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Earning points and miles as an expat: What you need to know

July 4 2022
13 min read
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You may wonder whether it's possible to keep amassing points and miles if you move out of the U.S., whether temporarily or permanently. To be clear, the best opportunities for racking up lots of points and miles via credit cards exist in the U.S. The sign-up bonuses are juicier, and both the transfer rates to loyalty programs and the earning categories for your everyday spending are typically stronger.

But what if you do move out of the U.S. for a job or a new opportunity in life? Do your chances to rack up points and miles go away? Will you have to start — say it's not so! — paying full price for all of your travels?

Luckily, with some planning, you can still participate in the points and miles hobby as an expat. Here’s what I learned about racking up points and miles on U.S. credit cards while living in Brazil for the last six years.

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You need to be eligible for the cards

(Photo by Africa Studio/Shutterstock)

Before we wade into this section, remember that each bank has its own particular credit card application rules. On top of those, you need to meet other qualification rules that you might not realize are in the terms and conditions of your application. A major eligibility requirement has to do with the country where the card is issued.

Cards typically have geographic restrictions, and how banks treat the U.S. territories is not uniform. For instance, numerous Barclays credit cards say you must live in the U.S. but add that Puerto Rico and other territories don't count. However, the terms on many Chase cards are broader: "You must have a valid permanent home address within the 50 United States, the District of Columbia, Guam, Puerto Rico, or the U.S. Virgin Islands, or have a United States military address."

From this, it's pretty clear that applying for a credit card using an address in another country will likely make you ineligible right off the bat.

Related: The best credit cards for active duty military

You need a U.S. address to apply and to receive your card

We've established that you need to meet the many application rules and that one of these is a geographic restriction. Add to this the fact many banks will not send credit cards outside the U.S. and the fact some countries have laws against receiving credit cards in the mail. Thus, you need a U.S. address.

There are several ways to approach this. You could ask a relative or a friend to allow you to use their address. Another option is a mail service that goes beyond simply a mailbox but actually will take pictures, scan or even physically forward the mail to you. Each has its positives and negatives, but having a relative help you without paying a monthly mail service fee definitely is my preferred option.

You’ll also need proof that you are connected to this address somehow. You could register a utility in your name at that address, register to vote at that address or change your checking account’s address. Why do you need this? During the credit card application process, banks can ask for proof of address. You need something that has your name and the address used during the application.

This address is what you will list on your applications and the address where your credit cards will be mailed after approval.

Paperless settings are your friend

While living in Brazil, I made sure all my existing accounts and new accounts I opened were set to "paperless notifications." The credit card bills will otherwise likely pass through someone else's hands — either your relative or your mail service — and you probably don't want other people seeing this information. Even if it's a relative you trust, it's a burden to them to have unnecessary mail showing up in your name.

Paperless notifications also will arrive faster, since they come by email and you can view them on the same day they're sent. This will help you quickly access your credit card statement balances, approval or rejection notices and other important documents that require your action.

Learn to use the card without having it in your hands

(Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

I earned sign-up bonuses from many credit cards without ever touching them physically. My parents would send me pictures of the front and the back of credit cards that arrived in the mail. With that, I could activate the cards, add them to my mobile wallet and use them for purchases online.

The more readily mobile wallet payments are accepted in your new location, the easier this will be. You'll be able to tap to pay with your new card, despite not physically receiving the card in your hands.

Related: Is it time to ditch your wallet? The pros and cons of mobile payments

However, if paying this way isn't common in your new home country, you may want to receive the actual card to meet the spending requirements to earn the sign-up bonus. The same applies if having the physical card confers perks, such as accessing Centurion Lounges.

Yes, I had cards sent to me sometimes. How often you do this will depend on whether receiving credit cards in your new country is legal, the reliability of mail where you live, the cost of mailing the cards to you and how quickly they will arrive. If the spending requirement for a new card's sign-up bonus is low, you may be able to reach the required spending online and without much effort. Paying to have that card mailed to you likely isn't worth it. However, if you won't be able to meet the spending requirements without swiping the card locally, paying to receive it is worth it.

