What is a Social Security number?

In 1936, the Social Security number (SSN) was created. Its purpose was to track the earnings histories of workers in the United States in order to compute Social Security benefit and entitlement levels. Now, the SSN has grown in use to become the most commonly used numbering system in the nation. The SSN is assigned to individuals at birth and allows government agencies to identify and track information regarding financial records of individuals in the United States. It is required for getting a job, receiving Social Security benefits, and more.

How to Apply for a Social Security Card

In order to apply for a social security card, you will need to gather some original documents to prove your U.S. citizenship, age, and identity. The government only accepts certain documents as proof of these. To prove your citizenship, you must present your U.S. birth certificate or a U.S. passport. A birth certificate is also needed for proof of identity, but if one does not exist, you may be able to submit a religious record made before the age of five that shows your date of birth, a U.S. hospital record of your birth, or your U.S. passport. 

If you are of the age of 12 or older requesting an original Social Security number, you will have to appear in person at your Social Security office. You can find your local office based on zip code here. You will be asked to provide evidence that shows you do not currently have a Social Security number. Examples of documents you can use to prove this include: records that show long-term residence outside of the United States such as current or previous passports, school records, and employment records; or, if you have lived in the United States, any information about schools you have attended or copies of tax records that might show you were never given a Social Security number. 

You will also be required to present documents proving your identity; these will need to be current, meaning not expired, and show your legal name, your age or date of birth, and, if possible, a recent photograph. Examples of this type of document include a U.S. driver’s license, a State-issued non-driver identification card, and a U.S. passport. 

If you do not have any of these specific documents and cannot get one of them within ten days, you need to submit other documents. Those documents must be current and show your name, age or date of birth, and preferably a recent photograph.  Acceptable documents might be employee identification cards, school identification cards, health insurance cards (not Medicare cards), or U.S. military identification cards. One document may be used for two purposes, but at least two separate documents must be provided. 

Once you have the documents you need, you can fill out the social security card application, and take or mail the application to your local social security office

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Getting a Social Security Card for Noncitizens

Usually, a noncitizen can only apply for a Social Security number if they have explicit permission to work given them by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). If you do not have this permission but still need to obtain a Social Security number for other reasons, there are options for you. 

First of all, know that there are many benefits available to you even without a SSN. You may register for school, take educational tests, conduct business with banks, get private health insurance, and more. If you do not have DHS permission to work, you are allowed to apply for a SSN only if you are required to provide one either by federal law in order to receive a specific service or benefit, or by local or state law in order to receive general assistance benefits for which you are already qualified. 

If you need a SSN for these reasons, you must bring Social Security a letter from the government agency on letterhead stationery; no form letters or photocopies. This letter must specifically identify you as the applicant, cite the law requiring you to have a number, confirm that you meet all requirements except for having the number, and contain an agency contact name and phone number. 

If you need a number for tax purposes, you can apply for an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). Contact them in person or call their number at 1-800-829-3676. Ask for form W-7. You cannot apply for a Social Security number for the sole purpose of obtaining a driver’s license.

In order to receive a social security number, you will be asked to present your foreign birth certificate if you have it or can get it within ten days. If that is not possible, Social Security will accept other documents as evidence of your age, like your passport or DHS issued documents. Anyone 12 or older applying for a SSN must be interviewed by Social Security, where they will be asked to present records showing they have lived long-term outside the U.S., proving that they do not own a Social Security number.

Social Security will also ask to see a current DHS document. They will accept an I-551 Permanent Resident Card, an I-94 Arrival/Departure Record with unexpired foreign passport or an admission stamp in the unexpired foreign passport, or an I-766 Employment Authorization Document (EAD) from DHS.

If you are an F-1 or M-1 student, you also need to provide your I-20 (Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status). If you are a J-1 or J-2 exchange visitor, you need to provide your DS-2019 (Certificate of Eligibility for Exchange Visitor Status). 

If you are an F-1 student and qualified to work on campus, you are required to show a letter from your school official that identifies you, confirms your current school status, and identifies your employer and the type of work you are or will be doing. You must also show evidence of that employment in the form of a recent pay slip or a letter from your employer, signed and dated by your supervisor. This letter must detail your job, your employment start date, the number of hours you are or will be working, and your supervisor’s name and phone number.

Getting a Social Security Card for a Foreign-born Citizen

If you are a foreign-born citizen in need of a SSN, you will need to provide documents proving your citizenship, age, and identity. To prove your identity, Social Security accepts U.S. passports, Certificates of Naturalization (N-550/N-570), Certificates of Citizenship (N-560/N-561), Certificates of Report of Birth (DS-1350), and Consular Reports of Birth Abroad (FS-240, CRBA). For your age they need to see your foreign birth certificate if you have it or can get it within ten days. If not, they can look at your passport or a document issued by the DHS. 

If you are 12 or above you must be interviewed to provide proof that you do not already have a SSN. You will also need to show a U.S. driver’s license, a State-issued non-driver identification card, or a U.S. passport. If you do not have any of these specific forms of identification or cannot get them within ten days, you can present another form that is current (not expired), shows your name and age or date of birth, and preferably has a recent photograph.

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Getting a Replacement Social Security Card

In the event that your social security card is lost, stolen, or destroyed, you will be able to replace it without cost. The steps are the same as for obtaining your first social security card. First, gather the original documents you will need (see above in How to Apply for a Social Security Card). Second, fill out and print the social security card application, and take or mail the application to your local social security office

Getting a Name Change on your Social Security Card

Should you need to change the name on your current social security card, let Social Security know so that you can get a corrected card. The service is free. You will need a document to prove your name change such as a marriage document, a divorce decree, a Certificate of Naturalization showing the new name, or a court order approving the new name. You will also need to prove your identity with a current document showing your name, age or date of birth, and preferably a recent photograph; if you have not already established your U.S. citizenship with Social Security, then you will also need to provide proof of that in the form of a birth certificate or U.S. passport.  Once you have these, you can fill out and print the corrected social security card application, and take or mail it to your local social security office.