Credit Score 101

When I moved to San Francisco with my husband last year, our number one priority was finding somewhere to live. Within a few days we were viewing our first flat. When I overheard another couple asking if they could make an application to rent it, I realized we had arrived woefully under-prepared. “Sure, just fill out the credit application and we’ll take it from there,” beamed the landlord. ‘Credit application?! ‘ They check your credit score when you want to rent a house in this country! In fact, housing is just the beginning. You need a decent credit score for a cell phone contract, car loan, credit card… the list goes on and on.

As a Brit, I’m vaguely familiar with the term ”credit score”, but for some people moving to the US, it’s a completely new concept. So, the team at Life in the Bay have put their heads together, to give you some of the basics on credit scores:

Why do I need one?

Aside from the things listed above, your credit score becomes really important if you want to get a mortgage. If you’re planning on purchasing any property while you’re living in the US, it’s vital you start thinking about building good credit soon after you arrive. The higher your credit score, the more likely you are to be approved, and to be offered a better interest rate.

What’s a credit score?

A credit score is a ranging between 300 and 850. The score is used by lenders, service providers and landlords to determine your credit worthiness.

Who decides on what my credit score is?

In the US credit scores, there are three main credit reporting agencies: Experian, TransUnion and Equifax. They compile a report based on things like credit card use, payment history, and length of time you’ve been using credit. Your score will vary slightly between agencies but they all use FICO (Fair Isaac Corporation) scores. FICO has a very helpful website if you want to learn more.

How do I track my credit score?

There are a few websites that let you access your credit score for free. I use CreditKarma, but you can also check your score directly on the credit reporting agencies’ websites (there might be a charge).

If you’re new to the US, you may discover that you have a ‘thin file’. That just means they don’t have enough information to generate a score. Get some credit, manage it well, give it time and you’ll soon have a credit score all of your own!

I had a credit rating in my home country. Can I transfer it to the US?

Nope, sorry. Unlike you, your credit score doesn’t travel. Nobody cares if you made every bill payment on time in your home country and paid off your credit card each month. When you land in the US you have to start all over again. Frustrating I know, but that’s reality.

How do I build my credit score?

Ok, this is the really confusing bit. To build a good credit score you have to show you can manage debt. So, the credit agencies don’t want to know if you earn a good wage, budget carefully and save money each month. To build credit a good credit score you have to get access to credit and show you can manage debt.

A man looks at his credit card whilst using his computer, perhaps checking his credit score.How do I get credit without a credit score?

I’m glad you asked. You DO have some options! Some banks will let you take out a secured credit card. That means you give them $500 and they give you a credit card with a $500 limit. It’s a good place to start but there are a couple of pitfalls: firstly, you have to tie up your own capital and secondly, financial institutions will usually only do this with such small amounts that it will take you a long time to build a good credit score.

If you held a credit card in your home country and the company operates in the US, they may give you a credit card if you had a good relationship with them. But they are not obliged to do this, by any means.

Finally, our lovely new sponsor, Bank of the West, offers an unsecured credit card dedicated to expatriates who want to start building their credit history. You can thank us for the intro with cake later. 😉

Is there any way around the rental thing?

My personal experience is that most Bay Area landlords understand that people new to the US won’t have a credit score. However, you may still have to pay the fee for a credit check so they can verify you’re not hiding a bad score. We provided proof of income and a reference from our landlord in the UK at future property viewings. And yes, we found somewhere to live.

My visa means I can’t get a social security number – can I build a credit score?

Hmmm… that’s a tricky one. Some creditors allow you to apply for a credit card without an SSN, but without a credit score it’s unlikely you’ll be approved. If you are approved, technically the credit bureaus can still compile a credit report, but without an SSN it’s harder for them to identify you correctly. Read this for more info.

I’m still unsure of how to build a good credit score…

Don’t worry. The team at Life in the Bay have you covered. Look out for the next two articles in our series on credit scores below!

Credit Q&A: Julien Christiaens, Bank of the West

5 Ways to Ruin your Credit Score



Content sponsored by Bank of the West

The International Banking Group is a team of Bank of the West specialists dedicated to helping expatriates in the U.S. Our multiple backgrounds help us build international client-specific solutions that address the unique challenges and opportunities facing international clients.  Contact Julien Christiaens, VP – Area Manager, for more information.


About Felicity H. Barber

I am a speechwriter, who coaches people to make awesome speeches, presentations and pitches. I moved to San Francisco from London with my software engineer husband and two cats in 2014. As if moving half way around the world wasn’t enough, I made the crazy decision to start my own business at the same time! Life has been a big adjustment to go from in-house to freelance, tea and scones to coffee and brownies, rainy days to constant sunshine, but I wouldn’t change it for the world.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

3 thoughts on “Credit Score 101