The Individual Taxpayer Identification Number or ITIN

Authored By: Iowa Legal Aid LSC Funded
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Any money you earn in the United States is money you might have to pay U.S. taxes on. Wages from work and interest on money in a bank account are just two examples of income that is taxed by the government. To figure out how much you are supposed to pay in taxes, you have to fill out a form called a tax return. There are different kinds of returns depending on how much money you make, where you get your money from, etc. After you fill out your return, you send it to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), the branch of the government that collects taxes.
Why Should I File a Tax Return If I'm Not in this Country Legally?
Even if you are not in this country legally, often times you still have an obligation to file a tax return. If you don't file, you are breaking the law. You may also be missing out on some important benefits. For example:
  • If you work, your employer sends part of every paycheck to the government. At the end of the year, if the amount of money your employer has sent to government is more than what you owe in taxes, you get back the difference. This is called a tax refund, and the only way to get yours is to file a tax return.
  • If you have children, you may be entitled to a child tax credit. The child tax credit is money that is deducted from the amount of tax you owe. If your tax credit is greater than the amount you owe, you may even get some of the difference from the government. Again, the only way to get this money is to file a tax return. Please note that if you, your spouse, and all your dependents do not have a social security number you will not be entitled to a special tax credit called the Earned Income Tax Credit.
  • If you are not a legal resident of the United States, but you want to be one someday, paying your taxes is one way to show the government that you have good moral character. Good moral character is one of the things you have to show you have before you can become a legal resident.

How Can I File a Tax Return If I Don't Have a Social Security Number?
Every tax return or other tax document must have an identification number on it. For taxpayers who are legal residents of the United States, that number is their social security number. For taxpayers whose foreign status does not allow them to get a social security number, they need to apply for an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN). Most often the people applying for ITIN are either a non-resident alien who has U.S. source income or a foreign national who resides and works in the U.S. who doesn't qualify for a social security number and either has a tax filing obligation or is due a refund. The ITIN is the number the IRS gives you so you can file a tax return. It looks like a Social Security number, but the first digit is always a 9 and the fourth digit is always a 7 or an 8, for example 9XX-7X-XXXX.
What Do I Need to Apply for an ITIN?
First, complete a tax return. Then fill out an Application for IRS Individual Taxpayer Identification Number, also called a Form W-7. Attach the W-7 to your tax return. You must file them together.   
Note: Filing a tax return is not the only way to get an ITIN. A letter from a bank stating you have opened an interest bearing account or a letter from a mortgage company that says you need an ITIN so the company can report interest are exceptions to the rule that you must file a tax return to get an ITIN.
You will have to prove to the IRS who you are (your identity) and your foreign status. A passport will prove both. If don't have a passport, you will have to show the IRS a combination of two or more of the following documents:
  • National identification card (must contain photo, name, current address, date of birth and expiration date)
  • U.S. driver's license
  • civil (not issued by a church) birth certificate
  • foreign driver's license
  • U.S. state identification card
  • foreign voter registration card
  • U.S. military identification card
  • foreign military identification card
  • visa
  • U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services photo identification
  • medical records (dependents only)
  • school records (dependents only)
These documents must be current (not expired). At least one must have a photograph.
Every person you claim as an exemption dependent must have a taxpayer identification number (a Social Security number or an ITIN). You can claim your spouse or a child as an exemption. You will have to fill out an ITIN application for each exemption who does not have a valid Social Security number. For each application you file, you will have to prove who that person is and that he or she has foreign status. You will have to attach each exemption's ITIN application to your tax return. Note that medical records and school records may only be used to prove the identity and foreign status of a dependent, not of a taxpayer. If you are from certain countries that the U.S. has special treaties with, you may be able to take dependency exemptions for family members residing outside the United States. 
How Do I Get My Information and Other Items to the IRS?
As of June 22, 2012, the IRS will no longer receive notarized copies of documents. The IRS is requiring all but a few “exempt” individuals to provide original documents or certified copies of the documents to the IRS. “A certified document is one that the original issuing agency provides and certifies as an exact copy of the original document and contains an official stamped seal from the Agency.” This is a temporary rule. The IRS expects to have new guidelines out in early 2013. 
The IRS says that it has a system in place to ensure the documents are returned. They indicate it can take up to 60 days for you to get your documents back. When mailing originals to the IRS, it would be wise to send it certified mail return receipt requested so that you have proof of mailing. You can also take your documents to an IRS Taxpayer Assistance Office. Most of the time, this means you will enter a federal building, however, the IRS staff will still have to mail your originals or certified copies to the part of the IRS that processes the applications. 
IMPORTANT REMINDER: Visitors to federal buildings must go through security before they can enter. You may have to show a photo ID. Be sure you have current identification and never use a false or expired photo identification.
Some attorneys, accountants and acceptance agents can help with completing these forms. However, even if one of these professionals fill out your W-7 and look at your documents he or she will have to send the originals or certified copies on to the IRS.
When Should I Do This?
Because you must file your W-7 form together with a completed tax return, you must file them by the deadline for tax returns, which is April 15 of the following year in most cases. If you are filing a tax return for the 2012 calendar year, then you would have had to file it and your W-7 by April 16, 2013. If you missed the deadline, you can still file your return. It just means that if you owe taxes, you may have to pay some interest and penalties. If you are owed a refund, you would still be able to receive it if, as a general rule, you file within three years.
Where Do I Send My Tax Return and ITIN (W-7) Application?
The W-7 form will list the address. Right now it is:
Internal Revenue Service 
ITIN Operation 
P.O. Box 149342 
Austin, TX 78714-9342
If you send it by private delivery like FedEx or UPS you should use this address:
Internal Revenue Service 
ITIN Operation 
Mail Stop 6090-AUSC 
3651 S. Interregional, Hwy 35 
Austin, TX 78741-0000
If you don't have an ITIN presently, do not send your return to the regional processing center that is listed on your tax form. Once you have your ITIN, you will send your tax return to your regional processing center just like everybody else.
What Else Is an ITIN Good For?
This information is not a substitute for legal adviceAn ITIN is for tax administration purposes only. You cannot use an ITIN to change your immigration status, get a job, or apply for government benefits. You can use it to file a tax return, open an interest bearing bank account, or enter into a mortgage agreement. These all have a tax administration purposes because banks and  mortgage companies issue interest statements to the IRS and the taxpayer.
Will the Government Use the Information from My ITIN Application to Deport Me?
The IRS is not the part of the government that deports people. The tax laws make it very difficult for other government agencies (like the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services) to get information that the IRS collects. Officially, the IRS says they are not interested in getting people deported. After all, they want to collect as much money as they can, and nobody is going to apply for an ITIN if it's going to get them deported. No one can predict how the laws might be changed in the future. 

Iowa Legal Aid is aware of at least two cases where undocumented workers have been arrested because they used ITINs. The workers may have used the ITIN on their immigration I-9 form or W-4 when they were hired. Both cases happened in late 2003 in Kentucky. It is impossible to know whether such things will continue to happen in the future. If you are not required to file a tax return, you will have to weigh both the risks and benefits when deciding whether to apply for an ITIN. In 2006, security at a federal building in Portland, Oregon, called the Immigration Service when two individuals trying to enter the building were unable to produce satisfactory identification. Although it was not the Internal Revenue Service that called the Immigration Service, this is an example of how important it is to have a current photo id with you if you need to visit a federal building.

The information in this article was not intended or written to be used and cannot be used to avoid penalties under the Internal Revenue Code.
Last Reviewed On: 08/08/12 
Last Review and Update: Aug 23, 2011

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