Applying for a US Individual Tax Identification Number (ITIN): A Saga in 3 Parts

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Back in November 2009, I paid my first visit to the Print-On-Demand website Lulu after a friend sent me a link. What’s this? I thought. Upload a PDF, make a cover and have your book for sale on Amazon.com? How easy is this! 

It was easy. But then, to balance everything out, came the process of applying for an Individual Tax Identification Number, or ITIN.

For those of you not yet familiar with the, um… process, shall we say, if you don’t have a valid Social Security Number (SSN) – which you won’t have unless you live in the United States – CreateSpace, Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing and Smashwords have no choice but to withhold 30% of all your earnings or, in other words, cut every royalty cheque they send to you down by just under a third.

STOP RIGHT THERE. Before you all start whinging and moaning, THEY DON’T DO THIS FOR FUN. It’s the law, not  for kicks. So if you can’t “stand all this bureaucracy” as self-publishers are always telling me, then I have a simple solution for you: DON’T SELF-PUBLISH YOUR BOOK. Don’t forget how lucky we are to be able to do this in the first place. So, has my SUPERFLUOUS USE OF CAPITALIZATION stopped your grumbling? Good. I’m glad to hear it. Let’s continue.

The good news is that if you live in Ireland, the UK or Canada, you can put a stop to this and get 100% of your earnings from those three companies because your country and the US have an agreement known as a tax treaty. (If you live in Australia, you can have this withholding cut to 5%. For other countries, read this.) But in order to do this you have to apply for and get an Individual Tax Identification Number from America’s Internal Revenue Service (IRS), and then you have to send that number to each of the three companies.

Sounds simple, right?

Excuse me a moment while I roll around on the floor laughing, would you?

Thanks. I’ll just be a sec.

It is simple, relatively speaking. The problem is that there is a chasm the size of the Grand Canyon (up to 446km/277 miles long and 29km/18 miles wide, if you were wondering) between the information provided by the likes of the IRS and the information you actually need to get the job done.

To compound this, they are pathologically pedantic when it comes to the filling in of forms and the inclusion of required documentation; my blogging friend and Nail Your Novel author Roz Morris had a form rejected because she’d written “UK” instead of “United Kingdom” in a space the size of a thumbnail.

The good news is that I have – finally, after three attempts – got an ITIN. Woo-hoo and stuff. But I couldn’t have done it without the trial and error of others, so today I’m going to tell you exactly what I did in the hope that you can get your ITIN in just the one go.

A Word of Warning

I thought this process would take about 8 weeks, total. That’s why I thought – and said, in Self-Printed – that if you were only earning $100 a month or so, there was no great panic about getting the ITIN, especially when, should you start making serious money and get one in the future, you can claim back your withholdings to date.

But now I take back all that. Apply for it right now. This second. The very moment you have a book for sale on CreateSpace or Smashwords (why not Amazon KDP? We shall get to that), get started on this process.

Why? Because I received my ITIN last Thursday, November 3rd, and I started this process eight months ago, back in March.

Applying

When it came to actually getting an ITIN, I relied on the experiences of author and blogger Sally Clements, who generously donated her story to Self-Printed, and Roz Morris, who posted about her own saga of applying here.

To get an ITIN, you need:

  • Identification, usually your passport
  • A letter from one of the companies proving you publish with them
  • A W7 form.

You can download the form and the instructions for filling it out online.

I strongly recommend that you read both Sally’s and Roz’s posts before you fill it out, and that you print two copies and have a practice run first.

Next, e-mail CreateSpace or Smashwords customer service and ask them for the letter you need to apply for an ITIN. The first time I did this, CreateSpace mailed me a physical letter; the second time, they sent me a PDF which I printed out. Either one is okay. Don’t ask KDP, who will tell you that a copy of their terms and condition and evidence of your book’s Amazon listing is enough, because it’s NOT. You’ll get laughed out of the IRS if you send them that. You have to have a physical letter, even if it’s just a PDF you printed out.

As for identification, we’ll get to that in a second.

To apply, you can do one of two things:

  • Visit your friendly neighborhood IRS agent at a US embassy
  • Apply by mail.

(There are some other things, like going to a third-party agent or hiring someone to do it for you, but avoid these at all costs.)

