Best First US Credit Card for Canadians

by | Published Nov 16, 2021 | Edited Sep 2, 2022


  1. How to Find a Mail-Forwarding Service for Sending US Credit Cards to Canada
  2. ITIN Application for Canadians: Do You Need to File a US Tax Return?
  3. How to Get Certified True Copies of Your Passport During the COVID-19 Pandemic
  4. Compilation of US-to-Canada Mail Forwarders
  5. Which US Banks Allow Canadians to Apply for Credit Cards Using an ITIN?
  6. Cheapest Way to Convert Canadian Dollars to US Dollars
  7. Best First US Credit Card for Canadians
  8. How to Build Credit History in the US, for Canadians
  9. Opening US Bank Accounts for Canadians: Experiences with Chase and Bank of America
  10. Using Nova Credit to Get US Credit Cards: A Tutorial
  11. All About American Express Global Transfer: Canada to the USA

The Canadian credit card scene has some excellent rewards programs and offers that you can utilize to book some incredible vacations. From Aeroplan cards issued by Amex, CIBC and TD, to the Marriott Bonvoy co-branded cards, to RBC Avion and WestJet World Elite cards, the opportunities are expansive and essential to successful credit card churning in Canada. Furthermore, many of these cards can be churned to receive repeat bonuses. 

However,  as your credit card churning addiction progresses, and as your appetite for travel increases, you may end up searching for other opportunities to take advantage of. You might be aware of the even more lucrative programs in the USA, such as Chase Ultimate Rewards or Citi ThankYou Points.

Or, like many of us, you may find yourself rich in airline points but lacking in hotel points. Especially for programs like Hyatt and Hilton where there are no co-branded credit cards or easy ways to earn their points within Canada, the US credit card game starts to become alluring.

So what else is there to know about our neighbours to the south? Due to the increased competition as well as a significantly larger population, we often see some very high bonus points offers on many US credit cards. Similarly, we see US credit cards that are able to transfer points to programs that were previously inaccessible to Canadians. These facts alone showcase the value that the US credit card market can bring. 

So where do we go from here? As it turns out, we are very fortunate as Canadians to have the opportunity to take a bite out of both pies. Getting a US credit card as a Canadian citizen is simpler than it may seem on the surface, as we will outline below.

Before You Apply for Your First US Credit Card

Before starting, you will need to establish your US-based address. For all intents and purposes, this will be a mail forwarding service – we have an article that can help you to determine the best mail forwarding service for your US credit cards. Once set up, this will be the address that you use whenever you are dealing with anything related to US credit cards. This leads to our next step, setting up a bank account.

There are a few choices for US-domiciled banks that you can easily access as a Canadian. My personal favorite is TD Bank’s “Convenience Checking” account which offers no fees if you hold a minimum of a $100 USD balance in the account at all times. There is also usually a promotion running where you can earn a sign-up bonus after meeting some basic criteria, such as depositing a minimum amount of USD.

Other options exist as well, such as RBC Georgia and BMO Harris depending on what your preference is. RedFlagDeals has an excellent thread on cross-border banking options that may be of interest.

When exploring options for US banking, whatever option you proceed with only needs to meet the following criteria:

  • Ensure you enter your mail forwarding address as your home address – this will give you the opportunity to use your bank statement as proof of residency should Amex or any other issuer ask for additional documentation
  • Allows you to deposit and bill pay USD

As you will be applying for an Amex US credit card, you will need to have some history with Amex in Canada. There are two methods to apply for your first card which both take into account your Canadian credit history: Nova Credit or via the Amex Global Transfer program.

Nova Credit is a simpler method and both myself and my significant other have used this with great success – as a third-party service provider acting as an intermediary between yourself and Amex, they take care of pushing the transaction through on the US side.

US Amex credit card application form nova credit
When applying for your first US credit card as a Canadian, click the checkbox listed above. From there, sign in on the right-hand side to utilize the Nova Credit tool

If you want to learn more about the process of applying for a US credit card with Nova Credit, check out our definitive guide to Nova Credit. Similarly, learn about how to apply for a US card through the American Express Global Transfer program.

Best First US Credit Card for Canadians

Consider your first US credit card as an anchor, similar to your oldest credit cards in Canada. This card will serve as the basis for all future applications and is the start of your credit history in a new country. With this in mind, the first card that you want to acquire as a Canadian is one of the American Express cards that has a strong welcome bonus but with no annual fee which means it will be convenient to keep active for years to come to build and maintain your credit history.

In our opinion, the strongest starter US credit card for Canadians is the Amex Hilton Honors no annual fee credit card.

American Express Hilton Honors

The American Express Hilton Honors card earns Hilton Honors points and grants cardholders instant Hilton Honors Silver elite status.

BONUS
100,000 Hilton Honors
MINSPEND
$1,000
NET VALUE
$600+
ANNUAL FEE
$0
FOREX FEES
No

Starting with the Amex Hilton Honors no fee credit card also will give you the opportunity to upgrade to other Hilton Honors cards down the road. These upgrade offers can show up after the one year mark of holding a specific credit card and may allow you to get the rewards points bonus again.

