The ABCs of Tax IDs

Until I started writing this column, I never knew how
complicated something as simple as getting a tax ID number for your
business could be. As they used to say on the old
“Laugh-In” TV show from the 1960s, here is a
“pot-pourri” of e-mails from people wrestling with some
really tough questions:

“My husband and I will both own our new business. Is it
better to get a tax ID number or use our social security

While nothing prohibits you from doing business using your
social security numbers, most people don’t like to give that
information out to strangers, so you’re better off getting a
federal tax ID number. The IRS doesn’t charge for these.

“I’m shipping used machinery to Saudi Arabia, and
the shipping company is requesting that I provide my tax ID number.
Is this normal? I’ve never before given anyone my tax ID
number, and with all the identity thefts and scams, I’m

It would be helpful to know if your shipper is located in the
United States or not. If it is, there are two perfectly legal
reasons why they may be requesting a tax ID number: (1) They want
to confirm that your shipment is exempt from state sales and use
taxes, or (2) they want to confirm that you’re not engaged in
terrorist activities under the U.S. Patriot Act. If the shipper is
located outside the United States, I cannot fathom why they would
need a tax ID number from you, and you should feel free to ask them
for clarification.

“I’m from Argentina and am signing a contract with a
U.S. company. They’re asking me for a tax ID number, but I
don’t have one, and my only address is in Argentina-I
won’t have any address in the U.S.”

They’re probably asking because they need to know whether
your business will be subject to U.S. taxes, or if they must
withhold U.S. taxes on payments made to your business. In either
case, you’ll need to obtain an Individual Tax Identification
Number, or ITIN, from the U.S. IRS by filling out and filing Form
W-7, which is available in both English and Spanish. For further
information on this topic, go to the IRS Web site at and download
Publication 1915, “Understanding Your Individual Taxpayer
Identification Number.”

Keep in mind that an ITIN can only be used for U.S. tax
purposes; it cannot be used as identification for any other purpose
(such as qualifying for U.S. citizenship or Social Security
benefits). While you’re there at the site, I would also
download Publication 515, “Withholding of Tax on Nonresident
Aliens and Foreign Entities,” which explains how and when a
U.S. company must withhold taxes on payments made to foreign

“I’ve just applied for a tax ID number from the IRS.
Right now, my business is still so new that I have no need to open
a separate bank account for it. When do you suggest the right time
is to do this?”

This depends on how your business is organized. If you’re a
sole proprietorship, as I suspect, then you should open a separate
checking account when you’re receiving so many checks that it
will be easier for your bookkeeper to keep track of them by having
them in an account separate from your personal funds. If your
company is a corporation or limited liability company (LLC), you
should never co-mingle business and personal checks for fear of
losing the limited liability that these entities provide-that
business account should be opened now, without delay.

“A friend and I were going to do contract work for a
company, and they asked for a tax ID number. We got one, but now
the company tells us they don’t want us to work for them after
all. Now that we have a tax ID number we won’t be using, what
will happen come tax time?”

If you identified your business as a “partnership” or
“LLC taxed as partnership” when you applied for your tax
ID number, the IRS will be looking for a partnership return (Form
1065) come April 15. If they don’t get it, they’ll sock you
with a “late payment penalty” that’s currently $600
per partner (so $1,200 in your case). What I would do is get hold
of a copy of Form 1065 from the IRS’ Web site, fill it in with a bunch
of zeroes, check the “final return” box, and be sure to
file it before the April 15 deadline. That should put the IRS on
notice that your business is no more.

“Is a ‘tax ID number’ and an ‘EIN
number’ the same thing?”

The short answer is “yes.” The technical name for a
federal tax number is an Employer Identification Number, or EIN,
even if you don’t have employees in the technical sense.

Cliff Ennico is host of the PBS TV series MoneyHunt
and a leading expert on managing growing companies. His advice
for small businesses regularly appears on the “Protecting Your
Business” channel on Small Business Television Network. E-mail him at This
column is no substitute for legal, tax or financial advice, which
can be furnished only by a qualified professional licensed in your
state. Copyright 2004 Clifford R. Ennico. Distributed by Creators
Syndicate Inc.

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