In order to work in the United States or conduct most financial activities, you need a Social Security Number. There are multiple ways of doing this depending on whether you request it when applying for immigration status or need to apply for a social security card separately.

Let’s dive into the process of applying for a Social Security Number.

How to Get a Social Security Number

There are three ways to get a Social Security Number as an immigrant if you don’t have one.

  • Apply for one when you apply for your visa before coming to the United States.
  • Apply for one at a local Social Security office if you are already in the United States.
  • Apply for one if you are lawfully present in the United States but newly applying for work authorization.

If you already have your certificate of naturalization, you are a U.S. citizen. You can follow the steps below to get your new Social Security card. You may also be eligible to use the options that aren’t available to non-citizens.

1. Applying for a Social Security Number with your visa.

You may apply for an SSN as part of your visa application if you are a lawfully admitted permanent resident. This avoids having to make a separate trip to a Social Security office once you arrive in the United States.

Complete the visa application following the usual process either on a paper Form DS-230 or the electronic Form DS-260 online with the State Department. The Embassy or Consulate will do most of the work for you. On both forms, there is an option to request a Social Security Number. Select yes and agree to the consent for disclosure.

You should receive your Social Security card in the mail at your U.S. mailing address within three weeks of entering the United States.

2. Apply for a Social Security Number at a Social Security office.

If you are not a U.S. citizen, you must apply for a Social Security Number in person. The online option is only available to citizens.

U.S. citizens typically need to provide their birth certificates. Immigrants must show proof of immigration status instead. This can include the following documents.

  • Lawful Permanent Resident Card (Form I-551) with an unexpired foreign passport
  • Employment Authorization Document (Form I-766) also known as EAD or work permit
  • Arrival/Departure Record (Form I-94) or an admission stamp in an unexpired foreign passport
  • F-1 or M-1 students are also required to show their Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status (Form I-20)
  • J-1 or J-2 exchange visitors must also show their Certificate of Eligibility for Exchange Visitor Status (Form DS-2019)

You may also be required to show proof of work eligibility. Your entry status may give you automatic entry status and be sufficient proof. Students under F-1 or J-1 status need to show proof of eligible employment.

If you need a Social Security Number to receive government benefits, you must provide proof of the law that requires you to have a Social Security Number to receive the benefits. You may also need to show proof of your eligibility for that program.

The SSA often requires original documents. A certified copy of certain documents may also be acceptable.

3. Applying for Your Social Security Number with your work authorization.

Applying for a Social Security Number when you apply for work authorization follows a similar process to applying for one with a visa. The Application for Employment Authorization (Form I-765) has a section to request a Social Security card. You can usually file the application online or by mail.

When Do You Not Need a Social Security Number?

You do not need, and may not need to request a Social Security Number to:

  • Open a bank account
  • Register for school
  • Apply for education tests
  • Purchase private health insurance
  • Apply for school lunch programs
  • Apply for subsidized housing
  • Obtain a driver’s license
  • ​Obtain an identification card
  • ​Pay taxes

This does not mean you can’t use your Social Security Number for these purposes if you have one. It simply means you can do these without a Social Security Number.

If you need to pay taxes and are not authorized to work in the United States, request an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number from the IRS. If you’re looking to complete a home loan, PPP loan, or credit card application, you can use your ITIN if you’re not eligible for a Social Security Number.

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What is the Process for Expats?

An expat coming from another country needs to follow one of the above processes. Whether you consider yourself an expat or a permanent immigrant, the process is the same. The only difference would be your specific immigration status may limit your options. For example, if you’re not a lawful permanent resident, you cannot apply with your visa and may need to visit a Social Security Administration office.

If you’re an American citizen who lives or wants to live as an expat with another country, check with their embassy or consulate. You may need that country’s equivalent of a Social Security Number. They will have their own application process that is likely similar to applying for a Social Security Number.

How Can You Get a Replacement Card?

If you are not a U.S. citizen, you usually need to visit an SSA office to get a replacement card. Generally, only citizens can get a replacement Social Security card online. Be prepared to show the same documents you need to get your original card.

If you requested a Social Security Number with your visa or work authorization application, it should arrive by mail within three weeks after you arrive in the United States. If you don’t receive it, contact SSA office, or you may need to request a replacement card.

Note: Your new Social Security Number card will have the same number as your original card. It’s just a replacement for the physical card. If you need a new Social Security Number due to identity theft, visit SSA.gov for more information.

Can an Immigrant Get a Social Security Account?

Yes, you can get an online account at www.socialsecurity.gov. This allows you to see your Social Security record of your earnings and any Social Security benefits that you may be entitled to.

Keep in mind that some online services require U.S. citizenship and you may need to visit a Social Security office.

Is an Immigrant Eligible for Retirement Benefits?

You may be entitled to receive retirement benefits if you have the minimum number of work credits. You usually need 40 credits to qualify for benefits and can receive up to four credits per year for every $1,470 (in 2021) that you earn.

The United States has a treaty with 25 other countries to combine work histories from both countries for retirement benefits.

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Conclusion

This post gives you a basic overview of how to apply for a Social Security card online. If you need further information or assistance, the Social Security Administration has many resources available at www.socialsecurity.gov.

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Further Reading

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