I'm going to join a US university as a teaching-focused faculty. My official starting is set to be January 4th and, at that university, classes start in the same week, and I will be teaching 2 courses in my first term.

Things were going smoothly until I received an email from HR informing me that I will need to apply for an SSN upon my arrival in the US, and I will only be able to start working once I receive my SSN by mail, which may take 3-4 weeks. I brought this up with the head of department who then assured me that, yes this is normal, all foreign hires go through the same process, and I can certainly start teaching the courses right away, even if I'm not officially working yet.

I never worked in the US before, but I'm now very confused about this:

As mentioned, I'm expected to start teaching at the university right away even though I'm not actually employed during those first few weeks.

  1. Is this indeed the normal process/expectation? Also, is it even legal for the university to ask new hires to start working without putting them on the payroll?
  2. Do I risk violating the terms of my H1B visa by "working" without being employed/paid? (I'm probably being paranoid but I heard enough horror stories about the US immigration system...)

(Entering the US before the term starts to apply for the SSN number earlier isn't really an option, as I can only legally enter at most 10 days before the starting date of my visa...)

  • 4
    Can you ask them for back pay for the work you've done, once you're officially employed?
    – nick012000
    Nov 5, 2021 at 10:07
  • 8
    Another thing to worry about is injury coverage. What happens legally if you slip and fall in the classroom and break a leg? (Especially this being in the US with the sad state of their healthcare.) You should definitely be on the books somehow, even if just as an external teacher. Nov 5, 2021 at 10:37
  • 1
    @PeterK.: No, apparently they can only do that if I'm already residing in the US. Nov 5, 2021 at 13:30
  • 13
    Your employer can legally employ and pay you even before you have an SSN by reporting your earnings using a temporary taxpayer identification number, see here. It sounds to me like either their HR people are incompetent or they are trying to get you to work for free for a few weeks.
    – Dan Romik
    Nov 5, 2021 at 16:19
  • 3
    I would encourage you to ask this question at law.stackexchange.com Nov 5, 2021 at 23:41

1 Answer 1


I'm not a lawyer, but suggest the following is accurate.

I don't think you have anything to worry about as long as you have a contract, signed and in hand. Tenured and tenure track faculty in US are paid an annual salary, not by the week or month. The SSN is a government requirement that assure your taxes are properly paid and accounted for.

Salaries are normally paid monthly (sometimes twice a month), so your first check might get delayed for a bit since taxes are withheld from it.

But it is really an administrative problem and shouldn't really matter other than a delayed check. Your visa is based on your contract, which you should have.

The Human Resources (HR) office at the university can get you a temporary identification number that will make it all work out for the bureaucracy.

I think any risk is extremely small. The only problem would arise if you couldn't get a SSN for any reason.

  • 8
    I’m not a lawyer, therefore I don’t give legal advice, and downvote answers by non-lawyers who do.
    – Dan Romik
    Nov 5, 2021 at 16:23
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    @DanRomik, If I'm wrong, then no assistant professor could ever be hired from a different country. Catch 22. You have to start work "immediately" with your visa, but you aren't allowed to start immediately because you don't have and can't get an SSN.
    – Buffy
    Nov 5, 2021 at 16:32
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    @Buffy The TIN section contradicts your answer. OP should not start working without having paperwork finalized and hope it works out. OP should get a temporary TIN, finalize the paperwork, start working, and replace the TIN with an SSN when the SSN is available. More info from an official source: ssa.gov/pubs/EN-05-10107.pdf
    – N.I.
    Nov 5, 2021 at 18:37
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    While this answer is not "wrong" per se, it doesn't really tackles OP's problem: this answer states that OP can start working without an SSN (which is true), but OP was told that the hiring process can only be completed AFTER getting the SSN (which is NOT true), and that it's expected to start teaching BEFORE being officialy hired (which is BAD and potentially a red flag IMO)
    – Josh Part
    Nov 5, 2021 at 22:02
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    This seems like a "feel good" answer. While things will, probably, work out with diligent investment of time and effort by the question OP, this answer would be far better if it provided a list of the documents needed for employment in the US (at least for generic employment in the US; obviously the specific university may have additional requirements) and detailed the exact steps which should be taken to get those documents and any forms which will be necessary to fill out.
    – Makyen
    Nov 5, 2021 at 23:25

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