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Social Security Card

The Social Security Card (SSC) and its Social Security Number (SSN) is very important for your life in America. Once you have a valid visa to live and work in the US, you need to apply for SSC as your most valuable identification document. You will need it for your daily routine in the US, e.g. to open a bank account or to get your American driver's license.

What is a Social Security Card?

The Social Security Card is one of the most important documents you will need for living in the USA. It is a source of identification needed for everyday dealings with authorities, employers, banks, insurances etc. and helps the government keep track of your earnings and the benefits you can get.

It is the ID document which contains the 9-digit Social Security Number.The Social Security Card is usually only issued to employment-based or nonimmigrant visa holders or green card holders. The SSN is NOT to be mistaken with a legal resident permit. Having one does not give you the right to live and work in the USA without a visa.

This also means that a previously issued SSN may not be valid for taking up employment, even if it is still valid. You must obtain an immigrant or nonimmigrant residence permit or be in the process before applying for a SSN. In some states, you may also obtain a Taxpayer Identification Number or an Employer Identification Number instead.

Who has to apply for a Social Security Number?

The Social Security administration issues cards to US citizens and foreign nationals holding a permanent or temporary residence and work permit for the US. Everybody who wants to live and work in the US with a valid visa need to apply for a Social Security Number.

What Social Security Card categories are there?

Due to the many different occupational groups, the Social Security Card is available in three different types:

  • Card showing name and SSN: entitles all Americans and Green Card holders to work in the USA without restrictions.
  • Card showing name, SSN and "Valid for Work only with DHS Authorization": available to anyone who works temporarily in the states.
  • Card showing your name, SSN and "Not valid for Employment": for those who have a residence permit but no work permit for the USA.

How to apply for a Social Security Number

If the applicant has not already applied for a Social Security Card through the DS-230 form, they may do so directly at a local SSA office in the USA. There you will need to fill out the application form SS-5. In order to find your local SSA office, you may use the official Office Locator or call the free hotline 1-800-772-1213 between 7 am and 7 pm Monday through Friday.

For your appointment at your local office you will need the following documents for yourself and all eligible family members:

  • your valid (machine-readable) passport,
  • your valid "Resident Alien Card" (Green Card, provided you already have one),
  • otherwise your Form I-797 (which was sent to you by USCIS after you filed Firm I-90 to replace your Green Card).
  • your birth certificate.

The staff there will help you fill out the forms. After submitting your application, it shouldn't take more than two weeks to receive your card. In case your documents have to be reviewed, e.g. at US Citizenship and Immigration Services, there might naturally be delays.

May I apply while trying to get a permanent residence permit?

Foreign nationals, who are in the process of getting a permanent residence permit for the USA, may apply for a Social Security Number at the same time, if:

  • at the time of application they are 18 years or older and
  • have been determined to be eligible for immigration.

On the immigration application form for immigrant visas and alien registration DS-230 the applicant has to answer "yes" to questions 33 a and b.

  • Question 33a states that the applicant, by checking yes, is requesting the Social Security Administration to issue a Social Security Number and card.
  • Question 33b authorizes the US Citizenship and Immigration Services, the Social Security Administration and other government offices to acquire information about the applicant necessary for issuing a Social Security Number.

According to the SSA the card will be delivered to the applicant's US address within three weeks of his or her arrival in the US. If in the meantime the applicant's address changes, the SSA has to be immediately informed.

Can I change to an SSC valid for employment later?

Some Social Security Cards issued with US visas are “not valid for employment”. If you are granted a valid US work visa from USCIS, you will have to apply for a new Social Security Card which is not marked with "not valid for employment". The number on your old card will remain the same, however, as it is valid your entire life. 

What does a Social Security Card cost?

There are no fees for first-time applications, card replacements or re-applying for a new card.

Do foreign students need a Social Security Card?

Foreign students usually do not have their own Social Security Card. Educational institutions in the USA may not require this card as a condition for enrollment. Foreign students will instead receive their own internal number from the institution. Please note, however, that students must apply for a Social Security Card in order to work on campus.

Do students have to pay Social Security?

Social security regulations do not apply to the employment of nonimmigrants who are only staying in the US for a limited period of time. Therefore, the tax law does not apply to visa holders who are working in the USA while receiving training or an education, like:

  • F-1 (student),
  • J-1 (exchange visitor)
  • M-1 (vocational school)

That means no taxes for Social Security or Medicare will be taken out of your salary. Employment options are very limited for these visa categories anyway and usually only include work on campus, internships and in some exception cases a work permit based on economic necessity.

Social Security Number Theft

The social security card with the corresponding SSN is an extremely important document and should not fall into the wrong hands. It is a good idea to keep it in a safe place. You should also avoid giving away the number by telephone or email.

If at all, only authorities, banks and insurance companies should know the complete number. However, it can happen that someone asks for the last four digits of the card, which is harmless. If the card is lost, you have to apply for a new one at the Social Security Office.

How to avoid Identity Theft

"Identity theft" means someone has stolen your personal information, such as your Social Security or bank account number. They can use it to take money from your bank account or get a credit card in your name. Identity theft is a serious crime. Protect yourself by:

  • Making sure you know and trust the people or businesses you give your personal information to, especially on the phone or Internet.
  • Leaving your Social Security Card at home in a safe place. Do not carry it with you.
  • Only carrying the identification documents or credit cards you really need at the time. Leave everything else at home safe.
  • Tearing up or shredding any paper or forms with your personal information on them before throwing them in the trash.