Do You Have to Be a Citizen to Get Social Security Disability?

Immigrants who are permanent residents or lawfully present foreign workers and have paid taxes into the Social Security system are often eligible for disability benefits.

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Most SSDI recipients are American citizens, either living in the United States or abroad. However, non-citizens who are permanent residents and have paid taxes into the Social Security system for the required amount of years are eligible for Social Security disability benefits, as are non-citizens who are veterans or active duty members of the U.S. military.

If you are neither a citizen nor a permanent resident, you still may be entitled to receive SSDI if you can show that you are lawfully present in the United States and meet certain other criteria. (8 U.S.C. § 1611(b)(2).)

Most foreign workers in the United States are covered under the U.S. Social Security program and can potentially qualify for disability benefits, even if they are not citizens or permanent residents. Federal law generally requires that all workers pay Social Security taxes, and therefore they be covered under SSDI for services performed in the United States. This is true even if they are nonresident aliens or employees who work here for short periods.

There are a few exceptions, however. Some nonimmigrant foreign students and exchange visitors temporarily working in the United States may be exempt from paying Social Security taxes and therefore would not qualify for disability benefits under SSDI if they became disabled.

Does What Country You Are From Matter?

There are a few countries where residents cannot receive benefits even if they otherwise qualify. These include Cuba, North Korea, and Vietnam.

The United States has entered into several International Social Security agreements with other countries called totalization agreements, which have two major purposes. First, they eliminate dual Social Security taxation, the situation that occurs when a worker from one country works in another country and is required to pay Social Security taxes to both countries on the same earnings. Second, the agreements help fill gaps in benefit protection for workers who have divided their careers between the United States and another country. The United States has totalization agreements with Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Chile, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom. (42 U.S.C. § 433.) 

How Can Residents Aliens Prove They Are Lawfully in the U.S.?

If you are a resident alien, you will have to show that you are lawfully in the United States under one of the following conditions:

  • admission as a refugee or conditional entrance as a refugee
  • asylum status or pending application for political asylum
  • temporarily visiting on a nonimmigrant visa
  • parole status
  • deportation withheld or pending application for withholding of deportation
  • member of a class of aliens permitted to remain in the United States for humanitarian or other public policy reasons, or
  • you have been battered or subjected to cruelty by a family member while in the United States.

Can You Receive Benefits While Living Outside the United States?

If you are a U.S. citizen and receive SSDI, you can continue to receive payments even if you are outside of the United States, as long as you are eligible for them, without having to return to the United States periodically.

Noncitizen residents or permanent residents of the United States who are entitled to SSDI can often be paid benefits while they reside abroad, depending upon their citizenship status and the countries in which they live. However, with some exceptions, an alien beneficiary who leaves the United States must either return to the U.S. at least every 30 days or for 30 consecutive days during each six-month period in order to continue to draw benefits.

One exception is made for alien beneficiaries who are on active military duty for the United States. Another exception exists for alien beneficiaries who live in and are citizens of Germany, Greece, Ireland, Israel, Italy, or Japan. (The United States has treaty obligations with these nations to continue paying benefits regardless of how long beneficiaries are outside the United States.) Citizens of the Netherlands may receive partial benefits.

What Is Acceptable Proof of Citizenship?

If you're applying for SSDI as a citizen, you will have to show proof of your citizenship. Acceptable forms of proof include a birth certificate from the:

  • United States
  • Puerto Rico after January 14, 1941
  • Guam
  • U.S. Virgin Islands after 1917
  • American Samoa
  • Swain’s Island, or
  • Northern Mariana Islands.

Any of the following documents will also satisfy the proof of citizenship requirement:

  • Forms N-550 and N-570 (Certificate of Naturalization issued by USCIS or INS)
  • U.S. passport issued by the U.S. State Department
  • Form I-197 (U.S. Citizen Identification Card issued by USCIS or the INS)
  • Form FS-240 (Report of Birth Abroad of a Citizen of the U.S. issued by the U.S. State Department)
  • Form FS-545 (Certification of Birth issued by a foreign service post)
  • Forms N-560 and N-561 (Certificate of Citizenship issued by USCIS or the INS)
  • Form DS-1350 (Certification of Report of Birth issued by the U.S. State Department)
  • American Indian Card I-872 (DHS for Kickapoo Indian Tribe), or
  • Northern Mariana Card I-873 (INS card for birth in the Northern Mariana Islands before 1986, obsolete but still valid).

For more information on eligibility for non-citizens and citizens traveling abroad, see Nolo's Guide to Social Security Disability: Getting and Keeping Your Benefits, by David A. Morton III, M.D.

In addition, if you don't speak or understand English well, see our article on When the Inability to Speak English Helps You Get Disability Benefits.

Written by: David A. Morton III, M.D., former SSA medical consultant

Updated by: , J.D.

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