Must-Have No. 1:
A Social Security Number (SSN)

Most immigrants and work visa migrants moving to America have heard the term Social Security Number (SSN, for short). Most of us have an idea its something important. Well, you’re right. Its one of the two things I would call a Must-Have, a vital statistic, part of the basic survival kit in America. Before you do anything else, make sure you apply for your SSN.

A social security number is a unique 9 digit number mandatorily issued to every working person in the US (including citizens) by a government agency called the Social Security Administration (SSA). Its primary function is to track individuals for taxation and welfare benefits. But it's become a de-facto identification number for purposes as diverse as applying for loans, opening bank accounts, working with an employer, getting insurance of any kind, receiving medical aid and benefits and enrolling in an education program. That’s why its critical.

Here’s the bottomline: your employer won’t be able to pay you a salary if you don’t have one. So apply for your SSN the moment you touch the shores of the US. It would be great, in fact, to apply while you're still in your home country. Unfortunately, all first-time applicants over the age of 12 must apply in person at a Social Security office. Applying for your SSN is free and there are local offices all over the country.

Although an SSN is primarily meant for working individuals, you would often need to quote SSNs for non-working dependents too (like children). So while you're at it, do apply and get SSNs for all non-working dependents in your household.

Applying for an SSN is a simple process - just fill out a form and take some original supporting documents with you.

Once you apply, the Social Security Administration will send you a social security card with your number printed on it. The card is sent by mail and the process takes anywhere from a week to 6 weeks, sometimes longer. So apply as soon as you arrive in the US! Since you might not immediately have a permanent mailing address, give your work address or friend’s address.

When you receive your social security number, inform your employer at once. If there's a delay in getting your SSN, let your employer know about that too. Most employers will give you an advance against salary till your SSN comes through.

One final point: never divulge your SSN number to anyone unless its to an institution you trust (like a bank, your employer, or a government agency). Since the social security number is such a unique and widely used identifier in America, chances of identity theft (i.e. someone posing as you and obtaining access to personal information) are very high if your social security number lands in the wrong hands.

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