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Access to credit is a major priority and pain point for immigrants

close up of hands holding credit card and phone
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Your credit score is one of the most important numbers in your financial life, but it has not traditionally crossed international borders. This is a major obstacle affecting the more than 1 million people who immigrate to the U.S. each year. For example, a credit card is a useful daily spending tool, but qualifying for your first card can be especially difficult.

Nearly half (49 percent) of immigrants said a U.S. credit card was hard to obtain, according to a recent OnePoll survey of 300 recent immigrants commissioned by Nova Credit, a financial technology company dedicated to expanding immigrants’ access to credit. That was more than any other option. Opening an American bank account (40 percent) ranked as the second-biggest challenge, well ahead of lining up housing, phone service and a car.

Obtaining financial services in the U.S. is a top priority for immigrants. About two-thirds (66 percent) researched how to open a bank account before moving to the U.S. and 58 percent looked into how to open a credit card. Those priorities edged out securing a place to live (57 percent) and obtaining phone service (56 percent). They were well ahead of acquiring a car (38 percent), financing a car (35 percent) and getting a different type of loan (31 percent).

Unfortunately, without a U.S.-based credit score, it’s very difficult to qualify for credit cards and other loans in the U.S.

How some are coping

Kristy Kim told me she felt “like a gangster” paying for a car with cash after being turned down for financing despite a prestigious college degree and a lucrative investment banking job. Ms. Kim, an immigrant from South Korea, used her personal experience as motivation to co-found TomoCredit. She currently serves as its Chief Executive Officer. The company offers a credit card with underwriting based upon a detailed cash-flow analysis rather than a credit score.

Petal is another startup that practices cash-flow underwriting and focuses on immigrants, young adults and other groups that have fallen through the cracks of the traditional financial system.

Nova Credit’s Chief Data and Analytics Officer, Sarah Davies, estimates that up to 80 million people living in the U.S. fit this description. They’re either completely credit invisible or have only a small amount of credit information on their records (also known as a thin credit file).

Nova Credit’s approach

While TomoCredit and Petal base their lending decisions on applicants’ cash flows, Nova Credit translates foreign credit scoring information into a format that its U.S. partners use to approve or deny credit applications. Ms. Davies says that Nova Credit can convert data from about half of the world’s credit bureaus into the American format. Examples include Australia, Austria, Brazil, Canada, the Dominican Republic, Germany, India, Kenya, Mexico, Nigeria, the Philippines, South Korea, Spain, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.

Nova Credit’s lending partners include American Express for credit cards, Westlake Financial for auto loans and Verizon for cell phones. By helping immigrants qualify for these products based upon the credit histories they established before arriving in the U.S., Nova Credit can also indirectly open up other financial opportunities.

For example, using an American credit card or car loan responsibly can further enhance an immigrant’s credit score and make him or her a better candidate for other financial products, including a mortgage. Alternative credit-building tools such as Experian GoPerch and eCredable Lift are also good ways for people—especially those with limited credit histories—to establish and improve their credit scores.

The bottom line

Traditionally, it takes credit to get credit. It’s similar to getting a job in the sense that prospective employers usually want to see directly related work experience. But getting that first opportunity can be especially difficult. In the credit world, that’s starting to change, thanks to recent innovations from Nova Credit, Experian and others.

Have a question about credit cards? E-mail me at ted.rossman@bankrate.com and I’d be happy to help.