How to: Get a Social Security number while overseas

Each week The Prepared Expat publishes information to help you survive and thrive as an expat; todays’ deep dive “How To” will help you get a US Social Security number while living overseas. Most of The Prepared Expat posts for for expats of any nationality, but since most of my audience are US citizens, some, like today’s, are specific to US citizens.

The most likely reason you’d need to get a Social Security number (SSN) while living overseas is because you had a child (congrats!) and need to get them a number so you can file your taxes with the proper exemptions. The guide below assumes you’re getting a SSN for your child who has never had a number before. It can be a daunting task and, unfortunately, US government information online isn’t clear, but never fear–The Prepared Expat is here to guide you through the process.

Disclaimer: By continuing to read this guide, you agree that The Prepared Expat cannot be held liable if you follow this guide and things don’t go the way you wish. Other disclosures and disclaimers apply.

1. Check where and how you’ll apply

The Social Security Office maintains FBU offices in US embassies around the world; to see if your local embassy has a FBU office, contact your local embassy, or, better and faster, check the FBU’s list of offices yourself. It’s critical to note the address of the office, because the office that serves people in your host country may be located in another country entirely. To pick one row as an example, the FBU for China is in the Philippines, for Colombia it’s in the Dominican Republic, for Comoros it’s in Greece, and for Congo it’s in France.

Depending on what you find, you’ll be in one of three scenarios:

A) Your local embassy has a FBU unit: If so, congrats–you’ve got an easier process than the rest of us expats (please don’t gloat). Use the listed contact information to contact the FBU office and make an appointment (they won’t take walk-ins), then follow their instructions for the SSN application.

B) Your local embassy does not have a FBU unit: This is most countries. Contact your local embassy to see if the embassy accepts SSN applications on behalf of the FBU, then follow their instructions for the SSN application.

C) Your local embassy does not have a FBU unit and they do not accept applications on behalf of the FBU: Contact the FBU office that serves people in your country and follow their instructions for the SSN application. In most cases, you will need to mail your application and documents to the FBU office (see notes below).

2. Prepare your documentation and application

Follow the FBU instructions, but in most cases you’ll need to complete a SS-5 application (https://www.ssa.gov/forms/ss-5fs.pdf) and provide a parent’s original US passport, the child’s original US passport, and the child’s original Consulate Report of Birth Abroad (CRBA). If you’re in situation A or B, above, then bring those documents to your appointment, along with any other information the FBU office indicated. That’s relatively straightforward.

What’s tougher is if you’re in situation C, which usually (always?) requires that you mail those items to the FBU office…which is in a different country. Now, I’d say it’s quite unwise to mail you and your child’s passport books to another country: your host country may require foreigners to have their passports with them at all times, your passport could get lost/stolen in the mail, you may need your passport to live/travel in your host country, or an emergency could arise and you need your passport to travel internationally. So I strongly recommend that you not send in your passport book.

So how can you avoid that and yet still meet the FBU requirements? You have two options:

A) Get certified copies made.

Make an appointment at your nearest US embassy to get a certified copy of your passport, your child’s passport, and your child’s CRBA. It’s a free service that most (all?) US embassies offer, but note that you must bring all three items to get certified copies made; they will not certify only one document (I learned that the hard way!)

Your local embassy may allow someone else to get certified copies made on your behalf. Contact them to see if this is the case; this may be a good option if someone you trust lives near the embassy who is willing to do you a favor.

Note that your local embassy can also make the certified copies when you pick up your child’s passport and CRBA from the local embassy, but only if you pick up the passport in person. If you have the US embassy mail you the new passport for your child, they cannot also send you certified copies. The reason is that the embassy requires the passport to be signed in order to make a certified copy; since your child’s new passport is unsigned, they cannot make certified copies before mailing it to you.

Regardless of how you do it, once you obtain certified copies, then you can send them to the FBU office while keeping your passport books in your possession.

B) Use passport cards instead of passport books.

This option works especially well if, like me, traveling to the nearest US embassy is a hassle and a expensive.

This option only works if you have, or can get, a passport card for one parent and your child; if you’re following The Prepared Expat then you would have seen this tip to do just that. If you have the cards, then you can send your passport card, your child’s passport card, and your child’s CRBA to the FBU office. The FBU accepts passport cards as proof of identity on par with a passport book (though probably email them just to make sure), but you can keep your passport books in your possession.

Of course, the passport cards and CRBA could be lost/stolen, but these can be far more easily and inexpensively replaced than a passport book.

3. Arrange for the mailing of the SSN and the return of your documents

So you have your application and proof of identity. Now you need to make sure that you get back the SSN card and the documents you’re providing. This step is critical for expat and is a lesson I learned the hard way–my son’s first SSN is lost somewhere in the mail because I didn’t know any better. I’m here to make sure that doesn’t happen to you!

Once your application is accepted, your child’s SSN will be printed and then shipped from the US via United States Postal Service (USPS) to the address listed on your SS-5 (box 16). However, since the form requires you to use the Roman alphabet to input the address and since the USPS does not always reliably ship around the world, I recommend that you do not list your foreign mailing address on the form. That’s how my son’s card got lost somewhere and I had to start my application all over again.

Instead, on the SS-5 you should write the US address of a friend/family member who can receive the card on your behalf and tell you the number or send you a scan (make sure to do it securely). Since it’s unlikely you’ll need the actual SSN card in your host country, this is what I think most expats should do.

Thus, if you’re in situation A or B, then you’re all done; the FBU or embassy will return your documents to you at your appointment and then the SSN will be sent to the US address you listed on the SS-5. All set.

But if you’re in situation C and you have to mail in your identity documents with your application–then it’s slightly more complicated. By default, the FBU office will send your original documents to the address on the SS-5. If you used certified copies of your passports, no problem–they’ll shred the copies and ship the SSN to the address on the SS-5. But if you send in original passport cards and CRBA, then those also will get shipped to the US address. That’s probably not what you want, but there’s a way around it.

So here’s the trick: contact the FBU office that serves your country and ask if they will ship the original documents to a different address than where the SSN will be shipped. I can’t promise every FBU office will be as helpful as the one I’ve worked with, but in my experience they were more than willing to help out. What they’ll have you do is provide them with a prepaid shipping label (Fedex, UPS, DHL, etc.) and any other shipping instructions (for example, my country needs the local address and phone number taped to the outside of the package). They’ll then ship originals documents back to you using your prepaid shipping label (and shipping instructions) and then the SSN number will be shipped to the US address on the SS-5.

There you go! You’ve successfully applied for your child’s SSN even while living overseas!

Want more tips and tricks for expats?

Then check out the archive of tips from The Prepared Expat — and subscribe to make sure you don’t miss out on any more!

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This information is accurate as of time of writing (January 2023) but, as always with bureaucracies, things change. If there is a mistake or inaccuracy, please let me know so I can update this page.

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