Non-US Residents: Remember There Are Still Creative Ways To Earn Credit Card Points

Filed Under: Credit Cards

This post will be an anecdote of my experience trying to maximize credit card rewards in Sweden. I’m lucky to have a US Social Security Number, giving me access to the incredibly generous sign-up bonuses and rewards in the US. However, there are other options and ways to take advantage of credit card offers for those of us living abroad. As they say, if there’s a will, there’s a way.

I’ll soon be flying SAS Business with miles earned from Swedish credit cards.

When I turned 18, I signed up for the Norwegian Reward credit card. It offers a return of 1%, which is obviously better than the 0% I was earning with debit cards. However, Norwegian CashPoints weren’t getting me closer to my next international first class trip. In July I set out to explore more of the Swedish credit card market. I knew there had to be a way to maximize SAS’ credit cards, both with American Express and Mastercard.

Originally, I was turned off by the high annual fees. The most popular SAS American Express card cost the equivalent of $150 per year. It didn’t seem to have a signup bonus either. Luckily, just a month later American Express started an aggressive campaign, offering their lowest tier card for free and waiving the annual fee for the popular Premium Card. Not only that, but I realized I could earn 6,000, 12,000 or 18,000 point sign-up bonuses through other people’s referral links.

Furthermore, American Express lets you refer almost an unlimited number of people once you have a card. Now that the SAS Classic card had a $0 annual fee, there was nothing stopping me from referring anyone and everyone: my aunt, my aunt’s best friend, and best friends’ brothers, etc.

In two months, I went from thinking that the Swedish credit card market was useless to earning tens of thousands of SAS points from my SAS Premium card, which I paid $0 for the first year.

SAS charges only 10 000 points from Oslo to Svalbard roundtrip.

I hadn’t even considered using SAS’ Eurobonus program since there were no short-cuts to earning points. Well, for the next months it was smooth sailing, and together with starting to credit my flights to SAS, I earned a few hundred thousand miles. I had no idea it was about to get even better.

I’d read into SAS’ Mastercards, and ultimately decided it was better to go with American Express. However, this December I learned about an insane offer with their most expensive Mastercard, called Eurobonus World Premium.

If you’ve earned 50,000, 100,000, or 200,000 SAS miles in a year, you unlock a benefit called FlyPremium. At each milestone, you get unlimited award tickets in SAS Plus within Europe, SAS Plus worldwide, and SAS Business worldwide, respectively, for the point-price of economy. The best part? Points earned via credit card spend and referrals count!

I could now fly SAS Business for the price of economy.

Suddenly, having earned just over 200,000 points, I could buy roundtrip tickets to anywhere in SAS’ network for 60,000 points (the price of economy) roundtrip in business class. This enabled me to buy my mother and my aunt business class tickets for Christmas to visit me at college. Four months earlier, I could never have dreamed of giving them a gift like that!

Moral of the story

I’d always assumed those of us living outside the US couldn’t truly take advantage of credit card points. My confirmation bias lead me to ignore the possibilities that were hidden in the terms and conditions of these Swedish cards. In a way, the combination of my SAS American Express and Mastercard is more beneficial than any card I have found in the US.

So, go out and research your local credit card market. If I can find credit card rewards of this caliber in a semi-socialist, anti-big bank country, I’m sure you can too! Just because we don’t have big, flashy sign-up bonuses doesn’t mean you can’t accelerate your point earnings toward the trip of a lifetime.

What other great programs have you found outside the US?

  1. Completely agreed… but also a big note: this comes and goes in waves, and in some countries, these waves can be spread apart quite a lot. I went from 500.000 airline points and some 200.000 hotel points n 18 months, to scraping 25.000 here and 15.000 there and struggling to get to 120.000… and nothing on the horizon either (worse yet, the biggest program is set to die in 2 years).

  2. The problem is later after a year or two when u have tried all cards and enlisted all your friends. No bonuses are coming for free…

  3. Thanks Daniel… interesting that you say that a non-resident US social security holder can apply for US credit cards and tap into far better sign-up bonuses. I am in that situation and living in the UK. Perhaps you could please provide some more details on how it’s done?

