What Happens to Your Social Security Check If You Live Abroad?

Maybe it’s because COVID-19 restrictions are easing up a bit. And some people probably have a bad case of wanderlust. I’m sure others are just thinking about retiring and returning to their homeland. Or perhaps still others see some of the same websites I do that entice you with headlines similar to this one I recently read: “Live like royalty on your Social Security check in Belize!”

Anyway, I’ve received more than a few emails lately from folks who want to know what happens with their Social Security benefits once they pack their bags and head to some foreign land to live.

Anyone planning to do that needs to read a booklet that the Social Security Administration produces called “Social Security—Your Payments While You Are Outside the United States.” You can find it online at the SSA’s website, SocialSecurity.gov. Just click the “Publications” link near the bottom of the homepage.

Once there, pull down the “Topics” menu and you’ll find the booklet under the “General Information” section.

By reading that publication, you will learn that if you are a U.S. citizen, the rules are pretty simple. You can get your Social Security benefits almost anywhere in the world. However, the Treasury Department doesn’t allow any federal government checks to be sent to North Korea or Cuba. And there are Social Security restrictions that prevent benefits from being sent to Vietnam and most of the republics that formerly made up the Soviet Union (places such as Belarus, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, etc.).

There are some exceptions to those Social Security restrictions, if any of those remote places are beckoning you in retirement.

If you are not a U.S. citizen but you have lived in this country legally and worked and earned Social Security benefits, then the rules get a little more complicated. I will briefly explain some of them.

If you are a citizen of one of the 23 countries that have Social Security treaty agreements with the U.S. (they are listed in the aforementioned booklet), then you also can get your benefits anywhere in the world—with the same restrictions that apply to U.S. citizens outlined above. You’ll find the list of countries on page 5 of the booklet. The list includes most European countries as well as places such as Israel, Australia, Japan, and South Korea.

Page 6 of the booklet has another list of countries. If you are a citizen of one of those countries, you can get your Social Security benefits while living outside the U.S., but only if you are receiving Social Security retirement or disability benefits. If you get Social Security dependent or survivors benefits, then the rules really get messy—way too complicated to explain in the short space of this column. Please refer to the booklet for more information.

If you aren’t a citizen of one of the countries listed on pages 5 and 6 of the booklet but you are receiving U.S. Social Security benefits, then as a general rule, those benefits will stop once you have been outside the country for more than six months.

If you are getting Social Security benefits while living overseas, you are generally subject to the same rules and regulations that apply to Social Security beneficiaries in the United States. And some of the rules are even more restrictive. For example, there is an earnings penalty that applies to Social Security beneficiaries in this country who are under their full retirement age and making more than about $19,000 per year.

But if you are under your full retirement age and living overseas, you won’t get your Social Security check for any month you work over 45 hours, no matter how much money you make. There are exceptions to this rule. The most common is this: If you work for a U.S. corporation overseas, then you are subject to the more lenient earnings penalty rules that apply to U.S. residents.

If you are getting Social Security disability benefits while living overseas, the same rules apply to you as to people living in this country. That means, for example, that your claim will be periodically reviewed to make sure you are still disabled.

If you are a U.S. citizen living overseas, the benefits you receive are subject to the same income tax payments that apply to U.S. residents. If you aren’t a U.S. citizen, the SSA will automatically withhold a portion of your benefits to cover possible tax obligations—although there are some exceptions to that rule.

Most people living overseas have their benefits sent by direct deposit to a bank in the country where they are living. On page 27 of the booklet mentioned earlier in this column, there is a long list of countries that have an international direct deposit treaty agreement with the United States. Assuming you have moved to one of those countries, you will have no problem getting your benefits electronically.

If you need to conduct some kind of Social Security business once you are living overseas, you obviously can’t just drive across town and visit your local Social Security office. But every U.S. embassy and consulate has a person on staff who is trained to handle Social Security business. So, they are a good source of information and help. Or, assuming you have internet access, you can use the SSA’s website.

One final point. Your Medicare coverage only works while you are living in the United States. So, if you move to a foreign country and think you will be there for good, you might as well cancel the parts of Medicare for which you pay a monthly premium. These are usually Part B (medical insurance) and Part D (drug insurance).

The key to understanding all of this is reading that booklet I mentioned. I will warn you that it can be a little daunting at first, just because there are so many rules and so many potential variables to those rules depending on your citizenship status, the kind of benefit you are getting, and where you plan to live. Just be patient, and I think it will all sink in eventually.

Other than that, bon voyage! And send me a postcard from one of those pretty golden beaches in Belize.

Tom Margenau worked for 32 years in a variety of positions for the Social Security Administration before retiring in 2005. He has served as the director of SSA’s public information office, the chief editor of more than 100 SSA publications, a deputy press officer and spokesman, and a speechwriter for the commissioner of Social Security. For 12 years, he also wrote Social Security columns for local newspapers, and recently published the book “Social Security: Simple and Smart.” If you have a Social Security question, contact him at thomas.margenau@comcast.net

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Tom Margenau
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