You don’t have to be a U.S. citizen to be eligible to receive Social Security benefits. But to qualify, an immigrant must be in the U.S. legally as a permanent legal resident, have a visa that allows them to work in the United States, or be in the country legally under the Family Unity or Immediate Relative provisions of U.S. immigration law.
Here’s an overview of what you need to know if you’re a legal immigrant looking to claim Social Security benefits.
What is Social Security?
Social Security benefits provide payments to certain retirees and disabled people and their spouses, children, and survivors. The average monthly Social Security benefit for retirees in 2022 is $1,657, but the amount of benefits depends on when a worker starts to receive benefits and the worker’s average earnings over their 35 highest-earning years.
Who is eligible for Social Security benefits?
To be eligible for Social Security benefits, you’ll need to apply for a Social Security number (SSN). Your employer will report your wage earnings to the federal government under your name and SSN.
The Social Security Administration tracks your work credits. It typically takes 10 years to achieve full Social Security insurance benefits because workers must accumulate 40 Social Security work credits to receive Social Security benefits. You’ll earn one work credit for every quarter in which you earn at least $1,510 (as of 2022). You can earn a maximum of four credits each year.
What taxes do I have to pay on Social Security benefits?
As an employee, you’ll pay 6.2% Social Security tax on your earnings up to the annual maximum of $147,000 in 2022. Your employer must pay another 6.2%.
Self-employed individuals, such as contractors or freelance workers, must pay both halves of the Social Security tax.
Does my work experience from another country count toward my Social Security eligibility?
Possibly. Because it takes 10 years to accumulate enough work credits for Social Security, sometimes immigrants who come to the U.S. later in life don’t have enough time to qualify for Social Security benefits. However, legal immigrants may be able to use their work credits from another country if they are from one of the 25 countries that the U.S. has a totalization agreement with: Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Chile, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, the Slovak Republic, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.
To qualify, you’ll still need to obtain six work credits (the equivalent of 1.5 years) through U.S. coverage prorated U.S. Social Security.
Will you lose your Social Security benefits if you move outside the United States?
The rules and requirements for the Social Security system are lengthy and complex, and leaving the U.S. can affect your benefits. In general, however, once you’ve earned the required 40 work credits and are eligible to receive Social Security benefits, then you’ll be able to receive them even if you move back to your home country.
What about undocumented immigrants? Are they still entitled to Social Security?
Undocumented immigrants who earn an income while in the U.S. are required by federal law to file a tax return. To do so, they must use an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN), which the Internal Revenue Service provides to people who must file taxes but do not have a Social Security number.
An ITIN does not authorize the right to work in the U.S. If you hold an ITIN and wish to get Social Security benefits, you’ll need to become a legal permanent resident or a citizen.
Where to turn for help with Social Security questions
Navigating the Social Security Administration and its processes, rules, and requirements can be complex, and it raises a lot of questions for our clients. Our experienced lawyers in Richmond, Virginia, and Charlotte, North Carolina have the experience to help.