Since the nearest embassy to me is in Dublin, I decided to apply by post.

Attempt No.1

I thought I was being oh SO clever. I got my form, filled it out as per Sally’s instructions, printed out my letter from CreateSpace, got my passport notarized by a notary (you’ll find a list of them in your local phonebook; I paid €20 to get a notarized copy) and then sent the whole thing off to the address on the instructions that came with the form.

Except that’s not where the form was supposed to go.

About six weeks later, my letter gets returned with a stamp on it saying that the forwarding service from the address I sent it to has expired and so they sent it back to the sender address instead.

Oh, great.

And, FAIL. Time to try again.

Attempt No. 2

I get a new envelope, write the address I’m supposed to send it to on the front and send it off by standard mail. It’s now about the middle of May. I’m still thinking I’m oh so clever, but my cleverness has slightly less smug on it now. I figure that my application is perfect, my writing neat and my ink blue, and surely once I manage to send it to the right address, the fabled ITIN will be mine.

No such luck.

At the end of June, I get a letter from the IRS saying that my application is missing documentation. Because my notarized passport copy was notarized by someone that didn’t work for the IRS, it needed an apostille, which is basically a stamp from the government who issued the original passport that says, “This is real.” The letter said to go get that, and then send it back.

Problem is, the letter gives me 45 days to do this, and the letter was dated more than four weeks, or 30 days, before. That leaves me 15 days to get the apostille and get it back to Texas, where the IRS office is. The other problem is that my passport just expired, so I need to go get a new one. There’s a backlog at the passport office, so it takes me three more weeks to get it. Therefore, I don’t make the 45 days and my application is rejected.

(A letter confirming this arrives on September 14th, dated August 11th.)

So again, FAIL.

Attempt No. 3

Third time’s a charm, right?

This time I leave no stone unturned (or box unticked); I make sure my entire application is perfect. My W7 form is filled out correctly; my notarized passport copy has an apostille attached (I got it in my nearest consular office; you can also get it by post); my letter from CreateSpace is in there and the address on the envelope is correct.

The clock is ticking (you’ll understand why in the next section), so to help things along, I sent this application in by express post, making sure that no one has to sign for it on the other end lest I annoy any IRS agents.

I mailed it on Wednesday 7th September, and the post office said it would arrive in Texas within 5-6 working days.

Last Thursday, November 3rd, I got my ITIN in the mail. FINALLY!

Getting Your Money Back

When your ITIN arrives, crack open some champagne and by all means, even have a glass of it. But then get back to work, because you’re only half done. Now you have to submit your ITIN on a W-8BEN form to each of your US-based self-publishing services, which will probably be CreateSpace, Smashwords and Amazon KDP.

And this is why my clock is ticking: apparently, if you submit your ITIN successfully and use the W-8BEN that has an affidavit on the end, you will be refunded all the money the company has unnecessarily withheld from you so far in the current calendar year. You can see why, despite starting the process in April, I was starting to get nervous as spring turned to summer and summer turned to autumn.

Again, I used the instructions on Roz’s Nail Your Novel blog for filling out the form. Make sure you use the proper form – you want the one with the affidavit of unchanged status at the end, which you can find here. You don’t need to include anything with your letter, but you do need to put something in the “Reference” line of the W-8BEN form that will identify you to the company.

  • For CreateSpace, this can be your member ID which you’ll find on your member dashboard
  • For Amazon KDP, you can use your Publisher ID, which you’ll see on your account page
  • For Smashwords, put the e-mail address you used to register in the reference line.

What do you do if you’ve had money withheld before the current calendar year? Well, there is about $500 in the IRS coffers that was withheld from me in 2010. I’ve found a site called TaxBack.com that has a special service for tax refunds owing on royalties. There is a charge of course, but it’s representative of the refund. I’m going to give them a try for that $500. I’ll let you know how it goes.

I sent my W8-BEN forms off last week to CreateSpace, Amazon KDP and Smashwords. I’ll let you know how I get on with retro-refunds, and how soon I start getting 100% royalty cheques instead of just 70%.

