When I moved abroad in 2001 at age 49, Social Security was far from my mind.
Today, with the passage of time, I’ve come to appreciate the importance of this topic.
What’s more, the ability to use this government program abroad is one of the most frequently asked questions of us here at Live And Invest Overseas.
Let’s start by clearing up a few definitions and misconceptions…
Social Security Retirement
The term “Social Security” normally refers to Social Security retirement benefits. Eligible people must have reached the age of 62, and also must have paid into the program for 10 years (normally).
An individual’s monthly Social Security benefit amount is based on his or her highest 35 years of earnings. Dependents are eligible in some cases.
Social Security recipients are eligible for Medicare when they reach age 65.
As of late 2023, the average Social Security check for retired workers was $1,840 per month, while the average check for disabled workers was $1,487.
Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI)
SSDI is for those with disabilities. It’s an entitlement program typically available to any person who has paid into the Social Security system for at least ten years, regardless of their current income and assets.
SSDI recipients are eligible to receive Medicare two years after they are deemed eligible for SSDI.
Supplemental Security Income (SSI)
SSI is not what we call Social Security, although some confuse it with Social Security because it’s administered by the Social Security Administration.
According to the Social Security Administration, SSI is a needs-based program for people with limited income and resources. The program is paid for by general tax revenues, not from the Social Security trust funds.
The benefit amount is based on Federal and State laws which take into account where you live, who lives with you and what income you receive.SSI does not qualify you for Medicare, but rather often works in conjunction with state Medicaid programs.
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What does the Social Security Administration define as “living abroad”?
The Social Security Administration (SSA) defines living outside the United States (and U.S. possessions) for at least 30 days in a row. If you return to the United States and stay for more than 30 consecutive days, you are no longer considered to be living abroad.
The SSA sends recipients living abroad a questionnaire every one or two years to confirm they’re alive and eligible. Make sure the SSA has a good mailing address for you on file, as failing to return the questionnaire will stop your payments. The frequency with which you get these letters depends on your age and country of residence.
Note that for SSI, the definition of “abroad” is different. I’ll cover that below.
Receiving Social Security While Living Abroad
As a U.S. citizen, you are still entitled to your Social Security and can receive it while living abroad. There are a few caveats, but they rarely apply to retired expats. The SSA will even direct deposit your check in most countries.
I don’t like the direct-deposit-abroad feature, although it may be very convenient for some. I prefer to decide when, how, and how much money to move abroad, based on exchange rates, wire transfer costs, and how much I need. I don’t want my Social Security check going to Mexico (and incurring fees) automatically, so I have it deposited in the United States. That said, many people receive their payments abroad. Especially in countries where you can receive your check in U.S. dollars.
The amount of Social Security you receive will not change depending on where you live. But as I mentioned before, make sure the SSA has your current address, for when they send the questionnaire.
If you are not a U.S. citizen, you can also generally receive your Social Security payments while living abroad. There are exceptions, based on your country of citizenship, your country of residence, and whether the payments are based on your own earnings in the States or someone else’s.
If in doubt, check out the SSA’s Payments Abroad Screening Tool, to see if you are eligible.
If you, as a non-citizen, are not eligible to continue receiving payments, your payments will stop after six full months of living abroad and will resume once you’ve returned to the United States for at least one calendar month.
SSDI follows most of Social Security’s rules
Since SSDI is an entitlement based on money you’ve paid in, it generally follows the same rules as Social Security.
You are required to tell the SSA if your disability improves, or if you return to work. If you return to work, they will continue to pay your disability for nine months (a trial work period). If, after the nine months, you continue to work, they’ll pay you for three more months. If you are unable to continue working, your payments will continue indefinitely as before.
The rules for Supplemental Security Income payments are quite different than for Social Security or SSDI.
Generally, you are not eligible for SSI if you move outside the United States.
The definition of “abroad” is different for SSI. For the purposes of SSI, you are “abroad” if you’ve left the 50 states, the District of Columbia, or the Northern Mariana Islands. So, if you move to Puerto Rico, you’re considered to be outside the United States for SSI purposes, since people who live in Puerto Rico are not eligible for SSI.
Generally, if you leave the United States for 30 days or more, you can no longer receive SSI. After you have been outside the United States for 30 or more days in a row, your SSI can’t start again until you have been back in the country for at least 30 straight days.
Changes of address for SSI recipients must be reported to the Administration within 10 days after the end of the month in which the change occurs.
If you fail to report your move overseas, or make a misleading statement about it, the Social Security Administration can not only fine you and stop your SSI… they can also stop your SSDI and your retirement benefits.
According to the Administration, “the first sanction [for making a false or misleading statement] is a loss of payments for six months. Subsequent sanctions are for 12 and 24 months.”
Contributor, Overseas Living Letter