A Social Security number (SSN) is a unique nine-digit number issued by the U.S. Social Security Administration to citizens and permanent residents of the United States and foreign nationals who meet specific eligibility requirements. This number is issued by the U.S. Social Security Administration and is used to track keep track of the total number of years you have worked and your earnings, and report that information to the government. An SSN is also sometimes used as a form of identification.

When you become a citizen or a permanent resident of the United States, you’ll need to obtain an SSN. To initiate the process, you must complete and file an application with the appropriate supporting documentation. In this post, we’ll share important information about SSN, including exactly what it is, why having one is important, and how to obtain one. 

Social Security numbers explained

Social Security numbers were first introduced in 1935 by the Social Security Administration. Originally, the purpose of an SSN was to keep track of Social Security accounts; however, it has since become a way to identify people living in the U.S.

The nine-digit number is divided into three parts and is represented as XXX-XX-XXXX.  

  1. Area numbers. The first three numbers are referred to as the area numbers. Originally, these numbers indicated the state where the SSN was issued. 
  2. Group numbers. The middle two digits are referred to as group numbers. These numbers break down all of the SSNs that share an area number into smaller blocks.
  3. Serial numbers. The last four digits of a Social Security number are the serial numbers. Serial numbers are assigned chronologically within each area and group number as SSN applications are processed. 

The purpose and importance of a Social Security number

A Social Security number is issued to all citizens, permanent residents, temporary residents who are working in the U.S. SSNs serve several purposes: 

  • They keep track of taxes, years worked, and annual earnings of those working in the United States
  • They’re used to track the credit history of individuals
  • SSNs are used to check Social Security eligibility benefits
  • They’re used to report wages to the government
  • SSNs serve as a form of identification

Some scenarios you may encounter that will require an SSN include: 

  • Applying for a job. You’ll need to provide your employer with an SSN. The number will be used to report the wages you earn to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). It will also be used to report your Social Security earnings to the Social Security Administration. If you work in a state that has income tax, the number will also be used by your employer to report your earnings for state income taxes. If you work with an employer that uses the E-Verify program to confirm that employees are legally eligible to work in the U.S., you will also need to have an SSN. 
  • Applying for a loan. An SSN is required for both federal and private loans. The number is used to confirm you are eligible to borrow money from U.S. lenders. For example, if you apply for a federal student loan, you will be required to provide your Social Security number. 
  • Opening a bank account. All U.S. financial institutions are required to collect the SSN of customers. When opening a bank account, your SSN will be used to check your credit, to report your earnings and losses, interest and investments to the IRS.
  • Applying for public assistance. There are certain public assistance programs that require an SSN before issuing benefits. For example, if you require Social Security disability benefits or unemployment benefits, your Social Security number will be used to confirm your identity and to ensure that you are only claiming benefits that you are entitled to. 
  • Medicare enrollment. To receive Medicare benefits, you will need an SSN. 
  • Tax returns. Your SSN is also required on your tax return. The number is used by the IRS to confirm that the earnings reported on your tax return match the income your employer has paid you. 

Social Security number eligibility requirements

If you’re in the U.S. and hoping to work, you’ll need a Social Security Number. Here are some examples of how and when certain visa holders can apply for an SSN.

The Social Security number eligibility requirements are as follows: 

  • F-1 Students. Students who have an F-1 visa are eligible for an SSN if they are employed on-campus or if they work off-campus through Curricular Practical Training; eligibility for the latter is determined once students have been enrolled full-time for at least a year. F-1 visa students can also obtain an SSN if they are authorized to work off-campus through Optional Practical Learning, which students are eligible for after they have been enrolled in school full-time for at least one year.  
  • J-1 Students. Students who hold a J-1 visa are automatically eligible for an SSN if they obtain on-campus employment. Students who hold this visa and work off-campus in Academic Training are eligible for an SSN once they have been enrolled full-time for at least one year.  
  • J-2- Dependents. Dependents of J-2 visa holders (spouses and children) can apply for an SSN if they have applied for work authorization and have an Employment Authorization Document (EAD). 
  • H-1B Employees. Because the employers or sponsors of H-1B visa holders are required to submit the wage earnings of these visa holders to the IRS, they can automatically apply for an SSN. 

