Getting Social Security Number

You need a Social Security number (SSN) to get a job, collect Social Security benefits and receive some other government services. But you rarely need to show your Social Security card. As such, do not carry your card with you. Keep it in a safe place with your other important documents.

Only U.S. citizens, and immigrants who are authorized to work in U.S., can obtain a legal SSN. If you are not authorized to work, you can apply only if you need a SSN to get certain government benefits but you must be eligible for those benefits. You cannot get a Social Security number for the sole purpose of obtaining a driver’s license, as a driver’s license is not considered to be a government benefit.

Often, your SSN is only used to identify you and as such you don’t need it to apply for:

  • most bank accounts
  • educational tests
  • low-cost (subsidized) housing
  • school enrollment
  • school lunch programs
  • private health insurance

However, if you don’t have a SSN, you may still be required to obtain another identifying number. For a bank or to be able to file taxes, you will need an ITIN number*.  

In order to obtain your SSN and card, you will need to prove your citizenship or work eligibility, identity, and age. Note, that all documents submitted must be either originals or copies certified by the issuing agency. Social Security Administration will not accept photocopies or notarized copies of documents.

To prove your citizenship you can present your U.S. birth certificate, U.S. passport, Certificate of Naturalization or Certificate of Citizenship. To prove your U.S. immigration status, you will need to show SSA your current U.S. immigration document, such as Form I-551 (Lawful Permanent Resident Card or Machine Readable Immigrant Visa), I-766 (work permit) or I-94 (Arrival/Departure Record). If you are an F-1 or M-1 student, you also must show your I-20, Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status. If you are a J-1 or J-2 exchange visitor, you must show us your DS-2019, Certificate of Eligibility for Exchange Visitor Status.

In general, only noncitizens who have permission to work from DHS can apply for a Social Security number. For most foreign workers, SSA only need to see an I-94, Arrival/Departure Record showing a class of admission permitting work. Some foreign workers must show their work permits from DHS (I-766). However, if you are an F-1 student and eligible to work on campus, you must provide a letter from your designated school official. To verify what information needs to be included in that letter, contact SSA.

To prove your age, SSA required to see your birth certificate, but may consider other documents, such as your passport, to prove your age.

An acceptable document submitted to prove your identity must be current (not expired) and show your name, identifying information (date of birth or age) and preferably a recent photograph. For example: a U.S. driver’s license, a state-issued non-driver identification card, or US passport. Non citizens can show: form I-551 with unexpired foreign passport, I-94 with unexpired foreign passport, or I-766 work permit from DHS. In absence of the primary documents, sometimes SSA may look at: employee ID card, school ID card, health insurance card (but not a Medicare card), or U.S. military ID card.

Once you gather all required documents, fill out an Application for a Social Security Card (Form SS-5) and take it or mail it to SSA. Remember that there is no charge for a Social Security number and card.

* If you can’t get a SSN, you should get an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN). Having an ITIN will allow you to pay your taxes, open a bank account, etc. If you are undocumented, applying for an ITIN will not get you in trouble with the immigration.

To get an ITIN, call 1-800-829-3676 and ask for appropriate form.


About teperlaw

I am an attorney practicing family law, immigration and wills and estate planning. You can find out more about me and my firm by visiting my website at: 106 W. Franklin Ave. Pennington, NJ 08534 (609) 737-3030
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