If you have to pay for mailing a card to yourself in your new country, it likely counts as "documents" unless prohibited for import. If you only have cards and paper documents in the envelope, you may not need to pay any import taxes and the envelope should clear customs faster. Check your local regulations to see what they say about credit cards mailed from outside the country.

You have to pay your bills in dollars

This is one of the trickiest parts of earning points and miles with U.S. credit cards while living in another country. Because all of your transactions are priced in U.S. dollars, you need to pay the bill with the same currency. If you're living in France and have a checking account based in euros, this could be an issue.

In order to pay your credit card bills in dollars, your best option is maintaining a U.S. checking account. There are plenty of options that you can set up online for free. The best checking accounts will come without fees, allow you to move your money easily (and hopefully without cost) and may even offer you a cash bonus for opening a new account.

Sadly, you may have to pay exchange fees if moving money from an account based in one currency to an account based in another. Consider how much this will cost you every month and whether the fees are worth it. If your work gives you the option of where to deposit your paycheck, depositing it into the U.S. bank account directly may save you money on transfers, but make sure to check whether there are costs involved. Also compare that to whether it might lead to incurring fees in other situations, such as when you need to use an ATM locally.

Once you have a U.S.-based account, you'll be able to set up online payments for your credit cards. However, if you aren't able to set up a checking account in the U.S. or the fees seem high, there are other options. One could be transferring money to a friend or relative who can pay the bill(s) on your behalf. Another option would be a bill pay service or purchasing a cashier's check that is mailed directly to the payments address on your credit card statement. You will need to consider the costs, delays and possible inconveniences to the people who are doing you a favor by helping you out each month.

A VPN can reduce headaches

If you aren't familiar with VPNs, the acronym stands for "Virtual Private Network." It can hide your browsing activity and computer's location from others on the internet — especially from those on the same public Wi-Fi as you at the airport or coffee shop. Good VPNs also will allow you to choose where to set your computer's I.P. address (where it looks like your computer is located right now).

While living in Brazil, if I went to Google.com or Amazon.com, the sites would automatically re-route me to the Brazilian versions of those pages. Maybe that wasn't what I wanted. And I definitely didn't want to log into American Express' Brazilian accounts page. Using a VPN helped to ensure I wound up at the version of Amex, Amazon or other websites that I actually wanted — the U.S. version.

Moreover, remember what I said above about geographic restrictions. If you're using an address in the U.S. but submitting an application online with an IP address showing you're in Thailand right now, that can set off red flags with a bank's fraud detection system. It might reject the application, flag it for review or make you jump through extra hoops to get approved for a new credit card.

Using a VPN so the address on your application matches where it looks like you're browsing from can reduce headaches and red flags.

Get a U.S. phone number where you can receive text messages

(Photo by Xavier Lorenzo/Getty Images)

It's not uncommon for banks to send you a text message to verify your identity when you call to discuss any sensitive details. You'll need a U.S. number. Luckily there are free options for this. However, some are more reliable than others.

I've used MagicJack — and its companion MagicApp — for years, originally signing up for it while living outside the U.S. 10, when I first started dating my wife from across an ocean. With the MagicApp, you can make and receive calls reliably, and text messages with normal phones work well. However, receiving one-time passcodes from automated systems is hit and miss. For me, it never worked with Chase or Bank of America but worked consistently with Barclays and Capital One.

Another option is Google Fi, which you can use in numerous countries. You can turn your service off and on at will, pausing it to avoid paying for the service when you don't need it. I've found it more reliable for receiving SMS/text message codes from banks, but it costs more than Magic Jack.

There are free options, too, though I've had inconsistent results with receiving codes from automated systems like identity verification from banks. Depending on where you live outside the U.S., different options will be more or less reliable. A Google search for "best free U.S. phone number app in [insert country]" should lead you to options. Make sure to check the reviews specifically for how reliable the text messages are. Google Voice is a popular option, as most calls to the U.S. and Canada are free; while I had very mixed results receiving one-time passcodes from banks with this service, others have had positive experiences.

The most important thing to note with these services is whether you always have the same number and what activity (if any) is required to keep your number active. Numerous services abound where you can get a free U.S. phone number but will receive a different number each time you log in. Others require use every 48 hours to maintain your same phone number. If your number changes, it won't match what you put on the credit card application with the bank — and that will be a problem.

