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.
Whether you’re looking to rack up the sky-high signup bonuses on US credit cards to travel the world, or searching for a more comprehensive US dollar spending solution than what’s available here in Canada, 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 addition to this detailed guide, you can also watch the below video I made on how Canadians can obtain US credit cards:
In This Post
- 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
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 there – 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. I personally use 24/7 Parcel, which has facilities in Washington State (close to Vancouver) as well as Niagara County in New York (close to Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, etc.)
While 24/7 Parcel mainly offer parcel receiving and pick-up services, the Niagara Falls location will also forward your letter mail for US$1 plus postage per envelope (typically US$2.15 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 I referred you to the service. Click here for more details about 24/7 Parcel and the US$20 discount.
There are also other mail forwarding services out there you can choose from, and I encourage you to do some of your own research as well.
(Keep in mind that certain services, like Shipito or MyMallBox, were once popular with Canadians looking to get US credit cards, but have since changed their policies to no longer forward credit cards in the mail. While 24/7 Parcel has publicly committed to continuing to handle credit cards, there have been a small handful of reports of US credit card applicants being questioned about the 24/7 Parcel address during the application process. Most applicants are still using 24/7 Parcel without any issues, but you may wish to choose a different mail forwarding service to be on the safe side.)
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 to pay off your US credit card bills, so let’s get one set up.
This step is 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.
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 via Nova Credit
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. 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”.
The first option is 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 American Express account that’s been open and in good standing for at least three months.
Then, you can call the Global Transfer number and tell them you’d like to do a Global Transfer as a current Canadian cardholder to a US credit card, and then proceeding to complete the application over the phone.
However, American Express US has recently begun working with a service known as Nova Credit to apply directly using your Canadian credit file, without needing to be an existing 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 Canadian cardholder, it isn’t actually necessary to sign in; doing so will initiate the Global Transfer process described above, 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.
You may be instantly approved at this stage, or you may be asked to verify your identity documents (such as uploading a PDF copy of the passport information you provided) or verify your 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). See how everything ties together nicely?
Either way, if all goes well, 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”!
Now, one question might be on your mind: which Amex US product should you pick as your first American credit card?
In most cases, I’d actually recommend starting out with a basic Amex credit card with no annual fee, such as the American Express US Blue Card or the American Express US Hilton Honors 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 it have an impressive signup bonus of 75,000 Bonvoy points, but its net annual fee of US$150 is easily outweighed by the anniversary free night certificate worth up to 50,000 Bonvoy points that you get year after year.
However, sometimes there are special elevated offers that are worth nabbing as soon as possible, such as the recent 60,000 points on the Amex US Gold Card or 50,000 points on the Amex US Green Card in Fall 2020, and those big bonuses could be wise choices for your first US credit card too.
It’s also worth noting that business credit cards do not report to personal credit bureaus in the States, so they don’t help you build credit history and therefore wouldn’t be a good choice as a starter US card.
Moreover, business credit cards can’t be obtained using Nova Credit either, so if you’re interested in one of the Amex US small business cards, your best bet would be to set up a US credit history by getting one of the personal cards first, and then applying for a business card in 3–6 months’ time.
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, selling ebooks on Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing, 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.)
Now, in the past, ebook publishing companies like Amazon Kindle or Smashwords were happy to issue you a supporting letter for your ITIN application as a foreign resident who may earn US income through their services, even if you had never published an ebook before.
However, they’re now much more reluctant to do so than before, presumably because too many people tied up their customer service channels to request ITIN support letters for the sole purpose of getting US credit cards.
Instead, these days the most reliable method is to seek out a professional service to help you with your ITIN application. Calgary-based US Tax Services is one such firm that provides dedicated ITIN application support services for Canadians who are seeking one.
For a price of $249.99 (CAD) plus taxes, US Tax Services will provide you with a completed W-7 form, which is the ITIN application form. US Tax Services will also complete a US tax return on your behalf based on any amount of earned income from US sources that you declare, and this serves to justify why you require an ITIN in your application.
$249.99 can be an intimidating upfront investment for some folks, although the rewards from US credit cards down the line will easily outweigh this fee. You can also take comfort in the fact that US Tax Resources, Inc. is a registered Canadian Federal Corporation and handles your personal and payment information through secure encrypted channels.
(For more information on US Tax Resources, you can also refer to my friend Jayce from PointsNerd’s guide to their services, as well as a testimonial to their services by a PointsNerd reader.)
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 W-7 form is filled in can result in a rejected application, and each application can take several weeks or months to complete. In my view, the $249.99 professional fee for an almost-surefire ITIN application is well worth the potential time savings here.
If you’d like to go it alone, you can find the official IRS instructions for the W-7 form here. Unfortunately, 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.
Lastly, whether you’ve sought help from US Tax Services or filled in the W-7 form yourself, you 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).
(Note: as of the time of this 2020 update, Passport Canada’s walk-in services are closed until further notice, so you can either send in your original passport or wait for Passport Canada’s offices to reopen to obtain your certified copies.)
Once you’ve got the following all sorted out:
Document justifying the need for an ITIN (if you used US Tax Services, this would be a US tax return)
Completed W-7 form
Original passport or certified copy
Throw them in an envelope addressed to the IRS’s receiving address indicated on the ITIN information website, send it off, and wait. In about six to eight weeks, 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, like the Chase cards.
Chase has the infamous “5/24” rule, where you won’t be approved for any credit cards if you’ve opened more than five cards in the past 24 months, so that’s something to keep in mind as you begin to navigate the US landscape.
If you got started with an American Express US card, you will likely be eligible for more Amex US cards pretty soon (within three to six months); however, you don’t want to get too many Amex US cards or else you’ll lock yourself out of 5/24 by the time your credit history has matured enough to be eligible for Chase cards.
One way around this is by going for the American Express business credit cards after you’ve gotten your first Amex US product. Examples would include the American Express US Marriott Bonvoy Business Card or the American Express US Business Platinum Card.
Like I 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 5/24 eligibility.
Generally speaking, you’ll need to wait at least one year before Chase or Citi will approve you, and even then it’s not a sure thing, and often requires a reconsideration phone call after an initial denial. For example, I myself was approve for my first Chase card, the Chase Sapphire Preferred, after having about 18 months of US credit history.
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.
Overall, applying for US credit cards is a lot more about playing the long game than here in Canada. American 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 south of the border.
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.
In upcoming posts, we’ll cover the available products, bonuses, benefits, and strategies for each of the major US issuers whose cards we Canadians are eligible for: American Express, Chase, Citi, Capital One, and Bank of America.