Although many people assume that Social Security benefits (retirement or disability) can only be collected by United States citizens, the truth is more nuanced. In this article, we discuss under what circumstances non-citizens are entitled to Social Security benefits, including foreign spouses of American ex-patriots.
United States citizenship is not a prerequisite for collecting Social Security benefits. Any non-citizens who are lawfully present in the United States and who meet all of the eligibility requirements can receive benefits. However, just because non-citizens are in the United States lawfully and may be authorized to work by the Social Security Administration (SSA), that does not mean that they pay into Social Security and, if they do not, they will not be eligible to collect benefits.
In terms of residency, there are a variety of ways non-citizens can prove that they are in the United States lawfully. Non-citizens are lawfully present if they are in the United States as a result of: 1) asylum status or pending application for political asylum; 2) temporarily visiting on a nonimmigrant visa; 3) being a member of a class of non-citizens to remain in the United States for humanitarian or other public policy reasons; 4) parole status; 5) deportation withheld or pending application for withholding of deportation; or 6) admission as a refugee or conditional entrance as a refugee.
For United States citizens, the eligibility requirements for spouses of individuals receiving Social Security benefits is straightforward: if a beneficiary dies, the surviving spouse is generally entitled to full benefits, and dependent spouses are entitled to half benefits. For foreign spouses, the rules largely depend on the country in which you live.
To qualify for spousal benefits as a foreign spouse, you must be at least 62 years old, you cannot reside in Cuba or North Korea, and the United States citizen must have worked and contributed to Social Security for at least ten years. Similarly, you need to have lived with the American spouse in the United States for at least five years while married, although those years do not need to have been consecutive.
For any spouse who is not a United States citizen or a green card holder, Social Security payments stop if the foreign spouse remains outside the United States for six consecutive calendar months, but the foreign spouse only needs to return to the United States for a full calendar month to restart payments. There are exceptions to this rule, and they come in the form of international Social Security agreements called totalization agreements.
Under American totalization agreements, you will qualify for continued benefits payments if you are a foreign spouse who remains a citizen or a resident of one of the following countries, and the need to return to the United States for a full calendar month does not apply: Italy, Canada, Germany, United Kingdom, Switzerland, Sweden, Belgium, Spain, Norway, France, Portugal, Netherlands, Austria, Finland, Ireland, Luxembourg, Greece, South Korea, Chile, Australia, Japan, Denmark, Czech Republic, Poland, Slovak Republic, Hungary, Brazil, Uruguay, Slovenia, Iceland.