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The Difference Between a Social Security Number (SSN) and An Individual Tax Identification Number (ITIN)

ITINs and SSNs can look very similar and are often mistaken as interchangeable. Although they both act as valid tax identification numbers when filing a tax return in the U.S., they cannot be used interchangeably. So, what is the difference?

Social Security Numbers

Social Security Numbers are always issued to American citizens and to foreign citizens that have been approved for legal work within the U.S. The purpose is to use this ID number to track a person’s earnings and as a form of individual identification on a federal level. Employees always need to provide their SSN to their employer whenever they are starting a new job so that their earnings, benefits, and tax obligations can be properly tracked. They will also need it when filing their yearly tax returns. Similarly, they are used as personal identifiers for other things such as schools, banks, and healthcare establishments sometimes requiring them to open or receive services.

If you are an American-born citizen, an SSN is issued to you at birth. If you are not an American-born citizen, there are various ways to apply for one including applying for work eligibility in the U.S. via the Department of Homeland Security or through a citizenship application. Both options entail lengthy and complex processes and widely vary depending on the country of origin and various other factors.

Individual Tax Identification Number

These numbers are issued to non-citizens that have not been authorized to work by the Department of Homeland Security. Individuals do not need to have permanent citizenship or any form of work authorization in order to obtain an ITIN. The IRS issues ITINs only to people who are not eligible for an SSN and subsequently, does not change a person’s legal or work status in the U.S.

Applying for an ITIN can be done while filing a federal tax return or through the IRS website where they will need the individual to supply other forms of proof of identity. For work eligibility purposes, it is important to note that ITINs are formatted in the same way as SSNs and can often be confused for one. However, an ITIN will always start with the number “9” and is an indicator that it is not an SSN.

Identification for work purposes

All employers must complete Form I-9 for everyone that they hire to work at a U.S. establishment. Employees are also required to fill out the form as part of the verification process. Employees provide employers with approved documentation that confirms both their identity and employment eligibility.

For this reason, an ITIN cannot be used as a form of work authorization as it is only used for tax purposes when an individual has not been granted permission to work by the Department of Homeland Security.

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This article provides general information and shouldn’t be construed as legal or HR advice. Since employment laws may change over time and can vary by location and industry, please consult a lawyer or HR expert for advice specific to your business. You can also contact Payroll Systems to inquire about our HR support services.