Social Security Number (SSN)

As of the start of the Fall 2021 semester, all local Social Security offices remain closed for in-person walk in service until further notice. Please review the SSN Application Instructions below for details on applying for an SSN during the office closures.

To work in the U.S. you must have a U.S. Social Security Number (SSN) for tax purposes. You may start working without an SSN as long as you provide evidence to your employer that you have applied for one.

If your employer is Harvard, between the time you apply for an SSN and when you receive your card in the mail, you may be issued a placeholder number for internal use only. The placeholder number not an actual SSN and cannot be used in any other instance. If you have an SSN,  you should use it when completing your tax forms.

Your Social Security Number is an important identifying number, and should be kept in a safe place to avoid identity theft. Please do not give out this number to unknown parties, especially over the phone. For more information, please see Identity Theft.

SSN Eligibility

Your eligibility to apply for an SSN varies based on your immigration status. You may find details in the chart below:

Visa Status SSN Eligibility
F-1 Student Only eligible when authorized for work in the U.S. Students with on campus employment, CPT, or OPT work authorization may apply following the application instructions below.
J-1 Student Eligible with an authorization letter from the HIO. Students with visas sponsored by Fulbright must contact IIE for the authorization letter.
J-1 Student Intern Eligible with an authorization letter from the HIO
Scholars with J-1, H-1B, TN, O-1, E-3, etc. Eligible

SSN Application Instructions

You may find a list of the documents needed for the SSN application linked below. In addition to the supporting documents listed below, you must also complete an Application for a Social Security Card (SS-5)

SSN Application instructions

The process to apply for an SSN is:

  1. Review the SSN Application Instructions linked above to verify that you have the proper documents to apply for an SSN.
  2. If you are an F-1 visa holder with on-campus employment, you must obtain a job offer letter from your on-campus employer following this format.
  3. F-1 and J-1 students and J-1 student interns in need of an HIO SSN authorization letter should complete and submit the HIO's online SSN letter request form. Once submitted, the HIO will email you a copy of the SSN authorization letter. Students on Fulbright's visa sponsorship must contact their Fulbright advisor for the letter. 
  4. Once you have each of the documents ready, you must mail or fax copies of your immigration documents and SSN application to your local Social Security Administration office. You must only send copies - do not send your original passport or original immigration documents. You may send a fax from a local FedEx store. The Cambridge, MA fax number is 1-833-515-0461. You may find additional office locations on the SSA website
  5. After the Social Security office receives your application documents, they will call you back to set up an in-person appointment.

Please note that it is NOT possible to apply for a SSN online or via an agency. You must have a personal interview with a Social Security Administration representative usually in a local Social Security office. Please be aware that there are no application fees for an SSN.

What To Do Upon Receipt of the SSN

Harvard students receiving income from the University, including fellowships, stipends, on-campus employment wages, etc., must report the SSN to the appropriate payroll or student accounts office. Please note, the HIO does not collect or require your SSN. 

  1. Notify the Office of Student Accounts
  2. Login to your Harvard Glacier account
  3. Input the SSN
  4. Print the new Glacier Summary sheet, if your determination changes
  5. Upload the Glacier Summar sheet, Glacier materials, and SSN notice to the Harvard Office of the Controller

If you are working off-campus with off-campus work authorization, you must report the SSN to your employer's payroll or HR office.

SSN Denial Letter Instructions

The U.S. Government restricts the issuance of new SSNs to F-1 students who are employed. If you are not currently eligible for an SSN, and are hoping to apply for a MA State ID, you will instead need to apply for an SSN denial notice. 

Students who are NOT eligible for an SSN should fax in their documents along with a completed Social Security Application to  the Cambridge Social Security office: 1-833-515-0461. The students need to annotate clearly at the top of the application form, or in a separate cover letter attached to the application, that they are requesting a denial notice.  Clearly annotating that you are looking for an SSN denial notice will help Social Security to expedite the request.  

Documents required for F-1 students who are NOT eligible for SSN:

  • Completed SS5 with clear annotation of request of denial letter/Or completed SS5 with cover letter annotating the request for denial notice
  • Copy of passport
  • Copy of Visa Page with most recent admission stamp
  • Copy of I-94 record
  • Copy of I-20

Social Security will mail you the denial notice once your application has been reviewed. 

Is it Possible to Open a Bank Account, Get a Credit Card, or Purchase a Cell Phone Plan Without an SSN?

Generally, you will be able to open a bank account without a SSN. You will need to show at least two forms of identification. The Harvard University Credit Union located at 104 Mt. Auburn St. in Cambridge usually accepts your Harvard ID and passport. If you do not have your ID yet, the Form I-20 or Form DS-2019 should be acceptable along with your passport. You will also need to provide a local address.

If you want to purchase a cell (mobile) phone plan without a SSN, you may have to make a sizable deposit. For those looking to access mobile data, text, and calling upon arrival the HIO has free Mint Mobile sim cards available. Mint Mobile is an completely online company and requires you to download an app through which you can choose your phone plan. They have initial 3 month plans with the option to renew. Most major wireless carriers also offer prepaid plans with calling, text, and data with no annual contracts or credit checks. Another alternative for making international calls is CellularLD.

You usually will not be able to get a credit card without a SSN. However, if you open an account at the Harvard Credit Union you should be eligible for a credit card with limited credit, even without a SSN.  When you open checking account at a bank, you should receive a debit card that can be used in many stores and restaurants. The difference between a debit card and a credit card is that the money you "charge" using the debit card is drawn directly from your bank account.