Obtaining/Reclaiming your Social Security Number (SSN)
Over time, the US Social Security Number (SSN) has evolved from merely the number of your account for retirement savings to something akin to a single national identification number that follows you throughout your US administrative life. It is indispensable on passport applications, tax returns, financial account reporting and numerous other business forms. And now it has gone international: under FATCA (the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act) banks and other financial institutions around the world are required to ask American citizen clients for an IRS Form W-9 (Request for Taxpayer Identification Number and Certification), which includes their SSN.
For many American citizens (or green card holders) living abroad, such requests may cause panic. They haven’t thought of their SSN for years (if ever). Some never had one; some have lost theirs, don’t remember the number, or don’t even know if they ever had one. So, yet another unanticipated fallout of FATCA is the extra workload falling on American embassy and consulate Federal Benefits Units (FBUs) around the world.
Add to this mix the enhanced requirement for high-quality, verified documentation prior to issuing a SSN, due not only to FATCA, but to various recent laws aimed at countering fraud and fear of terrorists. The bottom-line message, particularly for Americans residing abroad, is: verify now that you and any citizen (or green card holder) you want to claim as your dependent, have SSNs. If not, roll up your sleeves, assemble your documentation, and apply as soon as possible, because it costs time (but not money) to obtain a SSN.
Social Security Administration’s user-friendly web site
The Social Security Administration web site provides clear and reader-friendly information: www.ssa.gov/ssnumber. All applications for SSNs, whether original, replacement, or for change of name or data, use the same form, the SS-5 form (www.ssa.gov/forms/ss-5.pdf). The different purposes may occasion differing degrees of documentation.
Social Security services while abroad
As an American abroad, you will work through the US consulate or consular Federal Benefits Unit serving your region. To locate the appropriate FBU, you can check the website of the Social Security Administration at this link: www.ssa.gov/foreign/foreign.htm
What is your status?
Q1. I have my SSN.
You are all set to file taxes, get your passport renewed, etc.
Q2. I remember my SSN, but no longer have the card.
This is not a problem unless the you are requested to provide a photocopy of your original card. If called upon to produce one, you can apply for a (free) replacement card, and the Federal Benefits Unit (FBU) for your region can supply you with a letter saying that you have applied for it.
Q3. I used to have one, but I cannot find it and don’t remember the number.
Check first via the Federal Benefits Unit (FBU) serving your region. These can be found listed here: www.ssa.gov/foreign/foreign.htm
The FBU may perhaps confirm if a SSN has been issued to you; however they are not permitted to transmit this number to you, either over the phone or by letter. The procedure in this case is to apply for a replacement card by postal mail using the approprite form. You can leave the space asking for the SSN blank.
Q4. I don’t know if I ever had a Social Security Number. How do I find out?
Check via the Federal Benefits Unit (FBU) serving your area (See:www.ssa.gov/foreign/foreign.htm). With the data you provide them, they can inform you if a number has ever been issued to you.
If you have never been issued a SSN, see information concerning an initial application, below.
If you have been assigned a SSN however, the FBU is not permitted to transmit this number to you over the phone or in written form. The procedure In this case is to apply for a replacement card using the appropriate form. (You can leave blank the space asking for the SSN.)
Q5. How does one apply for a replacement SSN card?
The procedures for applying for a replacement card or making a correction to your data are as follows:
1. Application form and instructions are available at: www.ssa.gov/forms/ss-5.pdf.
2. Complete, date and sign the application.
3. Present one document as acceptable proof of identity. If you are a citizen born outside the US, you must also provide proof of your US citizenship. (Your US passport can fulfill both functions.)
- Original US Passport, must be current and signed;
- Original Permanent Resident Alien Card (“Green Card”), must be current;
- Original US state driver’s license, must be current;
- Original foreign passport is acceptable but must be accompanied by proof of US citizenship, such as a Naturalization certificate or US birth certificate.
4. If the replacement card is for a child, provide proof of identity for both the child and the parent who signs the form.
5. If the name has been altered since the initial application, you must provide official documentation of how the name change(s) was/were effected.
6. The completed application and relevant documents should be mailed to the Federal Benefits Unit serving your region. www.ssa.gov/foreign/foreign.htm
If you have never had a SSN, however, the procedure to obtain a SSN is more complicated and lengthier. See below.
