Immigrants Over 65 and Social Security Benefits

They may be eligible under certain circumstances

In certain cases, individuals who immigrate to the United States when they're age 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.
  • If you live or retire abroad and are eligible for Social Security payments, you can still get them.

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 ensure 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

Qualified Alien

A noncitizen may be able to collect Social Security benefits as a qualified alien if they meet one of seven categories, according to the Social Security Administration.

  1.  Lawfully Admitted for Permanent Residence (LAPR) in the U.S., which includes "Amerasian immigrant" as defined in P.L. 100-202, with a class of admission AM-1 through AM-8;
  2. Granted conditional entry under Section 203(a)(7) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) as in effect before April 1, 1980;
  3. Paroled into the U.S. under Section 212(d)(5) of the INA for a period of at least one year;
  4. Refugee admitted to the U.S. under Section 207 of the INA;
  5. Granted asylum under Section 208 of the INA;
  6. Deportation is being withheld under Section 243(h) of the INA, as in effect before April 1, 1997; or removal is being withheld under Section 241(b)(3) of the INA;
  7. A "Cuban and Haitian entrant" as defined in Section 501(e) of the Refugee Education Assistance Act of 1980 or in a status that is to be treated as a "Cuban/ Haitian entrant" for SSI purposes.

Mark Hebner, Index Fund Advisors, Inc.

"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."

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 to 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

Special Considerations

If you are a qualified alien you may be eligible for Social Security benefits if you were receiving SSI and were legally living in the U.S. on or after Aug. 22, 1996. If you have 40 qualifying work credits under your belt, you may qualify, or if your spouse or parent worked any of those 40 credits.

In addition, if you are serving and on active duty in any branch of the U.S. Armed Forces, or honorably discharged, you may qualify as well as if you are a dependent child, widow or widower, or a spouse of specified U.s. military personnel. Those qualified aliens, again, residing legally on Aug. 22, 1996, or after, who are blind or disabled, also qualify, as do refugees and asylum seekers, under specific conditions.

Others include "Cuban or Haitian entrant under Section 501(e) of the Refugee Education Assistance Act of 1980 or in a status that is to be treated as a 'Cuban/ Haitian entrant' for SSI purposes; or 'Amerasian immigrant' pursuant to P.L. 100-202, with a class of admission of AM-1 through AM-8."

How Long Does It Take to Get a Social Security Number for Immigrants?

If all of your paperwork is filled out correctly and submitted, it should only be approximately two weeks before you receive your Social Security number.

How Much Do Immigrants Receive in Social Security Benefits?

This depends on many factors, including how much they earned during the necessary 40 qualifying credits of work. There isn't a specific set amount given to immigrants versus an American citizen receiving Social Security benefits.

Do Immigrants Get Social Security if They Never Paid Into It?

No. You must qualify for Social Security benefits by working a specified number of credits during your working years.

Can a Green Card Holder Apply for Social Security Benefits?

Like anyone, you must have 40 qualifying credits, approximately 10 years, to earn Social Security benefits. Green card holders who pay into the system may qualify for their benefits, just like anyone else.

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.

Article Sources
Investopedia requires writers to use primary sources to support their work. These include white papers, government data, original reporting, and interviews with industry experts. We also reference original research from other reputable publishers where appropriate. You can learn more about the standards we follow in producing accurate, unbiased content in our editorial policy.
  1. Social Security Administration. "Quarter of Coverage."

  2. Social Security Administration. "Social Security Totalization Agreements."

  3. Internal Revenue Service. "Totalization Agreements."

  4. Social Security Administration. "International Agreements."

  5. Social Security Administration. "UNDER WHAT CIRCUMSTANCES MAY A NONCITIZEN BE ELIGIBLE FOR SSI?"

  6. Social Security Administration. "Totalization Agreement With Spain."

  7. Social Security Administration. "Your Payments While You Are Outside the United States."

  8. Social Security Administration. "UNDER WHAT CIRCUMSTANCES MAY A NONCITIZEN BE ELIGIBLE FOR SSI?"

  9. Social Security Administration. "Apply For Your Social Security Number While Applying For Your Work Permit and/or Lawful Permanent Residency."

  10. Social Security Administration. "Population Profiles: Never Beneficiaries, Aged 60–89, 2015."

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