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Social Security Benefits for Non-U.S. Citizens

If you are a permanent resident of the United States and you don't have plans to become a U.S. citizen in the future, you may still be eligible for Social Security retirement benefits. There are stipulations for these benefits—whether or not you are eligible, how much you will get, and whether or not you can collect the payments if you go back to your country of origin. These requirements are unique for individuals who are living in the U.S. but are not citizens.

Work Credits Required to Qualify for Social Security Benefits

If you are not a U.S. citizen, you can still qualify for Social Security retirement benefits if you earn 40 work credits before you start collecting benefits. You get one credit for every $1,320 you earn (as of 2018), up to a maximum of four credits in any given year. The dollar amount is indexed for inflation, and because of the annual four-credit limit, the 40-credits generally equal up to 10 years of work.

You may qualify also for Social Security retirement benefits even if you don't earn enough work credits in the U.S. because the U.S. government has established bilateral Social Security agreements with 26 different countries. These agreements, often called "totalization agreements," are in place to avoid having your Social Security benefits taxed twice, and to ensure people who work in countries other than the ones where they have residence qualify for Social Security benefits. 

As a result of totalization agreements, you can combine your work credits earned in the U.S. with the credits earned in another country to qualify for Social Security benefits in either country. You still need to have at least six U.S. credits to qualify for partial benefits in the U.S.

Receiving Benefits While Living in Another Country

Even after you have retired, you can collect Social Security retirement benefits from the U.S. while you are living in a different country, unless you live in Cuba or North Korea, which are restricted by the U.S. Treasury Department. However, you have to return to the U.S. and stay for a full calendar month every six months to keep getting your payments. (For related reading, see: 8 Types of Americans Who Won't Get Social Security.)

There are exceptions to this particular requirement depending on what country you are a citizen of, which country you live in and whether you are receiving benefits based on your own earnings or as a dependent or survivor. For example, if you are a citizen of China and living in China, the Social Security Administration (SSA) will continue to pay your benefits after six months as long as you:

  • receive benefits based on your own earnings, earned at least 40 credits under the U.S. Social Security system, or lived at least 10 years in the U.S., or
  • receive benefits as a dependent or a survivor of a worker who earned at least 40 credits under the U.S. Social Security system, or lived in the United States for at least 10 years.

The SSA created the Payment Abroad Screening Tool to help those who qualify figure out if they can continue receiving Social Security payments while living outside the U.S..

Amount May Be Reduced If You Have a Foreign Pension

This falls under the Windfall Elimination Provision (WEP). In general, a pension based on earnings not covered by Social Security, like a foreign pension, may affect your Social Security benefit. SSA has another simple online screening tool to help you figure out whether you will be affected, and you can learn more about the WEP in general from SSA's website.

You may have heard of the government pension offset (GPO), which can affect your spousal or survivor benefits if you have a government pension but didn't pay Social Security taxes. This generally doesn't apply to a foreign pension.

Paying Taxes as a Resident or Non-Resident Alien

When it comes to taxes on Social Security benefits, non-U.S. citizens are separated into two categories by the IRS: resident aliens and nonresident aliens. U.S. citizens and resident aliens pay taxes on up to 85% of their Social Security benefits based on their income and tax filing status. However, for nonresident aliens, unless you are exempt or subject to a lower tax rate by treaty, you are generally subject to a flat 30% of tax withholding on 85% of your Social Security retirement benefits, or roughly 25.5% of your monthly benefit amount.

Unfortunately, based on the tax treaty table from the IRS, China is not included in a treaty benefit on this. Not surprisingly, the SSA has a Nonresident Alien Tax Withholding Screening Tool to help you find out whether they should withhold taxes from your Social Security benefits.

A Complex Topic Becomes Even More So for Non-U.S. Citizens

Social Security is a very complex topic. It becomes even more complicated when non-U.S. citizens are involved. Mostly, it is very country-specific. You can start determining your future benefits with a variety of calculators designed by the SSA, but it is best to contact the SSA directly if you have any questions about your particular situation.

(For more from this author, see: 4 Frequently Asked Auto Insurance Questions.)