Q & A

Ask Rusty – Do Immigrants Get Social Security Benefits

Dear Rusty: I am 90 and a long time Social Security recipient – I signed up at age 62, which I now know was not wise, but I digress. We see from various sources that immigrants, legal and illegal, get Social Security benefits merely by attained age, regardless of contributions. Is that true? Signed: Curious Nonagenarian

Dear Curious: Rest assured that illegal immigrants (or “illegal aliens,” “undocumented workers” or whatever one chooses to call them) are not entitled to collect Social Security benefits. It is, however, possible for legal immigrants to collect Social Security benefits if they have individually earned the right to do so, including those who are the legally-present dependent (spouse or child) of someone who is collecting Social Security benefits. By “legal immigrant” I mean those who have immigrated to the United States and have applied for and received either a Permanent Resident Card (“green card”) or who have subsequently acquired U.S. citizenship. It’s also possible to obtain an “Employment Authorization Document” which grants a foreign citizen temporary authority to work in the U.S., mainly used by citizens of other countries who work in the U.S. (typically those working for an international corporation which has a U.S. presence). In all cases, however, only legal residents who work, earn, and contribute sufficiently to Social Security from their earnings, or who are a legal dependent of someone who is collecting Social Security, can receive Social Security benefits. 

The criteria for Social Security eligibility are very strict and those without legal U.S. residency status are not eligible to collect benefits. Especially on today’s social media outlets, we often see uninformed people espousing the belief that illegal immigrants enjoy access to Social Security benefits which is simply not true. That’s not to say there are no instances of fraud, but rest assured that those cases are vigorously sought and eventually found and prosecuted by Social Security’s Inspector General’s office. 

FYI, there is another category of federal benefit known as Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) which has somewhat different eligibility criteria but still requires either legal residency as I’ve defined above, or another special residency status which defines them as a “qualified alien” (e.g., certain Indian tribes, refugees and those granted asylum, victims of human trafficking, etc.), as defined by the federal government. SSI is, essentially, a general disability benefit for needy seniors, minors, and disabled adults with very little income and very few assets. Federal SSI benefits are paid from the general Treasury, not from Social Security funds, and do not detract from Social Security’s finances. SSI is administered by each state, which usually provide other assistance in addition to the relatively small federal monetary benefit ($841 per month for 2022). 

As you are undoubtedly aware, all U.S. States have separate laws which may provide benefits to all state citizens, regardless of their federal residency status, but that is entirely outside the realm of Social Security and does not affect Social Security’s financial structure. To receive Social Security benefits, one must have either earned the right to do so by contributing sufficiently to the program or be the legally present dependent of someone who is (or was) collecting Social Security and meet all other eligibility criteria for the benefit claimed.

Regarding your decision to claim at 62, remember that life expectancy is always an unknown factor and deciding when to claim always includes a large degree of uncertainty. We should all be comfortable knowing for certain that Social Security will be there for us until the end.

Comments On This Topic

  1. Hi,

    I have a Greencard and have over 60 Social Security credits so I would qualify for a US Social Security pension. However, I do not plan to get US citizenship, nor retire in the US so wonder if I can transfer the credits I earned to another EU country (likely to be France)? I am only early 50’s but I want to understand my options.

    I will probably leave the US due to work well before reaching retirement age so I want to understand what options I have to benefit from my investment over the years into the US Social Security system.

    I have struggled to find advice on a very niche area of Social Security (non-citizens who legally earned Social Security but will depart the US before retiring)

    • Niall,
      Since you have fully earned your U.S. Social Security benefits by working in the U.S. as a legal resident, when you become age-eligible you can receive your U.S. benefits while living in another country with which the U.S. has a bilateral “totalization” agreement. The U.S. has such an agreement with France, so collecting your U.S Social Security benefits while living in France will not be a problem. If you choose another EU country instead of France, it likely won’t be a problem either, but you should use Social Security’s “Payments Abroad Screening Tool” to be sure. Here is a link to that tool: https://www.ssa.gov/international/payments_outsideUS.html
      Generally speaking, receiving duly earned U.S. Social Security benefits in another country with which the U.S. has a bilateral agreement is permitted, but there are certain countries (e.g., Cuba, N. Korea) that U.S. Social Security benefits cannot be sent. There are still other countries where payments can be sent with restrictions, all of which can be determined using the Payments Abroad Screening tool.
      Russell Gloor
      National Social Security Advisor
      The AMAC Foundation

  2. Dear Rusty,
    I’m a retired State Trooper and receive a State pension. When I was a Trooper we did not contribute to social security, but I have also worked more than my required quarters in other jobs that did contribute to social security. From what I understand, I will not receive what is displayed on the social security site as my monthly payment, but only a portion of what is displayed, as I fall under the Windfall provision. Something seems wrong with that, as I did have more than my share of quarters and I did pay in, but yet I get penalized. Are your people able to calculate what my monthly social security payment would be, under this provision, if I provided them with what the social security site states I would normally get, excluding the Windfall provision? I am trying to holdoff with drawing from social security until next January, as this is when I will be 66 years and 4 months. Thank you for all you and your team do for the membership. Respectfully, Edward G.

    • Edward,
      First of all, thank you for your public service in law enforcement. Since that service has earned you a pension without contributing to Social Security, Social Security’s Windfall Elimination Provision (WEP) will reduce you Social Security benefit using a special formula which partially offsets your SS benefit by your non-covered pension. The formula is complex and is based upon your SS-covered earnings outside of your law enforcement work. Those earnings are used to develop something called your Average Indexed Monthly Earnings (AIME) which is, essentially, the inflation-adjusted average of your monthly earnings from work outside of your public service. We cannot estimate your WEB-reduced SS benefit from the SS benefit currently shown at your online SS account, but we can do it if you provide us with a copy of your lifetime earnings record (also available from your online SS account). If you send us a copy of your Earnings Statement, we’ll be happy to provide you with an estimate of your WEP-reduced Social Security benefit. You can, however, easily do this yourself by using Social Security’s Online WEP Calculator, which can be accessed at this link: https://www.ssa.gov/benefits/retirement/planner/anyPiaWepjs04.html. In either case, you will need to obtain your lifetime Earnings Statement to estimate your WEP-reduced Social Security benefit, and your Earnings Statement can be easily obtained at http://www.ssa.gov/myaccount.
      Russell Gloor
      National Social Security Advisor
      The AMAC Foundation

What's Your Opinion?

We welcome your comments. Join the discussion and let your voice be heard. All fields are required

Website by Geiger Computers