New to the U.S.? Follow these 7 steps to set up your finances
The path to financial independence can start right away
Read, 4 minutes
Now that you’ve arrived in the United States, it’s time to start building a financial foundation in your new home. Navigating a new system might seem overwhelming at first—the types of accounts, services and words used to describe products may be very different than what you’re used to—but understanding some U.S. banking basics can help you move forward with confidence.
While, as a newcomer, you may be more comfortable doing your spending and saving in cash, a checking or savings account can help you establish a banking relationship, make payments and safely store your money. In addition, many bank products can help you establish a credit history, which may give you access to other financial services down the road, from opening a credit card account to obtaining or being approved for a mortgage.
These seven steps can help you get settled and build a secure future.
The essential steps to take now
Open a checking account
When you are just starting out in a new country, a checking account can offer you some stability, help you establish a financial history and help protect the money you’ve saved. A checking account can make it more convenient to make purchases and pay bills with checks and debit cards, have access to cash at ATMs, and transfer money both domestically and internationally through online and mobile banking. You can also have paychecks deposited directly into your account, avoiding the high costs of check-cashing services. At most banks, you can open an account without a U.S. Social Security number as long as you can provide information that confirms your identity, birth date and U.S address; these documents could include a passport, consular identification card or a government-issued driver's license.
Did you know?
If you’re looking for information in a language other than English, many U.S. banks offer materials and resources in a variety of languages. When selecting a bank, check to see whether they provide verbal interpretation services at their physical locations or over the phone. Many banks also provide language preference settings within their online and mobile banking platforms.
Consider a savings account
A savings account can help you safely keep the money you’re putting away for future goals. Most savings accounts earn interest, which can be helpful if you’re storing funds for an emergency or a big purchase.
Some banks require a minimum initial deposit in order to open a savings account, while others don’t. Ask about the various types of accounts available, including traditional savings, high yield, money market and certificates of deposit (CD). Banks also offer accounts geared to the specific needs of businesses. Before picking one, consider interest rates, fees and minimum balance requirements, as well as whether your money is easily available. Just as with a checking account, to open an account you’ll need to provide documents that verify your identity and address.
A big part of building a foundation in the U.S. is establishing credit, which allows you to borrow money or make purchases you’ll pay for in the future. Banks often consider your credit history when deciding whether to offer you an auto, home or small business loan. Prospective employers and landlords may also look at your credit when you apply for a job or a lease on a home. Even if you had healthy credit in your home country, banks generally require you to start building new credit in the U.S.
If you have limited or no credit, one way to get started is with a secured credit card—which functions much like a traditional credit card but may be easier to qualify for, because it requires a security deposit. By demonstrating responsible financial habits with your secured card, you can eventually qualify for a card with an unsecured credit line. If you have some credit or the bank you used in your previous country operates in the U.S., you might qualify for a traditional credit card or loan. Most credit applications require a Social Security number, though some banks will accept an IRS taxpayer identification number.
Once you get a credit card, you can build your credit health by keeping your balance low, paying your bill on time and aiming to pay off the full balance every month.
Protect your identity
Unfortunately, many scams target people new to the U.S. Some crooks may use fake websites that look like official government sites. Others may call or email with urgent demands for payment for immigration help. To protect yourself:
Make sure website addresses end with .gov. If they don’t, they aren’t U.S. government sites.
Don’t give information or make payments in response to calls or emails—U.S. officials will never contact you that way.
Never sign a form that is blank, incorrect or that you don’t fully understand. If you don’t understand what you’re signing, ask for a translator or information in your language.
Safeguard your passport, birth certificate, identification numbers and other personal information.
Check your credit report once a year for errors or fraudulent activity.
Create different passwords for all your accounts.
Steps to take later
Buy or lease a car
Unless you’re living in a major city, there’s a good chance you will need a car to get around. Depending on your situation, you may be wondering whether it’s better to buy or lease a car. (You don’t have to prove citizenship for either option, but you do need a license to drive.) A concern for many newcomers is knowing whether you’ll qualify for a car loan. Before heading to a dealership, take a realistic look at your finances and credit history. Can you cover monthly car payments and related expenses, such as insurance, gas, maintenance and repairs? Other questions to consider:
Buy or lease? Leasing may lower your monthly payments, but you must return the car when the lease ends, usually in two to three years.
New or used? A used car may be less expensive, but a new car may have lower maintenance costs.
Financing? Banks, credit unions and dealerships offer auto loans.
Purchase a home
Owning a home is an important way to build financial stability and wealth, and U.S. citizenship is not required. Of course, renting has its own advantages, and you may want to explore both options as you become acclimated to living here. The home buying process in the U.S. may differ from other countries—it’s more common in the U.S. to make larger down payments, for example, and there is usually more than one real estate agent involved in a sale.
If buying is right for you, you’ll also need enough to pay for closing costs, insurance, property taxes and maintenance, in addition to the monthly mortgage payment. A strong credit history can help you get approved for a better interest rate, so keep an eye on your credit score and debt levels if you’re planning to apply for a mortgage. It’s also important to understand loan options, interest rates and the closing process.
Learn how taxes work
If you work in the U.S., you are required to pay taxes on income earned from jobs, investments, or otherwise. Most employers withhold money from every paycheck to cover income and payroll taxes. Once a year (typically April 15th), you must file a federal income tax return. If the amount withheld was too low, you have a tax liability and must pay the U.S. government additional taxes (and possible interest and penalties). If the amount withheld was too high, you may receive a tax refund. If you’re an independent contractor or self-employed, you may be required to pay quarterly estimated taxes to avoid penalties and interest. Similar requirements may apply for state and local taxes.
A Social Security number or an Internal Revenue Service (IRS) taxpayer identification number are required to file a tax return, and it’s worth spending time to learn about important tax terms and documents. You can apply for an individual taxpayer identification number (ITIN) using an IRS Form W-7. The IRS and some advocacy groups can help you prepare and file your taxes for free.