The United States is one of the few countries in the world that does not categorically require its citizens to hold a government-issued identification card. Nevertheless, a legal, government-issued form of identification has become a practical necessity for cashing a check, purchasing a car, and a myriad of other activities. Following is a general overview of the various forms of legal personal identification that are available to both citizens and non-citizens.
Getting a Birth Certificate
Your birth certificate is the foundational document that you will need to obtain just about any other form of identification. If you were born in the United States, you should contact the Office of Vital Records in the state or territory in which you were born. If you were born outside of the United States, you can in most cases substitute a passport or US Permanent Residence Card (a "green card"). If you lack either of these, or if the state government you are dealing with insists upon a birth certificate, you can get a substitute for a US birth certificate - a US certificate or report of birth abroad, which can be obtained from the US State Department (see Resources below) or from the US embassy or consulate with jurisdiction over your place of birth. You may also need a certified copy of your foreign birth certificate, if available, accompanied by a certified translation (if the birth certificate is not in English).
Social Security Card
In order to obtain a Social Security card, you will need a Social Security Number. If you are not a US citizen and not in legal immigration status or not legally permitted to work in the United States, you probably will not be able to obtain one. Otherwise, you should be able to obtain one by proving your US citizenship or legal immigration and work status, and by establishing your identity through use of a standard identity document such as a birth certificate, permanent resident card, or a passport. Social Security cards can be obtained at social security offices in almost every city and town.
The most common everyday form of identification used in the United States is a driver's license, and each state issues its own. A driver's license is generally considered to be a far more useful form of identification than a birth certificate, because a driver's license includes a photograph. However, a birth certificate, passport, permanent resident card and/or a Social Security Number may be needed in order to obtain a driver's license, depending on the state. In some states (not including California), it is not necessary to prove legal immigration status in order to get a driver's license. In any case, however, it is necessary to pass both a written and a road test, and most jurisdictions will require you to bring a car to the test. Almost every city and town has a driver's license office.
Non-Driver's Personal ID
The non-driver's personal ID is issued by the various states and is designed to provide non-drivers with the opportunity to obtain government-issued photo identification. Like driver's licenses, some states require you to provide a Social Security Number and proof of legal immigration status, while others do not. It is possible that in the future all states will require proof of legal immigration status in order to obtain either a non-driver's personal ID or a drivers' license. In most states, a non-driver's personal ID can be obtained at the local driver's license office.