If you are 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 (SSN). There is a separate process to apply for the number. Keep reading for information on:
The Social Security Administration (SSA) is a U.S. federal agency that provides a variety of benefits to people (mostly those who have already paid into the system), such as:
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.
For more detailed information on the Social Security system, see the Social Security & Retirement and Disability Law sections of Nolo's website.
To obtain a Social Security number (SSN), you must first demonstrate a need for it. Because you will be working lawfully, 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 and issuance of a work permit card (EAD), but based simply upon the type of visa the person received. Common nonimmigrant visa categories that provide work authorization incident to status include E, F, H, I, J, L, O, P, Q, R, and TN.
Upon arrival in the U.S., the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officer will review your entry visa and make a note in your passport showing your date of entry, visa category, and how long you may remain. During this period of stay, you are said to hold immigration "status."
CBP will also prepare 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 for most entrants. 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, which you can obtain from the CBP website. Bring these to 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 might take longer for SSA to verify your immigration status before issuing your SSN.
Assuming 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 away, your employer might 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 used to match 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.
As noted above, you must demonstrate a need for the SSN. Your dependent children likely will not be able to obtain SSNs, but there's a small chance your spouse might. 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.
Spouses with E-1, E-2, E-3, J-2, or L-2 status are authorized to accept U.S. employment. They must, in most cases, apply for an Employment Authorization Document (EAD) before they start work. The same goes for H-4 spouses married to an H-1B nonimmigrant who is the main beneficiary of an approved Form I-140, Immigrant Petition for Alien Worker (in other words, whose employer is sponsoring them for a green card).
Those who need to apply for work permission can do so by submitting Form I-765 to USCIS. (Also see these special instructions for H-4 spouses.)
When preparing the I-765 Application, there is a box to check if you would like to apply for an SSN at the same time. Answering yes and providing your parents' names allows USCIS to initiate the process of obtaining an SSN on your behalf. If you do not want USCIS to facilitate applying for your SSN, after obtaining the EAD, your spouse can then apply to the SSA office for an SSN.
One potential hurdle is that the SSA deems E and L spouses to have work authorization "incident to status," as explained above. But 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.
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 foreign-born 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.
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 in the United States.
If you have questions about your U.S. immigration status or the rights of your accompanying family members, or could use assistance with applications to, for example, obtain an employment authorization document or an extension or change of status, consult an experienced immigration attorney.