Can You Get Social Security Disability if You’re Not a U.S. Citizen?

If you've paid FICA or self-employment taxes, you're probably eligible for SSDI even if you're not a U.S. citizen—depending on your immigration status.

By , Attorney · Willamette University College of Law

Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) is a federal program that pays monthly benefits if you can't work because of a disability. To receive SSDI benefits, you must be:

  • a U.S. citizen
  • a U.S. national, or
  • an alien lawfully present in the United States. ("Alien" is a legal term for a "noncitizen.")

If you've been legally working in the United States and paying Social Security taxes (FICA or self-employment tax), chances are good that you're insured for Social Security disability benefits—even if you're not a citizen or permanent resident. But whether you can get paid those benefits depends on where you live and other conditions. There's a difference between whether you're eligible for SSDI benefits and whether you can be paid those benefits.

When Are Noncitizens Eligible for SSDI?

If you have a green card (that is, if you're a lawful permanent resident) and you've worked long enough in a qualified job, you should be eligible for SSDI benefits.

If you served in the U.S. military and were honorably discharged, or are currently on active duty, you should qualify for SSDI benefits. Similarly, if your spouse is a veteran or active duty member of the U.S. military, you should be eligible for Social Security disability.

If you were getting SSDI benefits on August 22, 1996, you should still be eligible to receive SSDI benefits now.

If you're a "qualified alien," you should be eligible for SSDI benefits if you're:

  • a refugee
  • an immigrant granted asylum
  • a Cuban, Haitian, or Amerasian immigrant
  • an immigrant whose deportation or removal is being withheld, or
  • a member of certain other groups.

You must file for SSDI benefits within seven years of being granted "qualified alien" status. If you fall under this category and can show that you've made a good faith effort to become a United States citizen within seven years, the government might give you two more years beyond the seven-year limit to file your paperwork.

Can Non-Qualified Aliens Be Eligible for SSDI?

Besides the categories of "qualified aliens" listed above, certain other noncitizens may be eligible for SSDI benefits under specific exceptions.

Native Americans. If you're not a U.S. citizen but are a member of a federally recognized American Indian tribe, you might be eligible for Social Security disability benefits. Certain Native Americans born in Canada and now legally living in the U.S. are also eligible for SSDI benefits.

Iraqi or Afghan translators. If you're an Iraqi or Afghan national and worked as a translator or interpreter for the U.S. government abroad, you might be eligible for SSDI benefits.

Victims of human trafficking. If you were a victim of human trafficking (slavery), you might qualify for Social Security disability benefits.

How Do Noncitizens Qualify for SSDI?

Permanent residents who've paid Social Security taxes for many years can qualify for Social Security disability benefits, as can certain other qualified noncitizens who've paid Social Security benefits. Everyone who qualifies for SSDI benefits needs to:

  • have earned enough work credits, and
  • have a medical condition that meets the Social Security Administration's (SSA's) definition of "disability."

If you don't have enough work credits, check whether your country has a "totalization agreement" with SSA. Under a totalization agreement, you can add the time you worked for your home country to the time worked in the United States to help you meet the non-medical qualifications for SSDI.

But if you're not a U.S. citizen, you need to be present in the United States (lawfully) to receive your SSDI benefits. If you leave the U.S. for more than six months, your benefits will stop (unless you qualify for an exception, like being on active duty with the military or being a citizen of a country that has a Social Security agreement with the United States.)

What Is "Lawfully Present" in the United States?

You can be considered lawfully present, and able to receive SSDI payments, if you fit into one of these categories:

You've been lawfully admitted as a permanent resident (LAPR) to the U.S. If you have what's known as a "green card," you'll be eligible for SSDI benefits.

You've been "paroled" into the U.S. for specific reasons (usually urgent humanitarian reasons).

You're a victim of "extreme cruelty." If you're an immigrant and you, your child(ren), or your parent(s) have suffered battery or extreme cruelty, you might be considered a "qualified alien" and be eligible for SSDI benefits.

You're a refugee. Amerasian immigrants and immigrants from Cuba and Haiti can be considered qualified aliens.

You're an asylee. If you were granted asylum in the U.S., under certain conditions, you might be eligible for SSDI benefits.

The U.S. government is withholding your deportation or removal. If your deportation or removal is being withheld, you may be eligible for SSDI benefits, depending on why the government is allowing you to stay in the country.

Note that you don't necessarily need to be a qualified alien to receive SSDI benefits, but you must be lawfully present in the U.S. (8 U.S.C. § 1611(b)(2).) Undocumented immigrants who are in the country unlawfully aren't eligible for SSDI.

How to Get Assistance With Your SSDI Application

Your immigration status, and the conditions under which you were granted that status, can be quite complex. And immigration status is only one of several eligibility requirements you need to meet to receive SSDI benefits.

Since Social Security requires you to have a specific immigration status to be eligible for disability benefits, if you're not a citizen, you might want to consult with an attorney specializing in immigration law.

You can also call Social Security at 800-772-1213 to get help. A Social Security representative should be able to help you determine your exact status and eligibility or direct you to someone who can.

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