NOTE: A key factor in any initial application for a SSN is the necessity to produce thorough documentation in the original, or in copies certified by the originating institutions; photocopies are not acceptable. The consular sections of American embassies or consulates can also certify original documents. You can find how to obtain certified copies of vital records issued in the US via: www.cdc.gov/nchs/w2w.htm . This can take time to assemble.
Be aware that, while your American passport can serve as one identification document, you must produce two pieces of identification, in addition to any other proofs you must submit.
Q6. I have never had a Social Security Number. How do I get one?
Requirements vary, depending on the age of the applicant (under or over age 12); whether the applicant is a US citizen or not; and, if a US citizen, whether the applicant was born in the US or abroad. An excellent overview can be found at: www.ssa.gov/ssnumber/ss5doc.htm .
Q7. For individuals over 12 years of age applying for an initial SSN:
1. It is essential to appear in person. You will need an appointment, which you can make by email or phone call.
2. You must have two pieces of identification – for example, US passport and your birth certificate.
3. If you were born in the US, you must also prove why you do not already have a SSN. Documentation is required to prove the allegation of absence from the US as the reason for non-assignment of an SSN. The documentation must be comprehensive and dated from the time the person departed the US to the present to provide sufficient evidence. The documentation can include:
- confirmation of residency from foreign registration offices;
- school records such as report cards or a letter from the school confirming dates of attendance;
- travel documents such as current or canceled passports (US or other);
- employment records;
- medical records;
- proof of registration with a doctor or clinic.
4. If you are a US citizen born abroad, only certain documents can be accepted as proof of US citizenship. These include a US passport, Certificate of Naturalization (N-550/N-570) or Certificate of Citizenship (N-560/N-561), Certificate of Report of Birth (DS-1350), Consular Report of Birth Abroad (FS-240, CRBA).
You must also submit documentation to show that you have never been assigned a SSN:
- If you have lived outside the United States for an extended period, a current or previous passport, school and/or employment records, and any other record that would show long-term residence outside the United States could be used to show you do not have a SSN.
- If you have lived in the United States and you are applying for an original Social Security number, you may be asked for information about the schools you attended or to provide copies of tax records that would show you were never assigned a SSN.
Q8. Does my American minor child need a Social Security Number? How can I get one for him/her?
It is normally advised that a US citizen child should obtain a SSN. In the US, the hospital where the child is born will usually apply for a SSN when recording the birth.
A parent can apply on behalf of a child. Note that the parent will also have to prove his/her identity. Children less than 12 years do not have to appear in person as long as there is sufficient proof of identity (see below).
The FBUs can accept only certain documents as proof of US citizenship. These include a Certification of Report of Birth (DS-1350), Consular Report of Birth Abroad (FS-240), US passport or Certificate of Citizenship (N-560/N-561), and Certificate of Naturalization (N-550/N-570).
An acceptable proof of identity document must show your child's name, identifying information and preferably a recent photograph. Your child must be present unless the picture identification also shows your child's biographical information (i.e. age, date of birth, or parents' names). FBUs generally can accept a non-photo identity document if it has enough information to identify the child (such as the child's name and age, date of birth or parents' names). However, they prefer to see the child's US passport.
For further details, including regarding adopted children, refer to: www.ssa.gov/ssnumber/ss5doc.htm .
Q9. How long does it take to get a Social Security number?
The processing time for these applications varies and is in part dependent on the response time from the Office of Vital Statistics which holds the original birth registration. In cases where the client is within time constraints dictated by his/her financial institution, the FBU can issue a letter confirming that an application for an SSN has been duly submitted.
Problems in obtaining a Social Security Number?
American Citizens Abroad, Inc. (ACA) is following this issue, particularly with respect to US citizens abroad who are trying to come into conformity with new financial reporting legislation and regulation. If you have particular difficulties in obtaining a SSN, please submit your personal experiences via ACA’s secure online portal. You can determine the degree of anonymity you wish to maintain and the extent to which ACA can share your story.
This ACA webpage updated 11 April 2018
Disclaimer: American Citizens Abroad, Inc. (“ACA”) is a non-profit organization formed under the laws of the State of Delaware. ACA does not provide legal, tax or accounting information. ACA makes no representations as to the accuracy, quality, utility, or any other aspect of the information contained herein. The reader is urged to obtain his or her own professional advice.