Many new arrivals into the US are keen to apply, as soon as possible, for their Social Security Number which is the closest US equivalent to Canada’s SIN number. It is widely perceived to be a ‘magic number’ which opens doors to credit and other services, so people are always anxious to start the application process. This process isn’t as fast as it is for new arrivals to Canada, but with the right information, it can be almost as easy.
What is a Social Security Number?
Social Security numbers (SSNs or SS#) are used in the US to report the individual’s wages to the government and assist in determining their eligibility for Social Security benefits. They are also a common method for tracking credit and confirming medical plan benefit entitlement.
Who can apply for a SSN?
It’s important to remember and share with transferees that a SSN isn’t always needed unless they want to work in the US. Also, not every new arrival will be entitled to apply for one. Eligibility will depend on visa type and work status.
There are two different options available for non-citizens when applying for a Social Security number:
• When applying for an immigration visa, an employee can also apply for their Social Security number on the visa form. Please note this is not the kind of visa for those who plan to move to the US temporarily for work or study.
• In most cases, employees will have applied for a temporary, non-immigrant visa for work purposes. In these cases, they will need to apply in person at a Social Security office in the US.
Both the employee and their legal spouse are entitled to apply when coming to the US on the employee’s work visa. The spouse can obtain a SSN without being employed but will need further authorization to work legally. As stated earlier, a spouse who does not intend to seek work does not really need to apply for a SSN although many like to do this to build their own credit and some degree of independence.
What is needed to apply?
All documents used must be originals or copies certified by the agency that issued them and cannot be laminated!
The documents required when applying for a Social Security number are:
1. Completed Social Security Number application (Form SS-5)
2. At least two original documents proving identity (Passport and Temporary Work Visa)
3. Proof of Lawful admission status: Most recent I-94 number which should be downloaded from here or Proof of Eligibility to work.
4. Age (Birth certificate if available but if not passport is acceptable)
Legal spouses must provide the same documentation along with their original Marriage License/Certificate, formally translated into English by the Government agency that issued that Marriage License. If this translation did not take place before arrival, their local Consulate in the US offers translation services.
Children in the US on Temporary Visas do not need SS#s and are not actually eligible to apply. This can be a source of confusion and frustration for parents so it is good to provide clarity for them. Children can be registered in school and receive other services without a SS# although they will often be asked for it.
In those cases, parents can simply explain that the child isn’t entitled to receive a number and the relevant work around will be implemented.
Family members in the US on Temporary Visas who are not eligible to receive their own SSN can apply for a Tax Identification Number (ITIN) instead. This is easy to acquire at any local IRS office and allows them to be declared and claimed on the Employee’s tax return. Employers often handle this for their employees at the time of the first tax return.
Timeline for SS# application
The application can be made once the employee enters the US using their work visa for the first time. They cannot apply on a business trip while using a visitor’s visa. If the employee arrives in the US and then leaves within a few days on another trip outside the US, they will need to start the count again on their return as they will be issued a new I-94.
The US government website suggests waiting 10 working days after arrival before submitting an application. This allows the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) time to verify identification records.
In some states, it has become common to apply sooner due to the use of the new online I-94 service. However, it’s always good to check with local consultants to confirm best practice. Applying before the ID process has been completed can seriously delay receipt of the card.
Once the documentation has been submitted, the application process is considered to be complete and the applicants will be given a record of their application reference number and an expected time for the card’s delivery. It’s important they keep this receipt in case the card does not arrive as expected.
The standard is that they should receive their Social Security Card/s in 7 to 10 days via mail services. If a spouse has applied at the same time, their card may be delayed by a week or two to ensure that the two SSNs are not too close together. The clerk will usually advise of this but it’s good for people to know to avoid stress.
Due to the fact that many applicants will be applying ahead of securing long term housing, it’s important that they provide a safe mailing address for delivery. Office addresses can often be the best option.
If the card is not received after the time suggested by the clerk, the employee should call the telephone number on the receipt and quote the reference number or go back to the same office to request an update. Telephone lines are often very busy during the mornings and the start of the week so, mid to late afternoon is the best time to make those follow up calls if needed.
It’s very important for employees to understand that their SS card is a crucial document and should be stored somewhere safe. Most Americans know their number by heart and it’s good for employees to learn theirs or record it safely in a way that does not make it easily identifiable by potential thieves. They should be told NOT to carry the card in their wallet or share the number unless they are asked for it by financial or medical providers. It really is a magic number!