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Two Must-Have Documents for Foreign Students

FILE - A sample Social Security card.

Two must-have documents for international students in the United States are a Social Security number and a driver’s license with a photograph or other state-issued photo ID.

The Social Security number is required for any student who wants to get a job in the U.S. The Social Security Administration, an independent agency of the federal government, issues a nine-digit number to each U.S. citizen, permanent resident and temporary resident, including each international student.

An international student must wait at least 10 days after arriving in the U.S. before applying for a Social Security number. This is to ensure that the person’s Form I-94, "Arrival/Departure Record," is updated in government computers.

Necessary documents

A student must appear in person at a Social Security Administration office and bring two valid documents that prove age, identity, and U.S. citizenship or work-authorized immigration status. Those documents — which must be the originals, not photocopies — can include a valid passport as well as any immigration document, such as a Form I-551, I-766 or I-94.

A foreign student who wants to drive in the U.S. must obtain a driver's license issued by the state in which the person resides. Most U.S. states recognize international driver's licenses. The exception is Georgia, which requires a U.S. driver's license for foreigners, known as an International Driving Permit.

To get a license, a student must have an active status in the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS). Once the student passes the required written test and submits the necessary paperwork, the state motor vehicle department will issue the license. offers sample tests for practice. Some states offer tests in various languages. In Washington, D.C., tests are available in English, Spanish, French, Chinese, Vietnamese, Amharic and Korean.

Massachusetts and some other states require that the driving test be taken in a vehicle with a hand brake between the two front seats so the examiner can reach it if needed.

Photo ID

The driver’s license can serve as photo identification, which in the U.S. may be required for several kinds of transactions, such as shopping with a credit card. Photo ID will also likely be needed at banks, libraries and airports, and for mail pickup at a post office or commercial postal service. Many bars, clubs and liquor stores, particularly in college towns, require all patrons to show proof of identification, regardless of age.

A student can obtain a state-issued photo identification card from the same state agency that issues driver's licenses. It cannot be used as a substitute for a driver's license.

A student should be aware that for those younger than 21, the state driver's license or photo ID will be in a vertical rather than horizontal format, so food servers and bartenders will more quickly be able to identify the holder as underage and therefore unable to be served alcohol.

Students can use valid passports as identification, but carrying a passport all the time puts it at risk of being lost or stolen, which creates major problems for international students. Recovering a lost or stolen passport can mean repeated visits to the issuing consulate or embassy and having to file a report with the local police. Aside from the extra cost in time and money to replace a passport, the loss could subject the passport holder to identify theft, because it contains important personal data.

For more information about obtaining a Social Security number or driver's license in the U.S., visit the Study in the States website.