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Social Security Matters: Can international college students get Social Security benefits?

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By Russell Gloor

For Capital Region Independent Media

Dear Rusty:

We have hosted international college students for years, all of whom needed to apply for a Social Security number upon arrival in the United States.

Would these students be entitled to some Social Security funds at some point? Some have worked as paid graduate assistants, but others have not worked while going to school.

Signed: Wondering

Dear Wondering:

In order to collect Social Security benefits later in life, the students you host would need to have at least 40 “quarters” of credit working and earning in the U.S. and contributing to U.S. Social Security from their “substantial” U.S. earnings.

Forty is the minimum number of credits for anyone to claim Social Security retirement benefits. Foreign students who earn only some “quarters” of U.S. Social Security credit (minimum of six) may, later in life, be able to collect U.S. benefits depending on their country of citizenship/residence.

The U.S. has bilateral “totalization” agreements regarding Social Security eligibility with most of its allies and, in some cases, a foreign citizen can “totalize” their Social Security credits from both countries to become eligible for U.S. benefits.

Eligibility rules, however, vary somewhat by country, and Social Security payments cannot be made to certain countries (e.g., Cuba and North Korea). Payments to those living in countries with which the U.S. has no bilateral Social Security agreement may also be restricted. 

In any case, U.S. Social Security benefits would not be available to any of these students until they are at least 62 years old, and then only if they had worked and earned sufficient U.S. credits (40) to be independently eligible for U.S. benefits on their own U.S. earnings record, or they later became eligible for U.S. benefits because they worked some in the U.S. and were eligible for benefits under a “totalization” agreement between the U.S. and their home country.

Any U.S. Social Security benefits earned under a totalization agreement would be based only on their actual U.S. earnings (and not earnings in their home country) and, thus, would likely be very small.  

I assume that most international students you host are only in the U.S. for a short time, perhaps one year. The maximum Social Security credits that can be earned each year is four, so it’s highly doubtful that the students you host for such a short time would later become eligible for U.S. Social Security benefits, unless they extend their U.S. presence and continue to work and earn in the United States long enough to later become eligible for U.S. benefits. 

This article is intended for information purposes only and does not represent legal or financial guidance. It presents the opinions and interpretations of the AMAC Foundation’s staff, trained and accredited by the National Social Security Association (NSSA). NSSA and the AMAC Foundation and its staff are not affiliated with or endorsed by the Social Security Administration or any other governmental entity. To submit a question, visit our website (amacfoundation.org/programs/social-security-advisory) or email us at ssadvisor@amacfoundation.org.

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