Living or Working Overseas Series: Part 1 – You Can Still Get Lots of Cards!

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This series of posts is written by the Wandering US Expat, who’s lived in Australia and Panama.  And applied for cards from there!

Don’t let living abroad stop you from getting miles and points bonuses from credit cards!

It’s no secret that US banks lead the world in promotional point bonuses for new customers.  They give away lots of points to get a new customer in the hopes that you’ll remain, and spend, with them for years.  Lots of non-US folks wish they could get access to the same deals!

But many US citizens and ex-permanent residents, known as expats, often wonder whether they can still get credit cards if they leave or have already left the US.  Perhaps they’ve relocated for a job or have gone for an extended trip abroad.  Some expats have left permanently to start a new life.

Folks Who Live Overseas Can Still Get Miles & Points Credit Cards

Are you or someone you know in this category?

Figures are hard to determine because the US does not track expats who are traveling or living abroad.  But a recent report estimated the number to be living overseas at about 2 to 7 million. There are millions more who leave, or “visit” outside the US for months at a time all year round.

This series will help folks living outside the US have Big Travel with Small Money!

“Living or Working Overseas” Series Index

Maintain Your Credit History

When someone from the US goes overseas, what happens to their credit?  If they continue to use their card(s), they will remain active.  It’s only when they cancel accounts, stop using their cards, or cease to maintain an active credit file that it may become difficult to be approved for new cards after some time passes.

If you are going to be away from the US for a long time, and haven’t already been gone too long, it’s important you continue to maintain your credit history.  This could be as simple as using your US credit cards occasionally.  Or setting up a small recurring payment (like paying for your parents’ Netflix account!)

You Can Keep Your Credit History Active by Using Your Cards to Shop Online to Send Gifts to People in the US

Another option is requesting supplemental cards for a trusted family member or friend who could then use them once in awhile to keep your accounts active.

If you’re unsure whether you have an active credit history, 1st check your free Credit Karma and Credit Sesame reports.  If you have a Social Security Number (SSN), or had 1 in the past, you may still have some credit history, regardless of whether or not you actually still live in the US, or have been away for many years.

Normally you can also request a free annual free credit report, which tracks all inquiries over the last 2 years from the 3 different credit bureaus.  But if you’re currently overseas you will be blocked from loading the website.  You could ask a trusted friend or family member to download it from the US and send it to you.

An alternative is to get a US VPN (Virtual Private Network).  Once you’ve set it up  on your computer, websites recognize you as “being in the US. ”  There are lots of companies selling US Virtual Private Networks online for reasonable prices.

If you no longer have a credit history, you’ll have to rebuild it.  I’ll talk about that in a future post.  However, if your scores are healthy and active, then you’re ready to apply for cards.  You can still get lots of cards and even have app-o-ramas while being overseas.  But don’t forget to read the dangers of applying for credit cards.

That said, many banks require you to be a resident of the US to apply for cards, but you can always put in a US address.  However, do what is comfortable for you!

Register Your Phone

You’ll want to register a US home or cell number with Skype or Rebtel, preferably before leaving.  The number you register should be the same number you use on the applications for new credit cards.  Because when you call the banks to get new cards approved or to activate credit cards, your registered number will appear in the banks’ caller ID.  This can save you the time and hassle of identifying yourself.

You Will Have an Easier Time Calling Credit Card Companies From a US Phone Number

You might be wondering, why have a US cell phone if you don’t live there?  Well, some folks do regularly visit and like to keep the same number when in the US.  Or, you want the same number to avoid problems when registering, or calling the banks about your cards.  It’ s easy to maintain a US cell number even if you don’t use it regularly.

T-Mobile offers $10 prepaid SIM cards which fit any unlocked phone that takes SIM cards.   Or you can buy these on Amazon for as low as $3.  As long as you recharge your account with $10 every 12 months, your phone number will remain active!  When you travel to the US, just go online to your T-mobile account and choose your plan for the time you’ll be there.  It’s very handy!

Foreign Currency Fees – Are the Points Worth It?

Depending on which cards you want, you’ll 1st have to decide how much you can afford to spend monthly.  You definitely shouldn’t spend more than you would in your normal daily spending.  You should also read the 40+ ways to meet the minimum spending requirement.

However, meeting the minimum card spend while overseas is a little more challenging.  Usually you should avoid cards with foreign transaction fees, because they can really add up!  But if the card you want charges these fees, you can meet part or all of the minimum spending requirement with Amazon payments.

