If you live or work in the United States, the federal government has your number — but which kind depends on your residency status. If you live or work in the U.S., you’ll need either a Social Security number (SSN) or an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN). The two numbers are not the same thing. They serve different purposes, and no one should have both numbers at the same time.
A Social Security number is assigned by the Social Security Administration (SSA) to all American citizens, as well as to noncitizens authorized to work in the U.S. It serves as a kind of national ID number you can use to apply for jobs, bank accounts, loans, and various services.
In contrast, an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number is a tax processing number issued by the Internal Revenue Service. According to the IRS, ITINs are issued to individuals who are required to have a U.S. taxpayer identification number but who do not have, and are not eligible to obtain, a Social Security number.
Social Security Number
A SSN is issued by the SSA to U.S. citizens and authorized noncitizen residents. Authorized residents include those born in the United States as well as international residents ranging from students on F1 visas to Green Card holders.
You need a Social Security number to work, collect Social Security benefits, and qualify for other social services. Every American citizen is issued one, but only noncitizens authorized to work in the U.S. are eligible for SSNs.
To apply for a Social Security card, you must provide at least two documents to prove your age, identity and U.S. citizenship — or current lawful, work-authorized immigration status, according to the SSA. If you are not a U.S. citizen and do not have Department of Homeland Security work authorization, you must prove that you have a valid non-work reason for requesting a Social Security card. If you are age 12 or older and have never received a Social Security number, you must apply in person.
A Social Security number makes it easier to open financial accounts in the U.S., as well as build credit and apply for loans. In addition, an SSN allows you to work and pay into the Social Security system, meaning you are eligible to collect SSA retirement benefits.
Individual Taxpayer Identification Number
The IRS issues ITINs to help individuals comply with U.S. tax laws and to provide a means to efficiently process and account for tax returns and payments for those not eligible for Social Security numbers. They are issued regardless of immigration status because both resident and nonresident aliens might have a U.S. filing or reporting requirement under the Internal Revenue Code. Applying for an ITIN requires filing a W-7 form along with your tax returns.
ITINs do not serve any purpose other than federal tax reporting. They can’t be used to authorize work in the U.S., provide eligibility for Social Security benefits, or qualify a dependent for Earned Income Tax Credit purposes.
Here are situations when you will need an ITIN, per the IRS website:
- You do not have an SSN and are not eligible to obtain one,
- You have a requirement to furnish a federal tax identification number or file a federal tax return, and,
- You are in one of the following categories:
- Nonresident alien who is required to file a U.S. tax return.
- U.S. resident alien who is (based on days present in the U.S.) filing a U.S. tax return.
- Dependent or spouse of a U.S. citizen/resident alien.
- Dependent or spouse of a nonresident alien visa holder.
- Nonresident alien claiming a tax treaty benefit.
- Nonresident alien student, professor or researcher filing a U.S. tax return or claiming an exception.
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