So to recap, make sure to:

  • Send your application by express post that doesn’t require a signature on arrival; that’ll shave a couple of weeks off your waiting time if you’re applying by mail
  • Use blue ink
  • Don’t use abbreviations – even if there’s hardly any space
  • Get an apostille from your nearest consular office if you use a non-IRS notary
  • Use the W-8BEN that has the affidavit at the end so you get your withholdings so far this year refunded
  • Have the name on your CreateSpace/Smashwords letter match your actual name, not your pen name.

The forms you need are:

The addresses you need* are:

  • the IRS ITIN section: Internal Revenue Service, ITIN Operation, Mail Stop 6090-AUSC, 3651 S. Interregional, Hwy 35, Austin, TX 78741-0000.
  • CreateSpace (for your W-8BEN): 8329 West Sunset Road, Suite 200, Las Vegas, NV, 89113, USA.
  • Smashwords (for your W-8BEN): Tax Compliance Dept., 15951 Los Gatos Blvd., Ste 16 Los Gatoes, CA 95032, USA.
  • Amazon KDP (for your W-8BEN): Attn Vendor Maintenance, PO Box 80683, Seattle, WA 98108-0683, USA.

*Correct to the best of my knowledge today, Saturday 5th November. Please double-check on the relevant websites that these addresses are still valid when you submit your W-8BENs. 

You may also need:

  • This post (you can print it; see little print button below), Sally’s post and Roz’s post
  • Coffee
  • Alcohol
  • Patience
  • A stress ball or ten.

Good luck!

UPDATE #1:

I posted my three W-8BENs on Friday 4th November by express post, making sure no one had to sign for them at the other end as in all likelihood, they were headed for PO boxes. On the 16th, I received an e-mail from Amazon KDP confirming receipt of my W-8BEN.

UPDATE #2:

After investigating TaxBack.com to see if they could help me get my $500 back from 2010, I decided not to pursue it. It involves more forms than I’d ever care to see in my lifetime, and two that made me uncomfortable: one that gives the company power of attorney in my dealings with the IRS (which they need to act on my behalf) and a change of address form that would change the address the IRS have on file for me from my home to the offices of TaxBack.com (so the refund goes to them; they need to take their fee out of it before they refund me the rest). Now I know all this is above board, but I’ve only just got my ITIN after three attempts—the last thing I want to do is to change any details, such as my address, that the IRS have on file for me, only to have to change it back a few weeks or months later. That just says Future IRS-Induced Headache to me. Secondly, power of attorney? For $500? Or $500 minus their fee? Um, I don’t think so. So guess what, America? You can keep my money. God knows I owe it to you after driving on your roads with only a learner’s permit for a year…

UPDATE #3:

On Tuesday November 29th: success! A cheque from Amazon KDP with a big number on it. Hooray! All my tax withholdings refunded back to December 2010. I thought maybe they’d include it with my monthly payment but they’ve sent an entirely separate cheque. And they’ve sent it pretty quickly. No word yet from the other two (CreateSpace and Smashwords) but as KDP is by far the biggest one, I’m not bothered. And let the Christmas shopping commence!

UPDATE #4:

On Monday 5th December, CreateSpace send me this month’s cheque as per usual—except this one also contains my tax refund going back to December 2010. I have to say excluding Smashwords (and the withholding there is so small, I don’t mind doing it), once the ITIN has been received this refund process has been very quick and utterly straightforward. A nice antidote to the process of getting the ITIN in the first place!

UPDATE #5:

Please read this post. You may not need an ITIN at all, but an EIN.

DISCLAIMER: I am not a tax specialist, and I have no expert knowledge of international tax law or any related issues. This post is intended to help you apply for an ITIN and submit your W-8BEN forms to the relevant parties, but it is not intended to be legal advice. I accept no responsibility or liability for the outcome of your ITIN application, W-8BEN submission or refund of tax withholdings. So there. 

