In certain cases, individuals who immigrate to the United States when they're 65 or older may be entitled to draw Social Security benefits, just like any natural-born American citizen. In other cases, immigrants may only draw on their home country’s retirement programs. And some immigrants qualify for benefits from both countries. Here’s an overview of how the rules work.

Key Takeaways

  • People who immigrate to the United States at age 65 or older may be entitled to Social Security benefits.
  • They must either have 40 U.S. work credits (about 10 years' worth) or come from a country that has a totalization agreement with the U.S.
  • Totalization agreements allow immigrants to combine their work credits from both the U.S. and their home country.
  • The U.S. has totalization agreements with more than 25 other nations.

Do Immigrants Over 65 Qualify for Social Security?

Most people who immigrate to the United States after reaching retirement age have not accumulated the requisite 40 work credits to qualify for U.S. Social Security unless they worked in the country for a cumulative 10 years when they were younger.

However, those who are able to legally work in the U.S. for a year and a half after arriving, and who earn at least $1,470 per quarter (as of 2021), may qualify to receive prorated U.S. Social Security benefits, under a totalization agreement with their countries of origin.

A totalization agreement is an arrangement between two countries with similar social security programs that ensures workers and their employers don’t pay social security taxes on the same earnings in both countries. It also prevents individuals from double-dipping when they claim benefits. The U.S. has such agreements with the following countries:

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

“An immigrant who comes to the U.S. from Italy, for example, and has some work history in both countries, but not enough to fully qualify for Social Security benefits in either country, can combine his or her foreign and domestic work history in order to qualify for Social Security benefits,” explains investment advisor Mark Hebner.

How Totalization Agreements Work

Consider the following scenario, illustrating how a totalization agreement can benefit a late-arriving U.S. immigrant.

Penelope recently moved to the United States. She lived in Spain for most of her life, but when she was younger, she spent nine years working for an American company in the U.S. During that time, she earned 36 Social Security credits, which unfortunately falls short of the 40 credits she needs to qualify for Social Security benefits here.

Penelope also worked for 12 years in Spain. Under that country's rules, she would need 15 total years of contributions to qualify for retirement benefits.

Thanks to the totalization agreement, she can combine her work credits from both Spain and the U.S. in order to receive Social Security benefits. Without that agreement, she wouldn’t qualify for benefits in either country, despite having paid into the two national systems for a combined 21 years.

The U.S. Social Security Administration checks with its foreign counterparts in determining whether an immigrant applicant is eligible for benefits.

Collecting U.S. Social Security From Abroad

In some cases, immigrants who earned at least 40 work credits in the U.S. and consequently qualify for U.S. Social Security, may decide to return to their home country, and still receive their U.S. benefits. This currently applies the following nations:

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

The Bottom Line

Some immigrants age 65 and older are eligible to draw Social Security benefits in the U.S. or to collect those benefits while living abroad. However, many are not. In fact, a Social Security Administration report found that 37% of all individuals who fail to qualify for Social Security benefits are immigrants who arrived in the United States at age 50 or older and have insufficient earnings histories.