What is a Social Security number?
A Social Security Number (SSN) is a unique nine-digit identification number assigned to individuals by the U.S. government for tax and other purposes. The primary purpose of an SSN is to track an individual's earnings and their contributions to the Social Security system, which is a federal program.
In addition to its use in the Social Security system, an SSN is required for employment, and often for banking and credit purposes. Many government agencies, including the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), also use SSNs as a means of identifying individuals for tax reporting purposes.
What is a Social Security card?
A social security card is required to work in the United States. On the card is a unique 9-digit Social Security Number (SSN) issued by the U.S. Social Security Administration (SSA). The card (and your SSN) will be necessary to work in the U.S. and to file taxes. A social security card is NOT a work permit.
Example SS card:
Who is eligible to apply for a Social Security number?
Only students or scholars in active immigration status. If your SEVIS record is not “active”, the Social Security Administration will not be able to verify your status.
IMPORTANT: Newly arrived F-1 and J-1 students must wait until they have entered the U.S., enrolled in classes at Northwestern, and completed the check-in process with OISS before applying for an SSN. OISS cannot update your SEVIS record to "active" until after you have both enrolled in classes AND completed the required immigration check-in with OISS.
Students and scholars in active immigration status in the following situations may apply for an SSN:
- F-1 students with a job offer letter
- F-1 students with approved CPT or OPT work authorization
- J-1 students with a job offer and written work permission from their DS-2019 sponsor
- J-1 visiting scholars
- J-2 dependents with work permission from USCIS (EAD)
- H-1B & O-1 visa holders
- Individuals with other types of immigration status allowing employment
Note: F-2 dependents are not eligible for Social Security Numbers.
Learn how to apply for an SSN
Keep your Social Security number secure
Your SSN is sensitive, personal identification information. It is important to keep it safe and out of the hands of scammers who wish to use it to utilize your identity or credit history.
Tips to keep your SSN secure
- Do not carry your Social Security card with you unless you need it for a specific purpose.
- Memorize your SSN for times you will need it.
- Do not type or write your SSN in the body of an email or text message.
- Do not send your SSN or image of your Social Security Card as an email attachment.
- Be careful sharing your SSN by email, text, voicemail, and fax. For example, your SSN could get intercepted and read after you send your information. There are sometimes ways to help keep your information safe — for instance, by using a VPN on an unprotected Wi-Fi network. But the safest way to share may be face to face with someone you know and trust.
- OISS does not need a copy of your Social Security Card and will never ask you for your SSN.
Common scenarios in which your SSN may be requested
- When an employer is setting up payroll and tax paperwork at a new job.
- When setting up a new bank account, opening a credit card, or applying for a loan.
- When a business needs to check your credit in order to apply for an apartment, sign up for utilities, or get a contract-based mobile phone plan.
What to do if you suspect your Social Security number has been compromised or used fraudulently
Call the Federal Trade Commission at 877-438-4338, or file a report with the agency online. You can also reach the fraud hotline for the Social Security Administration’s Office of the Inspector General at 800-269-0271, or submit a report to the SSA Inspector General office online.
The Social Security Administration offers the ability to block electronic access to your number. It could be a good option if you need to lock down your account following a fraud incident. Call 800-772-1213 to request a block.
Social Security Administration - official website
International Students and Social Security Numbers - SSA publication
Foreign Workers and Social Security Numbers - SSA publication
Identity Theft and your Social Security Number - SSA publication
What to know about identity theft - from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC)
If you have any trouble obtaining the SSN, please ask to know the name of the person helping you and for a letter from the Social Security Office detailing the reason of the problem. Next, please contact your OISS Advisor with this information as well as your SSN application number.