For example, you might be able to upgrade your basic Amex Hilton Honors card to the more premium Amex Hilton Honors Aspire through an upgrade offer (to earn another welcome bonus) and then downgrade back to the no annual fee card down the line; this is one of the opportunities that the US game can offer.

Using Your US Credit Card in Canada

Once you are approved and you receive your US credit card through your mail forwarder you will be ready to complete your minimum spending requirement to earn the welcome bonus. Your next question might be: is it the same to use my US credit card in Canada as my normal cards? Yes, but no.

You will be able to use your new US credit card at any retailer in Canada that accepts Amex – no different than with any other Amex card. There are no foreign transaction fees imposed on US-based Amex cards that are used at Canadian retailers.

The main difference is that it will convert your Canadian dollar purchase to USD when the transaction posts on your statement. As always, when you go to pay you will have two options: tap or insert your chip.

Paying via tap is identical to how it works in Canada. On the other hand, if you insert your chip, the card will simply authorize the payment without the need to enter a PIN. If the cashier is paying attention they will make you sign the authorization slip, but oftentimes they won’t notice or ask. Oftentimes, when I’m using a US credit card in Canada I find myself using self-checkouts where possible to avoid the need to sign.

credit card tap transactions
When in doubt, tap it out

Alternatively, loading your US credit card into your Google Pay or Apple Pay account makes for an easy way to pay, similar to tap.

Finally, you will need to convert your Canadian dollars to United States dollars and deposit it to your US bank account in order to pay off your credit card statement. There are many different ways to do this, but we have researched the cheapest methods to convert CAD to USD to help you get the best exchange rate possible.

Next Steps: Your Individual Tax Identification Number (ITIN)

So you have established your US address, received your first US credit card, and are now working on completing the minimum spend for your welcome bonus in addition to building your US credit history.

In order to apply for future cards, you will need to have an Individual Tax Identification Number (ITIN) which further establishes your presence in the United States. In order to receive an ITIN, you need to submit a certified copy of your Canadian passport in addition to forms that justify why you need a tax number within the United States.

We do offer an in-house ITIN service for $120 CAD that has a quick turnaround and many satisfied customers: Frugal Flyer ITIN Service. This service will provide you with all the forms you need in addition to instructions as to how to arrange your package of documents when mailing them to the IRS.

Frugal Flyer ITIN service steps
Our simple four step process can get you on your way to obtaining your ITIN

Curious about what US banks allow you to apply for their credit card products with an ITIN? We’ve done the research so you can find out which US banks will allow you to apply for credit cards with an ITIN. Additionally, once you have your ITIN you are able to sign-up for the Extra debit card which is a useful tool to continue to build your US credit history.

Conclusion

No matter where you are currently within the Canadian miles and points scene, consider exploring the idea of opening up your first US credit card (additionally, you can compare US credit cards with our tool). Even if you are only ever planning to hold one US card, it doesn’t hurt to start building a US credit history if you should pursue additional cards in the future.

Hugh Campbell

Hugh Campbell

Senior Editor at Frugal Flyer
Hugh has been involved in the miles and points game since 2015 but has scaled up his knowledge and points-earning potential in recent years. In 2019, Hugh stepped things up when he met Reed in addition to a few other miles and points fanatics (err degenerate churners) and has since been able to capitalize on the various expertise that each member brings to the group.

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5 comments on “Best First US Credit Card for Canadians

  1. Hi,

    Great information!

    Question – I have a Canadian AMEX credit card for 2-3 months now, and have a very good credit score in Canada. I am salaried in Canada.

    I already have US SSN but a bad credit score there. ( I used to have a good credit score in US but then I left US 4 years ago and since then no activity).

    Can I still apply for US Hilton Honors credit card that you mentioned in this article and what are my chances of approval?

    Thanks,
    Vivek

    Reply
    • Hey Vivek,

      It’s hard to say for sure your best approach going forward, without more details. Do you have any US products still that you could put some spend on and repair the score? Is the score itself bad (like say, sub 650), or you just haven’t been using any credit there for a while? Amex does tend to be fairly generous.

      You can certainly apply using Nova Credit, which will leverage your TransUnion score in Canada. However, there are data points that Amex US will detect if you have US credit and use the US profile anyways.

      Alternatively you could try Global Transfer Canada to USA, which uses just your amex canada relationship. 3 months isn’t a lot though.

      And if that fails then I’d recommend using any US products you do have, or getting a US credit card via crossborder services with a Canadian bank, and trying to repair your US score that way and get back in the game.

      Cheers.

      Reply
    • Hi Mike,

      Amex is definitely the best to start with since you begin to build that relationship with an issuer who has some of the biggest bonuses in the US. Are you Amex banned? I do have a friend who was still able to get his first US Amex card via Nova Credit after being banned by Amex Canada.

      You could look to any of the big five banks in Canada that offer cross-border accounts as they may offer US-based credit cards – RBC is one of those issuers (https://www.rbcbank.com/cross-border/us-credit-cards.html). While they don’t come with any welcome offers, it might be an alternative option you could consider.

      Regards,
      Hugh

      Reply