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Foreign students run into red tape

Social Security changes have slowed international students’ efforts to obtain driver’s licenses.
Tuesday, January 18, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 1:18 p.m. CDT, Thursday, July 17, 2008

Changes in the rules for receiving Social Security numbers could cause problems for some international students.

“Our rules have become more restrictive on who we can issue Social Security numbers to,” said Robert S. Duncan, manager of the Social Security Administration in Columbia.

The most recent change, which took effect in October 2004, is that so-called F-1 students must show they are employed or have been offered a job before they are eligible for a Social Security number.

“Before that, it wasn’t a requirement, just that they had to be eligible for employment on campus,” Duncan said. “The university had to verify that the student was eligible to be employed in a job on campus, and now the requirement is that they must not only be eligible to be employed on campus, but they must have a job.”

Duncan said the Social Security numbering system was set up for income-tax collection purposes. However, it has come to be used for other reasons, especially by private businesses that want to verify someone’s identity.

“It was always intended just to allow us at the Social Security Administration to have a record of the earnings of the individuals, from employment or from self-employment, under the program so that we could correctly calculate the amount of benefits when they came to draw Social Security benefits,” he said.

The problem, though, is that most businesses, such as cellular phone companies, now require a Social Security number to obtain service.

Without a Social Security number, said, Wei-Li Chen, a MU master’s student in business administration, “I was asked for an $800 deposit when I went to set up a cell phone at AT&T and $500 at T-Mobile.”

Duncan said that is not how the law was intended to be used. But he said it is not illegal for the wireless companies to ask for a Social Security number.

“It’s up to (the businesses) to decide who they will sell a cell phone to, who they will put let service to and under what circumstances,” Duncan said.

Though some companies and organizations that offer services request other forms of identification, many continue to require a Social Security number, said David Currey, MU’s director of International Student/Scholar Services.

“Therefore, many international students may be inclined to seek an on-campus job in order to obtain the Social Security number,” Currey said.

Eugene Phua, a pre-journalism student at MU, said he plans to get a job and apply for a Social Security number before trying to obtain a cell phone, a credit card and a driver’s license.

“It’s a requirement,” Phua said. “It makes things easier and helpful.”

Even without a Social Security number, a person can obtain a driver’s license in Missouri. However, doing so requires two forms of photo identification. For international students, it takes about six weeks to process a license request. For a U.S. citizen, a license can be obtained on the same day.


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