letters to Canada).
They do charge an annual fee of US$90 per year; however, Prince of Travel readers can obtain a US$20 discount by mentioning that we referred you to the service.
There are also other mail forwarding services out there you can choose from, and you are very much encouraged to do some of your own research as well.
No matter what mailbox service you pick, make sure to verify one thing. Go to the USPS address lookup tool and enter the address of your mailbox, and make sure that “Commercial Mail Receiving Agency” isn’t marked as “Y”.
That’s because many credit card companies will deem these addresses ineligible once they see that it’s registered as a mail forwarding service.
As long as the “Commercial Mail Receiving Agency” line is marked with a “N” (as is the case for 24/7 Parcel), issuers will recognize the address as a residential address, and you’ll be good to go.
Step 2: Get a US Bank Account
You’re going to need a US bank account as part of the process, so let’s get one set up.
The reason for getting a US bank account is twofold:
- Paying off your US credit card bills (although this can also be done via select higher-end Canadian-based bank accounts)
- Verifying your US address with US credit card issuers
This step is fairly easy. Several Canadian banks have subsidiaries in the US, and if you bank with them on the Canadian side, it tends to be a pretty straightforward process to set up an account in the US as well.
For example, I personally use CIBC for my personal banking in Canada. Their US counterpart, CIBC US, offers a Smart Account account that has a monthly maintenance fee starting at only US$4.95 (covering up to 12 transactions).
That’s a solid proposition in my book, and it’s really easy to get set up if you’re an existing CIBC client with Canada (you can apply online and also transfer US funds in-between your Canadian- and US-domiciled CIBC accounts instantly online).
The equivalent holds true with TD Canada Trust and TD Bank (their Convenience Checking account is a very affordable option), BMO Bank of Montreal and BMO Harris Bank, as well as RBC Royal Bank and RBC Bank.
All of these banks have very well-established Cross-Border Banking products and guidelines, so simply go online to get more information on their personal checking options and to open an account.
No matter which US bank account you go with, you’ll ideally want to set your US address (from Step 1!) as the primary address on the account, such that the US address shows up on all your monthly banking statements. This will be useful when it’s time to verify your address with credit card issuers later on.
Step 3: Get Your First American Express US Card
Once you have a bank account and address, you can actually start applying for cards now.
You need to open a few accounts to start building credit history from scratch, and the easiest issuer to begin with is American Express US. Amex is a global company, and they offer their cardholders a number of easy ways to transfer their membership to another country whenever they “relocate”.
Method 1: Nova Credit
In recent years, American Express US has begun working with a service known as Nova Credit to apply for US cards directly using your Canadian TransUnion credit file, without needing to be an existing Amex cardholder on the Canadian side.
To do this, open up the application form of any Amex US personal credit card, and then click the “International Cardholder” checkbox where it asks for your Social Security Number.
(Note where it says “Sign in for a simpler application process.” Even if you happen to be an existing Amex Canada cardholder, it isn’t actually necessary to sign in. Doing so will initiate the “Global Transfer” process described further below, whereas not signing in will result in the arguably smoother Nova Credit process.)
Submitting the application will bring you to the Nova Credit portal, where you’ll be asked to select the foreign credit history on which you’d like to base your application.
Canadians would select Canada, although the same process could be used by residents of Australia, India, Mexico, and the UK to apply for US credit cards as well.
You’ll be asked to fill in some information to locate your Canadian TransUnion file, including your name, date of birth, and recent address. Once a potential match to your credit file is located, you’ll also be asked a set of three identity questions based on your TransUnion credit file as another verification step.
(The Nova Credit process results in only a soft inquiry, not a hard inquiry, on your TransUnion credit file in Canada.)
Once that’s done, you check a few boxes to authorize Nova Credit to transmit your Canadian credit information over to American Express US.
Next, you may be asked for some supplemental information about your finances. Providing this information is optional, but may help speed up your application’s processing time.
The final step is to provide details of a foreign ID, such as a passport, that can help prove you are who you say you are. A Canadian passport should work fine.
There’s a small chance that you’ll be instantly approved at this stage, if everything lines up.
However, it’s more likely that you’ll be asked to verify some information before your application is approved. This can include:
- Verifying your identity documents, such as uploading a PDF copy of the passport information you provided
- Verifying your US address, such as uploading a bank statement from Step 2 with your US address on it, or calling American Express and speaking with an agent, who will initiate a three-way call with your bank to verify your address
Once all of your information is verified, you should expect a shiny new piece of plastic (or metal!) to be on its way to your US address. Congratulations, your US credit history has just been “born”!
Some individuals’ experiences indicate the Nova Credit method can be used to apply for multiple Amex US personal credit cards in quick succession when you’re first starting out with US credit cards.
