American credit cards are fantastic, with superior benefits and sign-up bonuses compared to any other country in the world. In order to get US credit cards, you need a number of items, but most importantly, you need a Tax Identification Number. Most people have heard of a Social Security Number (SSN), but another number, an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN), can be used in place of an SSN when completing applications, and most creditors (including AMEX, Chase, Citi, and Bank of America) accept ITIN numbers. This article will explain my experience getting an ITIN number.
This article is a description of my personal experience getting an ITIN number. In no way does it constitute legal or accounting advice. If you do anything based on this article, you waive any and all rights to hold me or any of my affiliates accountable for any information therein contained. Again, this is a personal article, describing my personal experience, and in no way am I providing advice. Proceed at your own risk.
What is an ITIN?
An ITIN is a nine digit number provided in the same format as an SSN. There are three major differences between an SSN and an ITIN:
- An ITIN starts with a nine, while an SSN starts with a different number (ex. ITIN: 999-99-9999);
- Broadly, an individual is only entitled to an SSN if they are a US citizen or hold special classes of US visas, including work visas;
- An SSN is issued by the Social Security Administration, while an ITIN is issued by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).
The IRS issues ITIN numbers to individuals if:
IRS issues ITINs to foreign nationals and others who have federal tax reporting or filing requirements and do not qualify for SSNs. A non-resident alien individual not eligible for a SSN who is required to file a U.S. tax return only to claim a refund of tax under the provisions of a U.S. tax treaty needs an ITIN.
Source: Internal Revenue Service, online: https://www.irs.gov/individuals/general-itin-information
An ITIN is issued by the IRS to foreign nationals who are required by law to file US taxes who don’t otherwise qualify for an SSN.
How to get an ITIN
There are a number of ways to get an ITIN, most of them requiring that you apply at the same time you are filing a tax return. I’m an impatient guy, so I looked to how you can get an ITIN immediately, prior to filing a tax return. To do so, your situation must fall within the IRS exception table. I specifically relied on Exception 1(d) in the W-7 form instructions:
1(d) Individuals who are receiving distributions during the current tax year of income such as pensions, annuities, rental income, ROYALTIES, dividends, etc., and are required to provide an ITIN to the withholding agent (for example, an investment company, insurance company, or financial institution, etc.) for the purposes of tax withholding and/or reporting requirements.” (emphasis added)
Based on this exception, you are eligible for an ITIN if you have US-source royalty income. I’ve had people tell me it’s just as easy to have US-source dividends, but I fear the stock market so I ain’t touching that!
In order to get US-source royalty income, I looked to one of the many US-based self-publishing companies. I used the company Smashwords. I published my own book (an old school essay… it’s under a pseudonym, so don’t go looking for it!). Once published (takes about 10 minutes), I priced it at around a dollar and had a friend purchase the book. As a result, I had US-source royalty income (a couple cents). After the book was purchased, I simply emailed Smashwords for a letter of support for an ITIN. That letter was required to contain my full legal name as written on my passport, my date of birth, and language that specifically states that I have US-source royalty income and therefore need an ITIN number.
Smashwords sent that letter to my house for free. Once received, I attached it to a completed W-7 form (ITIN application). I noted exception 1(d) Royalty Income on the form. I also had to send in supporting documents, including an original copy of my birth certificate and my driver’s license. I’ve also heard that Passport Canada (or perhaps other passport services) will issue certified copies for $45. My attempt at certifying my ID documents in-person at the IRS failed. I had to send the originals.
For me, it took almost two months to get my ITIN number in the mail. My original ID documents were returned much earlier (about three weeks). I actually had to get the Taxpayer Advocate involved (great people!) since my ITIN application was originally denied. However, once I contacted the Taxpayer Advocate, it was issued within two weeks. I’ve heard of many other people having no problem in getting an ITIN. This method should theoretically work for any person in any country.
Note that an ITIN will expire after five years if no income tax return is filed during that period. One may want their ITIN to expire (to get a new one in the future), or one can file US taxes, even at a NIL US income, in order to preserve the ITIN.
Getting US credit cards with ITIN
In order to get a US credit card, one needs two items: a tax identification number (SSN/ITIN), and a US address. The best method for having a US address is having a friend in the US willing to send you mail. This is a hassle but helps with address verification in the future if creditors check whether the stated mailing address is a household or business. However, there are some mail forwarding services that are not coded in the US postal service as a mail forwarding company.
One needs a method to pay off the US credit card, and some programs (like AMEX Global Transfer), require a US domiciled bank account. I used TD Bank, which can be opened up by Canadians online. As long as $100 is kept in the account, they’ll waive the monthly fee. Further, it’s easy to transfer funds from a Canadian TD Canada Trust account online to TD Bank for free (less a ~2% spread) using Visa Direct transfer services.
Once I received an ITIN, my credit history was NIL. I had to get a “first card”. There are a number of options:
- As a Canadian, one of the first credit cards I got in the US is the TD Bank Aeroplan Visa, which can be opened up by fax in Canada using my Canadian credit history (Transunion), but attached to my new US credit bureau using my ITIN.
- Bank of America will open up a secured credit card (I believe it was $US 400 minimum deposit) in branch. This card is converted into an unsecured card within 12 months, and the deposit is returned.
- American Express can open up a US based credit card under the Global Transfer program if one has a foreign AMEX card that has been opened up for at least three months prior to the Global Transfer application.
- HSBC will help open a US-domiciled credit card if you bank with them elsewhere in the world.
Once a US credit history is built, almost all credit cards are available for ITIN holders. Excluded banks are Discover and Barclays. I’ve had dozens of US credit cards with hundreds of thousands of bonus points/miles, and while not the easiest process, absolutely a profitable one.