In Canada, the Social Insurance Number (SIN) is the equivalent to Social Security Number (SSN) in the U.S. Canadian residents use SINs for government programs and as a source of identification in the private sector. Many organizations, such as financial institutions, will use the SIN to create indexing for client accounts.

The Canadian government started the SIN program in 1964 to administer the Canada Pension Plan and Canada's varied employment insurance programs. In 1967, Revenue Canada (now the Canada Revenue Agency) began using SINs for tax reporting.

Key Takeaways

  • Canadian citizens and permanent or temporary residents need a Social Insurance Number to work in Canada.
  • SINs are needed to receive benefits and services from government programs.
  • Generally, Canadian law bars private companies from acquiring a customer's SIN.
  • As with American SSNs, theft and misuse of SINs and the accompanying identity theft is a growing problem.

Social Insurance Number

Canadian citizens and permanent or temporary residents need the SIN to work in Canada, as well as to receive benefits and services from government programs. Children 12 and older may apply for their SIN. Also, parents and individuals who are legally authorized to act on behalf of the applicant can also apply for a SIN for children under the age of majority in their province and for adults in their care.

SINs have nine digits displayed in three groups of three. Canadians must update their SIN record if they change their name due to marriage or other circumstances. Canadians also now have the option to have their gender marked as X or not to declare a gender.

In March 2014, Service Canada, a federal institution that is part of Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC)—and that provides Canadians with a point of access to many government services and benefits—stopped issuing plastic SIN cards and instead began printing the confirmation of the SIN on paper. The agency cited improved security, as many Canadians carried the plastic cards on their persons and increased the chances of SINs being lost or stolen.

Service Canada has stopped issuing plastic SIN cards, citing the need for improved security.

Use of the Social Insurance Number

Canada established laws that restrict the use of SINs in income reporting and has a limited list of federal departments and programs that can collect Canadian citizens' SINs, such as the Income and Health Care Programs, the Labour Adjustment Review Board, and the Rural and Native Housing Program. 

Some private-sector companies, such as telecommunications firms and airlines, can also collect their customers' SINs. Generally, Canadian law bars private companies from acquiring a customer's SIN unless there is a specific and lawful reason (often cited as one of the biggest differences between a SIN and an American SSN).

Financial institutions that let customers earn investment income, such as credit unions and banks, can also collect SINs. If certain companies deny services to a customer for not providing a SIN, that customer can file a complaint with the Privacy Commissioner of Canada.

As with American SSNs, theft and misuse of SINs and the accompanying identity theft is a growing problem.  A thief can use a stolen SIN to work illegally or to obtain credit, and the legitimate SIN owner could be requested to pay additional taxes for the income they didn't receive or could have difficulty obtaining credit.