When Joanna Campbell moved from England to the United States for her job in October 2017, she received a valuable piece of advice from a co-worker: As soon as you get to the U.S., apply for a secured credit card.
Full disclosure: Campbell is an Experian employee who was working for the company in London before her promotion required her to move to California. At home in the U.K., she had pristine credit. But when she got to the United States, she was "credit invisible"—a term describing someone who does not have any credit history with one of the three U.S. consumer credit bureaus (Experian, TransUnion and Equifax). Credit invisibles don't have a credit score.
Even as an employee of Experian, Campbell's U.K. credit history did not follow her to the U.S. That's true for anyone moving to the United States. Credit invisibles can include immigrants, young people completely new to credit, and even elderly people who haven't used credit in a long time.
If you're a credit invisible, you can't get access to things like credit cards or auto loans because lenders have no way to assess your risk since you have no credit history. But all is not lost. There are smart moves you can make to go from being invisible to having stellar credit—and it doesn't even take that much time.
Get a Secured Credit Card
The advice Campbell received from a co-worker was spot on. She opened a local bank account and, with that same bank, applied for a secured card. A secured credit card is one that requires you to place a deposit as collateral for the card. That deposit typically serves as your credit limit.
Campbell's card was secured with a deposit of $300, which is how much she could spend on the card. That wasn't much, especially because she had a lot of expenses setting up a new apartment in a new country. But she employed a smart strategy: She put most of her purchases on the secured card, and then paid off the card every few days, she says. This demonstrated to the card issuer that she was responsible with the card and was able to pay it off on time.
When you apply for a secured card, make sure you confirm with the issuer that they are reporting your payment history to at least one of the three credit reporting bureaus. You can find secured cards in Experian's CreditMatch™ marketplace. Also see Experian's review of the Best Secured Cards.
You should also check whether the secured card you're considering will automatically graduate you to an unsecured line of credit after you've proven yourself with a good track record. That's the type of card Campbell had: After just eight months, her card issuer extended her credit line by $100 without requiring an additional deposit. The credit line wasn't much, but it was enough for her to continue building a solid credit history. She made sure to pay her bills on time and even in advance. And four months after that, the card issuer refunded her $300 security deposit and granted her additional unsecured credit up to $2,600.
Apply for New Credit
Once she had one unsecured line of credit, Campbell received an offer for another credit card with Capital One. She applied for it and was approved. (Capital One offers several cards for people with less-than-perfect credit.) She continued to use both her cards, making sure to never miss a payment and keep a low credit utilization ratio.
Your credit utilization ratio is how much credit you're using compared with how much credit you have available to you. In Campbell's case, her credit limits were not very high after her first year of building credit in the U.S.—only about $3,100 total on her two unsecured cards. Experts recommend keeping your utilization ratio below 30%, and for the best scores, below 10%. In Campbell's case, keeping it below 30% meant she could only have about $1,000 total on her statements every month.
One way around this is to make payments early, before the statement generates. That way, you can spend more on the cards and still maintain a low utilization ratio. This is a smart strategy to help you get into a prime credit category as soon as possible—so you can start getting rewarded for everyday spending.
Campbell's strategy was prudent: She applied for another card as soon as she was able to, thus diversifying her credit mix and increasing the amount of credit available to her. Both these factors contributed to her rising credit score.
On the first anniversary of opening her secured card, Campbell used CreditMatch to learn that she was likely to get approved for a rewards card from American Express. She applied for the American Express® Gold Card, was approved, and started spending so she could earn rewards and an intro bonus. (This card is typically only available to consumers with a high credit score.)
In February 2019, Campbell used the points from her card to book a flight to Cancun. "It would have cost me about $700, but I got it for just $81 using my points," says Campbell. "I went from being credit invisible to having credit that actually works for me."
This spring, Campbell used Experian Boost™† to instantly improve her FICO® Score*, the credit score used by most lenders, by getting credit for paying her utility bills on time. This caused her score to go up by seven points. By June 2019, just 20 months after she had applied for a secured card when she had no credit, Campbell's credit score was 745. To maintain that excellent score, Campbell never carries a credit card balance from month to month and pays all her bills on time.
Check Your Credit Reports
Campbell's success story demonstrates that it's possible to go from being credit invisible to having a stellar score in a short period of time. But as you build your credit history, you should also be checking your credit reports from the three bureaus to make sure your information is being reported correctly and that there are no inaccuracies dragging your credit scores down.
You can get a free credit report from Experian. There's no credit card needed to sign up, and you will have access to an updated report every 30 days. You're also entitled to a free report from each bureau once a year, which you can access at AnnualCreditReport.com.
When you check your reports, review them to make sure your identifying information is correct and that the accounts are accurate. If you do find an error, you can dispute it with the bureau directly. You can easily initiate a dispute online with Experian.
You can also check your credit scores through Experian, which makes it easy to understand your progress. You'll get information on your scores, along with explainers on why they stand where they do.
Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are author's alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer or other company, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. All information, including rates and fees, are accurate as of the date of publication.
*Credit score calculated based on FICO® Score 8 model. Your lender or insurer may use a different FICO® Score than FICO® Score 8, or another type of credit score altogether. Learn more.