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Social Security and Taxpayer ID

If you get the card, you can get a bank account, get a credit card, and rent an apartment. If you don't get the card, you will just be a student. Life's better if you have the card.

Obtaining a Social Security Number

Once you've arrived in the U.S., one of the first things you should do is apply for a Social Security Number (SSN) or an Individual Taxpayer ID Number (ITIN). Next to your photo ID (passport, international driver's license, etc), your Social Security Card or Taxpayer ID card is the most important document you will obtain during your time as an international student (OK, your diploma is pretty important too, but that comes later).

Before we start looking at the process of getting one of these cards, there are a few things you should know. First of all, since these cards can be used for so many things in the U.S., they are valuable documents, and you should take the same precautions with them as you would with your passport. If someone gets your SSN or ITIN (other than those people and organizations which have a legitimate reason for having it), they can get a driver's license, credit card, or some other document in your name.

Whenever you file a U.S. tax return, everyone listed on the return--this means you and any family (a spouse or children living with you) listed as your dependents--must have either an SSN or an ITIN. Let's look at each of these important kinds of cards:

What is social security?

Social Security was a component of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's "New Deal." The New Deal was a set of social programs designed to bring the U.S. economy back to life in the wake of the Great Depression. Social Security (which issues forms with an OA designation that means "old age" insurance) is a program that automatically deducts money from paychecks and places it into a fund that is used to pay benefits to people who have reached a certain age.

Fact: Because of the way the cards were first made in 1936, the identity of the first person to receive a social security card remains unknown, but the first account created was number 055-09-0001. It belonged to a 23-year-old shipping clerk from New Rochelle, New York.

What is an Individual Taxpayer ID Number?

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) began using the ITIN in July of 1996. Unlike a social security number, an ITIN doesn't provide any benefits, but it allows you to have access to many of the same services as a social security number.

What are these cards, and why do I need one?

These are both good questions. The social security card is nothing more than a piece of paper (form OA-702) that lists the holder's name and social security number (nine digits in three groups: xxx-xx-xxxx).

A taxpayer ID card contains the same information, including a nine-digit number, as a a social security card; however, you cannot use it for employment purposes. The reasons for having one of these cards are too numerous to list, but here are a few important uses along with which card you can use for each:
SSN ITIN
Opening a bank account Yes Yes
Work authorization Yes No
Driver's license Yes Yes
Renting an apartment Yes Yes
Applying for a green card Yes No

As you can see, these cards are primarily used to identify that you are who you claim to be in important situations. And while it is the number rather than the card that is used for all of these purposes, the card is the visible symbol for your account.

Is my card the same as a U.S. citizen's card?

Since the government began issuing ITINs, international students get the same cards as U.S. Citizens. Before mid-1996 the government issued different cards to non-citizens depending on whether or not their visas allowed them to work in the U.S. Now non-citizens who have not gotten jobs cannot apply for SSNs. If you don't have a job, you must get an ITIN. A taxpayer ID card is the same for both residents and non-residents

How do I apply for a social security card?

In order to apply for a social security card, you need to go to your nearest social security office with the original copies of the following documents:

  • Your passport with one of following: I-94, I-551, I-688B, or I-766, issued by INS when you entered the United States.
  • Your I-20
  • A letter from your employer indicating that you are to be employed.
  • Your school ID (optional).

You must fill in all forms in black or blue pen, or they will not be accepted.

How do I apply for a taxpayer ID card?

To get a taxpayer ID card you must fill out an IRS form W-7. You can download this from the IRS web site or get one from your school or bank. Both colleges and financial institutions are legal agents for accepting your W-7 and sending it to the government. It is a good idea to have your school or bank send the form in for you because someone there can make sure that it is filled out properly before it goes to the government.

Helpful tips:

  • If you are applying for an SSN, you can mail all of your documents to the social security office. However, we strongly recommended that you bring them in person. This way you can answer any questions that may come up regarding your application.

  • Sometimes the clerks at government offices can be impolite and impatient. There may also be long lines at the office. Try to be patient and don't let yourself get too upset by the experience. It should be over within a couple of hours, and after that you'll be all set with a social security card.

  • Once you have an SSN or an ITIN, it is a good idea to memorize your number because you will often be asked to verify your identity with it when you are doing things such opening a bank account and registering for classes. Note that banks and other institutions sometimes require you to have your card with you so that they can photocopy it for their records, so if you are planning to use it for that, you should take it with you.
Obtaining a form:
Social Security Card (SS-5)
Individual Taxpayer ID Number (W-7)
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Social Security Office Locator
Click here to locate the nearest social security office in your area.
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