Getting a Social Security Card can be complicated, and the rules governing non-citizens are even more complex. The process can be confusing to navigate, because there are different requirements for different circumstances–and the rules don’t always seem logical.
It shouldn’t be difficult to complete the process successfully. Of course, there are hoops to jump through: the first challenge is finding out which ones. That’s why it’s important to do research or seek outside guidance.
Social Security Numbers (SSN) are provided to non-citizens who lawfully become permanent residents or who have permission to work in the U.S. This includes refugees, work visa holders, and those granted asylum.
The process of obtaining a Social Security card for non US citizen applicants starts with finding out where to apply. This may be done in an applicant’s home country; domestic residents are advised to go to their local Social Security Administration (SSA) office.
You will need to submit required information, including age and identity verification along with immigration documents. Each application is reviewed for safety screening purposes before the SSN is issued. You may be asked for additional documentation or verification in the process.
After filing, you can expect to receive your Social Security number within 2-4 weeks.
Why a Non-Citizen May Need a Social Security Number
A SSN is required before a non-citizen can legally work in the U.S. It also allows certain government-sanctioned benefits to be accrued and accessed. There is no difference in benefits between a citizen’s and non-citizen’s SSN.
The SSN is required for legal employment in the US, so it is critical that you complete the process before starting work. Because of the potential issues with a delayed application, many non-citizens enlist outside assistance to help guide them safely through the process.
Some government benefits require a SSN, and eligible individuals are given one this basis. When applying to receive benefits, you’ll be informed if you need a SSN.
If you are not eligible for qualifying benefits or permitted to work in the U.S., you generally cannot receive a SSN. You specifically cannot get a SSN just to obtain a driver’s license, but—because alternate forms of identification are now accepted—you don’t need one, either.
Is a SSN Necessary?
Unless you intend to work or draw specific benefits in the U.S., you may not need a SSN after all. It’s not needed to open most bank accounts or otherwise conduct your financial affairs.
TIP: Banks and other organizations often ask for a SSN, but they don’t actually require it for their services.
Here are common actions you can do without a SSN:
- Register and attend educational institutions
- Engage in educational testing and certification
- Purchase health insurance
- Apply for Subsidized Housing
- Benefit from School Lunch programs
One common misunderstanding is that you need a SSN to have a credit history. The number is often used for identification, but an individual’s credit history is also maintained by their name, birthday, and address. Your credit history exists whether or not you have a SSN.
There is another form of identification used for tax purposes called an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN). This alternative ID is issued by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS): it’s useful if you aren’t permitted to work domestically but need a SSN for tax reasons.
Individuals outside the U.S. can apply for a SSN in their home country when filing for an immigration visa. There is usually no need to physically apply in a local Social Security office, but you may.
Those living inside the U.S. who intend to seek permission to work can apply when filing the USCIS Form I-765 (Application for Employment Authorization).
The only time you need to go to your local Social Security office in person is if you’re in the U.S. lawfully and have a work visa.
What you Need to Apply
Besides the application itself, there are three specific documents required to confirm your identity and immigration work status.
1) Form SS-5 (Application for a Social Security Card) – This application must be filled out and submitted. Forms are available online or at your local SSA.
2) Proof of Age – Your foreign birth certificate is required, but other documents such as a current passport may be accepted.
3) Currently Active Foreign Passport – You must provide an unexpired passport from your country of origin.
4) Immigration Documents – The following documents can be used to prove immigration status. Whatever evidence you use for this purpose must be current.
- USCIS Form I-551 (Lawful Permanent Resident Card) – This is the common name for a “Green Card,” and provides evidence the holder has the right to live and seek employment permanently in the U.S.
- Admission Stamp – This pertains to the broad categories by which immigrants are admitted into the US. Showing a work-permitted Admission Stamp satisfies this documentation requirement.
- Form I-94 (Arrival/Departure Record) – This is a small white card issued by the Customs Border Protection (CBP) to non-immigrants upon entry into the U.S. as proof of legal visitation. It shows how long the individual may remain in the country. The record is also preserved electronically.
- Form I-766 (Employment Authorization Document/EAD) – Commonly known as work permits, the EAD card provides evidence the holder is permitted to work in the U.S. as a noncitizen for a specified period of time.
The documents you submit must be originals or certified copies obtained from the issuing organization. One document can be used for two purposes, but two separate qualified documents must be presented.
There are two cases in which the SSA requires additional documentation before providing a SSN to an individual. If you fall into either of these categories, it’s important to understand the specific rules and formats of the application. To avoid wasting time and effort, it is wise to research the process in detail or seek professional guidance before filing.
Exchange Visitors – J-1 or J-2 exchange visitors must provide a DS-2019 “Certificate of Eligibility” in addition to the regular documents. If applying as a J-1 visitor, a sponsor letter must also be presented to the SSA.
International Students – Student visas are granted to non-immigrants who wish to study full-time student in the U.S. These individuals are required to provide their I-20 Certificates along with other specified documents.
Immigration rules are complex, and those for getting a SSN are no exception. The good news is that you probably only need a SSN if you intend to work or access certain benefits. If you do need a SSN, with proper guidance you’ll be successful.
There are clear paths for navigating the challenge, but it’s recommended to seek professional guidance for a special circumstance or if you have questions. The process goes most smoothly when you’re most prepared.