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 may be eligible for disability benefits.

By , Attorney · UC Law San Francisco

Most people who receive Social Security disability insurance (SSDI) are American citizens, either living in the United States or abroad. But what about non-citizens who are permanent residents and have paid taxes into the Social Security system?

Permanent residents who've paid Social Security taxes 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're not a citizen or permanent resident, you still might be entitled to receive SSDI if:

  • you can show that you're lawfully present in the United States, and
  • you meet certain other criteria. (8 U.S.C. § 1611(b)(2).)

Can Immigrants or Visitors Get Social Security Disability?

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 aren't citizens or permanent residents. Federal law generally requires that if you work in the United States, you must pay Social Security (FICA) taxes.

If you pay Social Security taxes, you're covered under SSDI for services performed in the United States. This is true even if you're a nonresident alien or an employee who works in the United States for short periods.

But there are a few exceptions. If you're a nonimmigrant foreign student or exchange visitor temporarily working in the United States, you might be exempt from paying Social Security taxes. If that's the case, you wouldn't qualify for disability benefits under SSDI if you become disabled.

Can a Permanent Resident Get Disability?

A permanent resident in the United States—that is, someone who holds a "green card"—is eligible for Social Security benefits if they've paid Social Security taxes for the required number of years. In some circumstances, even the time you spent working outside the United States can help you meet the non-medical requirements for SSDI.

Some countries have agreements with the Social Security Administration (SSA), called totalization agreements. Under these agreements, if you've worked and paid into another country's Social Security system (depending on the country), you can add that time to the time worked in the United States to help you meet the non-medical qualifications for SSDI.

The following countries have totalization agreements with Social Security under 42 U.S.C. § 433:

Czech Republic
Slovak Republic
South Korea
United Kingdom

How Can Resident Aliens Prove They're Lawfully in the United States?

If you're a resident alien rather than a permanent resident, you'll have to show Social Security that you're 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
  • member of a class of aliens permitted to remain in the United States for humanitarian or other public policy reasons
  • granted parole into the U.S.
  • deportation withheld or pending application for withholding of deportation, or
  • you've been battered or subjected to cruelty by a family member, or have been a victim of human trafficking, while in the United States.

Undocumented immigrants who aren't in the U.S. lawfully aren't eligible for Social Security disability benefits.

What's Acceptable Proof of Citizenship for Social Security Benefits?

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

  • United States
  • Puerto Rico
  • Guam
  • U.S. Virgin Islands
  • American Samoa
  • Swain's Island, or
  • Northern Mariana Islands.

Many other documents will also be accepted as proof of citizenship, including several issued by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and the former Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS). Any of the following documents will satisfy Social Security's proof of citizenship requirement:

  • U.S. passport issued by the U.S. State Department
  • Forms N-550 and N-570 (Certificate of Naturalization issued by USCIS or the INS)
  • 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 United States 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).

Can You Receive Benefits While Living Outside the United States?

U.S. citizens. If you're a U.S. citizen and you receive SSDI, you can continue to receive payments even if you're outside of the United States (as long as you're eligible for them). And it doesn't matter how long you remain abroad—there's no requirement to return periodically.

But there are some countries where Social Security can't send disability payments (including North Korea and Cuba), no matter what your citizenship or immigration status is. You can use the SSA's Payments Abroad Screening Tool to see if the country you plan to move to is on the disallowed list.

Noncitizens. If you're a noncitizen resident or permanent resident of the United States and you're entitled to SSDI, you can often receive disability benefits while you live abroad, depending on two things:

  • your citizenship status, and
  • the countries in which you live.

And if you're a legal non-citizen and you leave the United States, to keep getting SSDI benefits, you'll have to:

  • be on active duty in the U.S. military
  • move to a country with a Social Security agreement with the United States, or
  • return periodically, either at least once every 30 days or for 30 consecutive days during each 6-month period.

    To learn more about the exceptions, see our article on collecting SSDI benefits when you leave the country.

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

    Updated December 29, 2022

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