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Can I Get Social Security If I'm Not a U.S. Citizen?

Dan Caplinger, The Motley Fool

Millions of Americans receive Social Security benefits, and nearly everyone who works in the U.S. pays the Social Security payroll taxes that help to fund the retirement program. What many people don't realize about Social Security is that paying those taxes often entitles workers to receive benefits -- even if they're not U.S. citizens.

For the most part, the rules on Social Security for noncitizens are very similar to what U.S. citizens have to observe in order to get benefits. However, there are some subtle differences. Below, we'll go through what it takes to get Social Security as a noncitizen and what actions you can take to ensure that you get the most you can from the program.

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The general rule for noncitizens: Yes, you can get benefits if you would otherwise qualify for them

The Social Security Administration is quite forthcoming in saying that most noncitizens can get Social Security benefits under certain circumstances. Specifically, to get benefits, the following things must be true:

  • You must live in the U.S.
  • You must be lawfully present in the U.S., which includes those admitted for permanent residency or other classifications under the Immigration and Naturalization Act, Family Unity or Immediate Relative provisions, or others fully insured for benefits and who meet U.S. lawful presence requirements.
  • You must meet all the regular eligibility requirements for Social Security.

What that last provision means is that you need to be eligible for the benefits in question in order to receive them as a noncitizen. For example, to receive retirement benefits, you need to have accumulated at least 40 work credits. Disability benefits have differing work credit requirements based on age, while spousal or survivor benefits are generally available under the separate rules that govern those benefit categories.

What if I leave the U.S.?

Living in the U.S. is a typical requirement for noncitizens to receive Social Security benefits, and ordinarily, the SSA will stop paying benefits to noncitizens if you've been outside the U.S. for six months in a row. However, if your country is on this list, then it means that the U.S. has a special agreement that will let you keep receiving payments even if you remain in that foreign country.

Even if you don't qualify to receive benefits while you're abroad, you can restart them once you return to the U.S. It just takes a single calendar month to get your benefits up and running again.

If my spouse is a U.S. citizen, can I get spousal and survivor benefits if I live abroad?

Even noncitizen spouses who've never been to the U.S. can sometimes get benefits under Social Security. The key is whether the country in which they have legal residency or the country of which they're a citizen has an appropriate treaty with the U.S. that allows for benefits. The SSA website has a page where you can see which countries are covered and what the specific terms of their treaties are.

In addition, if you live in the U.S. for at least five years during your marriage, then you can get spousal and survivor benefits. That remains true regardless of whether you subsequently return to your home country.

If I'm not a U.S. citizen and am in the U.S. illegally but have paid Social Security taxes as part of my job, can I get Social Security benefits?

No. Despite the fact that many people without legal immigration status work and pay payroll taxes in the U.S., you can't receive benefits unless you obtain legal immigration status in the future.

Social Security is complicated enough even before you add issues about citizenship and immigration status on top of it. To make sure you know what Social Security will pay you, though, you need to understand these rules for noncitizens to get benefits.

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