To be eligible for Social Security disability insurance (SSDI), you must have worked for a company that paid taxes (called FICA taxes) to the Social Security Administration (SSA). Or, if you are self-employed, you must have paid taxes (called SECA taxes, or self-employment taxes) to the SSA to be eligible for benefits. This requirement holds true for people who have worked and earned money outside of the United States as well. In addition to the work requirement, you must meet the SSA's definition of disabled.
Totalization agreements are international Social Security agreements between the U.S. and foreign countries with systems comparable to our Social Security system. The purpose of totalization agreements is to eliminate double Social Security taxation (by the U.S. and the country where the person works) and to help people who have careers in both the U.S. and abroad who haven't worked long enough in either country to qualify for a social security program. These Social Security agreements also ensure that an employee doesn't lose social security protection, either in the U.S. or abroad.
The system a worker pays into, and under what system the worker is covered (either by the U.S. or host nation), depends on the country the worker works in and the requirements established in the totalization agreement.
Below is a list of the countries that currently have totalization agreements with the U.S. Click on the country to read about the totalization agreement on the SSA’s website.
If a worker is covered under the U.S. Social Security system, he or she is entitled to all the same disability benefits as a worker who has never been employed abroad. The worker is also entitled to retirement benefits and survivors benefits. However, if the worker is covered under another country's social security program, any benefits the worker is entitled to (for example, retirement or disability) depend solely on the host nation's program.
Many workers believe that either they or their employers can choose whether to be covered under the U.S. Social Security system or by the social security system of the country where they work. This is incorrect; coverage depends on the terms of the totalization agreement between the foreign country and the United States. This is because the purpose of the agreements are to help workers establish right to benefits in the country where they are most likely to live and retire (the SSA calls this "attachment"). To do this, the agreements exempt workers from coverage under one country, to avoid double taxation, even if their work would in general be covered by both nations.
People who work in a country that has not entered into a totalization agreement with the U.S. often face double taxation on their earnings. If you have questions about this, you should speak to your employer or a tax professional. In any case, if you have paid FICA taxes to the U.S., you should be covered under the U.S. Social Security program even without a totalization agreement.
If a person is self-employed and living in another country, most (though not all) totalization agreements state that the person is covered by the social security system in the nation where he or she resides. Again, this prevents double taxation. You can learn more by clicking on your host nation’s link above.
If a worker has spent portions of his or her career in another country besides the U.S., he or she may not earn enough credits to qualify for Social Security benefits here; likewise, the individual may not have earned enough work credits to qualify for benefits in the host country. To remedy this, most totalization agreements include provisions that allow a nation to consider the work done in both countries when determining eligibility for benefits. You can learn more by clicking on your host nation’s link above.
You can file for disability at any SSA domestic or international SSA office. Generally, totalization agreements do not come into affect until that time. For more information about how to file for disability under a totalization agreement, contact the SSA at the following address.
SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION
Office of International Programs
P.O. Box 17741
Baltimore, Maryland 21235-7741