Ask a Canadian: How To Build Your Credit in the United States

When I moved to the SF Bay Area in 2018, I didn’t expect to gain a ‘part-time job’ filling out copious amounts of paperwork. There were forms for getting my employment authorization card, importing a car, opening a bank account, applying for a SSN (Social Security Number) -- which should be your first “To Do” item on your checklist once you cross the border. Of all the things I had to do to integrate into my new life in the Golden State, building my credit score was by far the biggest obstacle!

Even getting a basic mobile phone plan is hopeless without a healthy credit score.

In Toronto, I had meticulously maintained a stellar score. It definitely was not a topic at the dinner table nor did I ever lose sleep over applying for a mortgage or securing credit cards with low interest rates and favourable terms. 

Well, guess what?! None of these bragging rights transferred over to the U.S. As a matter of fact, I was stunned to discover the lack of connectivity between the Canadian and American financial systems. On my first attempt to apply for a credit card through my bank, I got outright denied. 

Basically I started off with a credit score of 4 out of 850. Yes, you read correctly, FOUR!! It was so low, even Target refused to issue a credit card with a $500 spending limit. (Anything above 720 is considered good incase you are wondering.)

The catch is you need credit history to build credit!

After many hours of research and calling the other four Canadian big banks, I discovered RBC Bank’s Visa Signature Black and things began to really turn around for me. (See footnote 1.)

My credit journey went from a score of 4 to 180 within 2 months. Now it’s been two years of proactive U.S. credit building and I’m back to where I was when I lived in Toronto, in excellent standing.

(See footnote 2: This is an actual U.S. credit card specially designed for Canadian Expats living in America so you don’t have to worry about paying foreign transaction fees. Plus it uses your Canadian credit score for the qualifying process, rejoice!)

After I got approved and I started making purchases with this card, I had enough acceptable credit that allowed me to reapply and qualify for that bank credit card that I originally was denied for. 

I’m sharing my credit story because this really is my most valuable pro-tip for Canadians moving to the U.S. Had I known about this card, I would have actually applied for it in advance, while still living in Canada. I sure would have bypassed this frustrating process and made my financial transition that much more hassle-free! 

Did you know, you can start building your U.S. credit from abroad with this card but be sure to link it to your SSN to start establishing credit.

While the Visa Signature Black credit card substantially boosted my credit score, here are a few other things I did during my first year in the U.S. that really helped:

Pay your rent on time and report it

Most people rent when they first move to a new country. Companies such as RentTrack help build positive credit by reporting every payment you make to your property manager or landlord, to the three major U.S. credit bureaus -- Equifax, Experian and TransUnion.

Use your credit card as often as possible and pay it off entirely each month

When given the opportunity to pay by credit card, do it! I had a recurring payment for a storage facility and I happily set up AutoPay for my card to be hit every month. 

Even for little things like the $2 chocolate bar for my son, I swiped my card. It all adds up and of course, be diligent with paying off your monthly balance before the due date. (The key here is to pay it in full or keep a very low balance, because consistently having outstanding debt will backfire and hurt your credit.)

Add yourself to your spouse or family member’s credit card

Most credit card companies offer free supplementary cards or for a nominal fee. My husband already had a US card that he was actively using so I was able to piggyback and score credit off his healthy credit habits.

Apply for other credit cards or a secured credit card

Once I got that first US credit card approved, about 3 months later I started getting offers in the mail from other banks with credit card offers. As thrilled as I was that my score was finally deemed ‘worthy’, I didn’t go nuts. Owning two cards is plenty enough to build substantial credit in a short amount of time.

Alternatively it may be easier to get a secured credit card if you don’t qualify for a regular card. The difference is that you have to maintain a cash deposit (usually around $1000 or equal to your credit line) which is used to secure the amount you borrow. This protects the card issuer in case you don’t pay your bill. These cards do have much higher interest rates but are an effective leaping stone to get you in a position to upgrade for regular cards.

Take out a credit builder loan

This is exactly what it sounds like. Typically offered at credit unions, they are small amount loans issued to those who need to build or repair poor credit. Unlike traditional loans, the amount you borrow is held in a bank account while you make payments. Meaning you typically can’t access the money until you have fully repaid the loan, which means you are able to build savings and your credit at the same time.

Utility and cell phone bills

I didn’t find a significant credit gain by paying my phone, electricity and water bills on time however, it doesn’t hurt to get in the good habit of doing so. When you start off with a low credit score like me, then every point matters!

Other Strategies 

Repaying debt on time, keeping debt utilization ratios low and establishing a history of responsible borrowing all contribute to establishing excellent credit.


Let us know if you have any other tips. We’d love to hear about your credit journey!

This is a sponsored post with RBC Bank. Visit their website for advice and to simplify your cross-border banking needs. 

1. All loans and lines of credit are subject to credit approval. 

2. While there are no foreign transaction fees for purchases in the U.S. or in USD, there are foreign transaction fees for purchases conducted in foreign currency. RBC Bank Foreign Transactions: RBC Bank Signature Black/Signature Black Plus credit cards: 1.5% of the U.S. dollar amount of the transaction if the transaction is conducted in a foreign currency. RBC Bank Platinum Rewards/Platinum Rewards Plus credit cards: 3% of the U.S. dollar amount of the transaction if the transaction is conducted in a foreign currency.