NOTE: Many Social Security Administration (SSA) offices were recently closed for in-person services due to COVID-19, with limited resumption of services. If you are currently working or will be working soon and are in need of a Social Security Number, please contact the nearest SSA to understand local operations. Based on this information, you may want to communicate with your employer about local SSA operations given COVID-19, and what instructions your employer may have moving forward. For more on SSA COVID-19 closures: www.ssa.gov/coronavirus/
- What is a Social Security Number?
- Who is eligible to apply for a Social Security Number?
- Previously Issued SSNs
- How do I apply for a Social Security Number?
The Social Security Number (SSN) is a tax identification number that tracks employee salary in a payroll system. Social Security Numbers are issued by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), which is the tax authority of the United States, at birth for U.S. citizens. To be eligible to apply for a SSN, foreign nationals must be required to have one for a specific immigration status or as an employee onboarding requirement.
The University Payroll Office must show proof an SSN to the IRS for every individual employed by the University in order to pay that employee and to conduct government reporting required of employers. F-1 and J-1 students that are eligible for employment in the United States, whether on or off campus, will also require a Social Security Number.
Beyond tracking payroll, the SSN has become somewhat of a universal identification number used for many purposes around the country, including signing up for utilities, phone service, credit reporting, and banking.
F-1 students require a job offer and employment authorization before they are eligible to apply for a Social Security Number. The three main categories of work authorization for F-1 students are:
- on-campus employment (eligible immediately),
- Off-campus work authorization through Curricular Practical Training (eligible after one year of full-time enrollment), or
- Off-campus work authorization through Optional Practical Training (eligible after one year of full-time enrollment).
Note: You cannot apply for a SSN without a job and/or employment authorization.
J-1 students require a job offer and employment authorization before they are eligible to apply for a Social Security Number. There are two main categories of work authorization for J students:
- On-campus employment (eligible immediately), and
- Off-campus employment through Academic Training (AT) (eligible after one year of full-time enrollment).
Note: you are not be eligible for a SSN without a job and/or employment authorization.
Individuals in J-1 Scholar status are eligible to apply for a Social Security Number at any time, though note that you should wait at least 10 days after you arrive in the US to apply. You are considered a scholar if box 4 on your DS-2019 indicates either "Professor," "Research Scholar," "Short-Term Scholar," or "Specialist." Recommended documents to apply for the SSN include: passport, J-1 visa stamp, I-94 printout, DS-2019, and UChicago offer or invitation letter from department.
J-1 Students (including J-1 non-degree students) are NOT automatically eligible to apply for an SSN.
J-2 dependent spouses and children are also eligible to apply for social security numbers, after applying for receiving an Employment Authorization Document. Please see the J-2 work authorization page for more information.
H-1B employees are eligible to apply for a Social Security Number at any time, though note that you should wait at least 10 days after you arrive in the US to apply. Recommended documents to apply for the SSN include: passport, H-1B visa stamp, I-94 printout, H-1B Approval Notice (Form I-797), and UChicago offer or employment verification letter from department.
The Social Security Administration issues only one SSN per person. If you've previously had an SSN at any point in your life--even if it was decades ago--you cannot apply for a new number. If you no longer have your SSN card or number (or the type of SSN card you need has changed), you may need to apply for a replacement SSN card.
If you were previously issued an SSN card that says "NOT VALID FOR EMPLOYMENT," you may need to apply for a replacement card to show that it is "VALID FOR WORK ONLY WITH DHS AUTHORIZATION" before you can complete your new employee paperwork. You can read about types of SSN cards on the SSA website. You can contact a local SSA branch (info below) for any questions you have about SSN validity.
Step 1: Be in the U.S. for 10 Days with 'Active' Record
If you are in F-1, H-1B or J-1 status, the data that confirms your status and the fact that you are eligible for a Social Security Number has to be accessed on-line by the agent of the Social Security Administration (SSA) at the time you apply. The data will not travel from the Immigration Service to the SSA database until two conditions apply:
You must have been in the U.S. for at least 10 days. It may take up to 10 days after any entry into the U.S. for the SSA system to be updated with your entry information. Note that this applies to any re-entry to the U.S., including returning from a vacation, when you receive a new I-94 entry record/number.
If you hold F-1 or J-1 status, you must be "registered" or "validated" in SEVIS. When you first arrive in the U.S. for your new program/job, you must check in with OIA. In most cases, this is accomplished through an online check-in form. When this check-in procedure is completed, we register/ validate your record in SEVIS. This confirms that you have arrived at the University in Chicago. It will take about 3 days for your registration to be updated in the SSA system.
As long as you checked in with OIA when you first arrived on your current immigration, your record will be 'active' or 'validated'. You do not need to confirm with OIA unless you have a special circumstance.
Step 2: Obtain Proof of Employment Eligibility
To be eligible for an SSN, you must provide proof of employment to the Social Security Administration. You must have this documentation in hand before you apply for an SSN. The type of proof varies with the type of work authorization you have:
On Campus Employment (F-1 and J-1 Student): (1) Your on campus employer must create an Employer Letter, which must be on letterhead, dated, and have a signature from your direct supervisor. (2) You can then request an SSN support letter from OIA by completing the SSN Support Letter Request Form.
You can apply for a SSN up to 30 days before the employment start date listed on your employer letter. It is OK if you apply fewer than 30 days before your work start date.
