RELOCATION: Probably the most important document to obtain when moving to the USA, after actually getting your visa, is a Social Security Card which provides newcomers with their Social Security Number (SSN). For reasons explained in an earlier post ‘When is a Social Security Number Needed in the USA?’, SSN’s are not necessary for everything but are extremely useful to have.
An SSN can help you establish an identity and credit history easier than if you do not have one. Many other settling-in processes are easier or streamlined if you have an SSN. You will need to apply for an SSN through the Social Security Administration (SSA) at one of their field offices.
When to Apply for a Social Security Card
For all visa holders other than permanent residents with a Green Card (Form I-551), it is recommended you wait 14 week days (before applying) after you first arrive in the country. There is a good reason for this wait. If you are new to the USA, it takes this long for your immigration records to be checked by USCIS, part of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Once this is done, the information has to be available in the S.A.V.E database for SSA staff to access. Even with electronic I-94’s in operation now, it will often take up to 14 days before verification is available.
Applying any earlier for the number can not only be a waste of time but can actually delay final approval by some weeks. So even though it is tempting to try earlier, it is best to wait the recommended time.
Permanent residents with a Green Card (Form I-551), are usually given the option of requesting a SSN when applying for their visa. In this case you will not need to apply again for a SSN, and it should be mailed to you directly. It will likely be delivered to your mailing address about 3 weeks after you arrive. If it does not arrive by then, visit a Social Security Administration (SSA) office to follow up.
If you did not apply for a SSN when applying for your green card, you will need to go to the SSA office to apply. It is better in this case to wait until 3 weeks have passed. Social Security administrators usually prefer this. They do not like to issue a new SSN, until they are certain one has not already been sent.
Documents Needed to Apply For a Social Security Card
Here is a list of the documents needed:
CORE DOCUMENTS ALL APPLICANTS NEED
- A completed Social Security Form: you can use their printed forms (available at the SSA office) or download their online form which can be typed into and saved.
- Passport with visa and immigration status proof (copy of your latest 1-94, I-551 or other immigration paper)
- Birth certificate original: this is not required very often if you already have a passport as proof of age and identity. If there is an identity issue of some kind, then a birth certificate is useful as supporting evidence. Bring it as a backup document.
SPECIALISED DOCUMENTS ONLY SOME APPLICANTS NEED
(Does not apply to L-1, H-1B or Green card applicants)
- Marriage certificate original: required for L-2 visa holders to prove marital status and may be useful again for identification purposes. Other temporary visa holders do not usually need unless they will be receiving benefits as the spouse of the primary visa holder. If in doubt, bring also. L-2 and E3 VISA HOLDERS
- Certificate of Eligibility for Exchange Visitor Status: If you are a J-1 or J-2 exchange visitor, you need to bring your DS-2019. J-1 OR J-2 VISA HOLDERS
- Sponsor Letter: If you are a J-1 student, student intern, or international visitor, you must provide a letter from your sponsor. The letter should be on sponsor letterhead with an original signature that authorizes your employment. J-1 VISA HOLDERS
- Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status: If you are an F-1 or M-1 student, you will need to bring this certificate, also known as Form 1-20. F-1 and M-1 VISA HOLDERS
- Work Permit (I–766): If you are an F-1 or M-1 student and have a work permit (Form I-766) from DHS, you must present it. L-2 visa holders however, do not need this before applying for their SSN. F-1 and M-1 VISA HOLDERS
- Proof of employment: this may be a pay slip or a letter from your employer, signed by your supervisor. F-1 and M-1 VISA HOLDERS
As there are important details that international students should know about getting the documents listed above, they should check the SSA website or read the SSA’s International Students publication.
Completing the SS Card Form
The form is very straight forward to complete. Also, there are helpful instructions the SSA provide attached to the form. However, here are a few pointers in case you need extra help:
No. 1: Fill in the name section so that it matches your I-94 or immigration record you have obtained for the application. The immigration document should already match your passport and visa. If not, see separate section below. It is easier for your later driver license application, if your SSN card matches the other two documents exactly. NB: On the second name question, if you are married and changed your name, then this must be filled in.
No.4: Remember to use the American date system here: month/date/year.
No. 5: Mostly you will cross the ‘Legal Alien Allowed To Work’ box. If not this option, read the instructions on the sheet carefully.
No. 9: While it is tempting to leave this blank, if you or your parents have never applied for a SSN previously, they still want your parent’s names, so they can check the information themselves. Do not leave the name spaces blank.
No. 16: Put best suitable address-see note below.
Pay Special Attention To Address Used
Since the SS card may be delivered anywhere from 7-14 days (when everything goes right), through to 4 weeks or longer (problems encountered), it is best to put an address that will be practical for the entire time. If using temporary accommodation for 1 month or less, perhaps consider using your work address, as this is a permanent address. Alternatively, if you work in a huge corporation, where mail delivery is complex (different buildings etc.), you may wish to use a home address, so it does not get lost at work.
