Legal immigrants who meet the Social Security Administration (SSA) requirements for work credits—or who earned the equivalent of Social Security credits through their work history in their previous country—can receive benefits in the U.S.  Social Security benefits include payments to qualified retirees or those with disabilities and survivor benefits for the spouse and children of a deceased worker. This article explains how immigrants to the United States can qualify for Social Security benefits.

Key Takeaways

  • Legal immigrants can qualify for Social Security benefits if they earn enough work credits over their careers.
  • To earn credits in the U.S., immigrants need to have a Social Security number and pay Social Security taxes.
  • The U.S. and more than 25 other nations have Social Security totalization agreements, which allow legal immigrants to combine work credits from the U.S. and their home countries.

Step 1: Get a Social Security Number

To qualify for Social Security as a legal immigrant, you must have a Social Security number (SSN). Many people apply for one during the immigration process, or are able to visit a Social Security office in person to complete this process. This will require filling out Social Security Form SS-5.

Legal immigrants also need a Social Security number 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. That way, the Social Security Administration can connect work credits to individuals and make sure you receive the work credits and benefits you have earned. 

Step 2: Start Earning Work Credits

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

How Your Social Security Benefits Are Calculated

Earning enough work credits means you are entitled to Social Security benefits once you reach retirement age. The size of your benefit will depend on your average earnings over your 35 highest-earning years as well as how old you are when you start to collect benefits. 

The Social Security Administration will adjust your earnings history for inflation and determine your average indexed monthly earnings. Using that figure, it will then calculate your benefit amount.

Note that if you start claiming retirement benefits as early as you are eligible—age 62—you will receive about 25% less each month than if wait until your full or "normal" retirement age (between 66 and 67, depending on your year of birth). If you delay claiming benefits past your full retirement age, your monthly benefit will increase as much as 32% by age 70. After age 70, your benefit maxes out and there is no further reason to delay collecting.

The Social Security Administration estimates that as of January 2021, the average monthly Social Security benefit for retirees will be $1,543.

You’ll get an extra 8% per year if you wait past your full retirement age to collect benefits. After age 70, however, your benefit won't grow further.

How Social Security Taxes Work

To be eligible for Social Security benefits, 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. In the eyes of the government, you are both the employee and the employer, so you must pay both halves.

Qualifying With Earnings From Another Country

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 more than 25 countries with which the U.S. has what is known as a "totalization agreement." 

Those countries are:

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

The details of these agreements vary by country and are too complex to cover here, but you can find them on the Social Security Administration’s Status of Totalization Agreements page.

If you lack enough work credits to qualify for Social Security in the U.S. but have credits from one of the countries listed above, you can combine credits from both countries and receive prorated Social Security benefits. That can be helpful if you immigrated to the U.S. later in life and are unlikely to put in 10 years of work in the U.S. before you are ready to retire.

However, “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 benefit to adults with limited income and financial resources who are blind, disabled, and at least 65 years old, as well as 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-U.S. 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 certain circumstances, and other designations. The SSA website has a full list of the seven categories of non-U.S. citizens who are considered qualified aliens.

 If you are in one of those categories, meet residency requirements, and do not have a disqualifying criminal history, you may be eligible to receive SSI.

Also, your spouse's 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 pays benefits to workers who become disabled, including legal 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's definition of disability. 

Eligibility for Survivors Benefits

If you have a deceased spouse who qualified for Social Security benefits, you may be eligible for Social Security survivor benefits. Typically, you need to be at least 60 years old, and your deceased spouse must 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 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 be eligible for survivor benefits. The basic rules that apply to U.S. citizens for survivor benefits are generally the same for legal immigrants.

If You Leave the United States

Legal immigrants to the U.S. should know how leaving the country affects benefits (in addition to the one-month rule, mentioned above, that applies to SSI). Your Social Security record is permanent, so even if you don’t work for a period of time, you move abroad, or you were not required to pay Social Security taxes at some point, 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. 

Getting Help With Your Benefits

Legal immigrants with limited English skills can get Social Security benefits information online in several 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, you can resubmit your claim and provide any additional 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 will be based on how much you earned and whether you’ve paid into the system for enough years. If your home country has a totalization agreement with the U.S., you may be able to combine work credits from both countries in order to qualify.