US credit cards without SSN
This guide explains how you can get access to some credit card product in the US, if you do not have a social security number (for example, as tourist). If you do not have an American Social Security Number (SSN), you will not have access to the full range of credit card products available in the US. However, you can still acquire certain products, which are often still far superior than credit cards from other countries.
While many financial institutions require a Social Security Number (SSN), there are banks that allow customers to open an account if they can present a valid passport. This allows even tourists visiting the US temporarily to open a fully functional US checking account, which is in many cases completely free. This is already useful on its own as it allows free USD transfers within the US payment network (mostly ACH, i.e., Automatic Clearing House) and works particularly well in combination with an IBKR account.
Moreover, having a relationship with a US bank often allows customers to apply for a credit card with this bank and then potentially upgrade this card without going through the usual online process with credit scores attached to a Social Security Number.
Step 1: Open a bank account
You will need to be physically present in the US and go to local branch of an American bank, where you might be able to open an account by presenting your passport. Generally, it depends on your circumstances, the bank's international regulation and sometimes even on the representative if you are allowed to open an account. Typically, you do not require a proof of address, but if you do you can often present some letter or written statement in regards to your accommodation (depending on if it is temporary or not). Sometimes a utility bill is required. In most cases, you need to be able to receive mail (namely your checkbook and your debit card) at an address in the US, but once you received those you can often do everything online.
When opening your account, it is important that you fill in the form W-8 BEN. If your banker does not ask you to fill in this form, it is probably a good idea to proactively request it, because your foreign status may otherwise lead to significant tax withholding on interest (which may include credit card bonuses in the future). On this form, you need to declare that your permanent address is outside of the US (even if you have a long term US address), provide your foreign tax identification number (if you have one) and that you would like to take advantage of your home country's tax treaty. For example, the US-German tax treaty ensures that any interest is taxed at 0% in the US (you still need to declare it in your German taxes) and dividends are taxed at 15% (rather than 30% for foreigners in the US).
As the requirements often vary between banks and even between different branches of the same bank in different states, there is no general solution. It is therefore best to call up several branches of different banks in the city/region where you will be travelling. Typical options where tourists or temporary residents were successful in opening an account without social security number are the following:
Bank of America
Some local banks / credit unions
If you have the option to open accounts with different banks, you should already check what types of premium credit cards they offer. While you will typically not be able to get these cards at first, you can often get them after showing loyalty and reliability in paying off your credit card balance every month. Chase is one of the banks that typically will not accept any customers without Social Security Number.
Step 2: Open secured card
Once you have a bank account, you should immediately ask if it is possible to open a credit card. As you do not have a US credit score or Social Security Number, most banks will not extend credit to you, but instead require you to open a secured line of credit. For this, you need to deposit an amount equal to your credit limit onto a dedicated account, which is locked. At the same time, you receive a credit card with limit equal to your deposit. Optimally, this secured card does not have any annual fee and maybe even gives 1% cashback on purchases. Typically, it will have a foreign transaction fees which makes the card not very useful outside of the US. Note, however, you need to pay off this credit card whenever you spend money without accessing the locked account, i.e., the deposit is only a security measure, while you still need to pay off your credit card every month that you use it. Forgetting to make a required payment will jeopardize your banking relationship and increases the wait time for the next step. Moreover, you should always pay off your credit card at the end of the month to ensure that you do not need to pay any interest.
The goal with opening this secured card is to build a banking relationship and credit history with this specific bank. As credit scoring is usually connected to your Social Security Number, your credit history is typically not shared with credit bureaus, so that you will not benefit from it when dealing with other banks. If you ever receive a Social Security Number in the future, you have a good chance to get the credit history added to your credit file, which can significantly benefit your credit score.
Step 3: Convert to a regular card
You will often need to wait a few months or up to a year, before you can contact your bank to ask if you could convert to a regular card. For this step, it is often not necessary to be present in the US, but you can just call your bank (for example, using Google Voice allowing free calling). While it is not strictly necessary to convert to a regular card, it is usually a good idea as it also provides a check if you pass the bank's requirements for a regular credit card customer.
Step 4: Upgrade to a better card
Once your bank allowed you to switch to a regular (unsecured) card, you can start to consider to ask if you can product change to or even apply for a different credit card. While it will be difficult to apply for a credit card with another bank, there is a good chance that your own bank will reward your loyalty and reliability in paying off your current card by allowing you to get a better card. At this stage, it is particularly interesting to get a credit card without foreign transaction fee and notable cashback.
Two particularly attractive cards are the following Bank of America cards:
Bank of America Travel Rewards Credit Card. This card does not have an annual fee or a foreign transaction fee and gives effectively 1.5% cashback on all purchases. It is a great all-rounder for international travellers. When you apply for this card (rather than product changing), you can often participate in a promotion where you receive 150-250 USD if you spend at least 1000 USD on this card within the first 90 days after opening. It is therefore worth it to time the moment right.
Bank of America Premium Rewards Credit Card. This is the top premium credit card offered by Bank of America. It does not have a foreign transaction fees, but comes with an annual fee of 95 USD, which is compensated by a free credit of 100 USD that you can spend yearly on qualifying purchases such as seat upgrades, baggage fees, in-flight services, and airline lounge fees. Moreover, you also receive up to 100 USD for purchasing Global Entry every four years (which is equal to the time it is valid). This fully covers the annual fee. Moreover, you also get 1.5-2% cashback on your purchases. Finally, there is typically a promotion where you receive up to 500 USD after spending at least 3000 USD after opening the card, so it is also a good idea to time your application right, such that you can take advantage of such a promotion.
Both Bank of America credit cards are very solid choices. While I personally prefer certain other cards, these are typically not available to travellers without Social Security Number. However, above options and some others that you may find with your bank of choice will still be very attractive (in terms of signup bonuses, insurance packages, cashback deals etc.) compared to many other credit card options from outside of the US (in particular compared to Europe, but also Canada and Australia).
If you ever happen to receive a Social Security Number in the US, please make sure to check out the more general guide on how build credit in the US.