  4. SAS has great so called “Youth fares” for people under 26 years of age. Both from Scandinavia as well as from the US to the rest of Europe. Even in peak travel periods like July and August you can find non-stop fares from the US to Scandinavia for under $500, if you’re lucky. As far as I know they serve BOS, IAD, JFK, LAX, MIA and ORD. Not sure if FlyPremium can be applied to those tickets though…? And whereas you can book those fares from the US to all European cities served by SAS (those in Scandinavia are the cheapest though), for some reason you can only book the “youth fares” to the US if you’re departing from a Scandinavian airport.

  5. Would definitely be interested in the US social security holder question by John as well.

    I’m based in Germany and the credit card market is just a mess to make it short. I have researched hundreds of hours and the best option in my opinion here is the American Express Gold, first year fee waiver, then fee is waived if you manage to spend more than €10,000 in a year. Also they have a MR turbo which costs 15€ per year and gives you 50% additional MR points to the basic 1MR for every € spent. But that’s as good as it gets, there is only a handful of transfer partners and the conversion ration of MR to miles is mostly 5 MR for 4 miles…

    Hope to be moving and working in the US soon 😉

  6. @John You have to use a US address, so if you have close relatives you trust who can send you the card, use their address for your credit card application. Otherwise, there’s no real way for a nonresident to get a US credit card.

  7. Having earned more than one million EuroBonus points the last 12 months I kinda have to agree that the credit card situation has improved in Scandinavia. Especially in Norway, where we now have I think 18 different credit cards where airline miles can be earned.

    My guesstimate is that ~800k of my 1 million EuroBonus points are from credit card spend and sign-up bonuses. Much thanks to the the several methods of easily manufacturing spend which has arisen in Norway the past couple of years (Vipps, Payr and a couple I won’t mention).

  8. @Andy 11235

    a US address alone is not sufficient. The credit score check goes through via your social security number and that one’s individual. There’s no way you can successfully apply for a US credit card just by having a US address

  9. Do SAS EuroBonus members have access to better award space on SAS flights than what SAS releases to other Star Alliance programs? Or is it generally the same regardless of program?

  10. Should also mention the Companion Ticket that you get with American Express. Could potentially get you from Europe to Asia in first class for 95,000 miles per person.

  11. I have a question if anyone knows. I worked part time as a student when I was in the US about 10 years ago so I assume I have a Social Security number (since I paid tax on my income) but I don’t have it anymore (I’ve moved too much and not kept the documents from that time). How could I find it?

  12. The easiest way for a non-US resident without a SSN to get a US credit card is to open an Amex card in your country of residence and then transfer it to the USA after your first year of membership. Link that card to a US TIN (if you are not eligible for a SSN). This will create a US credit file for you. You can set the mailing address as a mailing service who is willing to scan/forward documents to you. Once you have at least 2 years at that address and no derogatory points, you are more likely to be able to get approvals from other banks.

    If you have an SSN and a US phone number (Google Voice works fine for this), it is a lot easier. Only advice is to use a VPN when applying online as some cards will not process apps from abroad, or flag them for manual review.

  13. I wonder how hard it is to get a Canadian credit card? I currently have one but I am required to have a GIC (like a one year certificate of deposit) equal to the credit limit. I have a ITN individual taxpayer number, not a SIN. I do have a Canadian address but am not a permanent resident or citizen. My income from work is from a US job.

    Before I had that credit card with a very low credit limit, I applied for a Petro Canada card but was rejected for lack of a credit file.

  14. @John I assume you are an expat with an established credit history in the US. If so, what I did during my expat rotation was maintain a US mailing address, specifically a relative I trusted. Or you can use a mailing service like Sean suggested. Not like I trust the banks or the IRS to actually deliver statements or notices to a foreign country in a timely fashion, anyway. Then you can apply for any credit card you want. If you don’t have a credit history, then still set up a US address, but you’ll have to start with a basic starter card and go from there. It’ll probably take a year or two before you can get approved for some of the more premium rewards cards.

  15. Here in Singapore, the best deal is the DBS Altitude Visa or AmEx as the miles never expire:
    Earn 3 miles per S$1 spend on online flights and hotel bookings.
    2 miles per S$1 spend on overseas transaction.
    1.2 miles per S$1 spend on domestic transaction.
    Up to 6 miles & 10 miles per S$1 spend on travel bookings with Expedia Singapore & Kaligo but this is a special promo for a limited time only.

  16. @tomt
    You can find your SSN on your expired state issued Driver’s License if you can find it. Or, on the academic record/transcript from the US university where you graduated.

