Take a look at Form 1040, U.S. Individual Tax Return, and you’ll notice one of the first pieces of information requested on the return is your Social Security number (SSN). The form asks for this number for a taxpayer, spouse, and any dependents listed on the return.
Despite the seemingly straightforward language on the form, you don’t have to have a Social Security number to file a tax return. The IRS issues Individual Taxpayer Identification Numbers (ITINs) for individuals who don’t qualify for an SSN but need to file a return.
According to the IRS, more than 4.3 million tax returns were submitted using an ITIN in 2015, with total taxes paid of more than $23 million. Read on to learn more about when you need to file a return and the identifying information you need to do so.
The requirement to pay taxes in the U.S. isn’t limited to U.S. citizens. Individuals who need ITINs can include:
Even if you won’t owe taxes, you may want to file an income tax return to claim a refund of taxes overpaid or claim the benefit or any deductions or credits, including the Child Tax Credit. On the other hand, if you owe taxes and don’t file, the IRS can assess penalties and interest, seize U.S. assets, and impose immigration consequences.
According to the IRS, you must file the 1040NR tax form if you:
If you are unsure if you need to file taxes this year, you can read more about the minimum filing requirements for nonresident aliens in the IRS Instructions for Form 1040NR. Resident aliens can learn more about their filing requirements in IRS Publication 501.
A Social Security number serves many purposes. It’s used as an identification number by your employer when reporting federal and state income and payroll taxes withheld, for instance. It’s also used to open a bank account with a U.S. financial institution, apply for federal loans or certain types of public assistance, enroll in Medicare and to get a driver’s license.
Having a Social Security Number is also essential for establishing a credit score in the U.S. Without a SSN, it can be challenging to build credit and take out loans if you need them for major purchases.
If you, your spouse or a dependent qualify for an SSN, you should file Form SS5, Application for a Social Security Card, with the Social Security Administration (SSA).
According to the SSA, generally only non-citizens authorized to work in the U.S. by the Department of Homeland Security can get a Social Security number. To do this, you can either apply for a SSN in your home country before coming to the U.S. or visit a Social Security office in person.
If you choose to take care of this process in your home country, you’ll need to file for a SSN when filing your application for an immigrant visa with the U.S. Department of State.
If visiting a Social Security office in person, you’ll need to show documentation to prove your identity and work-authorized immigration status. This documentation might include:
If you’re eligible to get a SSN, you should definitely consider it. Otherwise, there’s another option when it comes to filing your taxes.
If you’re not eligible for a SSN, you can apply for an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number. An ITIN is a number used by the IRS to account for tax returns and tax payments. They’re issued, regardless of immigration status, to both resident and nonresident aliens who may have tax filing or reporting requirements in the U.S.
An ITIN does not:
It’s used solely for federal tax reporting. However, if you eventually apply for U.S. citizenship, having an ITIN can help demonstrate that you have complied with federal tax laws and prove you have “good moral character” – one of the requirements when applying for naturalization.
Undocumented immigrants may fear that applying for an ITIN may increase the risk of being deported. But according to the National Immigration Law Center, using an ITIN is generally safe.
“The IRS has strong privacy protections in place to ensure that immigrants who report their income and file their taxes are not at risk of having their information shared. Under Internal Revenue Code section 6103, the IRS is generally prohibited from disclosing taxpayer information, including to other agencies. However, certain exceptions apply. For example, the IRS is required to disclose taxpayer information to certain U.S. Treasury Department employees when they request it for tax administration purposes or to other federal agencies if it is needed for a nontax criminal investigation and a federal court has ordered that it be provided.”
There are three ways to apply for an ITIN:
By mail. Fill out Form W-7, Application for IRS Individual Taxpayer Identification Number. Be sure to submit it with your federal income tax return along with original or certified copies of documents to prove your identity and foreign status. You will not be able to electronically file your return without the ITIN, so you’d have to file a paper return and mail it to:
Internal Revenue Service
Austin Service Center
P.O. Box 149342
Austin, TX 78714-9342
With an in-person agent. Fill out Form W-7 and apply in person using the services of an IRS-authorized Certifying Acceptance Agent.
At an in-person assistance center. Fill out Form W-7 and make an appointment at an IRS Taxpayer Assistance Center.
Options 2 and 3 allow you to apply for an ITIN without mailing your original documents. If you qualify and your application is complete, you’ll receive a letter from the IRS with your ITIN within seven weeks.
The Instructions for Form W-7 list 13 acceptable documents you can use to establish your identity and foreign status. At least one must include a photograph unless you’re applying for an ITIN for a dependent under age 14.
Acceptable documents include:
If you mail your documents, the originals will be returned to your at the mailing address you provided on Form W-7. The IRS says you can expect to receive them within 60 days.
However, mailing your original documents puts them at risk of getting lost in the mail, winding up in the wrong hands, and exposes you to identity theft. For that reason, it’s a good idea to apply in person whenever possible.
The ITIN is a way for noncitizens who earn income in the U.S. to pay taxes on the money they earn and comply with U.S. law. Once you get an ITIN, it will remain in effect as long as you continue to file tax returns.
However, if you haven’t used your ITIN on at least one tax return in the past three years, the IRS will deactivate it. For that reason, it’s a good idea to notify the IRS when you change your address using Form 8822.
If you, your spouse, or dependent’s ITIN is scheduled to expire, the IRS will send you a notification. You can renew your ITIN by filling out a new Form W-7 and checking the box to “renew an existing ITIN” in the upper right-hand corner.
If you file a return using an expired ITIN, the IRS will process your return, but any credits or other tax breaks claimed that apply to the expired ITIN will not be allowed, and the IRS will not issue a refund. You’ll receive a notice that your ITIN has expired. After you renew it, the IRS will reconsider any previously disallowed credits or deductions.
While navigating the rules and regulations around filing taxes without a SSN can seem confusing, the good news is there are plenty of resources you can turn to for additional help. While the IRS website is always a good go-to, be sure to check out the resources available in your local community as well. These could include IRS Taxpayer Assistance Centers, some nonprofit organizations, and even in some areas, your local public library.
While it’s always good to do your own research too, sometimes the key is really just to ask an expert.
Janet Berry-Johnson is a Certified Public Accountant and personal finance writer. Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including CreditKarma and Forbes.