A CPF (Cadastro de Pessoa Física) document is a Brazilian document that is required for several operations and legal proceedings. It can be issued both for Brazilians and foreigners. And unlike the United States Social Security cards (SSN), in Brazil tourists and other non-resident foreigners and even foreigners who are domiciled overseas are eligible for a CPF.
Every person that wants to participate in the official economy will need a unique CPF number that identifies them in a variety of contexts including banking, credit applications wherever they are made, purchasing and activating a cellular phone, renting an apartment, and just about any other transaction which a person would engage in if he intended to stay in a country for more than a month.
Pretty much anyone can get a number at any time from anywhere. They’ll be happy to accept money from anywhere at anytime.
Getting the CPF card is a bit trickier and is the process described by some of the other answers. It’s still not difficult, but you have to pay a few bucks and jump through a couple of other hoops. Fee payments are done in a different manner than an American is used to (don’t know about other countries). You fill out an online form, get a print out of that form, and you use that printout to make a payment (at an ATM or bill-paying place), then you use that receipt plus form as proof of payment.
Also note that the CPF serves as your credit identifier, and there are currently no gradations in credit score in the Brazilian system. If you stop paying your bills, your name will eventually become “dirty” (nome sujo), and you’ll no longer be able to get any credit for anything until you pay your bills.
Proof of address
If possible and as soon as possible, get some official bill in your name, best if it’s real estate (rent or mortgage payment) or a utility bill (fixed phone, electricity). Sometimes you can get them to accept a cell phone bill or another bank account or credit card. You will need this bill (and a recent one – within 3 months likely) with your name and address all spelled correctly (makes a difference) to prove your address. This was a major sticking point for me, as I was informally renting rooms from other people at the time.
Once you get a stable bill in your name, I suggest you keep it in paper form and continue to receive it.
How to get a CPF as a foreigner?
The process for foreigners to obtain a CPF is different from that for Brazilians so Brazilians cannot explain the process to foreigners based on their personal experience. Fortunately, the process is simple enough and is explained on the Internet at: http://www.receita.fazenda.gov.br/Aplicacoes/ATCTA/CpfEstrangeiro/fcpf.asp
The application form can also be downloaded at that link. I suggest using the Chrome browser when accessing ‘Receita Federal’ website. It translates the website in any language you choose.
Banks and Post Offices Issue CPF, not the Receita Federal
The Receita Fedetral is the entity of the Brazilian government responsible for CPFâ€™s. However, the Receita Federal does not actually accept applications for or issue the CPF. Applications for the CPF are made at other Government institutions with which the public has much more contact: the Banco do Brasil (Bank of Brazil), the Caixa Econômica Federal, and the Correios (Post Office) are the institutions designated to accept CPF applications. The fee for processing the CPF application is currently R$4.50 (about $2.00 USD).
How to get a CPF if I’m not in Brazil
Go to the Receita Federal Website: http://idg.receita.fazenda.gov.br/ or English version here http://idg.receita.fazenda.gov.br/information/
Follow the links to the CPF page
Fill in the Form and Print It
• Select country of domicile. In the case of an individual resident in Brazil who is abroad, select the country where you will be given the form. So for example, if you are inside the United States now, choose “ESTADOS UNIDOS.”
• Click the button to generate a form.
• Fill out the form by typing the information.
• Click the Submit button.
• Print the completed form using the Print button. Deliver it to a Brazilian diplomatic representation within 15 days, along with the documents listed in the table documentation.
This link allows you to follow the procedure of your CPF application http://www.receita.fazenda.gov.br/Aplicacoes/ATCTA/CPF/ConsultaAndamentoIng.asp
Just like the CPF is for persons, the CNPJ is for Businesses
The CPNJ identifies companies when dealing with the Brazilian Federal Revenue Bureau or Receita Federal. CNPJ stands for Cadastro Nacional da Pessoa Jurídica or the National Registry of Legal Entities. It is the virtual equivalent of an employer identification number in the United States. All Brazilian companies must have a CPNJ number.