    I used to study, live and work in the US but still hold active US credit cards and my US credit file is still active even though I’m now residing and working in Singapore.

  17. @SQFlyer I was specifically referring to the question of someone who has an SSN and lives abroad. So, yes, you need both a US SSN and a US mailing address.

    If you do, in fact, live in the US, you can get credit without an SSN as long as you have proof of legal presence and verifiable assets/income.

  18. @DaveCanada – I found Canadian cards a lot easier to get approved for than US cards once I had a credit history established. I bank with RBC in Canada, so they offered me a basic RBC Student Rewards card when I first opened my account and I then got that upgraded after I graduated to the Infinite Avion card when they ran a 100k bonus point offer. They were giving me credit increases every 6 months or so until I asked them to stop when the limit reached $50k. I also got a couple of Canadian Amex cards (the first one as a transfer of a US card to Canada) and a few others, all with extremely generous limits. However, the sign-up bonus market is a lot smaller than the USA and the category spend bonuses much narrower (I get 1.25x on Travel with the Infinite Avion for example, compared to 3x for the CSR). Also, very few cards there have No Foreign Transaction Fees as a feature.

    FWIW, I also don’t have a Canadian SIN but since I went to college there I do have a credit file at my uncle’s address that stretches back almost 20 years, as well as an Ontario DL that I keep current to help with any ID verification requirements (Amex and MBNA asked for this since I didn’t provide a SIN with my applications).

  19. Im from Netherlands and use N26 bank for German Amex Gold and German Amex miles and more. Use a mailforwarding service in Germany.
    Both cards received 2 weeks later.

  20. FWIW, if you’re relying on this article to give you legal advice, close the laptop and walk away slowly. Using a mail drop or a relative doesn’t mean you actually reside in the country, which is often required by the application. Do some of us do it anyways? Sure, but it’s certainly not in accordance with the issuer’s terms and conditions.

  21. @ Sean M—I’m convinced that if you had your own blog on Boarding Area, it would be the best read of the bunch. Hands down.

  22. @SeanM. Thanks for your comments!

    I choose to have one Canadian credit card, a RBC Cash Rewards MasterCard which has a typical, but paltry 0.5% cash back, 2% for groceries. I mainly use it for Canadian restaurants so that I will fit in as a Canadian with a chip+PIN card. I pay the credit card bills with Canadian dollars that I exchange usually from OFX, which wires it after I wire OFX money from my US account at a rate better than the banks. Maybe you might save $50 with a better exchange rate.

    While I would like a better Canadian card, it’s low priority. A slightly higher credit limit is really what I need.

  23. “open an Amex card in your country of residence and then transfer it to the USA”
    I’m curious how this works. Should I just call Amex here in France and say, “Hey, I’m…. errr…. sorta moving to the US but not really. How you be so kind giving me a US Amex pretty please?”? Somehow I don’t see that working! 🙂

  24. Working in Denmark where Amex doesn’t operate. Any chance of me getting credit card in other EU country say Norway, Sweden or UK?

  25. Am I alone in experiencing the high rate of merchants who state, “we don’t accept American Express” – or who look to add a surcharge to the pricing of goods/services if you are insistent? This seems to be a strong trend and apparently, reflects the higher merchant fees charged by American Express (which presumably, is part of a continuum that funds the too-good-to-be-true inducement/sign-up offers for new members).
    In effect, and aside from any lucrative mileage offers, holding an AMEX card seems to be of marginal benefit at retail spending, beyond the higher credit limit.

  26. In France it’s getting better and I’d say it’s accepted at around 50% of the places I try it. Small merchants usually don’t accept it (unless it’s a tourist spot) but larger chains are OK. The notable absence is IKEA which doesn’t!!
    Strangely enough, in Portugal it’s accepted much more often, I’d say 70% of the places, mainly because most restaurants do.

  27. Great post. Finally useful clues for the 99% of us who is not american, and reading through comments, even plenty of tips per country.
    While I do like this blog for the trip reports, it annoys me beyond belief that all CC posts are US specific without qualifying it as ‘US only’. Such comes across super arrogant as in ‘US is the world’.

    I can add that I am holding an Amex FB Platinum card eventhough I am not a Dutch resident, it got me in about 2,5 years close to 600.000 FB miles.

