Legal immigrants who meet Social Security Administration (SSA) requirements for work credits—or those who earned the equivalent of Social Security through their work history in their previous country—can receive these benefits in the U.S. 

Social Security benefits may include payments made to qualified retirees, funds for those with disabilities, and survivor benefits for the spouse and children of a qualified recipient.

Key Takeaways

  • Legal immigrants can qualify for Social Security benefits if they earn enough work credits over their careers.
  • You’ll need a Social Security number to be hired by an employer, who then reports your wages to the government under your name and SSN to make sure you receive the credits and future benefit amount you earn.
  • The U.S. has Social Security agreements with 30 countries, and legal immigrants who haven’t earned enough work credits in the U.S. might still qualify for benefits if they’ve earned enough credits from another country.

Get a Social Security Number

To qualify for Social Security, you must have a Social Security number (SSN). Many people apply for one during the immigration process. If you did not, you may need to visit a Social Security office in person to complete this process.  This will require filling out Social Security Form SS-5.

You also need an SSN to be hired by any law-abiding employer in the United States. The employer will then report your wage earnings to the federal government under your name and identified with your SSN. In this manner, they may connect work credits to individuals and make sure you receive the work credits and future benefit amount you earn. 

Qualify With Work Credits

Once you have an SSN, your next step is to earn 40 Social Security work credits. You earn one credit for every quarter in which you earn at least $1,470 to a maximum of four credits a year for 2021. This formula applies to everyone born since 1929, and these 40 credits are the equivalent of 10 years' work. 

Earning enough work credits means you are entitled to apply for Social Security benefits once you reach retirement age. The size of your benefit depends on the average of what you earned over your 35 highest-earning years. 

The government will then adjust your earnings history for inflation and determine your average indexed monthly earnings. The Social Security Administration will then calculate your benefit payment amount.

As an example, assume you were born in 1956 and will reach full retirement age and start claiming benefits in 2021. Your benefit has a basis from:

  • 90% of your first $996 of monthly earnings
  • 32% of your monthly earnings between $926 and $6,002
  • 15% of your monthly earnings above $6,002 

Estimated Benefits

Estimated benefits are based on current law. The SSA states that the law governing benefit amounts may change because by 2035, the combined trust fund reserves are projected to become depleted. Payroll taxes collected will be enough to pay only about 80 cents for each dollar of scheduled benefits.

You’ll get an extra 8% per year if you wait until you’re 70 to start retirement claiming benefits, but delaying them beyond 70 doesn’t increase your benefits further.   

In the example above (born in 1956), if you start claiming retirement benefits as early as possible—around age 62—the result of the above calculation is reduced by 25%. If you delay claiming benefits past your full retirement age of 66 and 4 months, it increases each month, up to 29.3% at age 70.

Taxing Your Earnings

In exchange for being eligible to earn this future Social Security benefit, you’ll pay a 6.2% Social Security tax on your earnings as an employee up to the annual maximum, which is $142,800 in 2021. Your employer kicks in another 6.2%. However, if you’re self-employed—for example, you're a contractor or freelance worker—the calculation is different. Since, in the eyes of the government, you are both the employee and the employer, you must withhold the full Social Security tax from your earnings and contribute along with your estimated federal taxes each quarter.

Earnings-Abroad Qualification

Legal immigrants who have not earned enough work credits in the U.S. might still qualify for benefits if they’ve earned enough work credits from one of the 30 countries with which the U.S. has Social Security agreements—known as totalization agreements. 

The included countries are Italy, Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, Norway, Canada, the United Kingdom, Sweden, Spain, France, Portugal, the Netherlands, Austria, Finland, Ireland, Luxembourg, Greece, South Korea, Chile, Australia, Japan, Denmark, the Czech Republic, Poland, the Slovak Republic, Hungary, Brazil, Uruguay, Slovenia, and Iceland.

Details of each totalization agreement vary by country and are too complex to cover here, but you can read about them on the Social Security Administration’s totalization agreement page.

If you lack enough work credits to qualify for Social Security in either the U.S. or one of the countries listed earlier, you can combine credits from both countries and receive prorated Social Security benefits. These agreements can be helpful if you immigrated to the U.S. later in life and are unlikely to accumulate 10 years of work in the U.S. before you are ready to retire.

“The 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,” notes Z. M. Ishmurzina, a CPA and partner with Artio Partners, a Chicago tax firm specializing in services for U.S. expats and foreign nationals.

Eligibility for Supplemental Security Income

Supplemental Security Income (SSI) provides a monthly payment to adults with limited income and financial resources who are blind, disabled, and at least 65 years old, or to qualified disabled children. To claim SSI benefits, 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 non-citizen, you must be a qualified alien. Qualifying categories include being Lawfully Admitted for Permanent Residence (LAPR), having been given conditional entry before April 1, 1980, being a refugee admitted under specific circumstances, and other designations. Check the SSA website for a full listing of the seven categories of non-citizens who are qualified aliens.

 Assuming you fall into one of these categories, meet residency requirements, and do not have a disqualifying criminal history, you may be eligible to receive SSI.

Also, your spouse or parent’s work can count toward the necessary credits you need to get SSI (but not retirement benefits). You may also qualify under a number of other SSI qualified-alien guidelines.

Eligibility for Disability Benefits

The Social Security Disability Income (SSDI) program provides income to workers who become disabled, including legal U.S. immigrants. Even if you are not 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 definition of disability. 

Eligibility for Survivor’s Benefits

If your deceased spouse qualified for Social Security benefits, you may be eligible for Social Security survivor’s benefits. Typically, you 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.

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 basic rules apply to U.S. citizens for survivor’s benefits and are generally the same for legal immigrants.

Leaving the United States

Legal U.S. immigrants should know how leaving the country affects 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 U.S. 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 U.S. for, and the other countries in which you’re residing. 

Help With Benefits

Legal immigrants with limited English skills can get Social Security benefit information online in 3 languages. They also 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. To appeal a retirement benefits 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. Your benefits are based on what you earn and whether you’ve paid into the system for enough years, whether in the U.S. or the retirement system of one of the 30 countries with which America has totalization agreements. No one gets benefits who hasn’t earned them.