The Application Process for the Social Security Card
The process of getting a Social Security Card for expats is usually not that difficult. You turn up with your required documents at the nearest Social Security office. There are many of these in NJ, and elsewhere. A list of office locations is available on the Social Security Administration website.
When you enter, there will be a machine where you need to print a number out that gives you a place in the waiting line to see a staff member. Then you will need to take a seat (if available) until your number is called.
The applications are reviewed in order using this number system. There is usually an electronic screen on the wall that shows where you are in the queue. The SSA administrator will call your number out over loud speakers in the waiting room. Most of the time you will need to wait for a while until your number is called. Then you will asked to go to a numbered booth to submit your application.
How Your Application is Reviewed
Once you are with a SSA administrator, you need to provide them your passport, I-94 documents and completed form, and any other key documents requested. They will be reviewed while your application is processed. Once the administrator has checked your immigration status via the S.A.V.E database, then usually your application gets processed for standard turnaround.
Even if your immigration status is not verifiable at this time, your application will still get accepted but may take longer to get your SSN. However, if everything is in order, and your immigration status is verified, then your Social Security Card will be mailed out to you in about 2 weeks’ time. Sometimes it can even take as little as 7-10 days.
You will be asked to check the spelling of your name and address details, to confirm they are correct. Do this carefully, as this is very important. After you confirm all is OK, they print out a receipt for you showing you submitted an application. Keep this document, until you have at least received your card. It provides a reference point for enquiries about your application while in process.
Time needed to Attend the SSA for an application
The hardest part of this process, aside from getting the right documents will usually be the waiting time in the office. Completing this task can take a few hours, though you can be lucky and get it done fairly quickly. Make sure you give yourself at least 3-4 hours to do this, in case the offices are crowded, as often occurs.
Potential Problems due to Immigration Form Errors
One problem to be aware of is when your immigration form, e.g. I-94, doesn’t have the correct spelling. Sometimes it is the arrangement of names on your entry. The I-94 printed out shows you how it is entered in the USCIS records currently. These often have mistakes in them due to various reasons. Most often the CBP officer incorrectly vets or enters the details. if the details are not corrected before going to the SSA, then this will delay your application.
Sometimes there are unavoidable issues with getting your name correctly presented on your immigration form. For instance, the US visa software doesn’t allow dashes (hyphens) to be used. This means anyone with a hyphenated name like Anne-Marie, will now have two names instead of one. This is a problem for both first and last names. Sometimes the database can’t include all your last names so it is abbreviated.
How Immigration Record Problems are Handled at the Application
If such a problem is noticed by the SSA officer, which occurs in nearly all cases, then they will either:
- try to have the I-94/immigration record corrected as part of your application or
- tell you to get the problems fixed at a USCIS field office before returning to apply.
In the first case, the SSA is querying the immigration entry with the USCIS. They cannot dictate how the entry will be changed. Neither will you see how it is changed until your SSN turns up. The process however can take some time. Most SSA offices will tell you if it’s not delivered to you after 4 weeks, then to follow up with your original SSA office where you applied. often this type of process does take at least 4 weeks, if not longer.
The option of fixing the name issues may sometimes be better fixed by an applicant BEFORE going to the SSA office to apply for their Social Security Card. Then once the name entry is corrected, you should return to apply with the new immigration record.
Spouses who need a denial letter for their social security card
There are circumstances where a letter from Social Security confirming non-qualification for Social Security is useful. Where a non-working spouse wants to obtain a driver license but doesn’t qualify for an SSN, then this letter will be needed for the driver license application later on. To obtain this letter, no appointment is needed. Just turn up and take a waiting number, as described previously, and then the officer should be able to provide the letter immediately. You will need to bring your passport and visa, and immigration status papers with you to prove you are entitled to the letter.
Important Things to Remember about Your Social Security Number
- Don’t carry your social security card around with you
- Don’t share your number with anybody unless necessary. This might include where it is needed for IRS tracking such as w9 or W8 forms for pension funds. It is also needed for mortgages or getting a store credit card. Sometimes a bank may request it as a security check with a reputable company etc.
- If you lose your social security card, report it straight away. Getting someone else’s SSN is the first step to identity theft, so prioritize the safe-keeping and reporting of its loss.
- Learn your number by heart, so you can provide it when needed, without carrying it around.
This article hopefully provides some useful information to assist newly arrived expats and immigrants. However, the Social Security Administration website has more information on getting an SS card for non-citizens. For newly arriving students, most colleges and universities provide detailed information as well via their websites.
Although you can get by without it, having a social security card makes US life a lot smoother. Once you have this number, it is for life.