Social Security FAQ

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) related to Social Security and Living Abroad


Q: What is the foreign work test?

A: The foreign work test only applies to monthly benefits of those who work before attaining their full retirement age.

The "foreign work test" applies to persons living abroad who are being paid Social Security benefits (other than those entitled because of disability), and who work prior to full retirement age in employment or self-employment outside the US that is not covered by the US Social Security system.

The test is based only on the amount of time during which the beneficiary is employed or self-employed, not on the amount of the beneficiary's earnings or losses. The foreign work test was intended to make it unnecessary to convert earnings in a foreign currency into earnings in specific dollar amounts.

Under the foreign work test, your monthly benefit is withheld for each calendar month that you work (or are deemed to have been available to work) more than 45 hours.

This contrasts with the rule applicable for working while under full retirement age while in the US: If you are younger than full retirement age during all of 2012, we must deduct $1 from your benefits for each $2 you earned above $14,640. www.socialsecurity.gov/pubs/10069.html#a0=0


Q: Doesn't the foreign work test apply to Social Security recipients under the age of 70?

A: No, only those under full retirement age, which varies from 65-67, depending on your year of birth. The under-70 rule was abolished by the Senior Citizens' Work Act of 2000.


Q: Do you lose your Social Security if you abandon your green card (permanent resident) status or renounce US citizenship?

A: Once you have renounced US cotizenship, you become a non-resident alien (NRA), and the rules for NRAs apply. While it is your responsibility to notify authorities of your changed status, this is generally asked in the questionnaire that Social Security beneficiaries have to submit annually.

As an NRA, it depends on your place of residence whether you can continue to collect Social Security in the long run. Depending on a combination of US bilateral agreements (or lack thereof), the your current citizenship, and your country of residence, it can range from only a minor tax difference to having Social Security payments discontinued after more than six months outside the US.

If you have not been in the United States at any time during the six calendar months before your first month of entitlement, then to get your benefits started you must come to the United States and stay every hour of a full calendar month. For example, if you came to the United States on April 24, you could not leave the United States before June 1. This means that you would be present in the United States the entire month of May.

After you complete this visit for a full calendar month, there are two ways to continue receiving benefits. You can choose one or the other:

• You must spend any part of one day in the United States at least once every 30 days or less; or
• If you do not do one-day visits (or if you fail to make a visit in a 30-day time period), then you must come to the United States and stay every hour of 30 consecutive days. For example, if you came to the United States on April 24, you could not leave the United States before May 25. This visit for 30 days must be completed no later than the end of the six-month period that started with your first full calendar month outside the United States.

There are a couple of countries to which Social Security cannot make payments. US citizens can accumulate unpaid payments while in these countries and receive them after departing the country; NRAs lose those payments.

Note that dependents and survivors benefits may also be affected by change of status of the individuals or the worker concerned from citizen to NRA.

In any case, keep your Social Security card. What you have in your Social Security account always remains there, and your Social Security number is unique to you. It's just a question as to whether Social Security will pay out under specific conditions.

Full details can be gleaned from the publication www.socialsecurity.gov/pubs/10137.html on "Your Payments While You Are Outside the United States". Best advice is to check with Federal Benefits Unit serving the country where you live (or via the American embassy website).


Q: Will my foreign (NRA) spouse/child receive survivor/dependent benefits from my Social Security while living abroad?

A: This depends on several factors. Generally, your NRA spouse can receive survivor benefits if he/she is a citizen of a specific country, or resides in a country with which the US has a social security agreement, or she/he has lived in the US for at least five years while your family relationship existed. There are a few other exceptions. Failing that, he or she would not receive Social Security payments based on your earnings. For full details see Your Payments While You Are Outside the United States, or contact the Federal Benefits Unit serving your area.


Q: What about my child, adopted abroad? Will he/she be able to receive dependent or survivor benefits while abroad?

A: There are many factors that have to be taken into consideration by SSA, apart from where (and when) the adoption took place. For full details see Your Payments While You Are Outside the United States, or contact the Federal Benefits Unit serving your area.


Q: Withholding on Social Security and survivors' benefits of NRA spouses of American citizens.

A: There may be an automatic federal withholding tax of 30% on 85% of each benefit payment made to an NRA. For full details see Your Payments While You Are Outside the United States, or contact the Federal Benefits Unit serving your area.


Q: I am married to a foreign national living abroad. I collect Social Security. We have a minor child who has a US SSN and is a US citizen. Neither my child nor my wife have ever been to the US. When I die will by minor child be eligible for survivor benefits though he has never been to the US?

A: Since your son is a US citizen, the question of residence in the US does not arise (as it would for your non-resident alien wife) in terms of survivor's benefits. You son would get survivor's benefits until the age of 18 or, if he is still in secondary school at that time, until 19.

See: www.socialsecurity.gov/pubs/10137.html - your social security payments while outside the united states; ssa.gov/pubs/10084.html#a0=2 - survivors benefits.


Q: Can benefits for my minor children be paid into my own bank account?

A: Benefits for children are supposed to be directed into separate accounts that were set up for each child, individually. However, the account does not need to be barred from access by the parents/caretaking individual.


Q: I receive a United Nations pension from the UNJSPF (United Nations Joint Staff Pension Fund). The Social Security Administration wants to reduce my Social Security pension, citing the Windfall Elimination Provision (WEP). Can they do that?

A: The Social Security Administration considers the UNJSPF to be a foreign pension fund and therefore applies the WEP. There have been many protests over the years – perhaps appeals – but without success.


Q: I have looked at the Social Security website and could not find if there is a way to receive one's Social Security pension benefits for an American citizen living abroad without a bank account anywhere in the world.

A: The Social Security Administration can send checks; however, there are some country exceptions. For the most current information about receiving Social Security payments outside the United States You can also get a copy of Social Security Administration Publication No. 05-10137, ICN 480085, online, by postal mail from the Social Security Administration, or from the Federal Benefits Unit serving your area (check the AmericanCitizens Services section of the American embassy In your country of residence.


Q: Will the Windfall Elimination Provision (WEP) reduce my Social Security pension if I receive a foreign social security pension?

A: That depends:
a) If your foreign social security pension is paid under the terms of a totalization agreement between the foreign country and the US, the foreign portion of the pension will NOT be WEPed (i.e. reduced due to application of WEP).
b) If you have a foreign social security pension from a country that is not paid under terms of such a totalization agreement with the US, either because you have independently qualified for social security from the country in question (without relying on the terms of an existing totalization agreement) or because the US does not have a totalization agreement with the country in question – WEP provisions WILL apply to the foreign pension.
(See: https://secure.ssa.gov/apps10/poms.nsf/lnx/0300605386)


Q: Presently it is impossible to check my Social Security account online, as it requires a US Address. In fact it is Americans residing abroad who can benefit the most from remote access than those in the US who can more easily visit a local office.

To create an account (https://secure.ssa.gov/RIL/SiView.do), I need to:

Have a valid E-mail address,
Have a Social Security number,
Have a U.S. mailing address, and
Be at least 18 years of age.

A: The "My Social Security" system requires address verification as one of the essential criteria for issuing an account, and the initial release of the system does not support registration and account creation for users residing at foreign addresses. SSA is planning to add this service in the future. In light of the current budget situation, SSA has suspended the Request a (mailed) Social Security Statement service. You may be able to estimate your retirement benefit using SSA’s Retirement Estimator (http://www.socialsecurity.gov/estimator/) – for this, no online account needs to be created. (Thanks to the Federal Benefits Unit, Frankfurt/Main, Germany, for this response.)


(updated May 2013)

Last Updated May 17, 2013