Law Offices of Stuart J. Reich, PLLC

Practice Limited to Immigration & Nationality Law

11 Broadway, Suite 615
New York, NY 10004

(212) 430-6582 phone
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Social Security Card/Number FAQs

Q: Can I get a Social Security Number?

A: That depends on your status here in the U.S. If you are a U.S. citizen or permanent resident, getting a Social Security Number will not be a problem.

For those here on a valid non-immigrant visa, the answer gets a little more complicated: only those with authorization to work can in all cases get a social security number. Anyone with a non-immigrant visa which authorizes employment (for instance: H-1Bs, L-1s, O-1s, E-1/E-2/E-3s etc.) can get a Social Security Number, although the card will specify that it is not valid for employment without authorization.

Foreign nationals present on a B-1/B-2 visitor visa generally are not authorized to work in the U.S. (there are some exceptions), and so normally cannot get Social Security Numbers. Foreign National Students here on F-1 visas and foreign nationals here on J-1 Exchange Visitor visas can only get a Social Security Number if they are authorized to accept employment. In some cases, this authorization may by marked on the I-20 or DS-2019 form, while in other cases F-1s and J-1 may need to apply for and receive a valid Employment Authorization Document ("EAD"). Again, such social security documents will indicate that they are not valid for employment without authorization.

Individuals with certain types of applications or petitions pending before a government agency (such as an Application to Adjust Status to permanent residence or, an Asylum claim among others) may also be eligible to apply for and receive Employment Authorization Documents - and can apply for a social security number only once these documents are received.

Foreign nationals who are not legally present in the U.S. cannot get a Social Security Number. Although working without valid authorization to do so is not legal, those who do so must still pay taxes or risk violating other provisions of U.S. federal law related to taxation. It is normally possible to obtain a separate, purpose-specific Individual Taxpayer ID Number (ITIN) from IRS with which to pay taxes, though this number is not otherwise valid for any other purpose for which a social security number would typically be used. We provide more detail on the ITIN below.

Violation of these laws can cause problems for any future application or petition for valid immigration status, and in addition copies of recent tax return filings are often required by USCIS to demonstrate sufficient income. It is therefore important that anyone working in the U.S. pay taxes as required.

Q: Can I get a Social Security Number so that I can get a driver's license?

A: No - at least, not for this reason alone. Although the Social Security Administration will sometimes issue a Social Security Number to an applicant who can prove that it is needed in order to apply for certain government benefits, they will not issue a Social Security Card just so an individual can get a driver's license.

Q: Does an employee need to have a Social Security Card or Social Security Number to begin working legally?

A: Although many people incorrectly believe that a social security card or social security number is required to begin work, this is not technically the case (although as we shall see, it is a requirement to continue working).

For purposes of completing the I-9 Employment Eligibility Verification form at the start of a new job, the unrestricted Social Security Card is just one acceptable "List C" document which may be used to complete the form - any other List C document may be used in its place along with any List B document, or a List A document may be used instead of any List B or List C document. In other words, the employer can use either a single List A document, or one each from List B and List C to complete the I-9 form.

Similarly, no provision of tax law (the Internal Revenue Code) requires that an employee has a Social Security Card or Social Security Number at the time that the employee begins employment. HOWEVER, there is a requirement that the employee must apply for a Social Security Number within seven days of beginning employment and that the employer provide the number on the employer's information returns when they are filed.

Very often, the employer's requirement of a social security number upon start of employment is a practical one rather than a legal one: payroll software used by the employer or third-party payroll preparers will require a social security number in order to generate a paycheck. Legally, a "phantom" number can be provided for use in generating checks initially and amended to reflect the accurate number once the Social Security Card is received. The only legal requirement is that the correct number be provided on the employer's information returns.

Q: I am not legally in the U.S. but I work and want to comply with the internal revenue laws by paying taxes - how can I do this if I can't get a Social Security Number?

A: You can in theory apply for and use an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number ("ITIN"). This is an identifying number issued not by the Social Security Administration but by the Internal Revenue Service (which is the agency that collects taxes for the U.S. federal government) solely for purposes of tax identification. Although some institutions use ITINs for other purposes (we have heard of colleges and universities which use them for student identification purposes in place of Social Security Numbers), the Internal Revenue Service expressly discourages this.

The problem is, the Internal Revenue Service has made it significantly more difficult to obtain an ITIN in recent years.

Q: How do I apply for a Social Security Number/Card or Individual Taxpayer Identification Number?

A: An individual can apply for a Social Security Number/Card by completing an SS-5 form and submitting it to the Social Security Administration as instructed, along with the necessary supporting materials/documentation. A good jumping-off point can be found here, a page which has important information on where to apply as well as links to the list of documents needed and the application form.

To apply for an ITIN, an individual must review and follow the IRS' Instructions. Generally, taxes must be prepared but for the identification number, and sent with a separate request for issuance of an ITIN so that the returns can be properly filed.

Remember to read and follow the instructions for each form carefully, and seek the guidance of experienced tax and legal professionals.



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The above is presented for informational purposes only, and does not constitute legal advice or create an attorney-client relationship with our firm. The information provided should not be used as guidance in pursuing an immigration matter absent consultation with a qualified immigration attorney.