What Americans Working Abroad Should Know About Foreign Earned Income Exclusion

Vinícola Torres Alegre y Familia

It’s a common misconception among Americans living abroad — especially those with dual citizenship — that their foreign earned income is exempt from being taxed by the U.S. government. This is simply not the case.

The United States is one of only two countries in the world that tax non-resident citizens on their worldwide income. The other one is the small African nation of Eritrea.

This type of tax system is known as citizenship-based taxation.

So, even if you plan on living in a foreign country for the rest of your life, as long as you retain your U.S. citizenship, Uncle Sam will always want his piece of your pie.

A Real-Life Case in Point

Boris Johnson, the current Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, was born in the United States to English parents in 1964. When he was only five years old, the entire family moved to the United Kingdom.

Over 40 years later, Boris receives a huge tax bill from the IRS — that’s right, the U.S. Internal Revenue Service — on the capital gains from the sale of his home in London.

Although there are laws and treaties to prevent people from being taxed twice on the same money, in this case, the sale of the house was exempt from capital gains tax in the United Kingdom. That meant that there was nothing to stop Uncle Sam from going after the money.

Boris Johnson reportedly paid the tax bill and then renounced his U.S. citizenship.

I got off on a tangent there, so let’s move on to the actual topic of this post, the Foreign Earned Income Exemption.

Foreign Earned Income Exclusion (FEIE)

This is how it works: if you meet the requirements below, you can exclude foreign earned income from your gross income on your U.S. tax return. The maximum amount of the exclusion depends on the tax year and increases each year based on inflation.

Here are the maximum exemptions for the indicated tax years:

2017: $102,100 USD

2018: $104,100 USD

2019: $105,900 USD

2020: $107,600

2021: $108,700

As you can see, that’s a substantial amount of money.

Basic Requirements:

According to the IRS, in order to qualify for the income exclusion you must 1) have foreign earned income, 2) your tax home must be in a foreign country and 3) you must be one of the following:

  • A U.S. citizen who is a bona fide resident of a foreign country or countries for an uninterrupted period that includes an entire tax year,
  • A U.S. citizen or a U.S. resident alien who is physically present in a foreign country or countries for at least 330 full days during any period of 12 consecutive months.

The first option, being a bona fide resident of a foreign country, is not as easy to prove as you might think. It’s not a standard “yes” or “no” type of question and it can be a little subjective.

For more information about proving that you’re a bona fide foreign resident, click HERE.

The second option, the physical presence test, is much easier to prove and that’s the recommended route for most people.

You’ll need to track the exact dates that you were in the United States during the 12 month period. If you even go one day over, you’ll lose the exemption. Click HERE to learn more.

If you are employed by the U.S. Government or one of its agencies, you cannot claim the exemption.

Income Limitations

The FEIE only applies to the income that you earn by actually providing services in the foreign country: salaries, wages, commissions and tips.

It does not apply to passive income, which is referred to as unearned income by the IRS.

The following are examples of unearned income: pension and annuity payments; social security payments; capital gains; interest; gambling winnings; and alimony.

Rental Income

Generally speaking, rental income is unearned income. If you perform personal services in connection with the production of rent, up to 30% of your net rental income can be considered earned income.

Here is an example taken directly from IRS Publication 54 (2016):

Larry Smith, a U.S. citizen living in Australia, owns and operates a rooming house in Sydney. If he is operating the rooming house as a business that requires capital and personal services, he can consider up to 30% of net rental income as earned income. On the other hand, if he just owns the rooming house and performs no personal services connected with its operation, except perhaps making minor repairs and collecting rents, none of his net income from the house is considered earned income. It is all unearned income.

Bad News for the Self-Employed

If you’re self-employed, you can still claim the exemption on income; however, you may still be responsible to pay self-employment tax on the income. In other words, Uncle Sam will be asking for 15.3% of your reported foreign income. Yep, that one stings a little.

Let’s Wrap This Up

Taxes can be a little more complicated once you live and work in a foreign country. It’s always advisable to speak with a professional who specializes in preparing taxes for expats, so you can take advantage of every tax break and credit available.

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About the Author

Qroo Paul
Paul Kurtzweil (Q-Roo Paul) was a deputy sheriff in Florida for 25 years before retiring at the rank of lieutenant in 2015. He and his wife moved to Mexico looking to maximize their retirement income. They later started a blog called Two Expats Mexico (qroo.us) to share their experiences as well as information about the logistical and legal aspects of retiring south of the border.

3 Comments on "What Americans Working Abroad Should Know About Foreign Earned Income Exclusion"

  1. Erich Almasy | May 25, 2021 at 11:42 am |

    Excellent article. Philippines also taxes citizens worldwide.

  2. Excellent article. I am an international tax attorney and have had to spend many hours convincing foreign nationals that they may be subject to US taxation (for a variety of reasons).
    Your example of Boris Johnson is a very common occurrence for foreign nationals that discover that are US citizens and US tax payers.

  3. Dave Costa | May 26, 2021 at 7:37 am |

    Do you know of any good tax experts well versed in this subject?

Comments are closed.