Curricular Practical Training (F-1 Students): you will need to go through the CPT approval process to get CPT authorization for this work on the second page of your I-20. You must already have the CPT I-20 before you can apply for an SSN.
You can only apply for a SSN up to 30 days before the CPT start date listed on your I-20. You will not need an employer letter or a letter from our office; the CPT authorization on your I-20 is proof of your job offer and work authorization.
Optional Practical Training (F-1 students): There are two ways to apply for an SSN with OPT. You can either:
- Apply for the SSN at the same time you apply for OPT, by indicating it on the OPT application Form I-765 (further instructions). If you apply during your OPT application, you do not need to complete the rest of the steps on this page.
- Wait until you receive your EAD card in the mail and go to a SSA office no more than 30 days before your OPT start date.
- Academic Training (J-1 students only): You will need to go through the AT approval process to get AT authorization printed on your DS-2019. In addition to the AT on your DS-2019, you will need a letter from OIA. This letter can be requested from OIA here.
Step 3: Go to a Social Security Administration Office
To apply for an SSN, you must go to a Social Security Administration (SSA) office in person.
Locating an SSA Office
To find the nearest Social Security Office, you can enter your zip code in the SSA locator. Two popular SSA locations include:
Downtown location (click link for map):
605 W Washington Blvd
Chicago, IL 60604
Woodlawn Location (click link for map):
6338 S. Cottage Grove
Chicago, IL 60637
Documents to Bring
When you go to the SSA office to apply, you must present the following original documents:
- Completed SSN Application Form
- Valid Passport
- F-1 or J-1 Visa sticker (found in your passport; OK if expired NOTE: Canadian citizens are exempt from needing a visa sticker and will not be required to submit as part of the application for a SSN).
- Printout of current I-94 electronic record
- Valid Form I-20 or DS-2019
- Proof of employment and work authorization, as indicated below:
- J-1 students ONLY (requires one of the following):
- F-1 students ONLY (requires one of the following):
- J-2 dependents ONLY:
J-1 Scholar ONLY:
- No proof is required, but you may be asked for documentation, regardless. See more information below.**
Please also review the Social Security Administration Publication "International Students and Social Security Numbers" for additional information.
Step 4: Obtain a Receipt, Wait for your SSN Card
Anyone applying for a Social Security Number will receive a "receipt," consisting of a form letter confirming that you have submitted an application. (If the official does not give it to you automatically, please ask for it.) There are three different versions of this receipt, depending on circumstances:
- Your application is accepted and will take 10-14 days
- Your application is under processing and may take 1-3 months for review
- Your application has been rejected
If you got a receipt notice (scenarios 1 and 2, above) you are eligible to begin work. Show a copy of your receipt notice to your employer.
For more information, please see the following SSA publications:
- Employer Responsibilities When Hiring Foreign Workers
- International Students And Social Security Numbers
As indicated above, J-1 Students need to present a job-offer letter when applying for a SSN. This is not a requirement for J-1 Scholars, i.e. those individuals who are in the J-1 "Research Scholar," Short-Term Scholar," "Professor," or "Specialist" categories. (See box #4 on your DS-2019 form.)
However, several scholars have reported that they were asked for such a letter when applying for a SSN. Should you be asked for such a letter, please indicate that you are a J-1 Scholar and do not need a letter. Should the official at the SSA insist, please ask to speak with a supervisor. The supervisor will likely be familiar with the relevant regulations and policies, which are addressed in Section RM 00203.480 C1 of the Program Operations Manual System (POMS) which is the SSA policy manual. This section states that "[a]n individual who presents a valid Form DS-2019 with one of the [aforementioned] categories [as] identified in Item 4 of the Form is presumed to have work authorization and does not require a sponsor letter."
Do I need an SSN to apply for jobs?
No. The SSN is for tax purposes only and has no bearing on your eligibility to apply for jobs, accept jobs, or start working.
Do I need an SSN to begin work?
No. The SSN is for tax purposes only and has absolutely no bearing on your work authorization eligibility. Your employment authorization comes from approved CPT, OPT, AT, or on campus employment. You are not legally required to provide an SSN on your tax withholding paperwork (e.g. I-9, W-4) when you initially complete employment forms. You will need to provide the number or application receipt eventually (typically within 2-3 days of beginning employment), but you can leave any of those spaces on tax forms blank until you get the SSN.
My SSN card says, 'NOT VALID FOR EMPLOYMENT' on it. Can I use it for work?
- Your SSN card has no bearing on your U.S. employment eligibility. It is only used for tax purposes. However, if you have a card that reads 'NOT VALID FOR EMPLOYMENT,' you may need or want to apply for a replacement card to show that it is "VALID FOR WORK ONLY WITH DHS AUTHORIZATION" (e.g. with OPT, CPT, AT or on campus employment) before you can complete your new employee paperwork. See our information on previously issued SSN cards and contact the Social Security Administration for guidance.
Can I use my SSN card for I-9 purposes?
- Typically not, as SSN cards do not establish eligibility to work in the U.S. for foreign nationals. Visit the USCIS website to see acceptable documents for I-9 purposes. Contact your employer's HR department if you have additional questions.
What other documents will I need for I-9 or employment verification purposes?
- See our Employment Resources page for additional information about new employee forms.