Each year, more than a million immigrants are granted lawful permanent residence, admitted as temporary nonimmigrants, granted asylum or refugee status, or are naturalized in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. This process for individuals not only takes significant effort and paperwork, but it also incurs financial expense.

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According to the U.S. Department of Citizenship and Immigration Status (USCIS), it costs $1,140 for adults to file Form I-485, Application to Register Permanent Residence or Adjust Status. Other types of immigration status change requests come with their own USCIS fees and associated costs. If you want to establish your relationship to an eligible relative who is seeking permanent resident status, for example, you’ll need to fill out Form I-130, Petition for Alien Relative and pay a $535 filing fee.

Fortunately, USCIS allows immigrants to pay many of these fees with credit cards. While paying immigration fees with a credit card can help people cover the costs of securing legal status in the U.S., putting the cost of immigration on credit comes with its own set of challenges. For one, many applicants have difficulty securing a credit card in the first place. Plus, credit card interest rates could make it difficult to pay off your balance in a timely fashion – which is why we recommend using a low-interest credit card to cover the fees associated with immigration and green cards.

The costs of legal immigration

In addition to the USCIS form filing fees, many immigration applications require you to pay a USCIS Immigrant Fee, which costs $220. You should also expect to pay a biometric screening fee of $85, which covers the costs associated with fingerprinting and photographing the applicant.

Other fees may include these:

  • Processing and filing fees, which vary by type of immigration status you’re seeking
  • Various certifications, petitions and waivers required for your permit type
  • Legal fees, including initial consultation costs, retainer fees or statutory fees, in certain states

Legal fees alone typically cost between $1,000 and $4,000 depending on the attorney and the services required. Some attorneys offer flat-fee-based structures, while others work on an hourly basis or use a retainer.

Options for how to pay immigration expenses

If you need assistance covering the costs associated with immigration, you have options. Many social service organizations offer financial assistance to immigrants who can demonstrate financial need or hardship; these types of organizations also offer online tools and in-person classes that can help you save time and money as you navigate the path toward permanent residency or U.S. citizenship.

In certain cases, some or all of your immigration expenses may be covered by your employer. These sponsorship arrangements are common in situations where the immigrant is able to provide a company with professional skills and expertise.

Loans and grants are also available to help immigrants cover the costs associated with applying for citizenship or legal permanent residency. Remember – grants don’t have to be paid back, but loans do. If you are considering taking out a loan to cover your immigration expenses, make sure the interest rate associated with the loan is lower than the interest rate you might pay if you were to put the costs on a credit card.

Financing these fees with a credit card

Hopeful immigrants can pay USCIS immigration fees in a variety of ways, including a paper check, an electronic withdrawal from a checking or savings account, a debit card or a prepaid gift card. A credit card can also be a smart choice. USCIS accepts Visa, Mastercard, American Express and Discover.

If you are filling out your immigration forms online, you’ll use Pay.gov to submit the required fees, regardless of whether you’re paying via electronic funds transfer, debit card, prepaid card or credit card. If you are sending immigration forms through the mail, you can mail a check or use Form G-1450, Authorization for Credit Card Transactions to pay with a credit or debit card.

Before you cover the cost of immigration with a credit card, make sure your card has a high enough credit limit to finance the total amount of the fees. USCIS will reject your application or request if your credit card is declined.

If you plan to use a credit card to cover the cost of UCSIS immigration fees, look for a low-interest credit card to help you save on interest charges – especially if you are in a situation where you are paying high fees for multiple family members. A credit card with a low interest rate or an introductory 0% APR offer can save you a lot of money in interest over time, so choose your credit card wisely.

Keep in mind that credit card payments are not available in all situations. UCSIS will not accept credit cards issued by a foreign bank, for example. Likewise, if you are filing an application or petition from outside the United States, you may not be able to use a credit card to cover the cost of your UCSIS fees and charges. Check carefully which payment options are available to you – and plan how you will pay the costs of immigration – before you begin the application process.

Getting a credit card

For some immigrants, getting a credit card can be difficult. Even with solid credit in your home country, you may still have difficulty proving your strength as a borrower in the United States. Fortunately, services like Nova Credit are available to help immigrants access U.S. credit cards. Once Nova Credit accesses your international credit report, it can use that information to estimate a U.S.-based credit rating and provide personalized U.S. credit card recommendations.

You can also look to credit unions for help – specifically minority-owned credit unions that work with underserved populations or those without much credit history. If you already have a bank account in the U.S., you might be able to get a credit card directly from your bank.

If you opt to use a credit card to cover your immigration expenses, be sure to use the card responsibly. Only charge fees that are absolutely necessary and have a plan to ensure you can make on-time payments every month. Running up a high credit card balance or missing credit card payments can hurt your credit – not to mention your financial options in the U.S. – in the long run.

