Getting a social security number (SSN)

Social Security Number SSN

One of the first things a new expat in the United States needs is a Social Security Number (SSN). It is the key to everything from building a credit history to working and reporting income to the government.

It’s free to apply for and receive a SSN – and if you lose the SSN card, you can request a replacement for free.

It can be a bit of a daunting task if you’re not quite sure how to go about the process. If you’re not a US citizen and aren’t able to work here, you generally can’t get a SSN. But for everyone else, here’s how to go about it:

Why do I need a SSN?

If the Department of Homeland Security has issued you a work visa and you have a job, you’ll need a SSN. Your employer will use the number to identify you with the US Government and report your wages.

Banks, credit unions, utility, phone and internet service providers will all ask you for a Social Security Number. Most of these organisations will use it to run a credit check on you, so if you’ve just gotten to the US be sure to mention that you don’t have a credit history yet. This way they won’t run a check on you, but they may require you to pay a sort of security bond fee of around $50.

Most importantly though, a SSN will allow you to build a credit history, which will open up so many other doors.

Request a SSN before arriving

Some visa’s will allow you to apply for a Social Security Number before you even leave your home country. There are some parameters though:

  • You need to request the SSN card as part of your immigrant visa application
  • The visa must stipulate that you will be a permanent resident (once approved)

Once you’ve met those two stipulations, pay attention while you’re filling out your DS-230 or DS-260 (immigrant visa application) forms. There are a few questions that you need to answer YES to, in order for this to work.

  1. Do you want the Social Security Administration to assign you an SSN (and issue a card) or issue you a new card (if you have an SSN)?
  2. CONSENT TO DISCLOSURE; I authorize disclosure from this form to the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), the Social Security Administration (SSA), such other U.S. Government agencies as may be required for the purpose of assigning me an SSN and issuing me a Social Security card, and I authorize the SSA to share my SSN with the INS.

Send your forms to the Department of Homeland Security and you’re golden from there. Your SSN card will be sent to you three weeks after you enter the US. If you do not receive it in that time, visit a Social Security office with your passport and employment authorisation. Or you can call Social Security: 1-800-772-1213.

Apply after moving to the US – Getting documents together

This is the way I got mine (mostly because I didn’t know I could have applied from home). You’ll need to visit a Social Security office to apply, and take some documentation with you. Remember, they won’t issue you a card on the spot – instead it will be mailed to you so make sure you have a mailing address.


Use the Social Security office locator to find your closest office and be sure to double check the business hours. I caught two buses and a train to my local office only to find it was shut after midday on a Wednesday.

What you need to bring with you: (please note, you may not have some of these documents. Just bring THE ORIGINALS of what you have)

  • Your passport with a valid visa
  • A birth certificate (to prove your age. Your passport can be used if you don’t have an original birth certificate)
  • Permanent resident card (if you were issued one)
  • Your I-94 (print it here)
  • Your I-766 (Employment Authorization Document)
  • Form SS-5 (search and print it here) This is the application form – don’t worry if you don’t have all the answers, the Social Security office staff can help you.

For J-1 or J-2

In addition to the above, you’ll also need a copy of your DS-2019 (Certificate of Eligibility for Exchange Visitor Status).

J-1 students and student interns should bring a letter from your sponsor on their letterhead with an original signature (not a stamp) that authorises you to work.

International students (F-1 or M-1)

Wait at least 48 hours after starting school to apply for a SSN. Any F-1 or M-1 students should bring their I-20 (Certificate of Eligibility for Non-immigrant Student Status).

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If you plan to work at your school or college campus, you’ll have to also supply a letter from a school official that includes the following details:

  • Identifies you
  • Confirms your school status
  • Identifies the employer and type of work you’ll be doing

Social Security also requires evidence that you’re employed, in the form of a payslip or a letter from your employer, signed and dated by your supervisor, describing:

  • Your job
  • Work start date
  • Number of hours you will work each week
  • Supervisor’s name and phone number

F-1 students who are able to work in Curricular Practical Training must have the employment page of their I-20 (Certificate of Eligibility for Non-immigrant Student Status) completed and signed by a school official.

Apply after moving to the US – Visiting Social Security Office

Some offices might be a little different so I’ll tell you about my experience in San Francisco’s bay area. After heading through the metal detector, a security guard will ask what you’re there for and issue you a ticket.

You sit in a room (similar to the DMV or the RMS if you’re Aussie) with TV screens and wait for them to call your number. You go to the corresponding public servant and do your thing. They each have little booths with glass between you and the person assisting you. It’s a little prison-visit-esque. They’ll go through your paperwork and get you to sign a few things.

Your SSN will be mailed to you on a little card within two weeks. If you haven’t received it by that time, call Social Security (1-800-772-1213) to chase it up.

Parting advice

Once you get that card, keep it in a safe place, and whatever you do, don’t take it out of your house. They’re serious about that. I got in trouble from the Comcast guy for taking it with me. Just write it down somewhere if you can’t remember it.


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21 thoughts on “Getting a social security number (SSN)

  1. This is a process that mystifies everyone, I’m sure. The U.S. government makes things feel pretty difficult sometimes, let alone for an ex-pat or person trying to get settled in a new country! This was a great in-depth guide for those looking to get set up with an SSN. Awesome job breaking it all down!

    1. Thanks Sierra. I find the red tape surrounding a lot of things in the US to be really daunting. So hopefully, this helps to make the process a little less confusing.

  2. You should point out that besides the institutions you mentioned above, *nobody* else needs your SSN unless they are doing some credit check on you or are doing employment. Getting someone’s SSN can lead to identity theft, so don’t give it to anyone unless there’s a reason.

  3. We don’t have the concept of SSN here in India but I can see how helpful it can be to both government and citizen. Great that you have listed out all the steps on how to get it. Will really be helpful for someone trying the process

  4. This is super helpful for anyone looking to move to the US. I know there has got to be so much involved, so it is great that you made those steps clear and helpful for anyone looking to be an expat in the US.

  5. That is good to know. It is always a good idea to be prepared before actually moving to a new country so you aren’t sitting around waiting. I know when we moved to the UK we were stuck waiting for our NI numbers in order to be able to work even though we had a work visa.

  6. A friend of mine who recently moved there was looking for such an explicit explanation. This is great. Will share with her if she’s not done it yet.

  7. A very detailed informative post on SSN. This is surely going to be quite handy and useful for the expats looking to move to US. Thanks for sharing.

  8. SSN is the key in US. You are right about keeping it safe. From car insurance to your bank credit history, everything is linked to your SSN. Great guide by the way.

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