To citizens born in the U.S., understanding the basics of banking and finance may come naturally. But for newcomers, gaining financial literacy in a strange new country can be difficult. Here are some financial tips for immigrants to learn about money management, building credit, and avoiding consumer debt.
I am still relatively new to the United States. Two years ago, I arrived here from a small country in Europe called Albania. My wife and I were two of the 50,000 winners of the Diversity Visa Lottery program, also known as the Green Card Lottery. The same day we received our Social Security Numbers, we went to the bank to open our checking account and apply for a credit card. But was it that easy? Here is what I have learned.
1. Get help from your community.
Many immigrants choose to reside in areas where they can rely on friends or family. In addition to providing shelter to you, your friends and family can act as a middle-person between you and the bank. For example, my wife’s uncle lives nearby, and he was able to help us with the transition. Immigrant communities can be useful resources of information that go beyond your banking needs.
Also, groups on social media can be very helpful to newcomers. Don’t be afraid to ask questions within your community. They were new once, too!
2. Research different banks before deciding on one.
The banking market in the United States is very diverse, ranging from local community banks to strictly online to international conglomerations. Do some research to choose the bank that is most convenient for you. Be aware of the fees that differ between banks, such as:
- Interest rates
- Fees (transfer fees, minimum balance charge, overdraft fees)
- Other services valuable to you
3. Use credit responsibly.
When banks first issue credit cards to people with little to no credit, your credit limit will be much lower than someone who has years of good credit history. You may be limited to only a few hundred to a thousand dollars. Be careful not to max out your card. If you want to build and maintain a good credit score you should not spend more than 30% of your total credit limit. Your credit card should not be your primary way of spending money. Instead of using your credit card for every payment you make, use your debit card, cash, or a check.
4. Learn to use checks.
Many immigrants coming from developing countries use cash in their home countries to pay for everyday transactions. Even in developed countries, such as those in Western Europe, checks are no longer commonplace. However, Americans still use checks for some transactions. Though many Americans pay a majority of their bills online, things like rent still require a check in many places, so you need to learn how to write one.
Initially, the idea of the checkbook reminded me of those old Western movies where this rich guy takes out the leather checkbook out of his pocket and asks – “give me a number.” If writing checks is something new, it might look confusing at first. Before you write your first real check, you may want to practice first.
Although gaining financial literacy can be difficult at first to newcomers to the U.S., over time, it will become easier. These financial tips for immigrants are meant to be a starting point. It is always good to do your own research and seek reputable financial advice when you need it.
For more financial education materials, or to speak to one of ACCC’s certified credit counselors, call 800-769-3571.