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Social Security Number, Explained

Learn who is eligible for an SSN and how to apply

Why Social Security?

To work legally in the United States, you will need to obtain a Social Security number (SSN). This is true whether you’re in the U.S. as a lawful permanent resident or here on a work visa.

Moreover, obtaining Social Security benefits can be a boon to a person’s retirement plan. While these benefits only cover a portion of your earnings, they can help give you the cushion you need to transition out of the workforce — whether that’s because you’ve reached retirement age or are unable to work due to a disability.

For this reason, understanding what a Social Security number is and how it’s used can go a long way toward having a solid plan for the future. In this guide, we will cover the basics of the Social Security number, who is eligible, and how to apply.

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What is the Social Security Number?

The 9-digit Social Security number (SSN) is one of the last surviving vestiges of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. In its origins, the SSN was used to track a person’s earnings and determine benefits. But now, years later, it can be used for a wide variety of financial transactions, including opening a new bank account, tracking taxes, making large purchases, and building credit history.

Social Security is not just for retirees, and others may qualify as well. In fact, according to the Social Security Administration’s (SSA’s) “Understanding the Benefits” packet, Social Security provides more funding to children than any other federal agency.


As mentioned above, anyone who has lawful employment in the United States must also have an SSN. So if you’re applying for a work visa — or plan to work as a permanent resident — you will also need to apply for your SSN (more on this in the next section).

Once you have a Social Security card, you can begin paying Social Security taxes and accruing work credits. If your country of origin has entered into a totalization agreement with the United States, you can even transfer credits.

Once you’ve reached a minimum of 40 work credits, you may be eligible to receive benefits — though, to do so, you must be over the age of 62 or disabled. You may also receive benefits if you’re the child or spouse of a beneficiary or the loved one of a deceased worker.

Applying as an Immigrant

If you’re an immigrant, there are several ways you can go about applying for a Social Security number. The easiest and most straightforward approach is to apply for your number while applying for your visa. Thanks to recent changes in policy, you can do this when you’re applying for a green card from within the United States (through the adjustment of status process) or when you’re applying from outside the U.S. (through consular processing).

Change of Status or Work Authorization

You can now request your Social Security card (and replacement card) while applying for your green card or while applying for work authorization. When filling out Form I-485 or Form I-765, all you need to do is check “yes” when asked whether you would like to receive a Social Security card. You must also give your consent to have your information sent to the SSA. Once U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) approves your application, the SSA will send your card in the mail.

Applying From Abroad

If you’re applying for a visa in your country of origin, you can request a Social Security card while filling out form DS-230 or DS-260. Just as with Forms I-485 and I-765, all you need to do is answer “yes” when asked if you’d like to receive a Social Security card and give your consent to have your information forwarded to the SSA.

Once your application is approved and you’re admitted to the United States, you should receive a card in the mail within 3 weeks. If you do not receive your card in this timeframe, you can go to the nearest Social Security office to inquire about the status of your SSN.

Not sure where to go? Use the SSA’s office locator.

Applying With the SS5 Form

SS-5 Form

If you did not request a Social Security card while applying for a visa, you will need to apply directly with the SSA. To do this, you’ll have to fill out an SS-5 form, which requires the following documents:

  • Evidence of ageGenerally, this is a birth certificate, but they may also accept a passport, adoption decree, or a religious record showing your age
  • Evidence of identityTo satisfy this requirement, you must supply your immigration documents and passport
  • Evidence of Immigration StatusIf you’re a permanent resident, this will be either your Machine-Readable Immigrant Visa (MRIV) or Form I-551, though, depending on your situation, you may need to provide another document

If you’re stressed about having to fill out yet another form, you can always go to your local Social Security office, where a representative can help you complete your SS-5 form. Once you’ve submitted your application, you should receive a card within 2 weeks.

Boundless Tip

As of April 1, 2024, U.S. citizenship applicants will be able to request a Social Security number (SSN) card directly on their Form N-400 (Application for Naturalization) and make additional SSN changes without having to visit a Social Security office.


In this section, we’ll briefly address some of the more common questions related to Social Security and the SS5 form.

Luckily, replacing a stolen card involves the same steps as applying for the original one. Just be sure to provide the following documents with Form SS5:

  • One document proving your identity – this is your passport
  • Documents showing your lawful immigrant status, such as an MRIV — this will depend on your particular situation

It’s important to note that replacing your card is not (usually) vital. In most cases, all you need is your SSN. You should also know that there is a limit as to how many replacement cards you can request. There is a cap of 3 per year and 10 per lifetime, though these caps may be overridden in certain cases.

In general, no, you cannot get an SSN unless you are authorized to work in the United States. There are, however, exceptions to this rule. For instance, if you need an SSN to receive federal or state benefits, for which you are eligible, you may be able to obtain a card — as long as you can provide a letter from the relevant agency. The letter must contain the following:

  • Your name and designation as an applicant
  • Agency contact information, including your name and phone number
  • A reference to the statute requiring the applicant to obtain an SSN
  • Confirmation that the SSN is the only missing requirement for the stated benefit

It’s very important that you don’t share your SSN with an unverified party. For instance, if you receive an email from someone claiming to be a financial representative, and they ask you for your Social Security number, don’t give it out. It may be a phishing scam.

If someone obtains your number, they can steal your identity, which will allow them to get medical treatment, obtain employment, and open financial accounts – to name just a few possible outcomes. If it is stolen, you can contact the SSA and file a complaint with and the IRS.

Applying for a visa can be a hassle, and when you add Social Security to the pile, it can quickly become a stressful process — especially if you haven’t requested an SSN with your initial visa application. Contact Boundless today, and we can help you sort through the pile of papers and documents.

Applying for an SSN number and card is free. There is also no charge for a replacement Social Security card.

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