Building credit

Building a solid U.S.-based credit history can help you secure a credit card to cover those USCIS costs. Remember, many visas and green cards require regular renewal, so you’ll want a way to pay those expenses not just now, but years down the line, too, if necessary.

Here are some ways to build your U.S. credit score:

  • Take out a secured card with a local credit union. Secured credit cards require you to put down a cash deposit up front to protect the card issuer. If you pay a $300 deposit, for example, you’ll have a $300 limit on the card to pull from. The deposit will remain in the card issuer’s till in case you fail to make payments each month. If you do pay on time (every time), you’ll eventually get your deposit back and will likely qualify for a traditional credit card.
  • Automate your credit card payments. Payment history plays a big role in your credit, and any delinquencies or collection actions can hurt your credit score significantly. Consider automating your credit card payments to ensure no payments are forgotten.
  • Add your bill payment history to your credit score. Services like Experian Boost track your bill payment history and use that information to boost your credit score. If you pay your phone, internet or utility bills on time every month, use one of these services to make credit issuers aware of your positive payment history.
  • Report your rent. Reporting your rent to credit bureaus can also help you establish and build credit over time. If you rent, talk to your landlord about reporting your rent payments or sign up for a self-service reporting tool like RentReporters.
  • Become an authorized user. Does your spouse have good credit? What about a family member or other loved one? Ask them if you can become an authorized user on their account. If this isn’t possible, consider co-signing on a car loan or other purchase together. Your credit will see a significant boost just by association.

Not having credit – or worse, having bad credit – can significantly impact your options for paying your USCIS expenses. Many credit issuers will decline your credit application if your score is too low. If you are able to secure a credit card or loan with poor credit, you’ll likely receive higher interest rates, which means you could end up paying a lot in interest charges over time.

Working with your financial institution

While working with a bank may present extra challenges as a new immigrant, many banks are working to offer more resources for these individuals, such as providing services in other languages and accepting an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) rather than a Social Security Number (SSN) on applications. To make sure you choose a financial institution that can best serve your needs, consider these factors if they apply to you:

  • Language – Many banks offer bilingual banking. If you’re not fluent in English, look for an institution that offers banking in your native language or, at the very least, has online resources and customer support representatives who speak your language.
  • Accessibility – Though most banks allow you to manage your accounts and apply for credit online, the online route isn’t necessarily the best choice for immigrants. In many cases, going to a financial institution in person and meeting the bankers for a face-to-face conversation can encourage a better working relationship and more financial options.
  • Networking – Meet other immigrants in your area and ask about banks and financial institutions that have been immigrant-friendly in their experience. Where have they been able to get loans, secure credit cards and find good service?

Establishing a strong relationship with a financial institution – especially one that understands the unique financial needs immigrants face – can open many doors as you build your life in the U.S. In addition to helping you secure a card to cover your USCIS fees, the right bank can also help you buy a car, purchase a home, fund your education and navigate many other major life milestones.

Keeping fees to a minimum

Most USCIS fees are set in stone – but, in some cases, you may qualify for what’s called a “fee waiver” on your application or other associated costs. You’ll need to file Form I-912, Request for Fee Waiver and prove a demonstrated inability to pay your fees.

Receiving government assistance like SNAP or Medicaid counts as evidence in proving your inability to pay, as do tax returns or W-2s that show your income at 150% below the federal poverty level. You may also need to include details about any financial hardships you’re currently experiencing (such as hardships due to eviction, unemployment or medical disability) as part of your fee waiver application.

These waivers are only available on certain USCIS fees. Fortunately, other immigration-related expenses can often be negotiated or lowered through other methods. If you want to minimize the legal fees associated with immigration, for example, consider the following options:

  • Look for pro bono attorneys. Some immigration attorneys may offer pro bono (free) services to clients in certain scenarios. If you’re unable to find an attorney who will take your case pro bono, consider one who offers a flat-fee structure rather than an hourly rate or retainer.
  • Set up a payment plan. For any legal or other services you might need in your immigration journey, ask about setting up a payment plan. This can help spread out your expenses over time, making them more manageable.
  • Shop around. Don’t just choose the first lawyer you come across. Shop around, compare your options and determine which attorney can offer the best services at the best price.

You should also establish a budget early on for your immigration path. Understand what you can afford and how you will cover the costs incurred.

Bottom line

The immigration process can be lengthy and expensive. Take the time to build up your credit, find the right support team and secure non-risky financing options, and you’ll be well on your way to citizenship.

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© 2021 Stelmakh Law LLC

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