Just like United States citizens, green card holders or permanent residents need to earn forty work credits, or the equivalent of ten years of work, to be eligible for Social Security benefits (retirement and disability). You can earn up to four work credits per year, and each credit equals $1,410 in earned income in 2020. In order to earn the credit, you must pay Social Security taxes out of your wages; work that does not pay into Social Security is not qualifying. The amount of income that amounts to one work credit changes each year.
In addition to earning the requisite number of work credits, you also need to present a valid green card at the time of your application for benefits. And, depending on the type of benefits you are applying for, you may be required to live in the United States for a designated period of time before you can apply. For example, permanent residents cannot apply for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits until they have lived in the United States for five years.
For retirement benefits, green card holders must be at least sixty-five years old to begin collecting. If you are applying for disability benefits, you will also need to prove your qualifying disability through the same process that United States citizens do. If you are a younger worker, you may be able to qualify for disability benefits through Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) with fewer than forty work credits.
To apply for either retirement or disability benefits, you will need to complete the relevant Social Security application and prove your immigration status, your work history, your relationship to another individual (if you are applying for survivor’s benefits for a spouse or parent who qualified for benefits), and your disability (if you are applying for disability benefits).
As a general rule, the forty work credits that you earn to qualify for Social Security benefits need to have been earned in the United States. The exception to this rule is if you are a citizen of a country with whom the United States has a totalization agreement.
A totalization agreement is an arrangement between the United States and another country with a similar Social Security program that ensures its workers and their employers do not pay Social Security taxes in two different countries on the same earnings. The flip side of that is that individuals will be prevented from double-dipping from both countries when it is time for them to claim benefits. If you fall into this category, you can combine work credits earned in your country of citizenship with work credits earned in the United States to total your required forty work credits.