Sifting through and understanding the US tax code can be a daunting task. And when you’re a US expat, the information is even more complex and confusing. This is because:
- Almost every American citizen must file a US Federal Tax Return no matter where they live or work
- Nearly all Americans living abroad also have to file a foreign tax return in their country of residence
- Most expats are required to file additional US tax forms, such as the FBAR and FATCA
To help clear up these complex requirements, we’ve compiled a list of the top 25 things all expats should keep in mind when filing US expat taxes.
New to filing expat taxes? Get started with the experts at Greenback. Click here to get matched with an accountant to review the unique details of your situation and confirm what you need to file.
1. Do Expats File US Taxes?
Yes, virtually all US citizens are required to file a US Federal Tax Return regardless of where they live in the world. This applies as long as your worldwide income exceeds the filing threshold (which varies by filing status).
That worldwide income may include:
- Rental Income
If you are self-employed, the filing threshold is $400, regardless of filing status.
Even if your income does not exceed the threshold for your filing status, you may still have to file. For example, if you receive certain tax credits or refunds, you will have to file even if you wouldn’t otherwise meet the requirements.
2. Most American Expats Do Not Owe US Taxes
While virtually all expats are required to file a US tax return, most American expats do not owe US taxes. The US has put several important deductions, exclusions, and credits in place to ensure Americans living abroad aren’t taxed twice on the same income. Using these tax benefits, many expats can erase their US tax bills entirely.
Most expats are able to offset or erase their foreign earned income with the following:
Don’t pay tax on your income twice! US taxpayers may be eligible to claim the Foreign Tax Credit against income that has already been taxed by their host country.
For the exclusions, you must qualify as an official expat and have foreign earned income, and you must file your tax return in order to prove that you are eligible for these benefits.
Note: Even if you don’t end up owing any taxes, you will still need to file a US tax return.
3. You Can Reduce or Eliminate US Taxes for Expats with the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion
For the 2021 tax year, you may be able to exclude up to $108,700 of foreign earned income from US taxation with the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion! This is the most common way expats reduce or eliminate their US tax liability.
You might also be able to exclude certain housing expenses, such as rent and utilities, using the Foreign Housing Exclusion.
4. The Foreign Earned Income Exclusion Isn’t Automatic
You must qualify to use the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion, but you must also elect it by filing Form 2555 or 2555-EZ.
Once you choose to use the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion, it remains in effect and you will include it on your tax return each year thereafter. However, should you decide that you no longer want to use it, you cannot claim the exclusion for the next five tax years without the approval of the IRS.
5. You Must Pass a Residency Test to Use the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion
The Physical Presence Test requires that you are physically present inside a foreign country for 330 of any 365-day period.
Under the Bona Fide Residence Test, you must have lived overseas for at least one calendar year and have no immediate intention of moving back to the US – so temporary overseas contractors and those on assignment won’t qualify.
6. You Should Track Travel Time Carefully to Ensure You Qualify as an Expat
If you plan to qualify via the Physical Presence Test, count your travel days carefully. You must be physically present inside a foreign country for 330 full days, so any time you spent traveling in the air (or by sea) to or from the USA won’t count. Keep track of the actual dates of travel.
A small error in calculation could cost you thousands of dollars on your US expat tax return!
7. You Can File For an Extension if You Need More Time to Qualify
Many expats move abroad in the latter part of the year and worry that they won’t qualify for the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion and will miss out on substantial tax benefits. If you expect to qualify in the near future, you can apply for an extension until October 15th, or you can file Form 2350, which buys you even more time.
8. The Foreign Tax Credit is Another Way to Lower Your US Expat Taxes
If you live in a high-tax country or your income exceeds the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion, the Foreign Tax Credit may help you offset or eliminate your US tax liability.
The Foreign Tax Credit is a dollar-for-dollar credit on the taxes you pay to a foreign country. You must file Form 1116 to elect it.
Many taxpayers are eligible for both the foreign tax credit and the foreign earned income exclusion; however, if taxpayers can also claim the child tax credit, choosing the foreign tax credit over the exclusion will often yield them better tax savings.
9. Excluded Income Can’t Be Offset With the Foreign Tax Credit
If you choose to exclude some of your income with the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion, you can’t use the Foreign Tax Credit on that excluded income.
For example, you exclude $108,700 of your income and have $30,800 leftover. You can only offset the taxes you pay on that remaining income. This prevents “double-dipping” in the eyes of the IRS!
If you find that you were not able to claim the full amount of foreign income taxes you paid or accrued, you can carry these over for the next 10 years, and even carry them back to the previous year.
10. Tax Treaties Help Prevent Double Taxation for US Expats
Income tax treaties help prevent double taxation for Americans living in foreign countries by reducing or eliminating US taxes for expats on certain types of income. Currently, the US has tax treaties with 69 countries. Because tax breaks vary by country, expats should review the treaty with their host country to find out how they’ll be taxed. Like any legal document, tax treaties can be complex and difficult to understand. If you’re uncertain which rules apply to you, be sure to consult an accountant.
