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. We’ve compiled a list of the top 25 things all expats should keep in mind when filing US expat taxes to help you sort through the multitude of information!
1. Expats Must File US Taxes If You Have Income, Receive Certain Credits, or Other Special Situations Apply
If your worldwide income exceeds the filing threshold (which varies by filing status), you must file a US Federal Tax Return each year.
- Wages/Salary from US and non-US sources
- Rental Income
If you are self-employed, the threshold is $400, regardless of filing status. If you are eligible for certain credits and refunds, you may want to file even if you do not otherwise have to file. Certain other situations, such as owing special taxes may make you subject to filing requirements as well.
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2. Expats Receive an Automatic Tax Filing Extension Until June 15th
US taxpayers living outside the US on the tax deadline of April 15th receive an extension until June 15th to file. However, any US taxes owed are due by April 17th 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 17th because you are now a US resident.
3. You Can Amend a Previous 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 1040X.
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.
4. Most American Expats Do Not Owe US Taxes
The US has put several important deductions, exclusions, and credits in place to ensure you aren’t taxed twice on the same income. Most expats are able to offset all of 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.
5. The Foreign Tax Credit is One Way to Lower Your US Expat Taxes
If you live in a high-tax country or your income exceeds the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion (FEIE), the Foreign Tax Credit (FTC) may help you offset or eliminate your US tax liability.
The FTC 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.
6. 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 (FEIE), you can’t use the Foreign Tax Credit (FTC) on that excluded income.
For example, you exclude $105,900 of your income and have $30,800 left over. 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 back to the previous year.
7. Reduce or Eliminate US Taxes with the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion
For the 2019 tax year, you may be able to exclude up to $105,900 ($107,600 for 2020) of foreign earned income from US taxation with the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion (FEIE)! 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.
8. The Foreign Earned Income Exclusion Isn’t Automatic
You must qualify to use the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion (FEIE), but you must also elect it by filing Form 2555 or 2555-EZ.
Once you choose to use the FEIE, 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.
9. 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 Residency 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.
10. 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!
11. 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 (FEIE) 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.
12. 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 on certain types of income. Currently, the US has tax treaties with 68 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 that apply to you, be sure to consult an accountant.
13. Dependent Children on Your Tax Return May Help Reduce Your Taxes
The Child Tax Credit can be very beneficial for those with dependent US children (citizens or permanent resident)—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.
14. Including Children on Your US 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.
15. FBAR Must Be Filed if Foreign Account Balances Exceed the Reporting Threshold
FinCEN form 114, also known as the FBAR (Foreign Bank Account Report), 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!), FBAR must be filed. The FBAR is filed separately from your tax return.
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16. The FBAR Deadline Falls on Tax Day
The FBAR deadline is April 15th (consistent with this year’s federal income tax due date), with an automatic extension to October 15th. 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. Get Caught Up With Your Tax Returns 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. However, the IRS has implemented several programs to remove or reduce penalties. With the IRS Streamlined Offshore Filing Procedures, you can become compliant with no late filing or FBAR penalties!
For those living abroad, many are eligible to simply file the last 3 years of tax returns and the last 6 years of FBARs and they will be caught up. It’s the perfect program for expats who were unaware of their US tax filing obligations. Alternatively, the Streamlined Domestic Offshore Procedures are excellent for those that are living in the US.
19. 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 compliance on US taxes for the 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!
20. 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 cannot receive your benefits, but you can always collect all monies owed to you when you move to a country that allows US Social Security payments.
21. Social Security Benefits May Be Taxable in the US
Some people will have their benefits taxed while others will not. You must report your Social Security benefits as income on your US tax return. Generally, if you have other income, your benefits will be taxed. But if they are, only 85% of your benefits can be considered taxable income.
22. Totalization Agreements Determine to Which Country You Pay Social Security Taxes
The US has agreements with 26 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!
23. 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.
24. Rental Income Must be Reported on Your US Tax Return
You must report all rental income (foreign and domestic) to the IRS, but many expenses related to the property can offset 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.
25. Some States Require You to File a State Tax Return Even While Living Abroad
When it comes to whether or not you have to file a state tax return, one critical component is the taxpayer’s intent 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.”
California, New Mexico, North Carolina, New York and Virginia, are other states where it is likely you will need to file a state tax return. Check with your particular state to be certain.
Have Additional Questions About US Expat Taxes?
Now that you’re up to speed on the top 25 things to know about expat taxes, you might have questions specific to your situation or make sense of the next step for you. We offer a variety of services to make sure your tax preparation is a hassle-free experience. Have questions? Get in touch right now and we’ll help get you the answers you need so you can get started right away.