With Amazon payments you can send up to $1,000 to another person each month for free from your credit card.  It’s safer to also use your card for some regular purchases.  As always, do what’s comfortable for you.

You Can Meet Part of Your Minimum Spending Requirement by Sending Money to People From Your Credit Card With Amazon Payments

If the minimum spending requirement is beyond what you can do with Amazon payments, you may have little choice but to use this card and pay the average foreign transaction fees of ~3%, depending on what choices you have while overseas.  This may make sense if the sign-up point bonuses are worth it to you!

For example, the current offer for the Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite™ Mastercard®, is 50,000 miles after $3,000 in purchases within the 1st 3 months.  Even if you pay the foreign transaction fees on $3,000 in order to reach the minimum spend, that still only $90 ($3,000 minimum spending X 3% foreign transaction fees) in fees.

To redeem a round-trip ticket off-peak to Central America, Alaska, or lots of places in between, it would cost you 30,000 miles.  Buying a paid ticket could easily cost $500 or far more.  So you’re still coming out ahead since this card has at least $410 in value if you spend $90 in foreign transaction fees to get the signup bonus.

Or, if you have a trusted friend or relative in the US, you can add that person as an authorized user on the card.  Then that person uses the card and deposits the money owed to you in your US bank, PayPal, or Amazon payments account.

It’s easier when you choose a credit card such as the Chase Sapphire Preferred that doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees at all!

To get the sign-up bonus of 40,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points, the minimum spending requirement is $4,000 within the 1st 3 months.

Because the Chase Sapphire Preferred card does NOT charge foreign transaction fees, the value of the 40,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points is at least $400 since they can be redeemed for gift cards.

But you can get Big Travel with Small Money when you transfer your Chase Ultimate Rewards points to travel partners that include:

  • British Airways
  • Korean Air
  • Singapore Airlines
  • Southwest
  • United Airlines
  • Virgin Atlantic
  • IHG
  • Hyatt
  • Marriott
  • Ritz-Carlton
  • Amtrak 

Depending on the award you have in mind, you can easily get $800, or even up to $2,000 in value, depending on the redemption.  See a detailed review of the Chase Sapphire Preferred card.

Bottom Line

If you’re currently overseas, thinking of going, or know someone that is, don’t let that stop you or them from earning lots of points.  It may take a little more work, but it’s still possible to have Big Travel with Small Money!

In the next post in this series I’ll explain how to establish a US bank account while overseas, if you don’t have one already.  You’ll need it if you plan to get lots of cards!

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28 responses to “Living or Working Overseas Series: Part 1 – You Can Still Get Lots of Cards!

  1. I really appreciate this series. The difficult thing is that you do not have first hand experience on dealing with this from abroad. For example, do you know anyone abroad using AP successfully?
    As long as we expats keep US address (move all your accounts to family address), SSN, and can take care of the bills and credit history, there is no problem getting US credit cards. The problem is with MS since we don’t have easy access to GC and Walmart. I can only think of Serve and AP but AP is not working out for me.

  2. Question about the T-Mobile pre-paid SIM: What are the details of how to keep an issued number active without incurring any charges during the year and only needing to re-fill the account with $10 per year? Any month-to-month plan would charge at least $50/month, while the pay-as-you-go daily fee is $2 per day the phone is used. The latter is how my line is setup with T-Mobile (I have a pre-paid SIM and an unlocked Android phone), but if someone calls me or sends me a text I get charged $2 for that day. So I’m not in complete control of how my re-fill funds get depleted. Am I missing something about how to have an account/phone# “on hold” with this $10/year trick?

  3. This is a great post for expats like me! The big obstacle is: how do you get credit cards that you are approved for delivered to your oeverseas address?

  4. Thanks for doing an expat series. I’ve been hoping someone would start an expat miles & points blog. Does Wandering US Expat have one? I couldn’t find it on Google.

    The main problem I am having is since my husband doesn’t have a SSN (not US resident/citizen) we can’t do AP. I did some Bluebird/CVS MSing on a trip back to the US in Sept 2013 for the previous AOR but that option is closed even to US residents now. So I have to be able to do minimum spends with normal everyday spend, travel spend or prepaying utilities.

  5. Diamond Vargas

    @ Erin — Are you saying that you’re a US citizen who has successfully used Amazon payments while in the US in the past, and that you are currently based abroad and are not able to use Amazon payments, likely due to a foreign IP address on your computer?