34 thoughts on “Applying for a US Individual Tax Identification Number (ITIN): A Saga in 3 Parts

  1. Lis Sowerbutts says:

    I’d heard all of this – so I was pretty gobsmacked to have a little check of under US$20 to turn up recently form my July royalties, no withholding, not making the minimum $100 for check payment, all sent to my New Zealand address. Colour me confused – so I banked it LOL

  2. michaelharling says:

    Ah, dealing with the US Internal Revenue Service. I feel your pain. I am an American, and I have a Social Security number, but I still have the 30% deducted because, as a US citizen, I have to pay US tax, even though I live in the UK. (Yes, even if you live outside the US, take up dual nationality and earn NO US dollars, you still have to pay tax on the money you earn in your host country). So any royalties I (hypothetically) receive are automatically cut by one third. However, that money–if Amazon manages to send the equivalent of a W-2 form before I have to file my 2011 taxes –will just go toward the money I have to pay the US government anyway.

    Short version: if you are not a US citizen, do as Catherine advises, so you can get your money back! Just don’t expect it to be easy.

  3. Gill Pavey says:

    A really interesting and useful article. Love your style!
    Just one thing bothering me at this stage – what do you do if you don’t have a passport? Or what if you are resident in Ireland (ROI) and have a British passport? Is this likely to confuse them? (Silly question, perhaps)

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      I think that should be fine; there’s room on the form for filling out things like nationality, country of passport issue, residency, etc. As far as I know both the UK and Ireland have a tax treaty with the US bringing your withholding down to 0%, so although filling out your form may be a bit trickier, you shouldn’t have a problem. The only thing is your passport copy will have to be notarised by an agent of the government who issued it, so if your British and living in Ireland, I’d assume you’d visit your nearest embassy.

      • Gill Pavey says:

        Wow! What a quick reply, thanks!
        At the moment I don’t have a passport of any kind, my UK one expired a while ago then got partially eaten by my dog, I need to sort it out… that involves application to the Embassy in Dublin, I’d better bring it to the top of the things-to-do pile.
        More coffee!

  4. Ramona says:

    Hey EVERYONE. Take a deep breath. You don’t need an ITIN AT ALL.
    I live in Canada and my friend lives in Britain. AND, if you just call your US embassy on the phone and tell them that you are the
    ‘SOUL PROPRIETOR’ as an author who sells books, then they have to give you a number over the phone. It’s an EIN number and it’s for the IRS to track your taxes. Amazon accepts this number. I know because they took the hold off of my cash. Don’t believe all that BS about having to have a company or any employees to get an EIN. I timed my phone call and I had the number written down on a post-it note within 11 minutes. That’s it, that’s all. Call your local US consulate or the nearest one to you and say:
    “I am the soul proprietor and I sell a product in your country (US) and I want to pay you taxes. I need an EIN number please.” After that, they will walk you through some simple questions and just tell them that you son’t have any employees, but you may hire some at a LATER DATE. Anyway, the lady I spoke to in Seattle was awesome.
    Technically, it is a business because you are creating and selling a product. Amazon is just your distributor. If you happen to get someone on the phone that tells you otherwise to anything I’ve said here, they don’t know what they are talking about, so just call back and get someone else. In fact save yourself the headache and just call the US embassy in Seattle Washington. Have a great day and stop wasting your valuable time and money. 11 minutes folks!! Here is a quote from the nice people at the US embassy “Why would a foreign person who is not a US citizen want an ITIN number? Do you realize it’s really hard to get because basically you are asking us to give you a citizen number when you are not a citizen. That’s why it’s so difficult. All you need is an EIN number.” Anyway, amazon clearly states in their Kindle publishing help that you need EITHER a ITIN (For US citizens ONLY) of you need an EIN (for ANYONE else who is not American.)

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  6. Angela says:

    All lined up to go to my local US consulate to notarize my passport when I get an email saying that they no longer do this (from June this year) and I have to get it done by the issuing passport dept trouble is the issuing department for me is in New Zealand and I live in OZ! No email either……

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  8. Heather Loewen says:

    Thanks for posting your ITIN adventures! I spent a lot of time researching how to get an ITIN on the first try (got it November 2012) and came across your blog in the process. I ended up putting together an online workshop with the whole process, sample forms, etc. because who the hell wants to spend their time on bureaucratic BS??!! (I particularly would like to thank you for the blue ink detail.)

