Social Security Numbers for Foreigners

Everything foreigners want to know about SSN

Updated on September 4, 2020

If you are a foreigner and have stayed in the United States for a while, you must have been asked a Social Security Number (SSN) for several times. For example, when you filled out an immigration-related application form, looked for a job, opened a bank account, applied for a credit card, applied for a driver license, purchased medical insurance, filed tax return, opened a business or set up a company in the United States, etc. You must have many questions regarding a Social Security Number. Here we give you all the answers you are looking for.

1. What is a Social Security Number (SSN)?

A Social Security number is a unique nine digit number assigned to an individual. No two people have the same SSN. An SSN is used to report the holder’s wages to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and Social Security Administration (SSA). Upon retirement, a person who has paid into the Social Security system may be able to received monthly cash benefits (“Social Security benefits”).

2. In what situation a foreigner really need an SSN?

As a foreigner, if you plan to work in the U.S., you will need to get an SSN.

If you’re not planning to work in the U.S., you may not need an SSN. Actually, you can still qualify for some of public and private services and benefits without an SSN. Although when you apply for such services or benefits, you will be asked an SSN, you may just fill out N/A in the space asked for an SSN (including on USCIS forms), which will not negative your application.  

Without an SSN, you can get a driver’s license, open a bank account, and file a tax return (with an ITIN number). However, you can’t purchase medical insurance or apply for a credit card by yourself in most cases.  Occasionally, you can be added to your spouse’s medical insurance plan and credit card as an authorized user without an SSN.

A foreigner can set up a C-corporation or Limited Liability Company (LLC) without an SSN. However, when applying for an EIN number for the company at IRS, a responsible officer with an SSN must be provided. Without an EIN, the company can’t open a bank account in the United States.

3. As foreigners, who is eligible to get an SSN?

In general, only those foreigners who have been authorized by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to work in the U.S. can get an SSN. Such foreigners including:

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4. How to apply for an SSN for the first time?

Assume you are eligible to get an SSN, you can visit any of local Social Security offices to apply. You may locate a Social Security office near you at https://secure.ssa.gov/ICON/main.jsp.  Under the circumstances as follow, it is unnecessary to visit the Social Security office in person to apply.

If you entered the U.S. with an immigrant visa, you became a lawful permanent resident upon your entry to the U.S. with the immigrant visa. In this situation, most likely your SSN will be mailed to you automatically within one month after you entered the U.S. If you don’t receive it in the mail after one month, you’d better go to the Social Security office in person to make an inquiry. It is not uncommon that the SSA officer forgot to issue it.

If you ever submitted a Form I-765 to USCIS to apply for employment authorization, you can apply for an SSN on the form directly. By doing so, as long as the I-765 application gets approved by USCIS, an SSN will be mailed to you following the I-765 approval notice. Again, if you don’t receive it after one month, you’d better go to the Social Security office in person to make an inquiry.

Generally, you will get one SSN only in your life. If you lost its physical card, you may visit the Social Security office to get a new card with the same social security number on it.

5. Why my SSN card looks different from others?

There are two formats of SSN card. If you initially get an SSN as a lawful permanent resident, you will get an SSN in the format in sample 1 below. With such format of SSN, you don’t need to present other documents to prove your working authorization in the U.S. If you are not a lawful permanent resident yet, you will get an SSN in sample 2 below. In sample 2, the SSN card is printed with a sentence of “VALIF FOR WORK ONLY WITH DHS AUTHORIZATION”, which means you must present other immigration status documents to prove your working authorization in the U.S.

Sample 1-Social Security Number
Sample 1-Social Security Number
Sample 2-Social Security Number
Sample 2-Social Security Number


6. Must I replace an SSN after I obtain a green card?

It is not mandatory but it is recommended to do so because you will get an SSN card in sample 1 which can prove your working authorization in the United States alone. After replacement, you will get a new SSN card with the same social security number on it but the sentence of “VALIF FOR WORK ONLY WITH DHS AUTHORIZATION” has been removed.

7. Must I update to Social Security office after I become a U.S. citizen?

The social security benefits entitled to U.S citizens are different from the ones entitled to lawful permanent residents. So it is highly recommended to update to the Social Security office after you become a U.S. citizen.

8. What if I used someone else’s SSN?

If you used someone else’s SSN that related to identify theft, it is a crime which might cause you ineligible to get a green card or other immigration benefits. Never to provide an SSN not issued to you on the USCIS form before you consult an immigration attorney first.

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