How to Get a Social Security Card

A Social Security card. (Copyright Bettmann/Corbis / AP Images)

Wherever you’re hauled up on this gigantic landmass, there’s plenty to enjoy. But between pleasurable parts, you’ll mostly be filling in forms. Or queuing. Or being told to redo an application you got wrong the first, second and third times, then go to the back of the line. If you’re lucky, the nice gentleman ahead of you will lean forward and let you use him as a desk.

US bureaucracy makes our own look blissfully straightforward. It’s somewhere between hellish and tell-me-who-I-need-to-pay-to-make-it-stop. But it’s not just thorny forms, wait times and indecipherable online manuals that will make you want to weep. At the finish line of every task there’s frowning, unhelpful employee. For best results, be nice. Compliment their blouse or offer up your firstborn. If you have to, play up your own stupidity. Never – ever – get into an argument. You’ll lose and Uncle Sam will use what’s left of you as dip.

At a party last week, a sympathetic New Yorker listened to me bemoan US officialdom, then explained that all of this is done on purpose to remind Americans that Big Government is bad. An interesting theory but it didn’t make me feel any better the next day as I waited in line for 45 minutes to buy a stamp.

Still, this is how things are so get used it. You’re not in Chelmsford any more, Dorothy.

Dunk your toe in by applying for a social security number (the equivalent of our national insurance number). Weirdly, it’s not that hard and you’ll need it for everything. Without one you won’t be able to open a bank account, apply for a driving license or eat pancakes for breakfast. That said, you needn’t carry the resultant flimsy bit of cardboard around with you – it’s not ID. File it away sensibly.

Expats often assume they won’t be eligible for a number because they’re not American-born or a proper US citizen. Not so. If you have a work or student visa you won’t have any trouble signing up. Visit www.socialsecurity.gov for details of how to find your local Social Security Office. For no reason I can fathom, you’re required to visit (or post your documentation to) the one geographically closest to where you live. Handily, the website also lists everything you’ll need to present, though this varies depending on the your visa type so I won’t bore you by listing all of them.

But you will definitely need your passport, visa and any supporting documentation. Usually, this means the stubby end bit of the I-94 form you filled out on the plane the last time you entered the US. (AKA, the bit of white paper the immigration official stapled or left floating in your passport). There’s also an online form to print out and fill in.

Finally, double-check the opening hours and queue up with the other wide-eyed immigrants. Oh, and bring snacks. You may be some time.

Ruth Margolis

Ruth Margolis

Ruth is a British freelance journalist who recently swapped east London for Brooklyn. She writes about TV for Radio Times and is working on her first novel.

See more posts by Ruth Margolis
  • caragorn

    The Social Security Website says that you don’t need a Social Security number to open a bank account.

    • Mathew L

      In theory, yes. You can get a Taxpayer ID number from the IRS (same number of digits as an SSN) and open an account with that — provided the bank accepts it. They may just decide not to give you an account. But you will find it more complicated, and if you really are working and do get an SSN too, having a TIN and an SSN that will severely mess up your taxes come filing time (April 15th)

  • James Humphrey

    You can open a bank account without a social security number, my wife did so upon our arrival in the US. However be warned without it you may not be able to use it to recieve electronic transfers. They need your social security or Tax ID Number so they can report income on your account to the greatest collection agency in the world, the IRS!

  • shephard

    For bank accounts you need to get an ITIN number… this looks like an SSN but is different. If you try to use it as an SSN it will flag as different

    It can be used to apply for credit cards too (my wife did), but obviously as it’s not an SSN the credit history may not be there!

    • shephard

      Okay I should have said “if you do not have an SSN…”

      Sometimes the bank will apply for you… sometimes they won’t… depends on how used to dealing with foreigners

      When we went over, we asked our local Midland for help -they provided an introduction to a gentleman at head office in London, who in turn introduced us to a woman in one of HSBC’s NYC branch.

      When we met with her, she indicated that Marine Midland (now HSBC) did this down to the insanity where their high roller clients couldn’t even get a debit card(!) Needless to say we weren’t high roller clients!

      still use HSBC in the US today!

  • Keely

    It’s harder to get a social security number if you only have a H4 visa, as you’re not allowed to work. But you need one to get a driving license and you can’t get a social security number if you don’t have a US driving license!

    I had to take the test get a piece of paper saying I’d passed, line up for hours to get another piece of paper with my social security number on it, line up again to show it at the DMV (department of motor vehicles) and finally get my driving license. That was over ten years ago. It may be simpler now, but I doubt it.

    • Mathew L

      You can get an SSN without a US drivers’ license. I did — all I needed was my passport and work visa.

  • Ed

    WTF I really think someone should of called Social Security before they went through threw the effort of getting a card. There are only a couple of things you need it for. Also if whomever wrote that post is going back to Britain I wonder why they got one in the first place.

    But thank this advice hide that card, because if the wrong party sees the number. They could steal your ID, and they did something wrong the one who got the card could be deported.

  • John E

    One thing you certainly WON’T be doing is *queuing*. There are no queues in the US, that I have discovered. There are only lines. You will be standing in line. A lot.

  • Rachel

    As someone who was told that I didn’t need to get a Social Security number because I wouldn’t be working, it was the single most inconvenient piece of advice I ever received. If you intend to get any sort of credit, a cell phone contract, or any other bills in your name, get the darned number. The last four digits are routinely used to verify your identity in automated call centers, online banking etc, and while they can use an override number when you apply, you then get stuck in a call center Ring of Hell trying to access your account.

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