11. Dependent Children on Your US Tax Return May Help Reduce Your Expat Taxes
The Child Tax Credit can be very beneficial for those with dependent US children (citizens or permanent residents)—and can sometimes even result in a refund! In order to qualify for the credit, all dependent children must have a US Social Security number.
In addition, you may be able to deduct child care costs using the Child and Dependent Care Credit. However, you must have earned income to use this credit. If you’ve excluded all of your earned income using the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion, you won’t be able to use the Child Care Credit.
12. Including Children on Your US Expatriate Tax Return Has Long-Term Implications
Children born to a non-US parent overseas may be able to qualify to be reported on your US Federal Tax Return as a dependent. While the Child Tax Credit(s) you’ll receive can be financially advantageous, remember that they are now considered US persons and will forever have a US tax obligation unless they choose to renounce their citizenship once they are an adult.
13. Expats Receive an Automatic Tax Filing Extension Until June 15th
US taxpayers living outside the US on the tax deadline of April 18th, 2022 receive an extension until June 15th to file. However, any US taxes owed are due by April 18th to avoid penalties and interest.
If you move back to the US, you may still be eligible to use certain US expat deductions and exclusions that year, but you’ll need to file by April 18th because you are now a US resident.
14. Some States Require You to File a State Tax Return While Living Abroad
When it comes to whether or not you have to file a state tax return as an expat, one critical component is whether you intend on returning. Every state has differing rules regarding domicile and permanent place of abode, which factor into whether you will be considered a resident and therefore have to file.
For example, Massachusetts states that one “cannot change your domicile by taking a temporary or longer than expected absence from Massachusetts. You must not intend to return.”
Even if you have no intention of returning, many US states continue to tax residents who move away until they “sever ties” with that state. Depending on the state, this can be an easy process, or it can be difficult. Some states make it hard to remove yourself from their tax jurisdiction.
For example, even if you live in another country, a state may impose taxes if:
- They issued your current driver’s license or ID card
- You have a spouse or child living there
- Your vehicle is registered there
- You’re registered to vote there
- You have a bank account open there
- You own property there
- You maintain a mailing address there (even if you’re using a friend or relative’s address)
States that are notorious for taxing former residents include:
- New Mexico
- South Carolina
Consult a qualified tax professional to learn the rules for your state.
15. You Must File an FBAR if Your Foreign Account Balances Exceed the Reporting Threshold
FinCEN Form 114, also known as the Foreign Bank Account Report (FBAR), is part of the US initiative to thwart tax cheats hiding money abroad. If the aggregate balance(s) of all your foreign bank accounts exceed $10,000, you must file. When considering your foreign bank accounts, pensions and investments may come into play, as well as accounts that you don’t own but have signature authority over.
The FBAR is filed electronically through the BSA e-filing system. Even if the account(s) hit $10,001 for only one day (or one minute!), you must file an FBAR. The FBAR is filed separately from your US expatriate tax return.
Have questions? Get in touch right now and we’ll help get you the answers you need so you can get started right away.
16. The FBAR Deadline Falls on Tax Day
The FBAR deadline is April 18th (the same as the federal income tax due date), with an automatic extension to October 17th. The FBAR is filed separately from the regular income tax return.
17. You May Need to File FATCA Form 8938
FATCA, Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act, is similar to FBAR in that it is intended to prevent US taxpayers from hiding money in offshore accounts and assets. Should the value of certain financial assets exceed the filing threshold (which varies by filing status and residency), Form 8938 should be filed.
FATCA and FBAR filing requirements are separate but similar. You could be required to file FATCA, FBAR, both, or neither!
18. You Can Still Receive Social Security Benefits When You Retire Abroad
If you are considering retiring abroad, rest assured that you can collect your Social Security benefits in just about any country in which you choose to live. There are only a handful of countries where you typically cannot receive Social Security benefits, namely:
- North Korea
However, even if you live in one of these countries, you can still collect any back-payments owed to you once you move to a different country.
For example, let’s say you moved to Cuba. While living in Cuba, you would not be able to receive US Social Security payments. But if you moved to Costa Rica a few years later, you would be eligible to collect any Social Security payments you were denied during your time in Cuba.
19. Your Social Security Benefits May Be Taxable in the US
You must report your Social Security benefits as income on your US expatriate tax return. Some people will have their benefits taxed while others will not. Generally, if you have other income, your benefits will be taxed. However, if you live in certain countries, your Social Security payments may not be taxed by the US. This includes:
- The UK
The rules for these countries vary. Consult an expat tax specialist to learn more.
Note: Even if your Social Security benefits are taxed, only 85% of the full amount can be considered taxable income.
20. Totalization Agreements Determine Which Country You Pay Social Security Taxes To
The US has agreements with 28 countries that outline which country should receive your Social Security payments. The agreements generally allow for the credits you earn in one country to be usable for the calculation of benefits in the other. This is an important point as, without such an agreement, you could be forced to pay into two systems—and only receive one benefit!
