Are Legal Residents Who Work Entitled to Social Security Benefits?

Foreign-born residents with work permission can join the Social Security system.

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Social Security pays retirement and disability benefits to qualified applicants, including non-citizens who are legal residents of the U.S. The agency issues Social Security numbers, which by law are required in order to work and earn wages in the United States. Applicants for benefits are required to meet certain eligibility guidelines, which are more strict for the Supplemental Security Income program.

Social Security Eligibility

If you work and pay into the Social Security system through payroll taxes, then you are earning work credits toward retirement and disability eligibility. In order to work, you must have a Social Security number, which the agency issues to U.S. citizens as well as foreign-born permanent residents. These resident aliens must have permission to work from the Department of Homeland Security, as well as proof of age, identity and current immigration status.

Applying for Benefits

To apply for retirement benefits, citizens and permanent residents must have at least 40 work credits. To earn a credit, a worker must pay Social Security taxes on $1,130 of earned income; you can earn up to four credits in a single year. Social Security calculates the monthly benefit based on the worker's earnings record. The calculation is the same for citizens and for resident aliens.


Social Security also allows permanent residents to apply for disability benefits. To be approved, a worker must document a disabling medical condition that has lasted at least 12 months or that is expected to result in death. The benefit amount, like the retirement benefit, depends on the worker's earnings record. Social Security also will pay disability or retirement benefits to people living in a foreign country, with the exception of North Korea and Cuba.

SSI benefits

Another program for the disabled, Supplemental Security Income, places some restrictions on permanent residents. On August 22, 1996, the law for SSI eligibility underwent an important change. Since that date, SSI applicants who also are resident aliens must fall into a specific category to be eligible for the program. There are eight such categories, including those admitted as permanent residents, refugees and those residents who have been granted asylum. Applicants also must meet SSI's resource and income limits, as well as prove a medical disability to draw the monthly benefits.