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ITIN, Social Security Numbers and Immigration Status

An ITIN is not the same as a SS Number-and neither confers immigration status.

One of the more common misconceptions that we routinely run across is the idea that an individual must be “legal” here if he/she has a social security number. The issue becomes even more complicated when one is confronted by a ITIN number, or Temporary Tax Identification Number. It is important to understand that both social security numbers and ITIN numbers have no direct bearing on an individual’s immigration status, nor do they in and of themselves, confer or necessarily prove a person’s lawful immigration status. For example, a person may have been issued a social security number card when he or she was authorized to work. The person may still have that card and number, even though he or she may have subsequently violated or fallen out of status, such as, for example, a person granted H-1B status but who is then “benched” by the employer.

While a social security number has, in modern times, become a sort of identification number, its original purpose is to track an individual’s earnings for social security purposes. Besides that purpose, the social security number is by regulation required to be included on a person’s tax return for those who have such numbers.
A Tax ID number, on the other hand, is used for federal tax reporting purposes only. The IRS issues such a number to a foreign national who is legally obligated to file a tax return but who does not qualify for a social security number.

Neither of these numbers is issued by the Department of Homeland Security, which regulates immigration from within the United States. If an individual is authorized by DHS to work, which is evidenced by an employment authorization document, he or she may apply for a social security number from the Social Security Administration. With respect to a tax ID number, an individual without a social security number usually applies for ITIN on Form W-7. That ITIN begins with the number 9. Again, the presence of an ITIN does not prove or confirm that a person is authorized by DHS to stay in the United States.

These types of issues can arise in a number of different ways in the immigration context. Foreign nationals may present ITIN numbers to their employers as proof of their lawful status, which as just discussed, is not necessarily accurate. Similarly, there are individuals out there who may have at one time, legitimately procured a social security number as well as a New Jersey driver’s license but whose status is now expired or revoked. The point is that employers (in terms of their I-9 obligations) as well as aliens themselves (who more often than not may not have a firm grasp on their status) need to be sensitive to these issues.