If you’re a non-resident of the United States, it might seem impossible to get a line of credit for your small business. It even seems impossible to start your business in the first place. This isn’t exactly the case. A non-resident can start a business, thrive and even take out a line of business credit without an SSN. It’s just a lot more complicated than it is for citizens.
Why Get Business Credit?
For some reason, a business credit card will almost always require your personal Social Security number. This is a headache for people who aren’t residents of the United States but operate a business stateside and need American credit.
The truth is that having a line of business credit makes things a lot easier for your accountant, not to mention it helps you make larger business purchases when you don’t have the immediate cash on hand. Your accountant will not have to go through each purchase searching for write-offs if your personal and business accounts are separate. If you're audited, the record-keeping is simple.
Do I Even Need an SSN?
Now that you know why you might want a business credit card, the question is do you need an SSN in the first place? Think about it this way: Your personal finances might not be directly linked to your business, but the existing evidence of your personal financial management can really predict whether your business will responsibly use credit. If you were a bank, would you want to give credit to a person’s business if they’ve clearly mismanaged the privilege in their personal life?
In actuality, most credit card applications are completely reliant on a business owner’s personal finances. Banks want to see your personal credit score. After all, business owners are the people who are managing the business’ credit usage. If you’ve got a squeaky clean personal credit history, you’ll probably conduct business in the same way.
Apply for a Social Security Number
Let’s get the obvious out of the way: If you want business credit, you should probably just bite the bullet and apply for a Social Security number. Without an SSN, there’s going to be a lot of red tape in numerous aspects of your business. There’s no reason not to have one if you qualify. Plus, you’re going to need some sort of identification number to get a business credit card, anyway.
Foreigners qualify for an SSN if they’re authorized by the Department of Homeland Security to work in the United States. This includes temporary workers and those who have non-immigrant visa status, but you must be able to prove that your status is completely legal.
To get an SSN, you’ll have to apply through the Social Security Administration. You can either apply in your home country during your initial visa application with the U.S. Department of State or apply at a Social Security office. You’ll need your original visa documents and visa approval notices for evidence. You should wait around 10 days after arriving in the United States to apply because it gives the SSA time to verify your Department of Homeland Security Documents, and you’ll be sped through the process.
Get an EIN With a Third-Party Designee
Most business lines of credit will require both an EIN (employer identification number) and a Social Security number. While you might be able to open a credit card without an SSN if you’re really lucky, you certainly can’t get any business credit without an EIN. Unfortunately, getting an EIN when you don’t have an SSN is difficult.
To get an EIN, you’re going to have to find a third-party designee. This is someone who the IRS will see as a credible representative of your business (think: an accountant or attorney). This person, who must be a U.S. resident, is given temporary authority to act for your company during the process of forming a business entity while you act as a foreign investor. Once you’ve got a third-party designee on board, they need to sign an official agreement.
To apply for the actual EIN, your third-party designee has to fill out Form SS-4. This can be done on the IRS’s website and only takes a few minutes. Make sure that the third-party authorization part of the application is completely filled out or it will not be accepted. The IRS needs to know that the form was filled out by a third party on your behalf and you’ve agreed to the terms. A person can only apply for one EIN per day, but once you finally get your EIN, the third-party designee no longer has authorization.
Try Obtaining an ITIN, Instead
Instead of getting a third-party designee to file for your EIN, you can try to obtain an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) and use that number to apply. This number is issued by either the Social Security Administration (SSA) or IRS and is available to certain nonresidents, resident aliens and dependents who can’t get Social Security numbers. It’s a nine-digit number formatted in exactly the same way as an SNN, but it always starts with the number nine.
To get an ITIN, you can fill out IRS Form W-7, IRS Application for Individual Taxpayer Identification Number. You’re going to need documents that prove your status as a foreign, non-citizen and your real identity. This includes the type of visa you have (if you have one) and the reason why you need an ITIN in the first place.
Unlike applying for an EIN, you cannot file Form W-7 online. You’re going to have to either mail in your documentation, visit one of the IRS’ walk-in offices or process the application through an IRS-authorized Acceptance Agent. Acceptance Agents are typically entities like colleges, financial institutions and accounting firms.
Apply for a Business Credit With Your ITIN
Not every company will allow you to apply for a line of credit with an ITIN, but enough major credit lenders will. Capital One, Bank of America and American Express let you use an ITIN for a business credit card instead of a Social Security number. All you need to do is go online and fill out an application, but make sure you do the research to find out which card would be most beneficial.
Apply for a Corporate Business Card
There are a lot of business credit cards you can apply for just by using an EIN, but in truth, most of them will probably ask you for a Social Security number before you’re approved. If you cannot get an ITIN or SSN, you can try to apply for a business credit card that doesn’t ask for an SSN upfront. There are still no guarantees.
Unfortunately, not having an SSN will rule out credit cards from most major issuers like Chase, Bank of America and Capital One unless you’re applying for a corporate card that doesn’t require a personal guarantee. What’s a personal guarantee? It means you’re not personally liable for your business’ credit card statement, so your SSN is less relevant.
Corporate cards are a privilege and often require millions of dollars in cash reserves and annual revenue. If your business is highly successful, this can be a total slam-dunk, but it’s pretty useless if you’re operating in the small business space. In that case, you can still try to apply for business credit without an SSN if you have a long-standing, squeaky clean credit history. You might just get lucky, but odds are you’ll need some sort of legal identification number.
Try a Prepaid Business Credit Card
A prepaid business credit card isn’t a risk on the bank’s end, so you can apply without using a Social Security number. This is a good option if you want to give your employees a line of business credit, but it doesn’t actually build credit for your business. It also can’t front you cash if you happen to be running short.
- IRS: Apply for an Employer Identification Number (EIN) Online
- IRS: Am I Eligible to Apply for an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number?
- Fundera: Can You Apply for Business Credit Cards Using EIN Only?
- Fundera: Can You Apply for Business Credit Cards Without a Social Security Number?
- Social Security Administration: Application For Social Security Card
- Credit Card Insider: Can You Get a Business Credit Card Without a Personal Guarantee?
- Building business credit for your small business without a Social Security number takes time. Try not to start off by getting loans or credit cards, as they would need your Social Security number as a personal guarantee. Start on a small scale with net 30 terms and office supply stores. As you build a good history, you can get larger loans and credit cards without having to use your Social Security number.
Mariel Loveland is a small business owner, content strategist and writer from New Jersey. Throughout her career, she's worked with numerous startups creating content to help small business owners bridge the gap between technology and sales. Her work has been featured in publications like Business Insider and Vice.