How to apply for an SSN in the United States

6 minute read

An SSN might only be a handful of numbers, but it’s essential if you want to keep your social security records correct or apply for government services or benefits. As it’s also commonly used for identifying individuals in the US, it can be pretty inconvenient to try to get along without an SSN if you’re there for any length of time.

Here’s everything you need to know about how to apply for an SSN in the United States.

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Now, back to what you came here to read.

What’s a Social Security number (aka SSN)?

A Social Security Number is a unique, 9 digit identifier, which is issued by the US Government Social Security Administration (SSA).1 It’s used to keep all your social security records in order. It’s also sometimes used as a convenient way of identifying you - although your SSN card can’t be used as a primary proof of identity as it doesn’t have a photo.

Where can I find my US SSN?

If you have a United States SSN, but can’t remember it, it can be found in the following places:2

  • On your social security card
  • Online if you have a My Social Security account with the SSA already
  • On a US bank statement, if you hold an account there
  • On previous tax returns
  • On a W2 form - that’s the one used to report your earnings for tax purposes

What if I don’t have a United States SSN? Why do I need it?

The SSN is the de facto national identifier in the United States. That means that in effect you need to register for an SSN to get a job, get access to social security benefits, and to access many government services.3

For any US citizen living in the United States, having an SSN is pretty much mandatory. If you’re a foreigner, with permission to work in the US, you’re entitled to get an SSN, as well. 4 If you’re not entitled to work then you can still apply for an SSN under certain circumstances - for example, if state or federal law requires you to have an SSN to access certain benefits.4

How do I get an SSN in the United States?

There are several different routes to get an SSN - and the process and documentation needed will depend in part on your status. There are different processes depending on your citizenship status and the specific visa type you have.

Applying for an SSN online

You can apply for a replacement SSN card online in some circumstances - however, if you’re aged over 12 and have never had an SSN before, it’s obligatory to apply in person.

To get a replacement card online you must:5

  • Be an adult US citizen
  • Have a US mailing address
  • Be applying for a straight replica card - no changes to name required
  • Hold a driving license issued by one of a select number of states

If you’re applying for a child aged under 12, online then you’ll need the following:6

  • Proof of citizenship for the child - usually a passport
  • Proof of age for the child - either a passport or birth certificate under most circumstances
  • Proof of identity for the child - this could be a passport, or another form of state-issued ID, or a school, religious or medical record for example
  • Proof of identity for the person submitting the application - a passport, drivers license or similar is usually requested

You’ll need to apply online and can then mail in the documents needed.5 The rules on what’s acceptable are pretty strict - original documents are best, and if not you’ll have to have copies certified by the agencies who issued them. Make sure you read the small print online before you send your application in.

Applying for an SSN in person as an adult US citizen

If you’re over the age of 12 and applying for the first time for an SSN, you’ll need to submit an application with original or properly certified documents in person. As part of the application process, you have to attend an interview where you’ll need to explain why you have never had an SSN before, to ensure that numbers aren’t issued to people who already have a valid SSN.6

The documents needed include:6

  • Proof of citizenship - usually a US passport or US issued birth certificate
  • Proof of age - if a birth certificate exists this must be used. If no birth certificate is available a passport or religious or hospital record of your birth can be substituted
  • Proof of identity - this could be a passport, drivers license or another form of state-issued ID, or a school, religious or medical record for example

One document can be used for two purposes - so, for example, your US passport could be used to prove both your identity and your age, but you must provide at least 2 documents in total with your application.6

Process for expats - in the United States as a foreign-born citizen

If you’re a foreign-born, or naturalised US citizen, you’ll need to provide all of the documents laid out above. To provide evidence of your citizenship, if you don’t have a US passport, there are a few other documents which can be accepted, including a Certificate of Citizenship, or a Certificate of Naturalisation.6

Process for expats who aren’t US citizens

If you’re an expat but need an SSN, then you’ll have to prove your age and identity as in the process set out above for US citizens.

In addition, you’ll have to provide evidence of your immigration status, and eligibility to work:6

  • Valid visa and unexpired immigration document - the exact document depends on your status but could be a Lawful Permanent Resident Card, Employment Authorization Document, or a Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status
  • Eligibility to work - usually this will be shown by your visa class, but if you’re a student you might have to give a letter from your university giving you permission to work while studying
  • Proof of employment - depending on the circumstance, you might have to provide specific details of your work in a letter from your employer

Getting hold of your SSN isn’t too arduous - but you do have to check, and double check, that you have all the right documents. Going along to your interview with incorrect or incomplete information will mean you have to start the entire process again and cause delays. Check out all the details on the SSA website so you know what to expect before you start.

1. (September 18 2018)
2. (September 18 2018)
3. (September 18 2018)
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6. (September 18 2018)

This publication is provided for general information purposes only and is not intended to cover every aspect of the topics with which it deals. It is not intended to amount to advice on which you should rely. You must obtain professional or specialist advice before taking, or refraining from, any action on the basis of the content in this publication. The information in this publication does not constitute legal, tax or other professional advice from TransferWise Limited or its affiliates. Prior results do not guarantee a similar outcome. We make no representations, warranties or guarantees, whether express or implied, that the content in the publication is accurate, complete or up to date.

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