Make sure your cards don't have foreign transaction fees

Since you'll be living outside the U.S., your transactions will likely be in another currency. "Foreign transaction fees" on cards that levy these can really add up, since they're typically 3% of a transaction. Imagine paying an extra 3% on everything you buy with that card.

Interestingly, if you're working for the government or stationed outside the U.S. in the military, you may still be hit with these fees when making purchases on base. While living in Germany years ago, I got hit with foreign transaction fees for a purchase on a Barclays card and an Amex card, even though both purchases were from the convenience store on base. I called and argued my case with both issuers, but both stated that they saw these as foreign transactions. Interestingly, Capital One didn't.

Related: The best credit cards for active-duty military

Watch your purchases and make sure you're not paying any foreign transaction fees. Many cards waive these fees; with cards that don't waive them, use the cards only for purchases when visiting the U.S. or shopping online from U.S.-based websites.

Bottom line

If you've dreamed of living outside the U.S. or the opportunity to do so suddenly presents itself, you may wonder whether you can amass points and miles as an expat. Luckily, the answer is "yes." There are some extra steps you'll need to take, and each person's situation is different. However, you'll need a U.S. address and U.S. phone number to use, and having a VPN can really make things easier.

With a little planning and effort, you can still participate in this hobby and rack up points and miles while living and working outside the U.S. What that looks like on a daily basis may be a little different for each person, but the overall effort required shouldn't be a big burden.

Featured photo by Getty Images
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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TPG Editor‘s Rating
Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
3 / 5
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Rewards Rate

6X6x points at hotels participating in the Marriott Bonvoy® program.
4X4x points for purchases made at restaurants worldwide, at U.S. gas stations, on wireless telephone services purchased directly from U.S. service providers and on U.S. purchases for shipping.
2X2x points on all other eligible purchases.
  • Intro Offer
    Limited Time Offer: Earn 100,000 Bonus Marriott Bonvoy Points after spending $4,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months of Card Membership. Offer expires 11/2/22.

    Limited Time Offer: Earn 100,000 points
    75,000 points
  • Annual Fee

    $125
  • Recommended Credit
    Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

    670-850
    Excellent/Good

Why We Chose It

The Marriott Bonvoy Business Amex is a stacked card with a rewards rate that will help you earn bonus points on everyday and business-related purchases. You'll earn 15 elite night credits each calendar year, and receive automatic Gold elite status. Finally, the free night award certificate with a redemption level of 35,000 points or less can get you hundreds of dollars in potential value each year.

Pros

  • 6x points on eligible purchases at hotels participating in the Marriott Bonvoy program
  • 4x points at restaurants worldwide, U.S. gas stations, wireless telephone services purchased directly from U.S. service providers and U.S. shipping
  • 2x points on all other eligible purchases
  • Earn a free-night award each card renewal month (up to 35,000 points)
  • Receive 15 elite night credits to jump-start status
  • Transfer Marriott points to 40+ airlines

Cons

  • Airline points transfer ratios are poor
  • Must spend $60,000 in a year for second free-night award
  • Limited Time Offer: Earn 100,000 Bonus Marriott Bonvoy Points after spending $4,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months of Card Membership. Offer expires 11/2/22.
  • 6x points at hotels participating in the Marriott Bonvoy® program.
  • 4x points for purchases made at restaurants worldwide, at U.S. gas stations, on wireless telephone services purchased directly from U.S. service providers and on U.S. purchases for shipping.
  • 2x points on all other eligible purchases.
  • Receive a 7% discount off standard rates for reservations of standard guest rooms at hotels that participate in the Marriott Bonvoy program when you book directly. Terms and Conditions Apply.
  • Receive 1 Free Night Award every year after your Card renewal month. Plus, earn an additional Free Night Award after you spend $60K in purchases on your Card in a calendar year. Awards can be used for one night (redemption level at or under 35,000 Marriott Bonvoy® points) at hotels participating in Marriott Bonvoy®. Certain hotels have resort fees.
  • Enjoy Complimentary Marriott Bonvoy Gold Elite Status with your Card.
  • Terms apply.
  • See Rates & Fees