Close to one million people immigrate to the US every year — buying homes, working jobs, and enriching our communities.
If you’re one of those people — welcome! As a housewarming gift, I’d like to introduce you to one of the most frustrating tax processes our country has to offer: acquiring an individual tax identification number (ITIN).
In this article, we’ll cover what an ITIN is, how to use it, and step-by-step instructions for getting one.
What is an Individual Tax ID Number?
An Individual Tax ID Number (ITIN) is a unique, nine-digit number that allows people who can’t get Social Security Numbers to file their taxes. That includes both documented and undocumented immigrants.
Let’s take a step back and look at why ITINs are so important.
What ITINs are used for
In the United States, every person who has taxable income has to file an annual tax return with the IRS, or Internal Revenue Service. To help the agency keep track of the millions of filers every year, each taxpayer needs a unique tax ID number on their return.
For citizens (and some eligible residents or foreign nationals), that number is their Social Security Number — often assigned at birth. Everyone else, though, gets an ITIN.
Why ITINs are important
For people who want to be granted US citizenship or permanent legal residence, filing a tax return is an important first step in demonstrating your “moral character” to the government. And acquiring an ITIN allows anyone — including nonresidents and undocumented immigrants — to file and pay their taxes.
Basically, voluntarily disclosing your taxable income establishes trust and goodwill between you and the US government. (That’s especially true for undocumented workers, who could easily stay off the IRS’s radar — though most pay their taxes anyway.)
ITIN vs. SSN: What’s the difference?
Since both the Individual Tax ID number and Social Security number can be used to file taxes, you may be wondering, “Why don’t we just assign the same type of number to everyone?”
The truth is, an ITIN “is not meant to be used in lieu of a Social Security Number,” says Renata Castro, an immigration attorney and founder of the Castro Legal Group. There are several important differences between these two types of ID numbers:
Bottom line: Filing with an ITIN won’t alert immigration services
Social Security Numbers are issued by the Social Security Administration (SSA). They are shared across multiple governmental departments (including Immigration and Customs Enforcement).
Individual Tax ID Numbers, on the other hand, are issued by the IRS and can’t be shared with other departments “The IRS… does not provide USCIS with tax information for immigration enforcement purposes,” Castro says.
That’s right: There’s no way for immigration services to find anyone through an ITIN.
ITINs were purposefully designed to be confidential. That way, they protect undocumented workers who want to comply with US tax laws. (That works just fine for the IRS, which could care less what your immigration status is as long as you’re paying your tax bill on time!)
Bottom line: People with ITINs can’t hold jobs — but can do self-employed work in the US
A Social Security Number is the only ID number that lets you work in the US as a traditional employee. An ITIN won’t be acceptable for W-2 jobs.
That being said, ITINs can be used by immigrants working as freelancers, gig workers, and business owners in the US. All self-employment forms accept ITINs in lieu of Social Security Numbers:
- Form W-9: Request for Taxpayer Identification Number
- 1099-NEC: Nonemployee Compensation
- 1099-K: Payment Card and Third Party Network Transactions
Self-employed ITIN holders still get business write-offs
💡 Important note: Whether you’re documented or not, if you’re an ITIN holder who’s self-employed, you can take advantage of tax write-offs on anything you earn from gig work or running a business.
Tax write-offs are a powerful tool for saving money, and the IRS expects you to use them. Unfortunately, it doesn’t make them easy to find on your own. (Even business owners born and raised in the US don’t always know everything they can write off!)
That’s where the Keeper app comes in. It can help you find write-offs and make sure your taxes are following all the IRS’s rules. If you received a 1099, be sure to download it so you don’t overpay on taxes!
Bottom line: ITIN holders don’t get Social Security benefits
This one’s in the name! Only a Social Security Number qualifies you to receive Social Security and other government benefits.
The kicker? You’ll still have to pay into those programs if you pay self-employment tax. However, you won’t get any of that money back in the form of future benefits — unless, of course, you acquire a Social Security number down the road.
Lines of credit
Bottom line: You can’t use an ITIN to get loans
Because ITINs are confidential, they aren’t considered reliable for tracking someone’s credit history or financial health. That’s why many creditors only accept Social Security numbers and won’t rent to ITIN holders.
You can use an ITIN to prove you live somewhere or get a driver’s license. But when it comes to loans, it’s not widely accepted in place of an SSN.
Bottom line: ITINs expire every 10 years — earlier if you don’t file taxes
Social Security Numbers never expire, even if they aren’t being actively used. ITINs, on the other hand, must be renewed every 10 years.
To make matters worse, they can expire early if you don’t use them to file a federal tax return for three years in a row.
Note: If you decide to reapply after your ITIN has expired, the IRS will reassign you the same number, not a different one.
Who needs an ITIN?
