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CPF - The Individual Taxpayer Identification Number

CPF stands for Cadastro de Pessoa Fisica; a Pessoa Fisica is an individual taxpayer (an incorporated taxpayer is a Pessoa Juridica, and, instead of CPF, is required to have a CNPJ - Cadastro Nacional de Pessoa Juridica, which is way more bureaucratic to obtain.)
The CPF was instituted by the Federal Revenue Service. Its original purpose was only to be used as an identification for taxpayers. Today, however, this document is a necessity for almost every Brazilian, even the massive majority who is exempt from paying personal taxes.

The CPF doesn't have legal force to identify a person; the CPF card doesn't even carry a photo of the holder. The CPF, however, has the following features:
- it's a federal document; once a CPF is obtained, it is valid everywhere in the country; it's against the law to have more than one CPF
- access to the CPF database is fairly easy to obtain; for example, all credit assessment firms have access to the database (information about name and CPF only, not any tax information)
- the database is maintained by the Federal Revenue, one of the most respected public institutions; the Federal Revenue periodically purges the database

As consequence, the CPF became the universal identifier of Brazilian citizens, and is required for practically every business transaction: opening a bank account, applying for a job, buying a TV set, etc.

Notice that some special rules apply to non residents (for example, individuals who own real estate or stock shares, or who have a bank account in Brazil, must have a CPF); visit this page (in English) to read more about CPF and how to obtain it, if necessary.

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