21. Income Earned in the US by Expats is Not Automatically Excluded From Taxation
Income earned on US soil is not foreign earned income and therefore cannot be excluded from US taxes with the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion.
However, if you are required to pay taxes on that income to another country, you may be able to use the Foreign Tax Credit as a dollar-for-dollar credit to offset the US taxes you owe.
22. Rental Income Must be Reported on Your US Tax Return
You must report all rental income (foreign and domestic) to the IRS. However, many expenses related to the property can offset expatriate tax liability.
Repairs to your property are immediately deductible but improvements take a bit longer. How do you know the difference? Repairs restore the property to its original state, but improvements increase the value of the property or prolong its life.
While they differ, you’ll want to keep track of expenses for both repairs and improvements to your rental property. Repairs can be taken as deductions, and improvements will factor into how you calculate capital gains or losses on your expat taxes after you sell your property.
23. Renouncing Citizenship May Not Help You Avoid US Taxes
While frustrated expats consider renouncing their citizenship to avoid the burden of filing US taxes, before they can do so, they must prove that they have complied with their US tax requirements for at least 5 years prior to the date of renunciation.
If you are considering this option, please note that depending on your income and net worth, you may be subject to an exit tax when you renounce. It’s the IRS’ way of making sure you don’t renounce just to skip out on a tax debt!
24. You Can Amend a Previous US Tax Return if You Made a Mistake
Mistakes happen. If you find that you have failed to report some income on your return, or if you didn’t take all the deductions allowed, you will need to file an amended return for that tax year using form 1040-X.
Filing an amendment before the IRS catches the mistake is the best option, as penalties are often less. Once the original return has been filed, the clock starts ticking, and amended returns will generally need to be filed before a certain date to seek a credit or refund.
25. You Can Get Caught Up With Your US Expat Taxes and FBAR Forms Without Penalties
Many expats discover that years after they have moved abroad, they had a US filing requirement all along. They may fear harsh penalties and be hesitant to get caught up on delinquent returns.
Fortunately, the IRS provides an amnesty program to help expats come into compliance without facing any penalties. It’s known as the Streamlined Filing Compliance Procedures.
To use this program, all you have to do is:
- Self-certify that your failure to file was an accident, not a willful refusal
- File the last three delinquent income tax returns and pay any delinquent taxes you owed during that time (with interest)
- File Foreign Bank Account Reports (FBARs) for the last six years
In most cases, this will bring you into compliance with IRS regulations. It’s the perfect program for expats who were previously unaware of their US tax filing obligations.
(Though the Streamlined Filing Compliance Procedures are also an excellent option for Americans living in the US.)
Next Steps for Your US Taxes for Expats
Now that you’re up to speed on the top 25 things to know about expat taxes, consider the next steps based on your tax situation.
1. File a US Expat Tax Return Every Year
First, make a plan to file your US Federal Tax Return every year. Skipping filing is never a good idea. It puts you at risk of audits, expensive penalties, and further IRS action. If you’re unsure how to navigate filing on your own or don’t feel you have enough time to do it right, find an expat tax accountant you can trust and delegate tax prep to them.
2. Make a Plan to Meet All Your Filing Requirements
Next, outline your other filing requirements so you can meet them as well. Common requirements include filing the FBAR to report foreign bank accountants, filing a State Tax Return if required for you, or filing a tax return for your business.
Greenback offers a variety of services to make sure your tax preparation is a hassle-free experience, no matter what you need to file.
3. Get Caught Up on Your Expat Taxes ASAP (If Necessary)
If you’re behind on your expat taxes, make arrangements to get caught up as soon as possible.
If you’re only one or two years behind, file late expat tax returns ASAP to get back on track. If you’re several years behind, you can use the Streamlined Filing Procedures to catch up penalty-free.
4. Stay Organized to Make Your Taxes Easier
Once you know the requirements, filing expat taxes is significantly easier. However, you might still find it challenging to gather your expat tax documents every year.
To make the process faster and easier, keep track of important documents throughout the year. That way, when it’s time to file, you’ll have everything you need!
Have Questions? Not Sure What to Do Next? Get Help Early!
We hope this guide has helped you understand the tax rules and requirements for US expats. However, taxes for expats are nothing if not complicated.
If you still have questions, just reach out to us. We’ll be happy to give you the answers you need. In fact, we can even prepare and file your expat tax return on your behalf.
At Greenback Expat Tax Services, we’ve spent years helping expats optimize their financial strategies and file their taxes accurately and on time. We’d love to help you too. US expat taxes may not be simple, but they don’t have to be a headache. We can make the process hassle-free.
Don’t wait, either! If you’re unsure of your expat tax needs, putting off the process only increases the risk of added costs and unnecessary frustration.
Ready to file your expat taxes? Get started now to meet your accountant and start filing today.