Documents and Papers
Documents and Papers

Certain documents, like proof of identity and a social security card, are essential for many basic needs:
  • To get a job
  • To rent housing
  • To drive
  • To open a bank or credit account
If you don’t already have these documents, it can take weeks—or months—to get them. Therefore, you may want to start the process even before you leave the group.
  • You will need an address where the documents can be sent.
  • If you have not yet left the group and plan to move when you do, you can rent a Post Office Box or use a mail service, or arrange to use the address of a friend or relative on your applications.
A fee is charged for official copies of most documents. Note ahead of time:
  • how much the fee is, and
  • what forms of payment the agency will take.
    • Many will not take cash.
    • Some require cash.
    • Some will take money orders or credit or debit cards.
    • Some will also take personal checks.
Depending on which documents you need, the fees could add up, so you may need to plan carefully and save ahead.

Proof of Identity and U.S. Citizenship

You can show proof of your identity and U.S. citizenship with various documents. If you are not a U.S. citizen, proof-of-identify requirements are somewhat different. In either case, the required documents may vary depending on the situation. So it’s important to be aware of all the options for your situation and be prepared in advance with the documentation you may need.

Birth Certificate

The most basic proof of identity is a certified copy of your birth certificate. If you were born in the United States, the birth certificate is also proof of citizenship.
  • A plain copy won’t do. It must be a copy certified as valid by the agency that issued the original.
  • Even if you have other proofs of identity, this is a handy document to have because it doesn’t expire.
  • If you are a U.S. citizen born abroad, a U.S. Department of State “Certification of Birth Abroad” is your proof of citizenship.
Birth certificates are issued by the individual states. To get a certified copy of your birth certificate if you were born in the United States, you can google “Vital Statistics,” plus the state where you were born to get information about how and where to send your request.
  • The state will want to know the date and place you were born, and your parents’ names.
  • There is usually a fee for this service.
  • It can take several weeks to get a birth certificate, so start this process as early as possible.
Here is a sample letter asking for your birth certificate.

Problems getting a certified copy of your birth certificate. If you get back a notice that there is no record of your birth, don’t despair:
  • Double-check your application to make sure you put down the information correctly. For instance, if you have lived in a country where numeric dates are commonly entered as day/month/year, 10/08/92 means August 10, 1992. But in the United States, dates are usually entered as month/day/year, and the same numbers would mean October 8, 1992.
  • Check with family members to make sure you actually were born in the state where your parents were living (and not while your mother was traveling in a different state, for example).
  • Confirm that the name on the birth certificate is the name you think it is and that it is spelled the way you now spell it; do the same for the date of birth.
  • If all your original information was correct, visit, phone, or email the state's vital statistics bureau. Ask if there is another place where the certificate might be stored. The State of New York, for instance, used to store vital statistics of New York City residents separately, in the city, and statistics for the rest of the state in Albany, New York.
If you have changed your name, you also will need the original or a certified copy of the marriage certificate, divorce decree, or court order that specifies the name change in order to prove your identity.

U.S. Passport

A passport is proof both of identity and of citizenship. Even if your U.S. passport has expired, it is acceptable as proof of identity and citizenship for renewal purposes if it is not damaged or altered.

It’s easier to renew a passport before it expires, especially if you don’t have a birth certificate handy.

Here is a summary of the procedure for getting a passport. You can get full information about renewing your passport online. 

  • To renew a U.S. passport, you will need to pay the stated fee plus the cost of two passport photos and any postage fees. (You also can speed up processing time by paying an additional fee.)
  • You can renew your passport by mail.
  • If your passport has expired, or is lost or stolen, or if your name has changed since it was originally issued, however, you will need to apply in person for a replacement.
  • If you never had a passport, the State Department has clear directions on how you can establish your identity and citizenship.
If these links don’t work, just go to Google and search by entering “Renew U.S. passport” or “Get U.S. passport.”

Certificate of Citizenship

If need be, you can go through a complicated, expensive process to get a Certificate of Citizenship, primarily designed for people who were born abroad to American citizens. It’s a challenge to sort through the long lists of fine distinctions and to understand the instructions. If you must get this Certificate, try to get someone to partner with you, if only to keep you from giving up at the complexity.

  • To obtain a Certificate of Citizenship, start at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Web site.
  • This process requires many documents, such as your parents’ birth certificates or other proof of their citizenship, and possibly even an interview.

Certificate of U.S. Naturalization

If you are not a U.S. citizen by birth, you will need a certified copy of your Certificate of U.S. Naturalization (Form N-550 or N-570). 

You can look online for directions on how to request a copy, or to replace a lost, stolen, or destroyed certificate.

