If you're coming to the United States with a nonimmigrant (temporary or short-term) visa to work, getting the visa and entering the country are the first steps. After you arrive, you likely will need a Social Security number. There is a separate process to apply for the number. Keep reading for information on what a Social Security number is and how to get one.
Social Security – What Is It?
The Social Security Administration (SSA) is a federal agency that provides a variety of benefits, such as payments for retirement, disability, and to survivors of persons who have died; government-subsidized healthcare for people over age 65 (Medicare); and Supplemental Security Income to low-income persons who are either aged, blind, or disabled.
For most people working in the United States, including those with a nonimmigrant visa, the employer will withhold a certain amount of the wages and then forward it to the Social Security Administration in accordance with its regular tax obligations. The amount you pay into this account is tracked over the years.
If you eventually meet the SSA’s requirements regarding length of work and other factors, you will be able to collect payments if and when you retire or become disabled. In some situations, you can get credit in your home country for payments into the U.S. Social Security system.
Social Security Number – How Do I Get One?
To obtain a Social Security number (SSN), you must first demonstrate a need for it. Because you will be working, that alone meets the need. In general, however, only persons who have legal authorization to work in the U.S. are eligible for SSNs.
There are several nonimmigrant visa classifications that provide work authorization "incident to status"—in other words, without need for extra review by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, but based simply upon the type of visa the person received.
Upon arrival in the U.S., the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officer will review your visa and make a note in your passport showing your date of entry, visa category, and how long you may remain. This period of stay is your "status." Common nonimmigrant visa categories that provide work authorization incident to status include E, F, H, I, J, L, O, P, Q, R, and TN.
In past years, the SSA recommended waiting ten days from the time you entered the U.S. to apply for an SSN. In 2014, however, SSA announced a new policy, which was based on a new CBP practice regarding a document known as the “I-94 Departure Record.” In the past, CBP issued this important document – which supplies proof of lawful entry as well as the date upon which the nonimmigrant’s status in the U.S. expires – in paper form. However, in 2013, CBP switched to an automated system of preparing I-94s.
Because the SSA can easily confirm a nonimmigrant’s status through this automated system, you can now apply for your SSN any time after you arrive in the United States.
The documents you will need to apply for an SSN are your passport and I-94 Departure Record. Download your I-94 from the Customs and Border Protection online service. Once you have your I-94, visit a local SSA office near your home or work. You can find an office at www.ssa.gov. SSA typically issues the SSN within two to four weeks.
If you received a paper I-94 from CBP when you arrived, it's possible that it may take longer for SSA to verify your immigration status before issuing your SSN. That was the reason for the prior ten-day waiting period.
But Do I Really Need an SSN?
If you want to get paid for your work in the U.S., you'll likely need an SSN. Even though your nonimmigrant status will authorize you to start working right awa, your employer may not be able to pay you until you have an SSN.
Most payroll systems require an SSN in order to withhold taxes and send them to various governmental agencies, such as the SSA, Internal Revenue Service, and state and local governments. The SSN is what matches your wages and withheld taxes to you. This is particularly important when it's time to file your annual tax returns or apply for SSA benefits in retirement.
But again, you don't need the SSN to start working. Your immigration status allows you to work. The SSN merely facilitates the payroll process.
What About My Family? Can My Spouse and Children Get SSNs Too?
As noted above, you must demonstrate a need for the SSN. Your dependent children likely will not be able to obtain SSNs, but your spouse may. With a few exceptions, spouses and children who accompany nonimmigrants on dependent visas, such as those with E-1, E-2, E-3, F-2, H-4, or J-2 status, are not authorized to work in this country.
Only spouses with E-1, E-2, E-3, J-2, or L-2 status are authorized to work. They must, in most cases, apply for an Employment Authorization Document (EAD) before they start work. They can do so by submitting Form I-765 to USCIS.
After obtaining the EAD, your spouse can then apply to the SSA office for an SSN.
One issue your spouse might face is that the SSA deems E and L spouses to have work authorization "incident to status," as explained above. Be aware, however, that USCIS views the matter differently and requires E and L spouses to obtain EADs before working. And because it's USCIS, not SSA, that has the final say on who has work authorization, the recommendation for E and L spouses is to obtain the EAD before applying for an SSN and beginning work.
ITIN – Is It the Same as an SSN?
An Individual Taxpayer Identification Number, or ITIN, is an identifying number that the Internal Revenue Service (federal tax agency) issues to persons who do not qualify for SSNs. Its primary use is to allow such persons to pay their taxes.
If you have family members with you who either are not eligible to work or will not be working, you can apply for ITINs for them from IRS in order to include them as dependents on your annual tax return.
Please be aware that even though ITINs have the same nine-digit format as SSNs, they are not valid for employment purposes, that is, to work.