Having credit history is crucial for many of life’s milestones: buying a car, getting a mortgage, applying to rent an apartment and more. One of the easiest ways to start building credit is by getting a credit card.

However, most credit card applications ask for a Social Security number (SSN). This poses a problem for those who don’t have one, such as international students, nonresidents and some immigrants.

If you don’t have an SSN, can you still get a credit card or open a bank account to fund a secured credit card? Yes, but you’ll need to provide something in place of the SSN. Enter the ITIN, short for Individual Taxpayer Identification Number, which may be the key you need to open that elusive credit door.

What is an ITIN?

According to the IRS: “An Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) is a tax processing number issued by the Internal Revenue Service. The 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).”

You can get an ITIN by filing IRS form W-7. The website says the number is only for tax purposes, but the good news is that many lenders will accept an ITIN in place of an SSN. More good news is that the government does not use ITIN to track undocumented individuals. The IRS does not share this information with immigration enforcement because of Section 6103 of the Internal Revenue Code, which prohibits the release of tax information.

One of the main differences between an ITIN and an SSN is that a Social Security number follows you from the cradle to the grave. No action is needed from you to keep your number. On the other hand, ITINs must be used to file a federal tax return at least once every three years to remain active. However, just like the SSN, the number will usually stay the same (even if it expires and is later renewed).

Can you get a credit card with an ITIN?

Yes, the ITIN can be used in place of an SSN to obtain a credit card from many of the major issuers. Of course, each lender has different criteria. Here is a rundown of the major credit card issuers’ policies.

Issuer Accepts ITIN in place of SSN?
American Express Yes; also accepts passport number
Bank of America Yes; also accepts passport number
Barclays No
Capital One Yes
Chase Yes
Citi Yes
Discover No
Synchrony No
TD Bank Yes, but only for select secured cards
U.S. Bank Yes, but only for select secured cards
Wells Fargo Yes, but only for select secured cards

Submitting your application with an ITIN

The application process for those with an ITIN instead of an SSN is essentially the same. In place of a nine-digit SSN, you will use the nine-digit ITIN. But before you apply, you’ll need to choose a card.

Applying and getting turned down will hurt your score, so you will want to be reasonably sure you will be approved before submitting your application. If you need some help deciding which card to apply for, consider the following recommendations.

Consider secured cards

Secured credit cards require you to give a deposit to the lender upfront. Most times, your credit limit is equal to the amount of this deposit. This allows the lender to reduce its risk while still offering you a credit line, so these cards are usually easier to qualify for. Plus, the deposit is usually refundable, and you can often graduate to an unsecured card after your score improves. For this reason, a secured card is a good choice for getting started and adding positive data to your credit file.

Consider student cards

There are also credit cards for students that have looser credit requirements. Again, many will also accept an ITIN in place of a SSN. There are even credit cards available to international students, and many student cards offer rewards like cash back.

What happens next

You should know that applying for any credit card will cause a slight dip in your credit score. But if you’re approved, that is usually offset in a few months by the new credit line you now have. Once you have the card, be sure to use it responsibly. Most importantly, pay your bill on time. And not just your credit card bill — all of your bills.

Also, make sure to keep your balances as low as possible. This impacts your credit utilization ratio, which is second only to on-time payments. Keeping a low balance is good in more ways than one, though; you may reduce or avoid interest charges. And your card may not have the best rate, especially if this is your first one. But the rate won’t matter if you don’t carry a balance.

The bottom line

Credit cards are available for those with ITINs. By researching your options before you apply, you will increase your chances of qualifying and can start the process of building your score well-informed. Good luck!