You aren’t guaranteed to get approved for multiple Amex US cards via Nova Credit to start, but the strategy has paid off for many individuals in the past.
It’s recommended to apply in as quick succession as possible if you’re interested in starting off with more than one Amex US card, as it seems like the longer you wait between multiple Nova Credit applications, the less likely you’ll be approved on subsequent applications.
Method 2: American Express Global Transfer
As an alternative to Nova Credit, another option is to initiate an American Express Global Transfer from Canada to the US.
To be eligible for a Global Transfer, you need to have at least one Canadian-issued American Express account that’s been open and in good standing for at least three months.
Then, you can call the Global Transfer office and tell them you’d like to do a Global Transfer as a current Canadian cardholder to a US credit card, and then proceed to complete the US credit card application over the phone.
Which Amex US Credit Card Should You Start With?
One question might be on your mind: which Amex US product should you pick as your first American credit card?
That’s because this is going to be the oldest account on your US credit history, and you’ll be helping your credit score the most if you keep this account open forever.
Another option would be to choose a card that makes sense to keep around for the long run, such as the Amex US Bonvoy Brilliant Card.
Not only does this card routinely offer very impressive welcome bonuses, but its effective annual fee of US$150 (US$450 annual fee offset by a US$300 Marriott credit) is easily outweighed by the anniversary Free Night Award worth up to 50,000 Bonvoy points that you get every single year.
Sometimes, there are limited-time elevated offers that seem very attractive on premium cards like the Amex US Gold Card or the Amex US Platinum Card, which could make for a wise choice for your first US credit card too.
However, in these cases, you should either be comfortable paying the card’s annual fee year after year to preserve your US credit health, or recognize that your credit score may take a hit if you were to cancel your original and oldest US credit card in the future.
It’s also worth noting that business credit cards do not report to personal credit bureaus in the United States. Therefore, business credit cards don’t help you build credit history and therefore wouldn’t be a good choice as a starter US card.
If you’re interested in one of the Amex US small business cards, your best bet would be to first set up a US credit history by getting one of the personal cards, and then applying for a business card in 3–6 months’ time (see Step 5 below for more on this).
Step 4: Get an ITIN
While it’s easy to get your first credit card with Amex US or one of the Big 5 banks’ US arms, you’ll need to have a credit file identifier if you want to eventually move onto the other American issuers, like Chase, Citi, Capital One, or Bank of America.
Just like Canada, personal credit reports in the US are associated with a unique identifier – typically a Social Security Number (SSN), the equivalent of our SIN.
If you already have a SSN as a result of being born, living, or working in the US, then once again, lucky you! Forget about this step, find those mouthwatering signup bonuses, and go forth and conquer!
For the rest of us, we’re gonna need to put in a little bit of work here. In addition to the SSN, credit card companies also accept what’s known as an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) on credit card applications.
ITINs are issued by the US Internal Revenue Service (IRS), so getting one requires mailing a bunch of documents to the IRS.
Now, listen up here, because this is important. One of the reasons one might be eligible for (and in fact, encouraged to apply for) an ITIN is if they are a foreign resident who earns income in the US, and needs to prove their foreign residency status in order to be exempt from US withholding taxes.
Got it? Good.
If we think about it, anyone who’s earned some money through US-based services – such as casino winnings in Las Vegas, betting with US-based online betting companies, or trading stocks with a US-based brokerage – should be applying for an ITIN and self-reporting their income if they want to fulfill their obligations to the IRS.
After all, if you didn’t have an ITIN, you’d be subject to hefty withholding taxes on all your winnings, royalties, and dividends. We wouldn’t want that, would we? (The fact that these sums may be as low as $5 is not important here.)
There are two approaches to obtaining an ITIN: getting help through a dedicated service, or the do-it-yourself method.
Method 1: Use a Dedicated ITIN Service
These days, the most reliable method to obtain an ITIN is to seek out a paid service to help you with your ITIN application.
Services that Prince of Travel readers have found useful include:
These services will generally provide you with a completed W-7 form, which is the ITIN application form.
They will also help you complete a valid US tax return on your behalf based on any amount of earned income from US sources that you declare (such as US$5 in gambling winnings). This serves to justify why you require an ITIN in your application.
Method 2: Do It Yourself
If you’d rather not pay for professional services, you can also take the do-it-yourself approach to getting an ITIN.
However, be warned that even small discrepancies in how the forms are filled in can result in a rejected application, and each application can take several weeks or months to complete.
All of the information you need to apply for an ITIN is listed on the dedicated page on the IRS website. In particular, you’ll need to compile the following documents and send it off to the IRS:
Document justifying the need for an ITIN (e.g., a US tax return with a small amount of income declared)
Completed W-7 ITIN application form
Original foreign passport, or a certified copy
You can find the official IRS instructions for the W-7 form here. Tax advice is beyond the scope of this website, although there are many online resources to guide you through the process of filling in IRS forms.