If you don’t qualify for a Social Security Number, an ITIN is for you. Generally speaking, here’s who should apply for an ITIN:
- ✓ Undocumented immigrants
- ✓ Foreign nationals living in the U.S.
- ✓ Student visa holders
- ✓ Education and research visa holders
- ✓ Dependents or spouses of a US citizens
- ✓ Dependents or spouses of a US permanent residents
Who doesn’t need an ITIN
People who are eligible for SSNs won’t need to apply for ITINs. That means:
- ✘ US Citizens
- ✘ Green card holders
- ✘ Immigrants with work visas
In short, the ITIN is a catch-all option. Anyone who needs to pay taxes but doesn’t fit into the Social Security box should get an ITIN.
When you shouldn’t get an ITIN
That being said, don’t apply for an ITIN unless you have to file taxes.
The purpose of this ID number is very specific: to stay compliant with taxes. If you have no taxable income to report, don’t apply.
The same rule of thumb goes for your dependents and your spouse. If you aren’t claiming them on your tax return, there’s no reason for them to get an ITIN number.
How to get (or renew) your ITIN
Now for the fun part — the paperwork! This looks the same whether you’re applying for a new ITIN or just renewing an old one.
Step #1: Fill out Form W-7
The application you’ll use to request your ITIN is called Form W-7. It’s available in both English and Spanish. If form-filling isn’t for you, consider finding a local Certifying Acceptance Agent to help with this process. (This is discussed in more detail under Step #2!)
Choose whether you’re applying or renewing
In the very first section, you’ll be prompted to mark whether you’re renewing an ITIN you already have or applying for a new one.
Mark your reason for applying
These boxes should be relatively straightforward, but we’ll go over each option one at a time:
Put in your personal details
The next section of the form is general information about yourself, things like:
- Your name
- Your mailing address
- Your date of birth
Be sure to enter your date of birth in the order listed on the form — month first, followed by date, and then year at the end.
Fill out the other info that applies to you
Section 6, “Other Information,” covers all the extraneous details.
Not every section will apply to you, and it’s okay to skip those parts. But just in case, let’s go over a few sections that might apply.
List your old ITIN if you had one
Under box 6e, indicate whether you’ve been issued an ITIN before, and list the number in box 6f.
Include your IRSN if you had one
Box 6f also includes a space for IRSN numbers. An IRSN, or “Internal Revenue Service Number,” is a temporary number the IRS issues when it receives a tax return without the Form W-7 attached.
In those cases, the IRS will log the return in the system using the temporary number and send a letter to the taxpayer requesting their W-7. The return won’t be formally processed until the W-7 is approved and an ITIN is assigned.
If this has happened to you, locate the IRSN number on the letter you received from the IRS and list it under box 6f. This way, the IRS will be able to match the tax return in their system.
Select which ID documents you’re sending in
In addition to your Form W-7, you’ll also have to submit documentation verifying your identity. You’ll need to indicate which documents you’ve included with your application in box 6d. (More on this later!)
Sign and date your form
Last but not least, be sure to sign and date your W-7 at the bottom, and provide a good phone number for the IRS to reach you at, just in case. (Don’t worry — they won’t actually call you!).
Step #2: Gather your documents!
In addition to the Form W-7, you have to provide additional documents proving:
- Your identity
- Your country of origin (or “foreign status,” as the IRS puts it)
Here’s a list of approved documents:
Rules for ID documents
Unless you have a passport, you’ll need two documents.
Dependents, though, will sometimes need a second document in addition to a passport, unless either of these is true:
- They live in Mexico or Canada
- The passport has a valid date of entry
Without the date of entry listed, your dependent will need a second document proving their residency. More on this later!
Note that all of this documents must meet the following standards:
- The documents can’t be expired
- The documents must be original — not copies (unless you’re using CAA — discussed below)
Sending copies of ID documents through Certifying Acceptance Agents (CAA’s)
Sending important documents makes most people feel uneasy. Things get lost or damaged in the mail all the time, and replacing something like a passport is no small task.
Luckily, there is another option: Certifying Acceptance Agents (CAAs). These are credentialed tax professionals — like me! — who have enrolled in the IRS’s immigration taxation program, and are authorized to assist people through the ITIN process.
If you decide to work with a CAA, they can verify your original documents and send certified copies to the IRS for you. You get to keep your originals, and the IRS is happy. Everybody wins.
They can also help you fill out the Form W-7 completely — and even prepare your tax return for you.
If this sounds like the right option for you, there is a database of CAAs on the IRS website where you can search by your location — there are options in every city!
How much does a CAA cost?
The process could cost as little as $30 or as much as $400. That being said, the price will vary depending on where you live and whether the CAA prepares your tax return as well.
It’s always a good idea to get price estimates from several places to make sure you’re getting the best deal!
Dependent Proof of Residency
If your dependent doesn’t live in Canada or Mexico, their passport doesn’t list a date of entry, they’ll need an extra document to prove they actually have residency in the US.
