Immigrants Over 65 and Social Safety Advantages

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In certain cases, some individuals who immigrate to the United States when they’re 65 or older may be entitled to draw Social Security benefits, just like any natural born American citizen. In other cases, immigrants may only draw on their home country’s retirement programs. And some immigrants qualify for benefits from both countries. Here’s an overview of how the rules work:


Key Takeaways

  • Those who immigrate to the United States when they’re 65 or older may be entitled to draw Social Security benefits.
  • Immigrants to the U.S. must accumulate 40 U.S. work credits to qualify for Social Security, unless there is a totalization agreement between the U.S. and their countries of origin.
  • Totalization agreements allow immigrants to combine their work credits from both the U.S. and their home country, in order to receive Social Security benefits.
  • The U.S. has totalization agreements with 26 countries.


Qualifying for U.S. Social Security Retirement Benefits

Most people who immigrate to the U.S. after reaching retirement age have not accumulated the requisite 40 U.S. work credits to qualify for Social Security, unless they’ve worked in the country for a cumulative 10 years, when they were younger. However, those able to legally work in the U.S. for a year and a half after arriving, who earn at least $1,260 per quarter, may qualify to receive prorated U.S. Social Security benefits, under a totalization agreement with their countries of origin.


A totalization agreement is an arrangement between two countries with similar social security programs, that ensures workers and their employers don’t pay Social Security taxes on the same earnings, in two different countries, while preventing individuals from double-dipping when they claim benefits. The U.S. has an agreement with the following countries: 


  • Australia
  • Austria
  • Belgium
  • Canada
  • Chile
  • Czech Republic
  • Denmark
  • Finland
  • France
  • Germany
  • Greece
  • Hungary
  • Ireland
  • Italy
  • Japan
  • Luxembourg
  • The Netherlands
  • Norway
  • Poland
  • Portugal
  • Slovakia
  • South Korea
  • Spain
  • Sweden
  • Switzerland
  • The United Kingdom


“An immigrant who comes to the U.S. from Italy, for example, and has some work history in both countries, but not enough to fully qualify for Social Security benefits in either country, can combine his or her foreign and domestic work history in order to qualify for Social Security benefits,” explains investment advisor Mark Hebner.



Totalization Agreements 

Consider the following scenario, illustrating how a totalization agreement may benefit a late-arriving U.S. immigrant:


Penelope has lived in Spain for most of her life, but when she was younger she spent nine years working for an American company in the U.S., where she was responsible for coordinating study-abroad programs for adults. During that time, she earned 36 U.S. Social Security credits. Although this falls short of what she needs to qualify for U.S. Social Security benefits, it’s enough to make her eligible for benefits under the U.S.’s totalization agreement with Spain, where workers qualify for retirement benefits after making 15 total years of contributions, provided at least two were made during the last 15 years.


Unfortunately, Penelope worked for only 12 years in Spain, and consequently does not have enough credits to qualify for Spain’s pension plan. But thanks to the totalization agreement, she can combine her work credits from both Spain and the U.S., in order to receive Social Security benefits. Without a totalization agreement in place, Penelope wouldn’t qualify for benefits in either country, despite having paid into the two national systems for a combined 21 years.



Collecting U.S. Social Security From Abroad

In some cases, immigrants who earned at least 40 work credits in the U.S. and consequently qualify for U.S. Social Security, may decide to return to their home country, and still receive their U.S. benefits. This is true with the following nations:


  • Austria
  • Belgium
  • Canada
  • Chile
  • Czech Republic
  • Finland
  • France
  • Germany
  • Greece
  • Hungary
  • Ireland
  • Israel
  • Italy
  • Japan
  • Luxembourg
  • The Netherlands
  • Norway
  • Poland
  • Portugal
  • Slovakia
  • South Korea
  • Spain
  • Sweden
  • Switzerland
  • The United Kingdom



Many Immigrants Don’t Qualify for Social Security

While some immigrants over 65 are eligible to draw Social Security benefits in the U.S., many are not. In fact, a Social Security Administration report found that 80% of all individuals who fail to qualify for Social Security benefits are immigrants who arrived in the United States at age 50 or older, who lack the necessary work credits.



The Bottom Line

While individuals don’t necessarily have to be U.S. citizens to qualify for U.S. Social Security benefits, they must have paid into the system for at least 10 years, or they must have accumulated enough credits between the U.S.’s system and that of a foreign country with whom the U.S. has a totalization agreement.


[Important: The U.S. Social Security Administration checks with foreign governments, for their records of an applicant’s contributions and eligibility in their native country, when executing a totalization agreement.]




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