Monday, July 19, 2010

Achtung Baby

I have been writing a lot about how it feels like to move to America as a European. There are good things and bad things and I'd say despite the obvious, cultural differences between the US and Western Europe - everybody will have their own experience, their own way of seeing things and experiencing life.

But what I want to write about today is something that is going to be important for everybody who moves to America and lives here for the first time - especially for people, who like me - come here on a spouse visa. I am talking about credit score.

In America if your credit score is bad, you can't get a loan, you can't buy a house or a car. If your credit score is really bad, you can't get a phone either. If your credit score is good, your life is going to be a whole lot easier.
I knew about the whole credit score thing when I first moved here but I didn't know that you have to work on it. In Europe (at least the countries I have lived in) you either have credit or you have bad credit. If you screw up a few time, like pay your bills late or not at all - or worst - get sent to a collection agency - you are being put on file, which means you have less chances of getting a loan or you will be getting a smaller loan. You get the picture. But if you never get in trouble but also never get a credit card - well - that's good. You don't have to have a credit card to have good credit in Europe. 

This is different in America. While I kind of knew the principles of that when I moved here, it took me almost 2 years to fully realize how much I have been impacted by that.

I had my first experience with my credit score not being good enough at Old Navy. I buy most of my clothes at Old Navy and GAP which belong together and share a store card (don't judge - I need comfortable clothes as a nanny). As always, the girl at the check out asked me if I'd be willing to sign up for an Old Navy/GAP store card to save 10% on my purchase that day. And since I had bought a lot that day I said, ok, why not? I put in all my info. We were waiting for credit confirmation and 10 minutes later the shop girl got a call, turned around and faced me with a look of embarrassment "I am sorry but I won't be able to give you the card today. You haven't been rejected but we can't give you a card.". I was very embarrassed but I thought maybe I gave her the wrong social security number. At that point I sometimes still mixed up the numbers in my social security number.

I got home and there was a letter from my bank, asking me to sign up for a credit card that would get me air miles. I had just talked to a friend about that exact kind of credit card and she told me that she had recently been able to get an airplane ticket to Hawaii with her saved up air miles. I though, that would be a good thing for me. Of course - I was rejected. The reason "You recently tried for a store card and were rejected."
Alright, that must have been because of the mix up with the Old Navy store card.

I waited a few months and then again tried to apply for a GAP card. This time - online. A week later, I received a letter. Another rejection. The reason - I didn't have enough credit history in this country. Finally - at least I knew what was going on! 

Fast forward a few more weeks. After almost two years with the crappiest phone in America, I wanted to upgrade to the new iPhone. I stood in line at the Apple store for 4.5 hours - not something I would normally do but I had decided I wanted it and I waited. Finally, I got to fill out my data. A small part of me was afraid that there was going to be a problem with my credit. And - of course there was. AT&T wanted me to pay a $500 deposit to get my phone. 
Now, imagine this - you waited in line for 4.5 hours to be told you have to pay that amount of money. What would you do? I tell you what I did - I agreed. Because before that I shared a phone contract with my husband. In fact EVERYTHING was on my husbands name - the electricity bill, the cable service, the phone, the bank account. For some this might sound like a wonderful, liberating thing to not have to care about anything and be completely taken care off. 

Not for me. This is a woman who took care of a sick mother and grandmother since I was a child. At age thirteen I personally went to social services and got us social help money so we wouldn't be homeless. This is somebody who moved out at 17 years old to be independent from my family and still managed to finish school. I am not somebody who enjoys being a dependent, helpless person. And please - this has nothing to do with me not trusting my husband who is one of the kindest, most caring people I have ever met. This is about me being a grown up who takes care of herself.

So I paid this fee, I got my own phone contract and I made an appointment with my bank to discuss how to improve my credit rating (and how to get a business account - since I am now a business owner). 
And here is the funny thing - it turns out that through a bank error my social security number had never been connected with my bank account (the one I share with my legal, American husband). I find it borderline hilarious that in a country that is so afraid of illegal immigrants, somebody could have and use a bank account, a credit card even - without having a social security number added to it. I was also surprised how the bank clerk acted like this was not a big deal. I lost almost two years on collecting positive credit rating thanks to a bank mistake and it means nothing?

So my advise to everybody who is coming to this country as a legal immigrant - make sure your social security number is entered. Make sure some utilities are on your name. If your bank offers you a credit card, take it and use it. You'll save yourself a lot of grief later.

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