Finance & Economics

What is SSN and how to get a Social Security card

SSN is the nine-digit number that connects people with Social Security


What is SSN and how to get a Social Security card. Source:

So, SSN stands for Social Security number, and the Social Security card is a piece of paper, which has the Social Security number and the name of its owner. All Americans, as well as legally resident foreigners, have one. Moreover, it is considered to be the most important document in the US. In other words, nothing (we mean no document) is more important than an SSN.

An SSN is issued once and for a lifetime: it never changes, and most US residents know these nine digits by heart, like a cell phone number or email. And there is a good reason for it – Americans use SSNs much more often than, for example, a passport. They use it when they go to the doctor, rent a house, carry out any financial transactions, or bank-related deals (opening accounts, mortgages/loans, etc.), while a lot of employees (for example, in the fast-food industry) put their SSN (last 4 digits, for instance) into the system as they are coming or leaving their workplaces (a sort of “personal password”).

If you are going to move to the US (or have just recently moved), the earliest possible obtaining of an SSN has to be the first thing on your to-do list.

Social Security card

Social Security card is about the size of a credit card. They are simply printed on thick paper, so it is easy to tear, crease, or deface it (for example, spilling liquid on it).


Social Security Card. Source:

Since the time when this card was first issued (in 1936), its design has gone through multiple changes (it has changed 34 times, to be precise). An interesting detail is that in 1946 it was decided to put the legend “Not For Identification” on the cards (actually, such a recommendation was relevant for 26 years). Although the SSNs were unique, it was not recommended to use them for identification. In 1972, this inscription was removed, since everyone was so used to doing it that the warning had lost all meaning.

Types of Social Security card

There are three types of Social Security card:

  • The normal and most common one, which is issued to US citizens/permanent residents
  • The “temporary” one, which is issued for temporary workers and it says “valid for work only with DHS authorization”. For example, it can be issued for work visa holders (H1-B, L1), or for participants of AU-PAIR, Work and Travel, etc.
  • ITIN card, which says “not valid for employment”. In other words, it is a special taxpayer number, and it is intended for those who are not allowed to work in the USA. It contains ITIN (Individual Taxpayer Number). For instance, it can be issued to a spouse or children of foreign workers that are in the US on a work visa.

How to get a Social Security card


SSN is the first document that you need to receive upon arrival in the USA. Source:

SSN is the first document that you need to receive upon arrival in the USA. You should also consider that the card will arrive up to two weeks after submitting the application, so it is worth taking care of this in the very first days after your arrival.

It will be difficult to rent a house or open a bank account without an SSN card. Nobody says it will be impossible to do this, but the presence of an SSN card magically accelerates such a process.

Getting an SSN is not that hard. Americans get it right after birth. What about others? They have to find the nearest Social Security Administration office when they arrive in America. Then, they’ll have to go there personally, with documents.

Here’s where you can find a list of necessary documents. You will definitely need your passport, proof of your status (visa, I-94, your green card) and, depending on your status, work permit (EAD). Then you fill out the document.

You don’t have to pay anything, it’s absolutely free. It takes a maximum of 5 minutes. Your documents are checked, you put a couple of signatures and that’s it. You go home and wait for your Social Security card to arrive by mail.

Note: after applying for a Social Security card (through a personal visit to the SSA), the SSN appears in the system within a day or two. And if you really need it, and can’t wait another 10-14 days, then you can try to ask for the Verification Letter in the same office. It will be just a sheet of paper with your number and details. But not every clerk will agree to issue such a paper, so sometimes they can simply dictate the number to you on the phone. Thus, if you know beforehand that there will be such a need, it is better to ask about it at the SSA office, right at the time of application.

The SSN card arrives within two weeks in an envelope, like a regular letter, to the address that you have specified. Take it out, memorise the number, and hide it well.

Here you may ask why.

SSN, security, and identity theft

If scammers know your SSN, they can open bank accounts, buy anything on credit, etc. Thus, it will be a typical case of identity theft.

If you don’t want to fall victim to identity theft, try not to flash your SSN around.

Here are basic tips on how to keep it safe:

  • It is best to keep the card at home (i.e. with other important documents). Some people even advise not to keep it at home. Moreover, it is vital to memorise the number. Do not carry the Social Security card around. Some people even have it laminated, so they can carry it in their wallet, which is not the best idea. You might need this card (physically) only a couple of times in your life. In other cases, you’d just tell the SSN (which you have to know by heart)
  • Be careful and attentive when somebody requests your SSN. Do not enter it on various sites to “find out what kind of car you can afford”, and so on. If a clerk asks you for this number, be sure to ask for what purpose they need it. Even if they are not scammers, having your SSN, they can make a credit status request/credit inquiry. Therefore, they will find out your credit history, which can decrease your credit score.


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