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Social Security for new arrivals in 2024

Social Security is a slightly unfamiliar part of setting up your life in the US and is in essence just a piece of thin card but it opens the door to many institutions and facilities in the country. It's not an option if you are living in the U.S. because you won't be able to work or open a bank account without one.

What is it exactly? It's basically the old-age benefits program (pension) that has grown into a catch-all of identification in the US. It's the number you will quote as a way of somewhat (but not really at all) secretly identifying that it really is you (there's a video at the bottom that goes into more detail!)

You want to get your hands on one of these as a priority after moving with a Visa as it is attached to your credit score and everything else you might want to do.

Who can apply for a social security?

As a non-citizen of the US, there are a few requirements as to whether you will qualify for a social security number. The first and foremost requirement is that you have a visa that allows you working rights.

If your visa does not have working rights and you do not have an EAD (work authority) then you will not qualify for an SSN. You, instead, when it comes to tax time and for identification purposes, need an ITIN.

An ITIN is an identification number that the IRS issues and more information can be found here.

How to get a Social Security Number

If you do qualify for an SSN, then you need to follow the few steps below. Before we get started though, it's important to note that you need an address in the United States in order to get a social security number – and they're probably going to want something to proof that address is yours.

The kinds of documents they accept are a formal lease or sub-lease agreement that includes landlord's name and phone number and your address, a utility bill addressed to you, a letter from your bank, or really any other document that shows your name next to an address that you didn't simply print yourself. A letter sent to your address is a good start if you can bring in the post-marked envelope.

There's a chance they don't want any of this proof but it can't hurt to prepare! When I went for mine, they had a strict requirement.

So here's the step-by-step for social security:

  1. Go to the Social Security Administration's Official Online Security Number Application
  2. Fill in the form from start to finish answering very carefully. This document will ask what forms of identification documentation you can supply and that includes:
    • Foreign Passport
    • I-94 with Unexpired Foreign Passport
    • I-766 Employment Authorization Document (EAD) Card
    • Current, Valid US Drivers License
    • US State Identity Card
    • Birth Certificate – Foreign
  3. I would recommend checking a few of these, including your I-94, and then collecting all the documentation ready for your appointment
  4. To get your I-94 (Arrival Departure record) from the I94 website
    1. Fill in your details and then print out the “I-94 Admission Record”
    2. Continue to “Get this Traveler's Travel History”
    3. Print this as well for good measure
  5. Prepare a letter from your employer that:
    1. Includes your start date for work and your hours (or “Full-time”);
    2. Your gross income per year;
    3. Shows what your job is (matching Visa where appropriate);
    4. Details your Supervisor's (or manager's) name and contact details;
    5. Is on proper letterhead;
    6. Is signed and recently dated;
  6. Prepare your address documentation (see above)
  7. Find your nearest office by going to this website;
  8. Take the above documents and your Passport that contains your visa (and Passport that has entry stamps if separate) to the above office within 45 days of submitting the online form
  9. Be kind, provide everything they require;
  10. Be sent your Social Security “card” in the mail a few days later.
    1. In some rare cases I've heard of people asking for their number straight away (or going back the next day and asking for a temporary confirmation of their number). This is possible in some cases, but comes down to who you speak to. Many organizations looking for your number will also not accept it without the physical card.
    2. For your employment, you should be able to (in most cases) be paid while you wait for the card to arrive if you explain that you have been approved and are just waiting. Employers can go back over this detail at a later date.
  11. Take extra good care of this card as getting a replacement is a pain.

Who should I give my social security number to?

You’ll find that almost everyone wants to get their hands on these digits now that you've got them, and with breaches like the Equifax breach (where they lost lots of peoples numbers), you’ll know that they’re incredibly important. But who exactly should you be telling?

This is a question I get asked all the time, and I've therefore written a whole article about who you should and should not give your social security number to.

An interesting history of SSNs