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Social Security in the USA
Social SecurityIn the United States, we do not have national identification cards. Instead, in the 1930s, the Social Security Administration (SSA) was created, and the federal government mandated that all legal residents and citizens must have a valid social security card. The Social Security Administration issues these numbers to applicants who meet their criteria. A Social Security number contains nine digits: the first three digits are related to the Zip Code for the area you live in when you first apply for your card; and the last four digits are in numerical order of being assigned from 0000 to 9999. The middle two numbers are called group numbers and are not assigned consecutively, but instead in groups of odd and even (02 and up for even; 01 and up for odd). Group numbers are allocated for each state.

Why the Number is Important

A Social Security number is important, because the federal government uses it to keep track of how much your yearly wages are (and how much tax you owe in federal income taxes). For this reason, one of the first questions after being hired is often, "What is your Social Security number?" Your employer must note this number on his payroll. He will use this number to disclose the amount of federal taxes withheld from your paycheck, and sends his part of the required taxes to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).

A valid social security card may be required in other circumstances. These include:
  • When you are filing your tax returns for the IRS
  • When you apply for a federal loan or for Student Loans from the Department of Education
  • When applying to the state for the school lunch program (although this requirement may be waived in special circumstances)
  • When opening a bank account
  • For admission to a Veteran's Administration hospital
  • When applying for Worker's compensation from the Department of Labor

Most states also require a Social Security number when applying for a driver's license, although in some circumstances this can be waived. Applying for state public assistance such as Food Stamps, Medicaid, Unemployment Compensation, TANIF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families) also requires a Social Security Card.

And if you want to buy U.S. Savings bonds from the U.S. Treasury, you will be asked for your Social Security number.

When a government agency asks you for your Social Security number, you are protected by the privacy act, which means that they must disclose to you what use will be made of the number, whether disclosure is voluntary or not, and what consequences will occur (if any) if you don't supply that information. For instance, a utility companies may ask you for your Social Security number. You can ask in this situation why they need your number, how it will be used, and what would happen if you refuse, then make a decision whether to give it to them or not.

You do not need a Social Security number if you are a student in order to register for school, and should not be required to get a nonworking one. Schools use Social Security numbers as student identification numbers if they have one, but if not, the school will assign its own number to you for identification.

How Much Tax Gets Withheld

The federal government in the United States requires that under the guidelines of the Federal Insurance Contribution Act (FICA) that Social Security taxes be withheld. This amount is 7.65 percent of your earnings, which includes both your social security withholding (6.2 percent), and a contribution to Medicare (1.45 percent) that provides medical insurance to people who are age 65 or older. Your employer must match your contribution of 7.65 percent to Social Security that he pays to the federal government.

If a person is self-employed, then they must pay the combined total (15.3 percent) in yearly taxes to the Internal Revenue Service.

Benefits Under Social Security

The Social Security payments taken out by the federal government are placed in a special fund (that earns interest) to pay out Social Security benefits to those who are retired, disabled, or who are a surviving spouse or child. They are also used to help pay the Social Security Administration for administering their programs.

You can find out how much you have in your social security account by looking at your yearly Social Security statement that is sent to those eligible for social security benefits.

Although the federal government withholds a certain portion of your wages, a portion of this withholding is returned in small monthly payments after you reach retirement age (retirement benefits) . You should apply for these benefits, including Medicare, at least three months before you plan to stop working. The retirement age has changed recently, and is increasing slowly over the next several years, which can change the date that a person becomes eligible for Social Security retirement income.

In order to apply for social security retirement benefits, a person must provide their social security card, an original or certified copy of their birth certificate, your W-2 forms for the past year, and proof of U.S. citizenship or lawful alien status. Social Security will want to directly deposit your benefits into your bank account, so bring the name of your bank and your account number with you.

Social Security also administers special programs for people if they become disabled and unable to work (social security disability). A person must be examined by a medical doctor and be proven to be disabled to receive this benefit, which also includes health insurance under Medicare.

If a spouse was receiving Social Security benefits, and passes away, the surviving spouse and/or dependent children may be eligible for survivor's benefits.

