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Can non-U.S. citizens receive Social Security benefits?

Yes, provided they are in the United States legally or, if living abroad, meet the criteria outlined below. 

Noncitizens living in the United States may be eligible for Social Security if they: 

  • are permanent legal residents;
  • have visas that allow them to work in the United States;
  • or were allowed in the country under the Family Unity or Immediate Relative provisions of U.S. immigration law.

Undocumented immigrants who fall under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program — that is, people who were brought into the country illegally when they were minors — can get Social Security numbers, but they have decades to go before any of them hit retirement age.

Some undocumented immigrants do obtain fake Social Security numbers, or use lapsed or stolen ones, to get jobs. They pay billions of dollars a year into the Social Security system via FICA tax withholding, according to a Social Security report, but they rarely receive any benefits. Most of the money ends up in the trust funds from which Social Security benefits are paid.

Noncitizens living abroad may qualify for Social Security if they worked at some point in the United States and accrued sufficient Social Security credits. A noncitizen who married an American living abroad, and who meets the normal criteria for spousal or survivor benefits, may be eligible for these payments if he or she: 

  • is a citizen or resident of a country with which the United States has a Social Security agreement;
  • lived in the United States for at least five years with the American spouse (the five years need not have been continuous); 
  • or was married to someone who died during U.S. military service.

Keep in mind

The regulations on Social Security benefits for people living abroad are lengthy and complex. If you have questions about your status, it’s always a good idea to contact Social Security and speak to a representative. You can also get information and help from Social Security’s publication "Your Payments While You Are Outside the United States" and its screening tool for international payments.

Published October 10, 2018