In addition, you also need to include a copy of your passport with the application as a means to verify your status as a foreign national. It’s up to you whether to send in your original passport or a certified copy.
You won’t get your documents back in the mail for at least a few weeks, so keep that in mind if you might need your passport for upcoming travel. Personally I didn’t want to risk my passport getting lost in the mail, so I went with the certified copies.
Importantly, a certified copy is not the same as a notarized copy of a passport that you can get at any lawyer or public accountant’s office.
Instead, it’s provided directly to you by Passport Canada, so you’ll have to schedule an appointment with your local passport office.
The fee for certified copies is $45, which is good for one, two, or three copies. Most people opt for three copies, sending one to the IRS and keeping the other two around for another occasion when they might prove useful (hint: they probably won’t).
Lastly, whether you’ve sought help from a dedicated service or filled in the forms yourself, compile all of the documents in an envelope addressed to the IRS’s receiving address indicated on the ITIN information website, send it off, and wait.
You should expect to wait quite a while – current turnaround times at the ITIN processing office seem to be in the region of about four months. If you’ve done everything right, you should receive a letter in the mail indicating your newly minted nine-digit ITIN!
Step 5: Build Your Credit History
Once you’ve set up your address, bank account, first credit card, and ITIN, the hard work is over.
Now all that’s left is to wait for your credit history to mature long enough for you to be approved for some of the credit cards with bigger bonuses.
Chase Credit Cards
Once your relationship with Amex US matures to a few months (usually 3–6 months), you’ll be able to start applying for more Amex US cards and getting approved for them.
However, you’ll want to pace yourself a little bit, with a view of getting cards from Chase in the future:
- Chase credit cards unlock unique new opportunities that aren’t otherwise available with American Express on either side of the border, such as 1:1 points transfers to World of Hyatt program for high-end Hyatt hotel redemptions.
- Chase is stricter than American Express when it comes to approving clients with “fresh” credit histories. They’ll generally want to see 12–18 months of responsible credit usage before approving you for your first Chase card.
- One way to build your relationship quicker and speed up the process with Chase is to open a Chase checking account (which you can easily do as a Canadian) at a branch on one of your trips down to the US.
- Chase also has the infamous “5/24 rule”, in which you won’t be approved for any credit cards if you’ve opened more than five cards in the past 24 months. That’s a key obstacle to keep in mind as you begin to navigate the US landscape.
Therefore, you want to get a couple of Amex US cards to use responsibly as you wait to be eligible for Chase cards. But at the same time, you don’t want to get too many Amex US cards – or else you’ll lock yourself out of the “5/24 rule” by the time you’re eligible for Chase!
Amex US Business Credit Cards
One way around this conundrum is by going for the American Express business credit cards after you’ve gotten your first Amex US product.
As mentioned earlier, business credit cards don’t report to personal credit files in the United States, so you can rack up the signup bonuses on the business products without affecting your future Chase 5/24 eligibility.
(Note that Amex US business cards cannot be obtained through Nova Credit; however, an SSN or ITIN is not absolutely necessary to apply either. If you don’t have an SSN or ITIN, you can apply for Amex US business cards over the phone by submitting your foreign passport as a valid form of ID.)
Other US Credit Card Issuers
In addition to Chase, a few other US-based issuers will also accept ITINs for credit card applications, with many products that are worth getting:
- Citi credit cards allow you to earn Citi ThankYou points, which can transfer to a variety of useful or unique airline partners.
- Capital One credit cards sometime come with elevated welcome bonuses, which can also be transferred to a series of airline partners.
- Bank of America’s Alaska Airlines co-branded credit cards offer another way to earn miles with Alaska Mileage Plan. Bank of America only accepts ITIN applications over the phone or in-branch.
Overall, the for US credit cards is a lot more focused on playing the long game than up here in Canada.
US-issued credit cards tend to have strict rules on welcome bonus eligibility, so the strategy is generally more conservative and more about building your credit history over the long run to be eligible for the much wider range of bonuses and benefits found in the US.
Lastly, if you have a spouse or partner, I’d highly recommend going through this process for both of you at the same time. After all, we know that playing the two-person game is one of the best ways to maximize points here in Canada, so just imagine how much is on the table when it comes to US credit cards.
America, the land of opportunity indeed!
Getting your very first US-issued credit card can be quite a complicated but worthwhile undertaking.
From registering for a US mailbox to dealing with the highly involved process of getting an ITIN, it’s a tricky process to manage and can easily take up a good chunk of your time.
That’s why I’m hopeful that this guide lays out the key elements for you and helps you break down the process into more manageable steps, as you pursue all of the bountiful bonuses and benefits south of the border.