What is an ITIN? A guide to who gets one & why

To file a federal tax return in the U.S., you typically need an official identification number. For most taxpayers, that’s a Social Security number (SSN). But not everyone who needs to pay federal taxes can get an SSN. So what do they use instead? 

That’s where an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) comes in. ITINs are nine-digit numbers that the IRS issues to certain people who don’t have—and don’t qualify for—an SSN.

Learn more about ITINs, who needs them, how to apply and what they’re used for.

Key takeaways

  • An ITIN is a number issued by the IRS to identify certain noncitizens for tax identification and processing purposes.
  • ITINs are given to people who need to pay U.S. federal taxes but who don’t have and aren’t eligible for an SSN.
  • ITINs might also be used to replace SSNs as part of banking and credit applications.
  • To apply for or renew an ITIN, fill out IRS form W-7 and submit it along with any other necessary documents.

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What is an ITIN used for?

ITINs have one primary use: They let people who can’t get an SSN file federal tax returns in the U.S. But an ITIN might also be used in place of an SSN for things like applying for a credit card or opening a checking or savings account.

You might sometimes hear ITINs referred to as ITIN numbers. But that’s technically incorrect, because the N in ITIN already stands for number. It’s similar to saying ATM machine.

Graphic showing what ITIN stands for.

What is an ITIN not used for?

An ITIN is not used to:

  • Receive Social Security benefits
  • Qualify for earned income tax credits
  • Authorize someone to work in the U.S.
  • Show or track immigration status

Who may need an ITIN?

In the U.S., people who make a certain amount of money have to file federal tax returns. Most taxpayers use their SSN when filing taxes. But people who can’t get an SSN need another official form of identification: an ITIN. 

Typically, people who qualify for ITINs are not U.S. citizens. And those people might fall into a few different IRS subcategories:

Resident or nonresident aliens who need to pay federal income tax

According to the IRS, an alien is defined as someone who is neither a U.S. citizen nor a U.S. national. But the IRS breaks that group down even further into resident and nonresident aliens. And they all may need to get an ITIN so they can follow tax laws and file federal tax returns.

To be considered a resident alien by the IRS, someone needs to meet the criteria of either the green card test or the substantial presence test. These aren’t traditional tests as you might think of them. They’re a set of conditions that have to be met to qualify for resident alien status for U.S. tax purposes. There are also some cases where people can override the need for these tests. 

If someone doesn’t meet the criteria of these two tests or has an option to override them, they’re generally considered a nonresident alien by the IRS. It’s also important to note that nonresident aliens claiming tax treaty benefits may also need an ITIN.

Dependents or spouses of nonresident aliens or resident aliens

If they can’t get an SSN, the IRS says spouses or dependents of nonresident or resident aliens also typically need ITINs. That’s because they might either have to file their own federal tax returns or be identified on the nonresident or resident tax returns.

Nonresident aliens who are students, professors or researchers

Nonresidents temporarily residing in the United States for certain academic purposes—like attending school or conducting research—generally need an ITIN if they meet certain criteria, including: 

  • They have a taxable scholarship or grant.
  • They have income exempt or partially exempt due to a tax treaty.
  • They earn any taxable income while in the U.S. 

ITIN vs. SSN: What are the key differences?

ITINs and SSNs have some overlap, but they aren’t the same. Here are some of the main differences between ITINs and SSNs:

What is the number used for?

The IRS uses ITINs to identify taxpayers who aren’t eligible to receive SSNs.

ITINs can also sometimes be used for other purposes, like applying for a credit card or opening a bank account. And in some states, ITINs can be used to get a driver’s license.

SSNs have many identity-related uses. They might be used to file taxes, receive Social Security benefits, apply for credit or loans, open a bank account, and receive other government benefits. 

An SSN is also typically used when getting a driver’s license or U.S. passport.

Who issues the number? The IRS The Social Security Administration
Who gets one? Certain nonresident and resident aliens, as defined by the IRS, their spouses and dependents, as well as some international students, professors, and researchers, and some people claiming tax treaty benefits. U.S. citizens and certain noncitizens, like green card holders and people who work for the Department of Homeland Security.
Do they expire?

ITINs can expire if they’re not used on a federal tax return at least once every three years. 

If your ITIN does expire, you’ll need to renew it using form W-7.

SSNs don’t expire or need to be renewed.


How to get an ITIN

Follow these steps to get an ITIN:

1. Find out if you’re eligible for an ITIN

The IRS has an online tool to determine if someone is eligible to receive an ITIN. Before using the tool, it’s a good idea to have some information on hand, like the reason you might need an ITIN and what type of visa—if any—you have. There’s also a comprehensive IRS tax guide with FAQs and links to the proper tax forms.

A person’s laptop screen showing the IRS website explaining who’s eligible for an ITIN.

2. Submit ITIN Application Form W-7 and other required documents

To apply for or renew an ITIN, you’ll need to fill out IRS Form W-7

The completed form can be submitted in a few different ways: 

  • Send it to the IRS along with a completed tax return by mail. 
  • Submit the application in person to an acceptance agent or an IRS taxpayer assistance center.

You may also need to send or present proof of identity and foreign status documents along with your W-7 form. So it’s a good idea to find out what you need before applying.

If that all sounds a little complicated, don’t worry. There are ways to get help if you need it. The IRS has phone numbers you can call if you need help or want to check the status of your ITIN application: 

  • If you’re in the U.S., you can call the toll-free help line at 800-829-1040.
  • If you’re outside the U.S., you can call 267-941-1000 for help. Keep in mind that this number is not toll free. 

How long does it take to get an ITIN? 

It can take around seven weeks to get an ITIN. But if you’re applying during tax season, it could take longer. If your application is approved, your ITIN will arrive by mail. So make sure to keep an eye out for it. 

How to renew an ITIN or check your ITIN status

If your ITIN has expired—which can happen if it hasn’t been used on a tax return in the past three years—you’ll have to renew it. 

ITINs can be renewed using the same W-7 form you used to apply for the number in the first place. If you want to check the status of your ITIN application, you can call the IRS numbers listed above. 

ITINs in a nutshell

People who aren’t U.S. citizens still may have to file a federal tax return in the U.S. And ITINs are the tax processing and identification numbers that let people who can’t get an SSN do just that. Plus, people might also be able to use ITINs instead of SSNs as part of banking and credit applications.

And now that you know more about how ITINs work and who may need one, you might be curious to learn more about what taxes are, how to file taxes and what happens if you don’t pay your taxes

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