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How To Apply For A U.S. Social Security Card If You Are A Foreign National In Possession Of Valid Work Authorization

Once you arrive in the U.S., you will quickly discover that it is impossible to receive a paycheck, open a bank account, apply for a credit card or a mortgage or conduct many other types of business without first securing a U.S. Social Security Number.

Any person who possesses valid U.S. work authorization (such as an unexpired work visa status or an employment authorization card) may apply for a Social Security Card by taking the following steps:

  1. Locate the U.S. Social Security Administration (SSA) office nearest to you. You can find the nearest office by looking in the governmental pages of your phone book under Federal agencies. It does NOT matter which SSA office you apply at. You should wait 10 days from your initial U.S. entry to apply for a Social Security Card to avoid a delay in processing since SSA must verify your U.S. entry with DHS.
  2. Before you arrive at the SSA office, you should ensure that you have the proper documents in hand to apply for the Social Security Card. You must have documents to prove your age, identity, and current, lawful immigration status. In most cases, the following documents will suffice: (a) a valid passport containing an unexpired work visa (such as, for example an L-1, H-1, O-1, or E); and (b) a print-out of your electronic I-94 record (or white I-94 Card if you entered via a land border) proving possession of unexpired work visa status.  Persons in status such as L-1, O, and H-1B should also bring the original CIS issued I-797 Approval Notice for them (or their employer in the case of visa holders based on an approved Blanket Petition), especially if such document operates to extend or change the status listed on their I-94 Card. Persons in F-1, E-2, L-2, H-4 or I-2  visa status should also bring their employment authorization cards (Form I-766) with them, as should persons who have applied for permanent residence but have not yet been approved. Persons in J-1 visa status should also bring their unexpired DS-2019 form with them. Persons in another work-authorized status, such as asylee, should check with our office to determine what documents they should present. Lastly, it is also advisable to bring your drivers license with you as an additional form of positive identification.
  3. Despite the federal government's focus on uniform application of its rules, some SSA offices may have more stringent requirements for applying for the card, such as presentation of an original or certified Birth Certificate, so you may wish to call in advance to make sure that you bring all required items with you. For example, if your name has changed since issuance of your current passport due to a marriage or divorce, you may also need to bring the original or certified Marriage Certificate, Divorce Decree, and if applicable, name change documents with you so SSA can be certain of your identity and correct legal name.
  4. Before you visit SSA, you should download Form SS-5 (Application for Social Security Card) from the SSA website at You can also simply pick up the form at any SSA office and complete it while you wait in line. There is no fee to apply.
  5. The form is relatively straightforward, but there are a few items that deserve some special discussion. In item 2 (mailing address), SSA will not mail your Social Security Card to a foreign address. If you do not yet have a U.S. residence, you may designate a work address or the address of a family member or other trustworthy person. In item 3, if you are not a U.S. citizen or permanent resident, but have work authorization, you should select the box for "Legal Alien Allowed to Work." In item 17, if you are applying on your own behalf, check the "Self" box.
  6. SSA will check your form for completeness and ensure that you have signed it, review your passport and other Immigration documents, and provide you with a receipt for having filed your application. They should return all of your original Immigration documents to you, including your passport, CIS Approval Notice, and I-94 Card.
  7. SSA generally will issue the Social Security Card to you within two weeks of your filing the application. The card will state "VALID ONLY WITH CIS AUTHORIZATION" on its face. The purpose of this is to ensure that hiring employees only hire foreign nationals who possess current, unexpired work authorization.
  8. If you later become a U.S. permanent resident ("Green Card" holder), you may visit SSA and file a new application. You would, of course, disclose your earlier application and indicate your Social Security Number. Your Social Security Number will never change. However, the benefit of reapplying is that upon presentation of proof that you are a permanent resident, CIS will issue you a new card (bearing the same number) that eliminates the statement citing the employment restriction. You do not need to wait to actually receive your Green Card in order to accomplish this. The temporary "I-551" stamp that CIS will place in your passport will enable you to accomplish this.
  9. Family members who lack work authorization generally cannot apply for the U.S. Social Security Card. For tax filing purposes (when you list them as a dependent on your U.S. Tax Return), they should instead promptly apply for and secure an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN). Information about ITINs is available at the IRS website. The relevant application form is a W-7. Once a family member applies for permanent residence and either is approved or obtains an employment authorization card upon filing the application, he/she may then apply for a Social Security Card. Naturally, if they convert from their nonwork (e.g., L-2, H-4, O-3) status to a Work Visa Status, they may also apply for a Social Security Card.
  10. Knowingly using a Social Security Number which is incorrect or misusing a Social Security Card is a Federal offense which may subject one to removal (deportation) from the U.S., so it is important to follow these rules and only apply for and use a Social Security Card in a lawful fashion.

Alternatively, an ITIN, or Individual Taxpayer Identification Number, is a tax processing number for certain nonresident and resident aliens, their spouse, and dependents. The ITIN is only available to individuals who cannot get a Social Security Number (SSN). Click here for more information on Individual Taxpayer Identification Numbers (ITINs).

While this memorandum covers the most common questions and issues that arise when applying for a Social Security Card, you should direct any legal questions or issues to our firm after first obtaining authorization from your Human Resources Department.


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