People who immigrate to the United States legally are eligible for many of the same benefits that native-born Americans are, and Social Security is one of them. Legal immigrants who meet Social Security Administration (SSA) requirements for work credits – or who earned the equivalent of Social Security through their work history in their previous country – can receive Social Security benefits in the United States.
Qualifying for Social Security Based on Your U.S. Work History
To qualify for Social Security, you must have a Social Security number (SSN). Many people apply for it during the immigration process; if you weren't one of them, you may need to visit a Social Security office in person. You need a SSN to be hired by any law-abiding employer. Your employer will then report your wages to the government under your name and Social Security number to make sure you receive the work credits and future benefit amount you've earned. (For related reading see Steps to Update or Replace Your Social Security ID and The Purpose of Social Security Form SS-5.)
Once you have a Social Security number, the next step is to earn 40 Social Security work credits, assuming you were born in 1929 or later. If you were born earlier, you need one fewer credit for each year: 38 work credits if you were born in 1927, for example. These 40 work credits are the equivalent of 10 years of work. As of 2018, you earn one credit for every quarter in which you earn at least $1,320; the maximum is four credits a year.
Earning enough work credits means you’re entitled to Social Security benefits once you reach retirement age. How big your check (or direct deposit) will be depends on the average of what you earned over your 35 highest-earning years. The government then uses a slightly complicated formula for determining your benefit payment. First, it adjusts your earnings history for inflation and determines your average indexed monthly earnings. Then, it calculates your payment as follows. This calculation assumes you were born in 1956, and so reach full retirement age and start claiming benefits in 2018.
- 90% of your first $895 of monthly earnings
- 32% of your monthly earnings between $895 and $5,397
- 15% of your monthly earnings above $5,397
If you start claiming benefits as early as possible, around age 62, the result of the above calculation is reduced slightly, and if you delay claiming benefits past your full retirement age, it’s increased slightly.
In exchange for these future benefits, you’ll pay a 6.2% Social Security tax on all the money you earn as an employee up to the annual maximum, which is $128,400 in 2018. Your employer kicks in another 6.2%. (If you’re self-employed, the calculation is a little different. Learn how it works in Social Security for the Self-Employed.)
Qualifying for Social Security Based on Earnings Abroad
Legal immigrants who haven’t earned enough work credits in the United States might still qualify for benefits if they’ve earned enough work credits from one of the 26 countries with which the United States has Social Security agreements (also called totalization agreements). The countries are as follows:
- United Kingdom
- South Korea
- Czech Republic
- Slovak Republic
The idea behind totalization agreements is that if you don’t have enough work credits to qualify for Social Security in either the United States or one of the countries listed above that you worked in, you can combine your credits from both countries and receive prorated Social Security benefits. These agreements can be especially helpful if you immigrated to the United States later in life and are unlikely to accumulate 10 years of work in the U.S. before you’re ready to retire.
“However, the Social Security agreements allow SSA to combine the U.S. and foreign country credits only if the worker has obtained at least six credits of U.S. coverage,” says Z. M. Ishmurzina, a CPA and partner with Artio Partners, a tax firm specializing in services for U.S. expats and foreign nationals.
The details of each totalization agreement vary by country and are too complex to cover here, but you can read about them at the Social Security Administration’s totalization agreement page.
Supplemental Security Income for Legal Immigrants
The SSA doesn’t just provide retirement benefits. Supplemental Security Income, or SSI, provides a monthly payment to adults with limited income and financial resources who are blind, disabled or age 65 or older, as well as to blind or disabled children. To claim this benefit, you must be a legal U.S. resident who has not been out of the country for a month or longer. If you or your child meet the criteria, you may qualify for SSI in addition to the Social Security benefits you earn through working and paying Social Security taxes.
To be eligible for SSI as a noncitizen, you must be a qualified alien. Check out the SSA website here for a list of the ways that the government defines “qualified alien.” Assuming you fall into one of these categories, meet residency requirements and don’t have a disqualifying criminal history, you may be eligible for SSI if you are Lawfully Admitted for Permanent Residence (LAPR) and have 40 work credits. Your spouse or parent’s work can count toward the 40 credits you need to get SSI (but not to get retirement benefits). You may also qualify under a number of other SSI qualified alien guidelines.
Social Security Disability Benefits
The Social Security Disability Income (SSDI) program provides income to workers who become disabled, including legal U.S. immigrants. Even if you aren’t a U.S. citizen, you may qualify for these benefits based on your work history, military service or other criteria. Paying into the Social Security system through payroll taxes typically means you will qualify, assuming you also meet the SSA’s definition of disability. (Read How to Apply for Social Security Disability: Step by Step.)
Social Security Survivor’s Benefits
If you were married to someone who qualified for Social Security benefits and he or she passed away, you may be eligible for Social Security survivor’s benefits. Typically, you’ll need to be at least 60 years old and your deceased spouse will need to have accumulated 40 work credits. The rules are more lenient if minor children are also survivors or if you or your children are disabled. Surviving divorced spouses may also qualify for benefits. The benefit amount depends on your age and your spouse’s work history. Your survivor’s benefits may be reduced if you’re working or if you remarry. You don’t have to qualify for Social Security benefits on your own to qualify for survivor’s benefits. These are the basic rules that apply to U.S. citizens for survivor’s benefits, and they’re generally the same for legal immigrants. (For details, see How Social Security Survivor Benefits Work).
Social Security Benefits and Leaving the U.S.
Legal U.S. immigrants should know a few things about how leaving the country affects Social Security benefits (in addition to the one-month rule, mentioned above, that applies to SSI).
The Social Security record is permanent, so even if you don’t work for a period of time, move abroad or were not required to pay Social Security taxes, the credits you earned previously will still be intact, Ishmurzina says.
If you leave the United States after you start receiving any type of Social Security benefits, your benefits might be affected. If you’re alternating between living in the United States and in another country, you may or may not be able to collect SSDI benefits, depending on your immigration status, how long you leave the United States for and what other country you’re residing in.
Getting Help with Benefits
Legal immigrants with limited English skills can get Social Security benefit information in 15 languages online or can request an interpreter when calling the Social Security Administration or visiting one of its offices.
If your claim for benefits is denied, the SSA will provide a reason for it, Ishmurzina says. If you disagree with the decision, resubmit your claim and provide the information required by the SSA. The SSA website explains how to appeal an SSI or SSDI decision. To appeal a retirement benefit decision, call the SSA at 800-772-1213 (TTY 800-325-0778) or contact your local Social Security office.
If you find yourself in a complicated situation, you may want to seek legal help from an attorney with expertise in Social Security benefits for immigrants.
The Bottom Line
You don’t have to be a U.S. citizen to qualify for Social Security benefits. Instead, your benefits are based on what you earn and whether you’ve paid into the system for enough years. That system could be the U.S. system or the retirement system of one of the 26 countries with which the United States has totalization agreements. No one gets benefits who hasn’t earned them, whether they were born here or immigrated here later in life.