Proof of Identity for Non-U.S. Citizens

If you are not a U.S. citizen, you will need documents with a photo, your full name, and date of birth, such as the following:

Unexpired U.S.-issued ID from the Department of Homeland Security or the U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services, such as a Resident Alien Card or Temporary Resident Identification Card
Foreign passport with a visa
Unexpired U.S. Military ID card
Requirements vary from state to state. To check requirements in your state, Google the state, plus “driver’s license” or “photo ID.”

Social Security Card

Whether or not you are a U.S. citizen, a Social Security card is a primary identification document required for employment. There is no fee for this card, but if you are applying for the first time, or live near a Social Security office, you must appear in person to get a card. The following summary is from the Web site where you can go to get more detailed information and download the application forms you will need to fill out.

To get a Social Security number or a replacement card, you must
  • Complete an application
  • Prove your U.S. citizenship or immigration status. Proof of citizenship must be a
    • U.S. birth certificate
    • U.S. passport
    • Certificate of Naturalization
    • Certificate of Citizenship

If you are not a U.S. citizen, you must show proof of your immigration status, such as

    • Department of Homeland Security Form I-551;
    • Arrival-Departure Record (Form I-94) with your unexpired foreign passport; or
    • Work permit card (Form I-766 [Employment Authorization Document EAD) (see below)]
Have proof of age and identity. An acceptable proof of identity must show
    • your name
    • identifying information about you
    • a recent photograph
Usually a driver’s license, nondriver photo ID, or passport meets the proof of age and identity requirement. (This could become tricky because many states require your Social Security number to issue the ID.)

If you don’t have and can’t get one of these proofs of identify within 10 days, Social Security will accept the following:
    • Employee ID card;
    • School ID card;
    • Health insurance card (not a Medicare card);
    • U.S. Military ID card; or
    • Adoption decree.

For a replacement Social Security card, proof of your U.S. citizenship and age are not required if they are already in the records.

Photo ID

To get a library card, open a bank account, or travel on an airplane, and for many other purposes, you must have a photo identification card, generally referred to as an “ID.” Depending on whether or not you drive, you will end up with either a driver’s license or a non-driver photo ID. The Department of Motor Vehicles in the state where you live issues both kinds of IDs. To find the exact requirements for a photo ID in your state, google either “driver’s license” or “nondriver photo ID,” plus the name of the state. In general, be ready to produce the following:

  • Proof of identity (birth certificate or passport);
  • Social Security number;
  • Proof that you live at the address listed on your application; and
  • If you are not a U.S. citizen, proof that you are legally in the country.
There is a charge in the range of $20 to $25 for this service in most states. Check your state’s Web site for the exact amount and the types of payment it will accept.

Photo IDs are usually issued for a set term. It’s important to keep them current by renewing regularly because expired IDs are not accepted as valid.

Proof of Address

To get a photo ID, you will need to prove that you live at a specific address within the state that issues the ID.

  • The usual proof is a utility (water, electricity, or landline telephone) or property tax bill addressed to you at the address on your application.
  • A signed lease or rental agreement is usually acceptable as proof of address.
  • If you are staying with a friend or family member, or renting a room, you probably won’t have either of these items. Most states will accept a form or letter from a third person—a permanent resident of the home where you are staying, accompanied by a copy of that person’s ID, verifying your residency at that address. The resident may have to appear personally with you, as well.
  • If you are in a shelter, an official at the shelter can advise you what to do. Usually a letter from shelter staff verifying your residency there is acceptable.
  • Again, different states have different rules about this. Be sure to check your state’s Web site or verify by phone exactly what is needed.

Proof of Legal Residence in the United States

Many states now require non-citizens to provide proof that they are legally in the country. Such proof might be a
  • temporary or permanent resident card;
  • refugee travel document;
  • immigration judge’s order granting asylum; or
  • a host of other documents (especially if you are a Canadian citizen).
Again, check the photo ID Web site of the state in which you live.

Authorization to Work in the United States

If you are not a U.S. citizen, but want to work in the United States, prospective employers will require an authorization to work. This document takes different forms, depending on your status:

  • If you are a permanent or conditional permanent resident, your Alien Registration Card is your authorization to work.
  • If you are authorized to work for a specific employer or a foreign government, your passport and Form I-94 (Arrival-Departure Record) are your authorization to work.
  • All other non-citizens need an Employment Authorization Document (EAD). You are eligible for an EAD if you are
    • An asylee or asylum seeker
    • A refugee
    • A student seeking particular types of employment
    • Applying to adjust to permanent residence status
    • Applying for temporary protected status
    • The fiancé or fiancée of an American citizen
    • The dependent of a foreign government official
To apply for an EAD, start at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Web site.
Fees for an EAD are substantial and can amount to several hundred dollars.

Replacing a High School Diploma

If you graduated from high school, but you don’t have a diploma or other certificate of achievement, you can write to the school and ask for a copy. You will almost certainly need this document if you want to continue your education, but a prospective employer may ask for it, as well.

