Do You Have to be a U.S. Citizen to Get Social Security Disability Benefits?

It will come as no surprise to you that most Social Security disability recipients are U.S. citizens but you may be surprised to learn that non-citizens can also be eligible for benefits…but only under certain circumstances. There are lots of complex rules that apply. Let me try to shed some light on this subject for you.

First, you need to know that there are two disability programs: Social Security Disability Insurance—known as SSDI—and Supplemental Security Income—commonly referred to as SSI. SSDI pays benefits to you and certain members of your family if you are disabled and you worked long enough and paid Social Security taxes recently. SSI is based on financial need and available if you have not worked long enough to qualify for SSDI. The Social Security Administration says that SSI “is designed to help aged, blind, and disabled people, who have little or no income.”

As a non-citizen, you can qualify for SSDI benefits if you can prove that your impairments prevent you from working, that you are lawfully living in the United States, and that you have paid into the Social Security system. In general, federal law requires that all workers pay Social Security taxes. This holds true even for non-resident aliens and employees who just work in this country for short periods of time. Also, non-citizens who are veterans or active duty members of the U.S. military can legally apply for disability benefits.

However, some exchange visitors and foreign students who are not immigrants do not pay Social Security taxes and, therefore, do not qualify for SSDI benefits if they incur a disabling impairment.

Where you are from also matters. There are a few countries where residents are barred from earning disability benefits even if they otherwise qualify. If you are a resident of Cuba, North Korea, or Vietnam, you may be automatically disqualified from receiving Social Security disability benefits.

Qualifying for SSI benefits for a non-citizen is even more complex. To be eligible, you must meet the basic medical requirements for your impairment, but you also must be a” qualified alien” or you must meet one of the predefined conditions for eligibility.  Who is considered a qualified alien and what is considered a predefined condition for eligibility is complicated and buried deep in the Social Security Administration’s regulations where there are many more details and nuances. That is why we strongly encourage you to seek the advice of a qualified disability professional. The attorneys at Cuddigan Law stand ready to offer you a free evaluation of your situation.