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

June 17, 2019

While most Social Security disability recipients are U.S. citizens, non-citizens can also be eligible for benefits. However, as you would expect, not all non-citizens qualify, and there is a mass of complex rules that apply. Let us try to unwind this subject for you.

First, you need to know that there are two disability programs: Social Security Disability Insurance(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 more 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, 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.

If you are a non-citizen, to qualify for SSDI benefits, you must meet these requirements:

  • You must have a Social Security number that was assigned to you on or after January 1, 2004, authorizing you to work in the U.S. or have a B-1, D-1, or D-2 non-immigrant visa, and
  • You must be able to prove that you are in the U.S. lawfully in any given month for which you would be paid SSDI benefits, and
  • You must satisfy all medical criteria for receiving SSDI benefits.

Qualification for SSI benefits for a non-citizen is even more complicated. 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.

There are eight primary categories of “qualified aliens” under Social Security rules. To be classified into this category, non-citizens must satisfy one of the following requirements:

  • You must be a Lawfully Admitted Permanent Resident (LAPR) of the U.S., or
  • You must have been conditionally admitted to the U.S. under the “Conditional Entrants” laws prior to April 1, 1980, or
  • You must be a parolee in the U.S. for a period of one year or more (specific circumstances apply in this category), or
  • You must hold refugee status, or
  • You must have been granted asylum in the U.S., if removal or deportation from the U.S. is not possible for specific reasons, or
  • You must be a Haitian or Cuban non-citizen who was granted admittance to the U.S. under the Refugee Education and Assistance Act of 1980, or
  • You must be an alien (or in some instances, a family member of another alien) who has suffered extreme cruelty or battery in one’s own nation.

The predefined conditions for eligibility include:

  • American Indians that hold membership in a federally recognized tribe and who were born in Canada.
  • Special immigrants from Afghanistan or Iraq who gave the U.S. government or military assistance while overseas.
  • Human trafficking victims, under specific circumstances.

If you apply for SSI benefits, you must give the Social Security Administration proof of your immigration status, such as a current DHS admission/departure Form I-94, Form I-551 or an order from an immigration judge showing withholding of removal or granting asylum.
If you have served in the U.S. Armed Forces, you may also need to provide proof of military service such as U.S. military discharge papers (DD Form 214) showing an honorable discharge.

This article should be considered a broad overview on the subject of disability benefits for non-citizens. There are numerous other minute details and nuances buried deep in the Social Security Administration’s regulations. That is why we strongly encourage you to seek the advice of a qualified disability professional. The attorneys at Nash Disability Law stand ready to offer you a free evaluation of your situation. Click here to contact us.

If you are a U.S. citizen or non-citizen and Spanish is your primary language, we invite you to visit our Spanish-language website—a trusted resource for information and tips regarding Social Security disability.