A version of this article originally appeared on The Prepared Expat. Republished with permission of the author.
Congratulations on your new baby! Now you get to enjoy the process of getting your little one a Social Security number (SSN) from China. It’s unfortunately not an easy task–it took my two years and two tries to get my son’s card–but never fear! I learned how to do it and am writing this guide so you can navigate the process without frustration.
Information here was accurate at the time of publishing; as always, confirm the information in this guide is accurate before acting on it.
1. Check where and how you’ll apply
US citizens living in China have a slightly more complicated process than people living elsewhere; however, I’m here to guide you through the process, so don’t fret. US Citizens living in China will need to apply for a Social Security number through the Federal Benefits Unit (FBU) in Manila in the Philippines. Here is their contact information, taken from the Social Security Administration’s page:
Federal Benefits Unit
United States Embassy
1201 Roxas Boulevard Ermita,
Manila 0930 Philippines
Fax: 632–8708–9714 or 632–8708–9723
2. Prepare your documentation and application
You should contact the FBU office to confirm there’s been no changes or extenuating circumstances, but typically you’ll need to complete a SS–5 application and provide a US citizen parent’s original US passport, the child’s original US passport, and the child’s original Consulate Report of Birth Abroad (CRBA).
However, since in China you need your passport for…pretty much everything and it’s technically required that you have it on your person at all times, I’d say it’s quite unwise to send your passport off to the Philippines. Your passports (and residence permits) could get lost/stolen in the mail, you’d need it to travel or check into a hotel room in China, or an emergency could arise where you need to travel. So don’t send in your passport books.
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 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!)
Some embassies 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. There may be agencies who will do this for you; I don’t know of any, as I don’t trust some random agency with my passports.
Note that you could get the certified copies done when you pick up your child’s passport and CRBA from the 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 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 a certified copy 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 expensive.
This option only works if you have, or can get, a passport card for both parent and 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 in a parent’s US passport card, your child’s passport card, and your child’s CRBA to the FBU office. This allows you to meet the FBU office’s requirements but without giving up your passport books.
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 (and the visa/permits in the books)
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, your SS card will likely get to China and then get lost in the mail because it lacks Chinese characters and there’s no phone number on the outside of the envelope. My son’s card is still floating around the Chinese post office somewhere.
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 China, this is what I think most expats should do.
Unfortunately, if you write a US address on the SS–5, then the documents you ship to the FBU will also be shipped to that address. This is no problem if you sent in certified copies (they’ll actually shred those and not send them back to you), but if you sent in your CRBA and passport cards, that poses a problem because you’ll probably want those back with you in China.
So here’s the trick: contact the Manila FBU and ask them to ship the original documents to an address that’s different from the one on the SS–5. The Manila FBU office has been greatly helpful to me on this before and I can confirm they’ll work with you, though make sure to contact them first to ensure they’re prepared for it. What they’ll have you do is provide them with a prepaid shipping label (Fedex, UPS, DHL, etc.; I found DHL worked best) for the original documents; I also recommend that you send the FBU a shipping label with your address in Chinese characters and your China phone number so that the items will arrive to you in China. The Manila FBU will use the prepaid label (and your shipping label) to ship the original documents back to you in China and then the SS card will be shipped to the US address listed on the SS–5.
There you go! You’ve successfully applied for your child’s SSN from China!
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Mark has spent most of his adult life as an expat in China and has four children, the last of whom was born in China. He writes at The Prepared Expat in order to equip you to thrive and survive as an expat. Sign up for his free newsletter and get a chapter of his book 100% free!!