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Someone mentioned to me that they ran into someone with "Æ" (the AE grapheme) in their name, which got me wondering what characters are allowable in the US.

I've done a bit of research and found that it seems like name changing, baby registration, (and maybe immigration?) are state specific forms, though do have to be followed by a federal request to get your social security card.

All of the state specific forms and the social security forms I've been able to find don't have any information on what is allowable characters. They are all forms to be printed out and hand filled in so presumably any character you can write legibly can be submitted, though, presumably, may not be accepted.

The only information I was able to find was california only allows the 26 letters and don't even allow accents or anything else. But that doesn't really answer the questions for other states or for social security. I would assume that the printers/software/process used to print out social security cards would only allow a specific set of characters that is probably far shot of all of Unicode, but I can't validate that. I understand the answer might be different by state, so don't expect an answer that covers all 50 states, though it seems like the social security answer would override other answers.

NOTE: I'm just curious about this and don't actually want to change my own name or name a kid with numbers/symbols/emojis/etc.

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    How do you spell Prince? – user4460 Mar 29 '17 at 21:20
  • @notstoreboughtdirt Funny enough, I actually looked up the symbol Prince used for a name as part of the research I already tried to do. Apparently he only changed his stage name. Which makes sense. – Dan Mar 29 '17 at 21:49
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    I suspect this varies on a state-by-state or even agency-by-agency basis -- there aren't any formal rules, just "our systems aren't set up to handle that". – Mark Mar 29 '17 at 22:25
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There is ultimately no meaningful regulation of name choice in the United States, but failing to follow convention can be a pain.

Many countries have far more rigorous regulation of names and often require that a name be on a pre-approved list or at least that it receive advanced governmental approve.

For example, I changed my surname when I married from "Willeke" to "Oh-Willeke" but many private and governmental computer systems do not accept hyphens in names. Non-standard characters and different kinds of punctuation pose similar issues. For example, most databases cannot handle Greek/Cyrillic alphabet characters such as "π" so they would have to spelled out "Pi" for inclusion in many databases.

For example, I am not certain that the databases of most government agencies, even in Colorado which has a large Hispanic population, are capable of distinguishing between ñ and n. Similarly, I am sure that "Æ" (the AE grapheme) would be recorded as "ae" in most computerized databases and on most identification documents. Likewise, few identification document systems or computer databases can process Korean Hangul characters, so my children's middle names are in a particular romanization of the true and correct Hangul spelling of those names.

Various agencies such as vital statistics departments and driver's license bureaus have practical limitations on their ability to input information into computer systems, but that doesn't really limit a true name, which at common law could be changed without resort to the court system or any bureaucracy, something which remains the law in Colorado.

The bottom line is that even if your name in its true form has a representation in symbols that a database can't process and that really and truly is recognized in the law as your legal name, as a matter of practical reality, many entities that deal with names will be limited to a romanization of those names.

Consider the following excerpt from a court of appeals case in Colorado that explains the underlying law:

Walter Knight, an inmate of the State Prison, petitioned the district court to change his name to Sundiata Simba. His reasons were 'to acknowledge the heritage of (his) past, and to Fortify (his) acceptance of (his) religious beliefs as required by (his) faith.' Nine months later, the request was denied. We reverse.

The statute under which the petition was filed, § 13--15--101, C.R.S.1973, provides that the court must approve the change of name if it is 'satisfied that the desired change would be proper, and not detrimental to the interests of any other person.' Here, the court held that the change would not be 'proper' because Knight has a lengthy criminal record, is incarcerated, and an F.B.I. 'rap' sheet is extant which lists him under his present name. However, there was no evidence Before the court as to how the name change would be prejudicial to prison or police authorities. Therefore, we do not consider any of these reasons, without additional proof, as sufficient basis for the court to conclude that the change of name would be improper. In this day when a Lew Alcindor elects to be known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Cassius Clay opts for Muhammad Ali, the desire of Walter Knight to reflect his African heritage by adopting the [36 Colo.App. 189] name Sundiata Simba should not be dismissed lightly. Cf. Petition of Rusconi, 341 Mass. 167, 167 N.E.2d 847.

At common law, a person could adopt another name at will. Statutes setting forth procedures to be followed in changing a name merely provide an additional method for making the change. See 57 Am.Jur.2d Name §§ 10 and 11. It is more advantageous to the state to have the statutory method of changing names followed, Application of McGehee, 147 Cal.App.2d 25, 304 P.2d 167, and for that reason applications under the statute should be encouraged, Petition of Buyarsky, 322 Mass. 335, 77 N.E.2d 216, and generally should be granted unless made for a wrongful or fraudulent purpose. Application of Ferris, 178 Misc. 534, 34 N.Y.S.2d 909. See generally Annot., 110 A.L.R. 219.