Types of Social Security cards

A Social Security number is illustrated on a Social Security Card. There three main types of Social Security Cards: 

  1. Unrestricted. These cards are issued to U.S. citizens and permanent residents (Green Card holders). There aren’t any notes on an unrestricted card, so cardholders can work legally within the United States for any employer; permission from a government agency is not needed to work. 
  2. Restricted. Issued to temporary employees who work for sponsoring employers. Restricted cards have the annotation “valid for work only with the USCIS authorization” printed on them. 
  3. Non-work. This type of Social Security Card is issued to foreign nationals who may be lawfully living in the U.S. but do not have work authorization from the Department of Homeland Security yet have a valid non-work related reason for needing a Social Security number. It can also be issued to foreign nationals who require an SSN because federal law requires them to have one in order to receive certain types of benefits or services. Non-work Social Security cards have the note “not valid for employment” printed on them. 

The documents needed to obtain a Social Security number

Those who are eligible to receive a United States Social Security number must complete and/or submit the necessary documents. Note that certain documents must be originals or copies that have been certified by the issuing agency. Documents that have been photocopied, even if they have been notarized, will not be accepted; all necessary documents cannot be expired. 

To obtain a Social Security number, the following individuals will need to submit the following documents: 

U.S. Citizen

  • Form SS-5. You will need to complete and submit Form SS-5, the Application for a Social Security card. 
  • Proof of U.S. citizenship. Documents that prove U.S. citizenship, such as a birth certificate that was issued in the United States, a report of birth from a U.S. consulate, a U.S. passport, a Certificate of Citizenship, or a Certificate of Naturalization can be submitted. 
  • Proof of age. Applicants who have a U.S. birth certificate must submit it as proof of age. Should an applicant not have a U.S. birth certificate, a U.S. hospital birth record, a U.S. passport will be accepted. 
  • Proof of identity. Applicants age 12 or older are required to have an in-person interview. During this interview, evidence that illustrates the applicant does not have a SSN must be presented. This evidence can include a valid U.S. driver’s license, a state-issued non-driver identification, or a U.S. passport. Applicants who do not have any of these documents or who are unable to get a replacement issued within 10 days of their interview may use an employee ID card, a school ID card, a U.S. military ID card, an adoption decree, or a health insurance card as proof of identification. 

The Social Security card application and all necessary documents must be submitted in-person at a local Social Security office. Individuals who are aged 12 or older must have an in-person interview at a Social Security office. 

Non-citizens who are authorized by the Department of Homeland Security 

Non-citizens who have received permission to work in the U.S from the Department of Homeland Security may also apply for a SSN. To do so, the following documents will need to be submitted: 

  • Form SS-5. You will need to complete Form SS-5, the Application for a Social Security Card. 
  • Proof of immigration status and work eligibility. You will also need to submit the Arrival/Departure Record (I-94) that you received when you arrived in the U.S. to prove your immigration status. 
  • Form I-20. If you are a student with an F-1 visa, you will need to submit Form I-20, the Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status. 
  • Form DS-2019. J-1 or J-2 visa holders will need to supply Form DS-2019, the Certificate of Eligibility for Exchange Visitor Status. 

Students who hold an F-1 visa and are authorized to work off-campus in Curricular Practical Training will be required to submit Form I-20, as well as an employment page, which must e signed by an appropriate school official. Proof of employment will also be required; a recent pay stub or a letter from the employer that states your job title, the date employment began, the amount of hours you are or will be working, the name and telephone number of the supervisor. This letter must be signed and dated by the supervisor. 

Students who hold an F-1 visa and who are authorized to work off-campus will need to submit an Employment Authorization Document that was issued by the Department of Homeland Security. J-1 student visa holders must issue a letter from their sponsor, and this letter must contain an original signature that authorizes the student’s employment. 

The above-mentioned visa holders will also need to submit the following documents:

  • Proof of age. Either a birth certificate or a passport. 
  • Proof of identity. A current document from the DHS, such as Form I-551, Form I-94, or a work permit card issued by the Department of Homeland Security.

All necessary documents must be submitted to a Social Security Office by the applicant. Applicants aged
12 or older will need to complete an in-person interview, as well. 

How Much Does a Social Security number Cost? 

Applying for a Social Security number is free. Simply download and print out Form SS-5, the Application for a Social Security Card, from the Social Security Administration website, complete the form, and obtain originals of the required documents. The completed Form SS-5 and the necessary documents should be submitted in-person at your local Social Security office. 

SSN processing time

The processing time for an SSN varies. The Social Security Administration has to verify all documents with the Department of Homeland Security before an SSN can be assigned. 

The takeaway

If you’re applying for a Social Security card to prepare for a new job, one of the key aspects you may want to start considering is the management of your finances. For example, even the most basic tasks in the U.S. such as getting a credit card, leasing an apartment, and getting a cell phone plan or student loan all require an American credit score

Nova Credit has built technology to translate credit data from countries like Australia, Canada, India, Mexico, the UK and more into a U.S.-equivalent score that newcomers can elect to share with U.S. companies when they apply for credit products here. Learn more here.