Social Security Benefits For a Non-US Citizen Outside The United States

Photo by Enrico Perini:

Almost all employees in the United States, with very few exceptions, pay FICA and Medicare taxes. These are payroll taxes in addition to their federal and state income tax withholdings, health insurance contributions, and other deductions. No wonder then the most Frequently Asked Question is: "Can I and how can I recoup the FICA and Medicare contributions?". 

Let us step back and look at some scenarios: If one is in the United States on a non-immigrant visa and does not plan to settle here, the payroll tax contribution feels like a significant chunk of money. Some non-immigrant visas contain a clause where the employers may not deduct FICA and Medicare taxes, for example, someone on a Student Visa or the F-1, but for other non-immigrant work visas such as H-1Bs or L-1s, etc., payroll tax withholdings are mandatory. 

Naturally, those on non-immigrant work visas who may not wish to settle in the US permanently wonder what they are paying into and if they can benefit from these contributions when they retire. 

In other cases, we may have a United States citizen or a Green Card holder who has moved abroad to retire and they may like to receive their Social Security {SS} benefits in the country they currently reside in. In most cases receiving benefits as a US citizen/ Green Card holder while living abroad is not an issue unless one lives in a sanctioned country. 

There are also other scenarios where surviving/ divorced spouses/ dependents minors or those with special circumstances living outside the US may need to apply for SS benefits. 

There are many aspects and nuances to these scenarios. The Social Security Administration {SSA} website is a rich source of information but navigating it can take time & effort. 

Hence, let us focus on one of the scenarios in this blog post, where a non-US citizen or a non-US citizen spouse/ dependent might want to apply for benefits while living abroad. 

SS Benefits Rules for a Non-US Citizen Abroad:
  • Generally, a non-US citizen cannot receive benefits after their 6th calendar month outside the US. Depending on how long one has been outside the US, one can make visits to the US for specific periods to continue to claim benefits. In most cases, one could visit the US for 30 days every 6 months to continue receiving benefits. For some reason, if the SSA stopped your benefits, you would have to return and remain lawfully present for an entire calendar month to start receiving benefits again. 
  • You may qualify for an exception to the rule above depending on the country you are a citizen of and the country where you expect to reside while receiving SS benefits. There is a handy tool on the SSA website that one can use to find out if you qualify for this exception. A link to the calculator is in the bibliography below. 
  • You may need to pay taxes on this income in your resident country. The US has Totalization Agreements with about 30 countries around the world. Totalization Agreements eliminate dual taxation of the benefits and look to fill the gaps in benefits coverage for those workers who have traveled back & forth between the US and their country of residence. There is a chance that you may end up paying taxes on the benefits if you reside in a country with no Totalization Agreement. 
  • Some countries may have partial Tax Treaty coverage to mitigate double taxation of SS benefits. SSA will withhold 30% federal income tax from 85% of your benefits if there is no treaty reduction of the rate. 
  • If you need to claim SS benefits as a dependent or a survivor, there are additional requirements to be fulfilled depending on whether the benefits were based on the earnings of a citizen or a non-citizen and it also depends on which country you are a citizen of and where you live currently. 
  • The SSA will send you a questionnaire to complete every year or every 2 years. Your benefits will stop if you do not complete this questionnaire and return it to the SSA. 
  • Many other conditions might also stop your benefits, such as working, improvement of disability, marriage, a child turning 18, death, etc. A "Windfall Elimination Provision {WEP} might also reduce/ eliminate your benefits. 
If you have further questions about the above, I recommend getting in touch with the SSA directly. A list of locations and contact information for the Federal Benefits Unit in various countries is provided in the bibliography link below. 



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