How can international students apply for Social Security numbers?

social security for international students

If you’re studying in the United States, you may be wondering if you need to get a Social Security number.

First, a primer: Many colleges use nine-digit Social Security numbers as student identification numbers. Those ID numbers are used in lieu of your name on essays and tests and might be used on official documents. But if you’re considering getting a Social Security number just for student identification purposes, you don’t need to go that far because colleges can assign you a student ID number. In fact, the Social Security office will not assign you a Social Security number for the sole purpose of enrolling in college.

Rather, Social Security numbers are assigned to those who are authorized to work in the United States. The number is a way to report your earnings to the government and determine your eligibility for Social Security benefits.

Here are the steps for international students to get Social Security numbers, which can vary depending on your student status.

1. Check in with the international student office on campus

A designated school official will be able to tell you whether you’re eligible to work on campus and can give you information about available work-study jobs, which could include being a lab assistant or working in a campus office.

International students are limited in the jobs that they can take while they’re studying in the United States. You can learn more about that here.

Your school may also allow you to work at some limited off-campus jobs that are permitted under the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) regulations.

If your school has given you the proper authorization to work an on-campus or off-campus job, you are then eligible to get a Social Security number.

2. Apply for a Social Security number at your local Social Security office

First things first, here’s where you can find your local Social Security office.

To apply for a Social Security card, you’ll need to show the office your documents, including those that show your work-authorized immigration status, age and identity.

Let’s get specific, though, so you make sure you have all the documents you need and don’t have to make multiple trips to the Social Security Office.

To prove your immigration status, you must show the office a current admission stamp on your unexpired foreign passport and Arrival/Departure Record (Form I-94) if available. If you’re an F-1 or M-1 student, you need to show the office your Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status (or Form I-20). If you’re a J-1 exchange visitor, you must show your Certificate of Eligibility for Exchange Visitor Status (Form DS-2019).

To prove your work eligibility, you’ll need some more documentation. If you’re an F-1 student and eligible to work on campus, you need to provide a letter from a designated school official (your international students office should know who this is) that identifies you, confirms your school status and identifies your employer and the type of work you are, or will be, doing. You’ll also need to show evidence of employment – like a pay slip or a letter from your potential employer. Your supervisor will need to sign and date the employment letter, which should describe your job, your employment start date, and the number of hours you are working, or will be working. The letter also needs to have your supervisor’s name and telephone number on it.

If you’re an F-1 student who is authorized to work in curricular practical training (CPT), you’ll also need to provide the office with a Form I-20 with the employment page completed and signed by the designated official at your school.

If you’re an F-1 or M-1 student and have a work permit (Form I-766) from the DHS, you’ll also need to present that.

If you’re a J-1 student, student intern or an international visitor, you’ll need to provide a letter from your sponsor. The letter needs to be on your sponsor’s letterhead and it needs to have an original signature authorizing your employment.  

A few quick notes before we move on: Your Social Security application can’t be processed if your on-campus or CPT work begins more than 30 days from your application date or if the employment start date on your work permit from the DHS (which is Form I-766) is a future date.

To prove your age, you’ll need to present your foreign birth certificate if you have it or are able to get it within 10 business days. But if you don’t have a foreign birth certificate, that’s OK. The office can consider other documents, including your passport or a document issued by DHS that shows your age.

To prove your identity, you’ll need to show a current document that shows your name, identifying information and a recent photograph. The Social Security office will also ask to see your current U.S. immigration documents, which includes your current admission stamp in your unexpired foreign passport and your Arrival/Departure Record (Form I-94) if it’s available.

3. You can start work before you have your Social Security number

You don’t need the Social Security number to actually start working, but the Internal Revenue Services (or IRS) does require employers to report wages via a Social Security number. The Social Security office can provide a letter you can give to your employer that states you’ve applied for your Social Security number and, in the meantime, your employer may use immigration documents as proof that you’re able to work in the United States.  (Employers can find more information about that process here).

* Information for this post was gathered from the Social Security Administration.

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