Here’s what they can provide:
Step #3: Attach your tax return
Once the package is assembled, attach the Form W-7 to the front of your first-ever US federal income tax return, along with the supporting documents. Be sure to take a selfie for sentimental purposes (optional step). You can leave all the tax ID numbers on your 1040 tax return blank. Once your ITIN is assigned, you’ll use it in those boxes on future returns.
Can you submit Form W-7 without a tax return?
As a rule, you can’t submit your W-7 package without attaching it to a tax return.
That being said, there are a few exceptions. You can still send in a W-7 if you have any of the following
- Passive withholding through a third party like a bank
- Compensation, scholarships, or grants that are covered by a tax treaty
- Mortgage interest reporting requirements
- Sale or transfer of US real property to a foreign person
I’m not going to spend much time getting into these, since they don’t apply to most people. But if you want to learn more, read page 10 of IRS Publication 1915.
Requesting a tax extension in your Form W-7 package
Tax returns are typically due by April 15th. If you need more time to file, though, you can always submit a tax extension giving you six additional months to file.
You don’t need to have your ITIN to submit a tax extension. Simply write “ITIN TO BE REQUESTED” in the tax ID box.
What to expect after your ITIN application is processed
The IRS claims that ITIN applications take around seven weeks to process, though there are exceptions. (More on that later!)
Once all your paperwork has been reviewed, here are the three things that can happen next. Each potential outcome comes with its very own IRS notice.
If your application was accepted
IRS notice: CP565
Your ITIN has been assigned (or renewed) — yay! The letter will list your ITIN number and give you instructions on how to use it. Keep this letter for your records.
If the IRS needs more information
IRS notice: CP566
If you get this letter, the IRS thinks the documentation you sent in wasn’t enough.
The good news is, they’re reaching out to you before rejecting your request for an ITIN. You’ll have 45 days to respond with new records, following the instructions in your letter.
If you miss the 45-day window, your application will be automatically rejected. You can use the phone number listed on the notice to call with any questions.
If your application your application was rejected
IRS notice: CP567
The notice will explain why you were rejected. Common reasons include:
- Expired documents
- Failure to provide identification containing your photograph
- You’re eligible to receive a Social Security Number
Failed to include a tax return with the application
You’re allowed to reapply. If you’d like to do that, just:
- Attach a copy of the tax return you already filed to a new Form W-7
- Write “Copy” at the top of the 1040
The IRS should already have a record of the first 1040 you sent.
You’ll get your original documents back within 60 day of the IRS’s decision
Will applying for an ITIN delay your tax return?
Most likely. Here’s why: Your tax return can’t be processed until the ITIN application is approved, even though you send all your documents in at the same time.
Processing your ITIN application takes several weeks, so expect longer than normal delays for your tax return to be processed.
How to get an ITIN faster
The best option is to file your tax return as early in the tax filing season as possible. In the US, that usually means around late January.
The IRS releases the tax season’s start date every year. They won’t officially begin accepting tax returns before then, so keep an eye out for this announcement.
Once the doors open, it’s best to get your return in as soon as you can. This will put you towards the “front of the line” — giving you the best possible chance of a shorter turnaround.
While Keeper doesn’t currently support W-7 filings, our tax filing service is quick and easy. With just a few clicks, you can electronically file your taxes with the IRS to ensure the fastest possible processing times.
What if you haven’t received your ITIN yet?
Delays are the new normal with the IRS. Wait times can take weeks to months, leaving most taxpayers feeling panicked and confused.
Here’s what to do based on how long you’ve been waiting.
After seven to 11 weeks
If it’s been more than seven weeks since you sent in your W-7, and you haven’t heard back, resist the urge to send it in again. (Much like a frozen computer, pushing more buttons usually doesn’t help.)
After 11 weeks
The IRS claims 11 weeks is the maximum wait time. If it’s been longer than that, you have two options:
1. Call the IRS
Here are the numbers to use:
- For domestic callers: 1-800-829-1040
- For overseas callers: 1-267-941-1000
2. Schedule an appointment
For those of you who would rather eat gravel than wait on hold with the IRS, the alternative is an in-person appointment at a Taxpayer Assistance Center.
These offices are located all around the country.The staff are equipped to follow up on ITIN applications.
What to do if calling or scheduling an appointment doesn’t help
If neither option supplies an answer, you might have to resubmit your application and tax return.
If you use paper mail, I highly recommend sending your forms through certified mail. That way, you have confirmation they arrived at their destination safely.
For those who stayed with me to the bitter end of this article — well done! Applying for an ITIN is a stressful process, but luckily it only needs to be done once every 10 years. (Just long enough to forget everything you learned here!)
Know that the Keeper team is rooting for you and your journey into the world of US taxation! And the next time you file your taxes, we’re more than happy to help.
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