  • If you can, call the school and find out what information you need to send them and whether there is a fee. Most public school districts and almost all private schools have Web sites where you can get addresses and phone numbers of their schools. To find a public school’s Web site, google the city and state, plus “public schools.
  • In general, your letter should include
    • your full name;
    • the name on your diploma, especially if different from your present name;
    • your date of birth;
    • the month and year you graduated;
    • the address to send the replacement diploma to; and
    • any fee, if you know how much it is.
  • Another option is to ask for a transcript of your grades. Some organizations will accept this instead of a diploma, and getting the transcript may be faster and cheaper.
  • Either way, the process will probably take weeks, so be prepared to wait.

Immunizations and Medical Records

You can save yourself time and trouble by keeping records of the kinds and dates of your (and your family’s) vaccination and other immunization records. Records of medical procedures, treatment for injuries, medications you use, and any allergies will improve the quality of your health and medical care.

Tips for Dealing with State and Federal Agencies

You may not find all the information you need on a Web site, or you may find that a Web site is not always up to date. Here are some tips for getting the help you need as efficiently as possible.
Before you head to a state or federal agency to obtain documents, it’s a good idea to call ahead to get a complete understanding of what you will need for the agency to process your application. You will want to know:
  • The documents you need to bring;
  • What alternative documents you can bring if you do not have the exact document required;
  • The cost as well as the methods of payment accepted. Some agencies take cash or checks, while others will allow payment only with a debit or credit card.
  • The exact location of the office; and
  • If you’re driving, where the best place is to park;
  • The days and hours the agency is open. In this economy, states and local agencies have cut back on employees and hours of operations.
Calling a state or federal agency can be challenging. Here are certain key points to remember:
  • Calling early in the morning can be helpful. In some places, state and federal employees may be at their desks long before official opening hours.
  • Although the main number for questions at the agency may be open from 9 AM to 5 PM you, are free to call any employee at the agency and ask questions.
  • If the person you speak with does not have the answer, ask him for the name and number of someone he believes may be able to help you.

The best place to find phone numbers for federal employees is the US Government Telephone and E-mail Directories.

State employee directories for most states are online. In some cases, the employee's email address is available, as well. At the state level, you can accomplish some functions at different locations throughout the state. If you live in a busy area, driving to the next closest state office in a more rural area may be easier.

A great place to start your search for state phone numbers is at the state and local government site. You will find listings for all fifty states, as well as many local government agencies, here.

When you call state or federal employees and they refer you to someone else for help,

  • Remember to tell the person you speak with that “so-and-so in the other department told me you would be able to help me.”
  • If you are having a lot of problems finding the right answers, starting at the top of the agency can be very useful.
    • A call you place to the head of the agency will usually be answered by the agency’s Executive Assistant. This is usually someone who has been with the agency for some time and is very knowledgeable about information sources for getting answers quickly.
    • Being able to say "Jane Smith in Mr. Head-of-the-agency’s office referred me to you" is extremely valuable. After they hear that, most people will go out of their way to help you.

Protecting Your Identity

These identifying documents are not only necessary, they are valuable. They open the door to many opportunities, so the information on them attracts people who can use them to cheat or steal. Identity theft, as it’s called, comes in many forms. Some basic precautions to protect yourself are in order.

Keep copies of key documents so that if you lose the originals, you have the information you need to get a replacement. (For a passport, you need only copy the facing pages with your photo and the passport number.) It’s also helpful to keep a list of the documents and their identifying numbers in a separate location from the documents.

Do not give out personal information without good reason.
  • Schools, banks, employers, and other organizations may have good reason to ask for your Social Security number, date of birth, and other identifying information; but be cautious about sharing such details widely.
  • Social Security numbers are unique to every individual, and yours will confirm your identity.
  • Although many organizations will ask for identifying information in response to your request for services or employment, no reputable organization will initiate a correspondence that asks for your Social Security number, date of birth, account numbers, or similar confidential information.
Keep watch over wallets, purses, and bags in which you keep money and ID cards.

  • Don’t leave purses hanging on the backs of restaurant chairs or lying in supermarket carts.
  • Don’t stuff your wallet into a back pocket where it’s conspicuously outlined.
  • If you must walk in dark, lonely streets or late at night, keep your IDs and money in your pockets, not in a purse or backpack.
Be especially careful when you are giving out identifying information online.

  • Check to be sure that the little padlock that indicates a secure site is on.
  • Online sellers do not need your Social Security number or date of birth for a legitimate transaction, or to open an account.
  • Online “surveys” need only general information about your age (usually a range), occupation, and so forth.
  • Petitions you “sign” may want your address as well, but they are out of order if they ask for more.
Lending your identity documents to another person is illegal and, in the case of medical or other important personal information, could endanger both of you. Your Social Security and insurance cards, and other identification documents are for your use only.