An Immigrant’s Guide to Social Security in the United States

As a new resident of the United States, you’ll soon discover that you will need a social security number (SSN) to apply for a loan, own a home, apply for most jobs, and obtain a driver’s license in some states. Created in 1935 to track the earning history of the U.S. workforce, the social security number is intended to determine eligibility for social security benefits and other social services. 

In addition to social security benefits, it is also used as an identification number for tax purposes. The nine-digit identification number is issued on a card and is given to native-born citizens, permanent residents, and non-immigrant working residents.

What does social security mean?

Following the passage of the Social Security Act in 1935, the numbers were assigned to workers to determine eligibility for a federal insurance program that pays retired workers age 65 or older a continuing income after retirement. The program also provides benefits to disabled individuals and families of deceased workers. 

The identification number tracks an individual’s earning history to determine the appropriate benefit levels. A worker’s social security benefits are based on their average monthly earnings during 35 of their highest-earning years. The longer someone works, the higher their benefit level. 

Social security numbers are required documentation that allows citizens and legal permanent residents to work legally within the United States. However, lawfully admitted noncitizens can still get many benefits without a social security number. For example, having a social security number is not required to register for school, apply for private health insurance, or subsidized housing

Social security eligibility

Authorized to work

Social security numbers are most often only granted to those authorized to work in the United States. According to the Social Security Administration, “If the Department of Homeland Security doesn’t authorize you to work in the United States, you can get a Social Security number only if you can prove you need it for a valid non-work reason. That might happen, for example, if a state or federal law requires you to have a Social Security number to get benefits to which you have already established entitlement.”

If you need a number for tax purposes, and you aren’t authorized to work in the United States, you can apply for an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). 

Students

Social security regulations do not apply to the employment of non-immigrants who are only staying in the U.S. for a limited time, such as: 

  • F-1 (student)
  • J-1 (exchange visitor)
  • M-1 (vocational school)

Students working on campus or by special arrangements with their school will not have taxes taken out of their earnings for social security purposes. 

Refugees and asylees

Refugees and asylees are granted work authorization as part of their status and are eligible to receive a social security number. 

Social security categories

While all social security cards show a person’s name and their nine-digit identification number, there are three categories of social security identification that differ based on a person’s immigration status and work authorization. 

The most common type is issued to U.S. citizens and noncitizens that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has permitted to permanently live and work in the country. These include:

  • Immigrants with a permanent resident card, known as a green card
  • Refugees
  • People granted asylum

The second type of social security card is valid only for those permitted to work temporarily in the United States with DHS permission. This card can be used to satisfy I-9 eligibility requirements. Form I-9 is used to verify the identity and employment authorization for noncitizens. Printed on this card are the words, “Valid For Work Only with DHS Authorization.”

The third type of social security card is only intended for tax purposes and cannot be used for I-9 verification. It is issued to noncitizens who don’t have permission to work but need a Social Security number for other reasons, such as to apply for government benefits or services. Printed on this card are the words, “Not Valid For Employment.”

How to apply for a social security number

Applying for a social security card is free, and there are two ways that you can apply: 

  1. During your immigration visa process

You can apply for your social security card on the USCIS application form I-765 for employment authorization simultaneously when you apply for your immigrant visa with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Aside from refugees, you can apply in your home country before you come to the United States. 

  1. At a Social Security office in the United States

If you are lawfully present in the United States and your visa status allows you to work, then you can visit a social security office in person to apply. Documents required to prove your work authorization may include:

  • Form I-551 – Lawful Permanent Resident Card
  • Admission stamp showing a class of admission permitting work
  • Form I-95 – Arrival/Departure Record
  • Form I-766 – Employment Authorization Document
  • Unexpired foreign passport

For J-1 or J-2 exchange visitors, you will also need to bring a Certificate of Eligibility for Exchange Visitor Status or EAD. In addition, J-1 students, student interns, or international visitors must also provide a letter from your sponsor. 

All documents provided as evidence must be originals or certified copies from the agencies that issued them. Photocopies or notarized copies are not accepted. Social Security will return your documents. If applying in person at a social security office, The Social Security Administration recommends that you wait ten days after arriving in the country to “make it easier for us to verify your Department of Homeland Security documents online, which will speed processing of your Social Security number application.”

Within 3 to 4 weeks, the Social Security Administration will assign you a social security number and mail you a card. 

Options if you’re not eligible for a social security number

In most cases, when a business or government agency asks for a social security number, they will also allow you to provide other identification documents in its place. If you are not eligible to work in the United States, you may be able to apply for an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) by submitting Form W-7, Application For An Individual Taxpayer Identification Number, to the Internal Review Service. 

If you’d like to apply for a credit card without a social security number, many credit card companies will accept an ITIN in its place. This number follows the same nine-digit format as an SSN and can sometimes be used in place of an SSN when applying for a credit card online, depending on the card issuer. In addition, if you are an international student, there are credit card companies specifically for you that will accept a passport number and a valid U.S. residential address as proof of identification. 

For those who wish to work in the United States, unfortunately, an ITIN will not take the place of a social security number, which is required for employment. You may come across some jobs, like independent contracting, that don’t require a social security number when hired. However, businesses compliant with government regulations are legally obligated to complete certain tax forms that require all employees’ social security numbers. Companies that violate the law risk being investigated by federal officials and, as a result, may affect your immigration status. 

Protecting your social security number

Your social security number is unique to you and is frequently used as an identification number to access information like your bank account, credit report, and tax information. Therefore, anyone with your social security number has the potential to access your personal and professional information. 

Because of the sensitive information tied to your social security number, if it falls into the wrong hands, you risk becoming a victim of identity theft. According to USA.gov, “Identity (I.D.) theft happens when someone steals your personal information to commit fraud. An identity thief may use your information to apply for credit, file taxes, or get medical services. These acts can damage your credit status and cost you time and money to restore your good name.”

Here are some tips to help you protect your social security number and avoid identity theft:

  • Only in rare circumstances are you required to show your physical social security card, so keep it stored in a safe and secure location. 
  • Do not store your social security card in your wallet or car
  • Do not give out your social security number unless it is absolutely required
  • If you are asked to provide your social security number, verify why it is needed, what other information will be acceptable, how your number will be used, what happens if you refuse, and what law requires you to provide your SSN

If your social security card is stolen or you suspect that someone may be using your social security number, the Social Security Administration provides tips and resources on what you can do. Having a social security number can open many doors for you in the United States, so it’s essential to protect your number to ensure that no one else, without your explicit permission, can benefit from your hard work and earnings.

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