General Information about Social Security
Information below only touches on a few points of this very complex subject. The website of the Social Security Administration (www.ssa.gov) is a rich source of information in user-friendly language. It also provides means to get an estimate of what your Social Security benefits will be, to aid in retirement planning.
A specific section of the website is dedicated to Service Around the World ( https://www.ssa.gov/foreign ). As an American abroad, you will work through the US embassy or consular Federal Benefits Unit serving your region. To locate the appropriate FBU, you can check the website of the American embassy of your country of residence, under “U.S. Citizens Services”. US embassy/consular websites worldwide can be located via https://www.ssa.gov/foreign/foreign.htm
"My Social Security" Accounts. For those who wish to create an online account to view their Social Security benefits via the online “My Social Security” portal please be aware that at this time (2016) you must have a US mailing address to create or to access your online account. The “My Social Security” authentication system requires address verification as one of the essential criteria for issuing an account. People with APO/FPO/DPO addresses can create an account overseas, but the system does not support registration and account creation for users with a private foreign address.
Update: As of 18 August 2016, the Social Security administration has removed the requirement to use a cell phone to access your account. While it’s not mandatory, The Social Security Administration encourages those of you who have a text-capable cell phone to take advantage of this optional extra security. For more information on “my Social Security” accounts, please see: https://www.ssa.gov/myaccount/
Below are some highlights of the general regulations.
To be eligible to receive Social Security retirement benefits you generally must have contributed to the Social Security system for a cumulative total of at least 40 quarters (10 years) – or be the spouse or child of someone who paid into the system for minimally this length of time. See: How many credits are needed to start receiving benefits?
In general, US Social Security and Medicare taxes continue to apply to wages for services you perform as an employee outside of the United States if you are working for an American employer and for certain other employment situations. For more information on this see: Are Social Security and Medicare taxes payable when outside the US?
Most people apply for Social Security retirement benefits as they reach what is called "Full Retirement Age." This is age 65 for people born in 1937 or earlier, and gradually increases until age 67 for people born in 1960 www.ssa.gov/retire2/retirechart.htm. It is possible to start drawing benefits at a reduced rate from age 62, or delay until as late as age 70, with an increase in benefits.
Be aware that as a US citizen you will possibly be taxed by the US on a portion (50% to 85%) of your Social Security benefits. The IRS website has a complete information page devoted to the tax implications of Social Security. Among the subjects treated are Social Security Tax Consequences of Working Abroad.
If you are a US citizen, there is generally no problem with your receiving Social Security payments while living outside the United States. See: https://www.ssa.gov/pubs/EN-05-10137.pdf . Benefit payments cannot be sent to people residing in Cuba or North Korea, and there are some restrictions for individuals in a few other countries.
There is increasing emphasis on electronic payments. Generally, your benefits can be credited directly to your US or foreign bank account. If this is not possible, payments can be credited to a debit card account under the DirectExpress card program, and you can make withdrawals using your card.
If you have worked less than 40 quarters (10 years) under Social Security in the United States, but also contributed to an equivalent social program in a country with which the United States has a bilateral social security agreement, you may still be able to obtain some retirement benefits from Social Security. See: International agreements and totalization benefits.
If you receive a foreign pension, or a pension from work in the United States not covered by Social Security (such as for a federal, state or local government agency), your Social Security benefits may be reduced by application of the Windfall Elimination Provision (WEP). Note that WEP does not apply if you have "substantially" contributed to Social Security for 30 years, and is alleviated if you have contributed to Social Security for more than 20 years.
NOTE RE ISRAEL: The Social Security Administration has had varying interpretations over the years, but presently considers the Israeli old-age NII pension (Bituach Leumi), which is automatically paid to all old-age residents of Israel whether or not they have worked in the country, to NOT trigger WEP reductions in US Social Security payments.
Note for those with immediate family who are "non-resident aliens" (NRAs) – that is, non-citizens who do not have a green card: Be aware that there may be an automatic federal withholding tax of 30% on 85% of each benefit payment made to an NRA. There are variations, depending on country of residence. There can be additional residence requirements for NRAs claiming Social Security as dependents or survivors of a covered worker. See this Social Security publication.
NRAs who are entitled to Social Security retirement benefits and who reside in countries with no bilaterial social security agreement with the US may have their benefits cut off if they remain more than six months outside the US.
If you start a business in your country of residence while living abroad, and are self-employed, you must pay self-employment taxes in the US ("SECA" contributing to Medicare and Social Security) in addition to those in your country of residence unless the US citizen/green card holder lives or works in a country which has a Totalization Agreement with the US. In cases where there is such an agreement, the self-employed individual is usually exempt from SECA and instead subject to local self-employment tax. The self-employment tax rules apply no matter how old you are and even if you are already receiving Social Security.
If you are working abroad for a non-US employer, you may NOT make voluntary contributions to your Social Security account.
For general information about receiving benefits abroad, read Social Security publications: Your Payments While You Are Outside the United States and International Agreements, Payments Outside the United States, and Social Security in Other Countries
This ACA webpage was updated in November 2017