Social Security, Citizenship, and Residency

The vast majority of American citizens spend their whole lives in the U.S., paying into the U.S. Social Security system and eventually drawing benefits which are deposited into a U.S. bank account. But as with all things Social Security, there can be complications.

Here are some examples of how Social Security works in overseas cases.

I am a U.S. citizen. Can I receive Social Security benefits if I live outside the U.S.?

Yes. Although SSA will send checks to other countries (with a few exceptions), it is recommended that you have the payments automatically deposited to your bank account to avoid mail delays and currency conversion fees.

I am a citizen of another country but paid into the U.S. Social Security system. Can I receive benefits if I live in the U.S.? What if I return to my home country?

As long as you are a citizen of one of the 24 countries* with which SSA has an agreement, you will be able to receive your Social Security benefits regardless of where you live. If your country of citizenship is not on the list, you must live in the U.S. to receive benefits. If you leave the U.S. and remain outside the country for more than six months, your benefits will be stopped. Use this screening tool to see if you will be subject to SSA’s residency rules for non-U.S. citizens based on your country of citizenship:

I divided my career between the U.S. and another country. Can I get benefits from both countries?

SSA’s totalization agreements lay out the manner in which benefits will be coordinated between the two countries if you worked in both countries. In some cases the agreement will help your benefit. In other cases, such as when you are entitled to full benefits from both countries, it will reduce your U.S. benefit under the Windfall Elimination Provision. Here is a list of totalization agreements:

I married a non-U.S. citizen. Can she get spousal benefits?

Yes, if she is a citizen or a resident of one of the countries with which the U.S. has a totalization agreement. If not, she must meet the basic U.S. residency requirements for non-U.S. citizens. If she leaves the country and stays outside the U.S. for more than six months, her benefits will be stopped. There are several exceptions, though, so contact SSA to get information on your individual situation.

If I die, can my non-U.S. citizen spouse get survivor benefits?

Yes if her country of citizenship or residency is on the list. If it’s not, she can immediately apply for legal permanent residency (green card), which will allow her to stay in the U.S. and receive survivor benefits. 


Mark Singer, CFP® lives in Swampscott and has been in the financial industry for over three decades. If you have any questions contact him at [email protected]. To learn how to maximize your Social Security benefits and enjoy your retirement journey, subscribe to The Retirement Authority YouTube channel at The content was developed in conjunction with Elaine Floyd, CFP®.