Social Security Number – What is it and who needs one?

Usually at birth, U.S. citizens are assigned a nine-digit number, called a Social Security Number (SSN), that keeps track of their contributions and benefits for the Social Security program. This program is offered by the U.S. government to provide a small amount of financial support to people who aren’t working due to disability or retirement. The Social Security program was established during the 1930s, but over time, SSNs have come to serve as a general personal identification number for people in the U.S., used for many other government and private purposes—from taxation to employment to finances and more, although they are not required for others—such as enrolling children in school or obtaining a driver’s license.

An SSN can be very helpful, but not absolutely required, for banking purposes. According to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, you can apply for financial accounts using an IRS-issued number called an Individual Tax Identification Number (ITIN) instead of an SSN, and some banks may even accept other forms of government-issued identification, although you will need to check with those financial institutions individually. Without an SSN, though, things may be more inconvenient: you may not be able to complete online banking or credit card applications. Sable’s financial products are a notable exception, since Sable doesn’t require an SSN for their five-minute, online application.

In addition to increased convenience, having an SSN may offer other benefits—literally. Non-U.S. citizens who are legally eligible to work in the U.S. (and who therefore pay into the Social Security system through tax witholdings from their paychecks) may be eligible for the benefits of the Social Security program, depending on how long they’ve worked and how much money they have earned. You can find answers to specific questions about the different benefits and eligibility requirements at the Social Security Administration’s website.

If you are a noncitizen living in the U.S., you may be eligible to obtain an SSN, but there are some important considerations to keep in mind. You must be legally eligible to work in the U.S. (permanent residents or “Green Card” holders; those who have an Employment Authorization Document (EAD); or immigrants in the U.S. on specific, eligible visas), to apply for an SSN, which you will need to do in person at a Social Security office.

Finally, if you are not eligible for an SSN but are asked to provide one for something essential—to receive health care at a medical clinic or when seeking to rent a place to live, for example—ask if you can be identified some other way. Many times, businesses ask for SSNs simply because there is space for them on a form, but they may still be able to provide what you need without one.