While a court has wide discretion in matters of this type, it should not deny the application for a change of name as being improper unless special circumstances or facts are found to exist. Included in these would be 'unworthy motive, the possibility of fraud on the public, or the choice of a name that is bizarre, unduly lengthy, ridiculous or offensive to common decency and good taste.' In re M., 91 N.J.Super. 296, 219 A.2d 906; See Petition of Rusconi, supra. Likewise, there is authority to deny the change if the interests of a wife or child of the applicant would be adversely affected thereby. See Annot., 53 A.L.R.2d 914.

We do not suggest that a court must grant every petition for change of name; rather, we hold that some substantial reason must exist for denying such petition, and that none appears in the record Before us. See In Re Ross, 8 Cal.2d 608, 67 P.2d 94. Before a court denies a request for a change of name under the statute, it should conduct an evidentiary hearing to determine if good and sufficient cause exists to deny the application. Cf. Henderson v. Industrial Commission, Colo.App., 529 P.2d 651.

In re Knight, 36 Colo.App. 187, 188-189, 537 P.2d 1085, 1086 (1975). See also In re Cruchelow, 926 P.2d 833, 834 (Utah 1996) (at common law an individual had a right to change his or her name at will); In re Porter, 31 P.3d 519 (Utah 2001) (it was an abuse of discretion to deny someone's request to change his name to Santa Claus); In re Mokiligon, 106 P.3d 584 (N.M.App. 2004) (summarily reversing a trial court's refusal to allow a name change from "Snaphappy Fishsuit Mokiligon" to "Variable").

In 2008, when the Colorado DMV prohibited newlywed women from changing their middle names to their maiden name and then adopting the surname of their spouses, this regulation caused such an outcry that it was promptly dropped at the insistence of the Governor, but the state DMV still requires court recognition for more significant name changes.

The offending rule is found in the Colorado Code of Regulations at 1 CCR 204-13 Part 2.3.5, and relies on Colorado Revised Statutes § 42-2-107(2) and § 42-2-302(2), C.R.S., for authority. But, neither statute actually purports to limit the means by which someone may change their name in Colorado. They simply require that your state ID or driver's license have your name on it.

The replacement rule, which is still far more rigid than the case law which recognized a common law right to change your name at any time with or without a court application to do so stated:

2.3.5 A certified certificate of marriage, decree of dissolution of marriage or legal separation issued by any Native American Tribal court or an authorized government agency or court of the United States, any territory, or state of the United States, or any of their political subdivisions, or any court-ordered name change entered by any state or federal court may be used to modify the full legal name of the applicant.

2.3.5.1 Name change as a result of marriage shall be subject to the following conventions:

(1) the existing last name is replaced with the spouse’s last name;

(2) the existing last name is added as a second middle name and the spouse’s last name becomes the applicant’s last name;

(3) the existing last name replaces the existing middle name and the spouse’s last name becomes the applicant’s last name;

(4) the spouse’s last name replaces the existing middle name and the existing last name remains the applicant’s last name;

(5) the spouse’s last name is added before or after the existing last name via a hyphen or space and becomes the applicant’s last name.

2.3.5.2 All non-court-ordered name changes will require completion, and submission to the department, of the Affidavit of Name Change for a Colorado driver’s license or identification card, form DR-2203.

  • "most databases cannot handle Greek/Cyrillic alphabet characters": this is not true, and it hasn't been true for many years. Systems typically limit characters for non-technical reasons (actually US workers are far less likely than are databases to be unable to handle non-Latin characters, and of course they're not available on US keyboards), or because restrictions were developed in former times when databases really couldn't handle such characters, or because developers did not know how to, or did not care to, support "extended" characters. – phoog Mar 30 '17 at 18:03
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    @phoog by "most databases" I mean most databases used by agencies like state vital statistics bureaus and DMVs and airline ticketing systems, not "most databases" in the entire universe of public and private databases, and I'm not distinguishing between systems that don't handle them due to the workers not knowing how to, and systems that don't handle them due to the software. – ohwilleke Mar 30 '17 at 23:14
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    @phoog, any sufficiently large organization probably still has a System/360 storing data in EBCDIC somewhere, performing a vital function in their regular workflow. – Mark May 22 '17 at 20:36
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    @Mark, ohwilleke: furthermore, even if all of the back-end systems can handle "extended" Latin (or Greek or Cyrillic or Hangul or other) characters, it's also necessary to have an input method that can encode them. That is, the clerk typing your name into the system may not know how to type ñ with his or her keyboard, in which case it doesn't matter what's going on in the back. – phoog May 22 '17 at 20:46

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