If you can't talk to a government office because of the language, ask for a translator. You can also show an “I Speak” card to a staff member and they will find an interpreter for you. (You can download the card onto your phone via QR code.)
Language services are free at all NYC offices and clinics. An interpreter can be translating in-person or on the phone.
When you work with a translator, it's a good idea to take notes. Write down everything important like:
- what agency you are at, including its address
- what the translator says
- the translator's name
This helps you remember what was discussed. Also, if there are any issues later on, you can show your notes to clear things up.
Remember: When you step into a government office, they must treat you with the same respect that they treat people who speak English. This means you shouldn't have to wait for a really long time to find someone who speaks your language. It also means that the interpretation or translation must be high quality.
At Welfare, Medicaid, or Food Stamp/SNAP offices
When you enter the office, look for an information desk or a reception area. Politely approach the staff and say, "Hello! I need help, and I speak [your language]. Can I please have a translator?" You can also show them your “I Speak” card.
If you speak Spanish, Chinese, Russian, Haitian-Creole, Arabic, Korean, Bengali, Urdu, or French, these offices have to give you forms and papers in your language.
If an agency does not give you high-quality interpretation or important documents are not translated, then you can request a change or file a complaint. You can do this anonymously and regardless of your immigration status.
When you go to court, it is important to understand what is going on. You have the right to have someone translate for you. The court provides this free service in over 100 languages each year. The court also has translated documents online.
To ask for a translator/interpreter, contact the Chief Clerk's Office of the court you are going to as soon as possible. You can find the court’s contact information by visiting the NYC Court Locator website. If you can't contact your court directly, call the Office of Court Interpreting Services at (646) 386-5670.
You shouldn't have to wait a really long time for a translator. If you don't get a translator or if the one you get isn't good, call the Office of Court Interpreting Services at (646) 386-5670 or email them at email@example.com.
Note: Federal courts are different from state courts and usually do not have to provide interpreters.
In the hospital, nursing homes, and other health agencies
If you go to the hospital, you have the right to a free translator. They cannot make you rely on a friend or family member to translate for you. It doesn't matter if you're in the emergency room or just seeing a doctor. In many cases, you can also get important hospital forms, instructions, and information in your own language from the hospital.
Nursing homes, home health agencies, managed care organizations and other health agencies must also provide you with free translation. If you are not sure you have the right to free translation, you can ask.
If the hospital won't provide translation services, you can file a complaint with the Department of Health of Human Services (HHS) Office of Civil Rights (OCR). File the complaint within 180 days of when the act occurred. This deadline is very strict and can only be extended for a very good reason.
In public schools
If your child is in public school and you speak Arabic, Bengali, Chinese, Haitian Creole, Korean, Russian, Spanish, French, or Urdu, you have the right to receive an interpreter in-person or on the phone after asking school staff. You can request this:
- for meetings and any other time you need to contact the school
- so you can fully participate in any school programs or services.
You also have the right to request translation of papers about your child’s education. The school should provide this for free.
Ask your school as soon as possible about their language support policies. Some schools may have specific procedures for language assistance.
If it is still hard to get information in your language, you can file a complaint by calling 311, the NYC hotline. It is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Tell the operator you have an education-related issue. Or call 718-935-2200 (or 212-504-4115 for TTY Services) Monday - Friday, 8 a.m.- 6 p.m. Over-the-phone interpretation is available in more than 200 languages.
Last Reviewed: February 29, 2024