Advising clients on Social Security issues is complicated enough. With the added complexity of a non-U.S. citizen as a client, the help you provide as a financial advisor must be even more specific. With financial advisors serving a growing number of non-citizen clients, here are some issues to be aware of.

Key Takeaways:

  • Non-U.S. citizens who work in the United States can qualify for Social Security benefits.
  • Like U.S. citizens, they must generally have 40 work credits (equivalent to 10 years of work) to become eligible.
  • If they don't have enough U.S. work credits, they may be able to combine their U.S. and foreign work credits, if their home country and the U.S. have a totalization agreement.

Who Is Eligible for Benefits?

For non-U.S. citizens to be eligible for Social Security benefits, they must be in the country legally and have a Social Security number.

Non-citizens who are immigrating to the U.S. can often apply for a Social Security number in their home country at the same time that they apply for an immigrant visa with the U.S. Department of State. They can also apply after they arrive in the U.S. by visiting a Social Security office.

Non-immigrants (those who are visiting the U.S. temporarily) can obtain a Social Security number by filling out an "Application for Employment Authorization" from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which, if approved, grants them permission to work legally in the U.S.??

Types of Social Security Benefits

The Social Security Administration runs several different benefits programs. In addition to benefits for retirees and their spouses, it provides survivor benefits for the spouses and children of deceased workers, Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) for disabled workers, and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) for older and disabled people with little to no income or financial assets.

Eligibility requirements for these programs differ, but except for SSI, most require that the worker have earned at least 40 Social Security work credits. That equates to 10 years of covered work in the U.S.

Combining U.S. and Foreign Work Credits

Workers who haven't earned 40 work credits in the U.S. may still be eligible for Social Security benefits if their home country has a totalization agreement with the United States. These agreements allow non-citizens to combine the credits they earned in both countries in order to qualify. The U.S. currently has such agreements with these 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 ??

You can find the details of each country's totalization agreement on the SSA website.

Receiving Social Security Benefits Outside the US

With the exception of a few countries, workers can receive U.S. Social Security benefits regardless of where in the world they live. In some limited instances, Social Security will stop payments to non-U.S. citizens who have been outside the United States for six full calendar months, but resume them if the person returns to the U.S.

These rules are explained in depth in the Social Security booklet "Your Payments While You Are Outside the United States."

Whether your client is subject to Social Security taxes depends in part on whether they are in the U.S. as a resident or non-resident alien.

Tax Issues for Non-U.S. Citizens

Paying Social Security taxes. Resident aliens who work in the U.S. are subject to Social Security and Medicare taxes, just like U.S. citizens. Some non-resident aliens, however, are exempt. Those include, for example, employees of foreign governments who are in the U.S. on A-visas and certain teachers, students, and others, who are in the U.S. on other types of visas. The Internal Revenue Service lists all the exceptions and related rules on its webpage "Social Security/Medicare and Self-Employment Tax Liability of Foreign Students, Scholars, Teachers, Researchers, and Trainees."

Taxes on Social Security benefits. As is the case for U.S. citizens, Social Security benefits are taxable if the recipient earns over a certain amount. Unless your client qualifies as a resident alien for tax purposes, the Social Security Administration will generally withhold money from their benefit check. The withholding, which takes the form of a 30% tax on 85% of their monthly benefit, results in a reduction of 25.5%. However, some non-resident aliens are exempt from this withholding or subject to a lower rate, depending on tax treaties between the U.S. and their home country.??

The Social Security Administration has an Nonresident Alien Tax Screening Tool on its website that you can use to determine whether your client's benefits are subject to withholding or if they qualify for special tax treatment.