international student credit card

How to Get an SSN

At some point while you study in the United States, you may have to consider applying for a social security number, otherwise known as an SSN. Not all international students need an SSN. You can open a bank account, get a driver’s license, sign up for health insurance, and even apply for certain international student credit cards without one. But if you want to get paid, either for a campus job or an internship related to your major, you’ll need an SSN. Typically, this is the only reason you’ll be able to apply for one—the Social Security Administration (SSA) does not honor requests for SSNs to be used only for credit checks, driver licenses, or other non-essential purposes. Only paid work and some specific government-related services require a noncitizen in the US to possess an SSN.

You must have a campus job or OPT opportunity and be within 30 days of your start date to apply for an SSN. You may also start your job while waiting for your SSN application to be processed. Here’s what you’ll need to get an SSN as an international student in the US with an on campus or OPT job opportunity:

Present these with you, in person, to any social security office (find one here: https://secure.ssa.gov/ICON/main.jsp). Below, you’ll find a list of appropriate official documents:

Form I-20

As a student with an F-1 visa, your Form I-20 will prove your immigration status. It’s worth noting that you must be physically in the US for at least 10 days before you apply for an SSN, even if you have a work opportunity confirmed before that time.

DSO Letter

Your designated school official (DSO) will write a letter on your behalf that identifies you as a currently enrolled student authorized to work on an F-1 visa. This letter must identify your employer (as well as your supervisor’s contact information), the type of work you’ll be doing, your employment start date, and the hours you’ll be working.

Passport

Although a birth certificate from your home country is ideal, a passport is the next best thing to verify your age. It’s highly likely that you will only have your passport but confirm with your DSO that this will be enough when applying.

Employment Authorization Document (EAD)

Your Form I-766, or your employment authorization documents, is the best way to identify you as someone who is authorized to work in the United States. Form I-94, your arrival document, can be used instead but chances are you’ll have the EAD readily available if you’re currently working.

Once you’ve submitted your documents, you should receive your social security card in the mail within 2 weeks. Now you’re entitled to receive pay and some social services while the US government saves part of your paycheck on your behalf. Possessing a social security card is a great privilege that puts you “on the grid” as a person living in the US. That also means you need to be extremely careful with it.

  • Never carry your card with you. Memorize the number and store it somewhere safe.

  • Be careful of people asking for your SSN. Check with your DSO if you’re unsure.

  • Don’t respond to emails or phone calls requesting your SSN.


Don’t use your social security card as a casual form of ID. Remember: you will RARELY need to share the number. Be safe, stay cautious, and enjoy your new privilege!