May 31, 2009

SINs - what are they and why do I need one

This week, I'll be talking about the one number that every Canadian needs - a SIN.

The Social Insurance Number or SIN system was first introduced in 1964 as a way of administering the Canada Pension Plan (CPP). For those who are more familiar with the American Social Security Number, the Canadian SIN is similar; however, there is one key difference.

In Canada, there is legislation that gives only certain organizations authority to ask for a SIN, such as a bank, an employer, or a federal government agency. As well, the legislation also prohibits other organizations from refusing services or products to those that do not reveal their SIN. So for example, your telephone company cannot cut off your cell phone because you did not provide your SIN.

So what is a SIN number?

In a nutshell, it is a nine digit number (i.e. 123 456 789) that you need in order to work, file your taxes, and access government programmes and benefits. It's arguably the most important number for any Canadian - and one that requires you to guard it carefully as it can be easily used for fraud.

And as I said, you do need a SIN to work. It is illegal to do so otherwise and not only do you risk fines and/or jail time, but you won't be eligible for certain employment-based benefits, such as Employment Insurance (EI) or a pension.

Applying for a SIN is easy. It's free and all you have to do is visit your local Service Canada Centre with the required primary identification (e.g. birth certificate, Canadian citizenship certificate, Permanent Resident card, etc.). Some centres will require that you fill out a paper-based form, but I found that most centres will have an agent fill out the computerized version of the form to minimize paper wastage.

Should you have all the required documentation, the whole process should take less than 15 minutes - provided there isn't a long line in front of you, so arrive early in the morning. And if everything is okay, you will get your number on the spot and the card will be mailed to you within 10 days.

For those who do not have one, I recommend getting a SIN as soon as possible - since you will need it at one point or another, it is better to get it now. And just remember to guard it carefully because it is commonly used for fraud. The best thing to do is not carry it in your wallet but leave it at home and only take it with you when you need it.

For more information on the SIN programme, click here.

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