How to Get a Social Security Number as an International Student: Complete Guide

Updated on April 10, 2024

Having a Social Security Number is often a prerequisite for getting financial aid, student loans, or work authorization in the United States. Once an international student has a Social Security Number their status has been recognized legally by the US government, a critical step towards permanent legal status, but how do you get one?

Whether or not an international student or visa holder can obtain a Social Security Number depends on a number of factors, including their current status as a student, proof of visa and legal entry into the United States, work authorization, and more. Read on to learn all the ins and outs of the application process, and how to maximize your chance of success.

Can International Students Get a Social Security Number?

Social Security Numbers are used to report wages and earnings to the government, so everyone who earns a wage in the United States must have one. An SSN is also required to fill out tax forms, and since students on F-1 and J-1 visas must fill out at least one tax form to retain their visa status, they are also required to have an SSN. This makes international students with visa status eligible for an SSN, though there are further restrictions upon who may be granted one.

Eligibility to Apply for an SSN

International students must first have enrolled, registered, and begun classes before they can apply for an SSN. All SSN applicants must have been in the United States for a minimum of 10 days. Another important condition is that you must provide either proof of current employment or a job offer when applying, regardless of student visa status. This includes work authorization from your school, whether for employment on-campus or off.

Proving Your Identity

A valid passport is a must to verify your identity. The first documents that you must produce proving your immigration status are your up-to-date US immigration document (I-94) and your Arrival and Departure Record that was given to you upon entering the country. Students in the country on F-1 and M-1 visas must further produce their Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status document (I-20). Those with J-1 visas require their  Certificate of Eligibility for Exchange Visitor Status document (DS-2019).

In addition, depending on your situation, bring as many of the documents below as you have:

  • Permanent Resident Card (I-551)
  • Employment Authorization Document (I-766)
  • Arrival/Departure Record (I-94)
  • Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status document (I-20)

Establishing Your Immigration Status

Students need to prove their visa types. If you are on an F-1 or M-1 visa, then carry your I-20 form. And if you are on a J-1 or J-2 exchange visitor visa, then take your DS-2019 form.

You’ll also need to provide evidence of your overall immigration status with documents like:

  • Permanent Resident Card (I-551)
  • Employment Authorization Document (I-766)
  • Arrival/Departure Record (I-94)

Gaining Work Authorization

For foreign employees, take your valid passport plus either:

  • Arrival/Departure Record (I-94)
  • Employment Authorization Document (I-766)

F-1 students authorized to work on-campus should carry:

  • I-20 Certificate of Eligibility
  • A letter from employer stating job title, start date, hours, and supervisor name and contact

For practical training programs, your designated school official must complete and sign employment certification pages on the I-20.

And any other work permits should be included too.

What Documents are Needed to get Social Security Number?

Applications for Social Security Numbers must be made in person at your local Social Security Administration office, where you will fill out an Application for a Social Security Card (Form SS-5). At this appointment, you must provide the original documents you received ratifying your work-authorized immigration status or student visa, along with documents that prove your identity and age.

More information on documentation and eligibility for an SSN can be found here: How Do I get a Social Security Number if I’m an international student?

4 Tips to Apply for an SSN as an International Student

International Students must coordinate with their school and local Social Security Administration officials to obtain an SSN. Follow the steps below to ensure you meet all the guidelines and have the best chance of success.

1. Speak With Your Designated School Official

Each school has a Designated School Official (DSO) equipped with the information and documents required to apply for an SSN. The first step towards applying for an SSN, then, involves speaking to your DSO so they can brief you on the conditions and regulations for students on F-1, M-1, and J-1 visas. Your DSO will be able to tell you whether or not you are eligible for an SSN.

2. Verify Your Active Status

The Department of Homeland Security uses the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS), a web-based database which all immigrant students and exchange visitors must enter into. To be eligible for an SSN your status in SEVIS must have been active for a minimum of two days before you apply. If your status is anything other than Active, you will be deemed ineligible.

3. Wait 10 Days while in the U.S. Before Applying

Information on student visa status is tracked by the Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements (SAVE) program, which the Social Security Administration uses to determine your eligibility for an SSN. It’s important to wait 10 days after you’ve entered the country to submit your SSN application so your latest visa status documents and verifications are updated across government information systems and your application will be advanced.

4. Visit Your Local Social Security Administration Office

With this information and the proper documents in place, you can visit your local SSA office to submit your application for a Social Security Card. You will be prompted to produce the documents listed above as part of your application, and they must all be up-to-date and unexpired when you submit them. Bring any additional documentation that proves your identity and age; the more official documentation of your immigration/visa status and identity you can provide, the better your odds of receiving an SSN.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

What is a Social Security Number (SSN)?

A Social Security Number (SSN) is a nine-digit number issued by the U.S. government to citizens, permanent residents, and eligible non-resident individuals. It’s primarily used for tracking earnings for social security benefits and taxation.

Why do international students need an SSN?

International students may need an SSN for various reasons, including on-campus employment, obtaining a driver’s license, setting up a bank account, and for tax-related purposes.

Are all international students eligible for an SSN?

Not all international students are eligible for an SSN. Eligibility depends on your visa status and whether you have secured employment or a job offer in the U.S.

How can an international student apply for an SSN?

To apply for an SSN, follow these steps:

  1. Obtain an offer of employment or a job offer letter.
  2. Get a letter of verification from your school’s international student office.
  3. Complete an Application for a Social Security Card (Form SS-5).
  4. Visit a Social Security Administration (SSA) office with your Form SS-5, job offer letter, verification letter, passport, I-94, and I-20 or DS-2019.

What documents are required for SSN application?

Required documents for SSN application include:

  1. Form SS-5.
  2. Passport with visa.
  3. I-94 Arrival/Departure Record.
  4. I-20 (for F-1 students) or DS-2019 (for J-1 students).
  5. Employment offer letter.
  6. Verification letter from your school.

Can I work in the U.S. without an SSN?

You can start your employment while your SSN application is pending. Inform your employer that you have applied for an SSN and provide it to them as soon as you receive it.

How long does it take to receive an SSN?

After applying, it typically takes about 2-4 weeks to receive your SSN. However, processing times can vary.

What if my visa does not allow me to work?

If your visa does not permit employment, you are generally not eligible for an SSN. However, if you need an SSN for other reasons, consult with your school’s international student office for guidance.

Can I apply for an SSN before arriving in the U.S.?

No, you cannot apply for an SSN before arriving in the U.S. You must be in the country to apply and have the required documentation.

Is there a fee for applying for an SSN?

No, there is no fee for applying for a Social Security Number. The application process is free.

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Frank Gogol

I’m a firm believer that information is the key to financial freedom. On the Stilt Blog, I write about the complex topics — like finance, immigration, and technology — to help immigrants make the most of their lives in the U.S. Our content and brand have been featured in Forbes, TechCrunch, VentureBeat, and more.

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