If a person earns an extremely low income, they may qualify for a special program administered by Social Security known as Supplemental Security Income (SSI). Eligibility for this federally funded program must be determined, and then SSI will be given to those who have demonstrated need. It was originally designed to help the aged (who are over 65), the blind, and the disabled who are unable to work and whose income is so low that they cannot meet basic needs for food and shelter. Blind or disabled children can also receive this benefit in some cases.

Finding a Local Office

Social Security will have a local branch office in larger cities that you can go to in order to apply for a card or to get answers to your questions and concerns about your Social Security benefits. Often this office will have its address listed in the local telephone book in the white pages under "US Government".

They also have an online site that can be found by typing in "Social Security" into any search engine. You can contact Social Security directly through their toll free number at 1-800-772-1213 which you can call for directions to your nearest office, or for answers to common questions (the number will be a "telephone tree" with automated responses if you push certain numbers on your touch tone phone, and an option to talk to a representative as well). Be prepared to spend some time waiting to talk to a representative during normal business hours, since they field many calls.

How to Apply for a Card
Bring Documents With You

When applying for a Social Security card, you will need certain documents. You must be a legal alien or a citizen of the United States to receive a Social Security card, and will need to bring the necessary documentation when applying. You will want to bring your birth certificate, your driver's license, and your passport and visa with you. If you have a sponsor, then you will need to bring your sponsor letter with you. You should also bring any work papers and authorizations that you have. Any documents that help identify who you are, such as military records, a school identification card or an employer's ID.. will be helpful.

If you have paperwork that shows your legal alien status in the United States, such as your Form I-551, I-551, I-94, I-688B, or I-766, you must bring it to your appointment.

Fill Out an Application Form

While at the office, you will fill out form SS-5, the application form for Social Security. This application form can be obtained online, printed out, and filled out before your appointment with Social Security, or you can have a form mailed to you by calling 1-800-772-1213. You can also visit your local Social Security office and get a form.

If you are older than age 18, and this is your first application for a Social Security number, then the application must be done in person. If you already have a Social Security number, and are just updating information or getting a new one, then you can order it online or by mail.

Waiting Period

Normally your Social Security card will be mailed to you within 2 to 4 weeks after applying for it. In the meantime, you may be issued a temporary card that is proof that your application is in process. If your local office does not issue temporary cards, then you will want to have a copy made of your application.

Working Versus Non-Working Cards

If you apply for a Social Security number and are a legal resident, but are unable to work or unauthorized to work, then you Social Security card will have the notation, "Not valid for employment." You can still use your card for other reasons, such as obtaining insurance or opening a bank account, or when registering for school. But if at some part you start working, Social Security will have to notify the INS unless you reapply and are issued a Social Security card with the employment restriction.

You must provide a statement to Social Security from the government agency that is asking you to provide a Social Security number when you apply for a non-working card. The original letter (or certified copy) on letterhead stationary from the agency must identify you as the applicant, cite the law that requires that you have a Social Security number, and indicate that you meet the agency's requirements to receive the benefit or service (except for having a Social Security number).

If your status changes, and you have permission from the INS to work, then you will need to reapply for a new card that says "valid for work only with INS authorization", or if you become a citizen, without any notations at all.

If you have a temporary work visa, then your Social Security card will note, "valid for work only with INS authorization". This means that you are working legally in our country, with the authorization of the U.S. Citizenship and US immigration Services (USCIS).

Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN)

In some cases, you may need a number for tax purposes, but you may not meet the Social Security requirements for a Social Security card. You can apply to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) in this case for an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN).

You can contact the IRS by calling 1-800-829-3676, and ask that form W-7, which is the ITIN application form.

Applying for a Child

If a child is born in the United States, it will be considered a citizen, and you can apply for a Social Security number for him or her. The paper work can be filled out while you are filling out the information needed for the baby's birth certificate; let the hospital worker know that you want your child to have a Social Security Number assigned. Your state's vital statistics department will then send the information to Social Security, and your child will receive a card in the mail.

If the child is older, the application process is done at a local office, and you will need to show evidence of the child's age, identity, citizenship, and your own identification documents as well.

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