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.

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