  28. @ron And how did you apply for it? Did you have an address to provide them? And any income in the Netherlands?

  29. @PV

    It was surprisingly easy. All you need is a Dutch IBAN bank account number. I have no income in the Netherlands and the amex is registered on my address here in Asia.
    I think they do a credit check with BKR but if you never had any credit, your score is clean. Mine was approved immediately. To be honest, I was surprised.

  30. For sure there are options for earning outside the US, but in most cases the earning potential (and really rare welcome bonuses) does not make the points game worthwhile. That’s if any such credit card is made available to you, and you are eligible for it. Oh well.

  31. @Sean M. really needs to have blog of his own, give Lucky a run for his money (or points ;))

    That being said, I rehash what @PV said..I’m really curious to see how the “transfer to US” would work with an international AMEX?

    I’m based in the UAE where there are occasional promos for massive EY miles sign-up bonuses but those require a very high income to get approved. (the UAE has no concept of credit-score at this moment)

  32. I live in France and it is true that you can get an Amex credit card without SSN. This is called the “Global Transfer program”. After 6 months with my Amex – Air France, I called the Global Transfer number in the US, they collected my info (including my existing Amex card number in France) and then they proposed a 3-way call with my bank in the US (BofA) to verify my address. A couple of weeks later, I received my credit card. I don’t live in the US and I don’t have a SSN.

    They also said that I can request the merge of all my MR points.

    Does anyone has more tips on how to get cards in Europe?

  33. For me the biggest difference isn’t even the signup bonuses, it’s the x5 in spending and things like that. I can find at most 1.5x in airline tickets for the cobranded airline only!

  34. @TheAirlineKid – the Amex “Global Transfer” program is a documented perk from Amex. They will transfer your card to any country that you “relocate” to and where they have their own operations. I’ve used it multiple times because I’ve legitimately had to relocate, but it can be easily used to create new credit files if you prefer.

    Also, with regards the UAE, there are a number of interesting cards but throughout my years living there I didn’t find any where the “fine print” didn’t outweigh the benefits. The only one that piqued my interest was the EmiratesNBD SPG card, but even though I had a Priority Banking relationship with the bank, my relationship manager couldn’t get me approved for that as it had something like a AED 2 million (US$500k approx) annual SALARY requirement (not total income, but documented UAE income salary only) when it first launched (and I only wish I made that much!). They subsequently revised the salary requirement downwards (allegedly they got less than a dozen qualified applicants in the first few months), but also gutted the perks and signup bonus as a result.

  35. @Dave-Canada – If you are already banking with RBC in Canada, you may want to consider opening a US account (not a Canadian USD-denominated account but an actual US-based account) with RBC’s sister bank in the USA (RBC Bank USA). It is a very easy process for an existing RBC customer and they then allow unlimited free transfers between US->Canada and vice-versa, as well as “preferred” rates for currency exchange between your own accounts. I found that this actually gets me marginally better rates due to the “no fee” trans-border transfers than going via a third party service but YMMV. I don’t move much money into Canada nowadays as my CAD denominated income from various investments there covers the limited spending I put on my Canadian cards.

  36. Sean M., thank you for chiming in. You really need a blog. Please find a couple hours a week to feed us something interesting and useful.

  37. @Denis – Thanks for the kind words, but for professional reasons its best that I exercise a bit of discretion in my public writings. 🙂

  38. I have just discovered the world of frequent flyer miles and the grandeur of AMEX’s rewards. I have had a BA credit card for the past year and was lucky enough to earn 9,000 bonus Avios points which I redeemed a few weeks ago for a Club Europe flight to Bucharest from London. Definitely going to review that and in the lounge access in Heathrow.

    Moreover, I have just signed up for a AMEX Gold Preferred rewards with a 20,000 bonus rewards (you can convert them to Avios). Looking forward to using that! Plus you get 2 lounge passes too.

    You can earn Avios points through so many retailers in the UK including TESCO. And the Economist had an offer which ended yesterday where you can earn 13,000 Avios points if you sign up for a 1 year subscription which was around £189 (68 points per £1). Amazing deal!

    There are numerous ways to earn if you’re living in the UK or in Europe. You just need to spend time researching.

    I am going to be talking more about travel hacking and airline miles on my blog and YouTube channel soon!

  39. I don’t live in the US, but I do have a bank account over there (BofA) and the address is from a relative.

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