  6. Speaking from experience… I’m not a US citizen, I just did a Masters there for 2 years. Am now doing a PhD in Australia. Worked on a student visa so had a social security number. I still run AORs frequently. Have a trusted friend who lives in San Francisco, so all the approved credit cards get mailed to him; we use a combination of social media platforms for me to get the 16 digits on the card, the expiry date and the CVV, and I can then use all this info to make housing payments here. (It is good to get large signup bonuses while paying for housing!) As a result of being here, I am limiting myself to getting cards without foreign transaction fees (Citi AA Exec, Citi HHonors Reserve, Chase Sapphire Preferred, Chase BA, Chase Fairmont, targeting perhaps the Chase Marriott or Ritz-Carlton + Chase Ink Plus for next year, and those without spending requirements like the BoA Alaska Airlines or the Barclays US Airways before it disappears).

    The best bank so far is Chase – I just let them know that I’ll be overseas for an extended period of time, and they allow me to change my address to my Australian one (and they have also mailed replacement cards directly to Australia when I reported previous ones having gone missing). Set up a Citibank Australia card to do funds transfers from here to abovementioned friend’s Citibank USA account, and though I lose 3-4% on the transfer exchange rate, the funds are instantly available and I can pay off whatever I spend on.

    Fun times!

  7. Also, with regards to phone number, I set up one with Google Voice – free calls to the US and free text messages. I can just text friends there as and when too!

  8. I live in China and have netted around 200,000 points in 2 months. I use cards with no fees over here (Propel, Sapphire) and I use cards with fees (SPG, Delta AmEx) for Internet purchases. Chinese cards can also give points! 😀

  9. Hi Scott – I traveled through the US briefly a couple weeks ago before heading off overseas again for the next 12 months. I did try my T-mobile recharge as I wrote, but I now notice that it does seem to deplete now and not hold for a year for $10. So that part of the series may need an update, I wrote this series a little while back. Good catch! – Wandering US Expat

  10. I use a family member, who collects all my new cards, which we’ll discuss later in the series. She forwards my cards. – Wandering US Expat

  11. As long as you have a SSN, you’re eligible for AP, I’ve never had trouble from Europe, Central America, Australia, or Canada, no IP seems to matter. – Wandering US Expat

  12. Great comments from your experience in Australia. Wait until later in the series and you’ll learn how to really lower that 3-4% fee on exchanges to quite a bit lower.

  13. US Credit Bureaus (Equifax, Experian, Trans Union) will show your history only for the last 7 years in most cases, but up to 10 in some cases if you’ve declared bankruptcy. If it’s been longer than 7 years since you’ve had any activity you’re probably starting fresh.

  14. Um, you do know that expat is short for expatriate, right? What would an “ex-permanent resident” be anyway? Sounds like you have been expelled from the country! As someone who has been an expat three times in their life, I agree this would be a good subject for a blog.

  15. Diamond Vargas

    @ Wandering US Expat — Thanks for the response about using AP from a foreign IP address. Does the same hold true for card applications — no issue with being overseas? If not, is there any basic reason that you can think of to set up a VPN other than the annual credit report you mention in the post? Thanks in advance.

  16. Wandering US Expat

    @Diamond Vargas – Yes, you can apply for cards from anywhere, I’ve never had an issue from any country. With VPN, I can only think of a few times where my foreign IP was a problem, but it happens so rarely I never worry.

  17. @Scott — the truly cheapest place I have found to basically allow your phone to remain active is h2o wireless. They have a $10 Pay As You Go Plan that keeps the phone active for 90 days and gives 200 minutes, which roll over if unused. So, theoretically, you could keep your phone active for $3.33 per month. When you come back to the States, you can switch to another plan with them. That’s the one I’m going to try. The next cheapest I found is PureTalk USA which has a $5/month plan with 50 minutes, but they do not roll over.

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  23. Is it possible for someone living overseas to purchase gift cards using their credit cards and send them to a different friend with a US address?

  24. Hi! I hope my question is simple (I asked on another of your blogs, but found this one to be more specific): Can I apply for the US Airways card while living in Korea? They ask for work place and phone numbers. You have to check the box agreeing that the information you proved was true and accurate. I want the miles. I could say I’m self-employed by my Dad (which is half-true) and write his phone number. But will they call asking to talk to me before I am approved?

    Thanks for your help!

  25. Hi,
    I want to add that ATT prepaid card also allow you to keep your phone number. But you need to switch to the pay per minute plan when you are not in the USA. this way, you don’t have to pay monthly fee.

  26. Wandering US Expat

    @Heather – sorry for delayed reply :(. You can apply for cards while in Korea. You could say self-employed as you mention, if true. I’ve found they rarely call.

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  28. Mohammed youseef

    I live in Egypt