Social Security Numbers: How to Contend with Delays

The United States allows for the issuance of a Social Security number (SSN) to an individual who is authorized to work in the U.S. One of the key purposes of the SSN is to serve as a tracking number for income tax and related matters. Typically, the application process for an SSN is straightforward. There is the potential for delay and related confusion, however, particularly for employers and workers regarding employment authorization.

How to Obtain a Social Security Number

If a foreign national is filing form I-765, which is used to apply for an employment authorization document (EAD), or an adjustment of status application (form I-485), the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) provides the applicant with the option to apply simultaneously for an SSN. To apply for an SSN in most other circumstances, however, the foreign national is required to appear in person at the local Social Security Administration (SSA) office and must present two qualifying forms of identification, along with evidence of work authorization, status, and age. More information on how and where to apply is available on the SSA website.

A foreign national who applies for an immigrant visa at a U.S. consulate abroad has the option of requesting an SSN in the visa application. While this seems efficient, this process, called enumeration at entry (EAE), can create delays. EAE requires information transfer through four federal agencies: the U.S. Department of State (DOS) to U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to USCIS, and finally to the SSA. If the information does not flow properly, the SSA puts a hold on the application. This delay cannot be bypassed by submitting a new SSN application after entry, as that will also be placed on hold. Thus, it generally is better to simply apply for the SSN after arrival.

Waiting Times and Verifications Required

Historically, when an individual entered the U.S. from abroad, there was a ten-day delay before the SSA would have access to border inspection information. While this should no longer be the case, it can still be useful to wait for this brief period, as the electronic I-94 information may need to be updated.

Before the SSN can be issued, all documents relied upon for issuance of the SSN must be verified with the Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements (SAVE) system. SAVE is a web-based service administered by the Verification Division of the USCIS. Certain classes of foreign nationals tend to be more likely to encounter problems with SAVE, including those working pursuant to blanket L-1 admissions, EADs, and E visas. If a delay occurs during the SAVE process, the SSA has means of requesting that the USCIS take steps to resolve the issue.

Work Permitted Before SSN Issued

Contrary to popular belief, work authorized individuals can start employment prior to SSN issuance. In fact, failure to begin employment can have legal consequences for both the employer and the foreign national. For example, in the H1B context, delaying the start of employment could subject an employer to payment of back wages and lead the worker to fall out of status.

There is consistent guidance between the SSA, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) on initiating employment without an SSN. Per the Program Operations Manual System (POMS), which is administered by the SSA, if the SSN is not yet available, a dummy number should be used. Once the SSN is issued, the employer then must submit additional paperwork to update the individual’s information with the correct number.

Blanket and Annotated Social Security Cards

There are two types of SSN cards: blanket and annotated authorization. An annotated authorization card contains language that states it is only valid for work purposes with authorization from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Blanket authorization cards do not carry this restriction, and therefore typically would not be issued to a foreign national.

A foreign national who has been issued an annotated authorization SSN card should update this document upon naturalizing to become a U.S. citizen, in order to obtain a blanket authorization card. Making this change will facilitate the I-9 employment authorization verification process. It will help to update the government records comprehensively, which can be important if one’s employment requires clearance through the E-Verify system.


Obtaining an SSN is an important and necessary step for work authorized foreign nationals. While this process goes smoothly for many, frustrations arise when there are delays and difficulties in obtaining the needed verifications. If it is understood that work can and, often, should commence while the SSN is in process, some of the pressure is removed. Watch MurthyDotCom, which continues to provide information on key aspects of living and working in the United States for the benefit of readers.

While some aspects of immigration have changed in significant ways in the years since MurthyDotCom began publishing articles in 1994, there is much that is still the same. From time to time, clients of the Murthy Law Firm are referred to articles, like this one, which remains relevant and has been updated for our readers.


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Disclaimer: The information provided here is of a general nature and may not apply to any specific or particular circumstance. It is not to be construed as legal advice nor presumed indefinitely up to date.