  9. BarbaraburgessBarbara says:

    Hi, this is a very good post. I have my accompanying letter with On-Demand Publishing LLC on the top and there are 2 blank boxes to fill in. To be quite honest, not even this is clear! In the ‘To’ box do I put my name or the name of the people for whom I want the IRS number? I am thinking of printing out about 3 forms and filling in each one differently! thanks BB

  10. Dave says:

    Apologies, I’ve only just seen the guest post by David Gaughran explaining the EIN process, which answers my questions. Please feel free to delete this comment.

    And thank you again!

  11. Lisa says:

    Interesting post! But the W7 now says that the supporting documentation must be a letter from the SSA stating that a SS number has been denied, therefore proving the need for a ITIN….problem is, I cannot find any guidance on how to (quickly, easily, efficiently) get this letter from the SSA, without actually going through the whole rigmarole of pretending to apply for a SSN. Phew! Was that clear, or garbled?

  12. Prempeh says:

    Just a note that the the rules have changed and that there is now an expiry date on the USITIN numbers. It is valid for 5 years and they no longer make use of notaries. One would need to get their passports certified by the issuing agent.

    • Nola Bogie says:

      I am in Canada, and was told we could not use the Embassy. Your website report is no longer up to date, and the inaccuracies confuse. This is almost 2015, and it begins 2009, in November. Things have changed a great dea, including the forms. Even my publisher sent out-dated forms from 2007. But I notified them there were more recent versions on IRS website.
      How easy it would be to simply confirm that we live in another country by address, and bank deposit, and just give the form to the publisher. Why the complexity of applying for ITIN, W8BEN, W7, authentic passport, birth certificate and drivers licence, and then once granted the ITIN, file an American Income Tax statement to get back the 30 %…that Canada has a complete exemption. (0% Treaty) This is the only reason I hesitate to work with an American Publisher…nothing to do with them…just this complexity. I made a long distance call to IRS which cost me $25. but their information was accurate and right from them, including our Treaty number. IRS website says they no longer permit submission with a notary public. The IRS website lists specific ACCEPTANCE AGENTS for each city authorized by IRS for authorization and submission on your behalf. http://www.irs.gov/Individuals/Acceptance-Agent-Program
      The two closest to me charge $400. even though I had already gone to get official drivers license and a certified passport myself, and had also filled out my own W8BEN and W7. He insisted it would still be $400. I left. Others claim a ten minute call gave them an EIN. Others say EIN is not accepted. Hard to find the truth.

  13. laceydearie says:

    I was shocked to read about all the trouble you had. All I did was phone the IRS. They gave me a number, I entered it in the Amazon Tax Interview online and it was done in one night.

  14. Kevin H says:

    So does that mean that if I am not a U.S. citizen, not living in the U.S. and I don’t live in the U.K., Ireland or Canada, then I am completely out of luck? (And the country from which I derive a passport has no tax treaty with the U.S.) That I should be forever resigned to letting the IRS claim 30% of all my earnings through any U.S. publisher?

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      If your country does not have a tax treaty with the US, then yes. That’s the law. Your only other option is to publish only with non-US based companies – I could be wrong but I believe iBooks, for example, may have European bases and there’s also distribution companies like eBookPartnership where the options/paperwork may be different.

      • Kevin H says:

        Sigh… In my case, I have a contract with Princeton University Press for a textbook. I was very surprised when only 70% of my advance arrived… I guess I’m paying the IRS for life then, with regards to this project…

  15. Scott says:

    Catherine, many thanks for the very informative blog post. I tried to obtain an ITIN myself a few years back, went through the form with a fine tooth-combe, checked online information and took advice . . . . and after 8 -10 weeks from the time of submission, I’d heard nothing. Hoping for the best, I called the US number on the forms only to be told I’d filled out one of the boxes incorrectly.

    Would have been nice if the IRS had informed me prior to the call! So I’m once again applying as I’ll need an ITIN for a different reason – I’m starting an LLC, and need an ITIN to offset the LLC’s income against my personal income at the end of the tax year.

    So here we go once again, and I’m hoping that the links and info here will be the solution to a successful application this time around. It would be much easier if we had an acceptance agent here in NZ, but as you’ll see from this link – we’re out on our own once again! Might have to take a trip to Oz to get this done – or wait and submit it when I file my first taxes – I think they might be more motivated to help at that time!

    https://www.irs.gov/Individuals/Acceptance-Agent-Program

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