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Taxes for Expats

Updated for Tax Year 2021 • August 15, 2022 11:34 AM


OVERVIEW

If you live abroad as an American expat and have taxable income, you still need to remain compliant with your U.S. expat taxes.


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Key Takeaways

•   An expat is someone who moves from their native country and settles abroad.

•   American expats must file a federal tax return and possibly pay U.S. taxes if they earn above a minimum income threshold are typically eligible for an automatic 2-month extension to file, but not to pay any owed taxes.

•   The IRS has special rules that allow American expats to lower their taxable income.

Do expats have to pay U.S. taxes?

Yes. If you are an American expatriate (expat), someone who moved from the U.S. and now lives abroad, you will need to file a U.S. tax return if you earned above the minimum income threshold.

These gross income thresholds typically amount to the Standard Deduction amount for your filing status and age. These amounts are set each year by the federal government and are designed to index with inflation.

The Standard Deduction, along with other available deductions, reduces your income to determine how much is subject to income taxes. Generally, if you don’t have a specific type of income that requires you to file a return, such as self-employment income, you won't need to file a tax return if your income is less than your Standard Deduction.

For example, in 2021, you typically don't need to file a tax return if all of the following are true for you:

  • Under age 65
  • Single
  • Don't have any special circumstances that require you to file (like self-employment income)
  • Earn less than $12,550 (which is the 2021 Standard Deduction for a single taxpayer)

Do American expats have to file a federal tax return if they earn foreign income?

Generally, you must file a tax return if you earn foreign income above applicable income minimums, or a type of income that requires you to file a tax return for other amounts you earn (such as self-employment income).

The U.S. is one of two countries in the world where taxes aren’t based on residency (the other country is Eritrea). Therefore, if you’re a U.S. citizen or U.S. resident alien, you’ll be subject to U.S. income taxes regardless of where you earned the income.

That said, while you may need to file, you may not need to pay any U.S. taxes. The IRS uses a series of tax items to lower or fully reduce your foreign income tax obligation. We discuss these in greater detail below.

Do American expats have to file a state income tax return?

Whether you need to file a state income tax return depends on whether your state of residence requires you to file a state income tax return, the rules of your state, and whether you’ve earned or received income originating from that state. It’s possible that you need to file a state income tax return while living abroad, but you should consider consulting with a tax professional who specializes in expat tax matters for your state to be sure.

Generally, when you are no longer a resident of a state or no longer earn or receive income originating from the state (such as with a rental property), you typically don’t need to file a tax return for that state. However, if this happens in the middle of the year then you might need to file as a part-year resident.

How to file taxes as an American expat

You can file your taxes in one of two ways as an expatriate: electronically (called E-filing) or through the mail. Filing electronically has grown to be the most popular method to file, representing over 90% of all returns received by the IRS for 2020 tax returns.

The IRS prefers e-filed returns because they offer more accuracy, avoid processing delays, and speed up refund delivery for taxpayers. Nonetheless, the remaining portion of taxpayers prefer to file taxes through the mail.

Regardless of how you prefer to file taxes, the basic process for preparing and filing your taxes is the same:

  1. Calculate your gross income
  2. Claim all applicable tax deductions to determine your taxable income and your tax before credits
  3. Apply available tax credits
  4. Calculate your tax liability and compare this against payments you made during the year to determine how much you owe or can expect to receive as a refund
  5. File your tax return with the IRS

When are expat taxes due?

If you’re wondering, “When are expat taxes due?” or “what happens if you’ve never filed taxes as an expat?,” you should be aware of some key dates. To avoid potential penalties and interest, file your expat taxes early.

Your U.S. expat taxes are due on the same federal tax due date as U.S. citizens and U.S. resident aliens living inside the U.S.: April 18, 2022 for your 2021 taxes. However, if you’re a U.S. citizen or resident alien living abroad on the April due date, you’re granted an automatic extension to June 15, 2022, to file and pay your federal income taxes. The same also applies if you’re in the military on duty outside the U.S. You don’t need to request an extension.

If you take advantage of the automatic 2-month extension, you should still try to pay any tax that is due by the original due date to avoid accruing interest on the outstanding balance.

Can expats get more time to file taxes?

If you need additional time beyond the automatic 2-month extension, you may request an additional extension to October 15 by filing Form 4868 before the automatic 2-month extension due date. If you request a 6-month extension and fail to pay your taxes by the original filing date, you will owe interest on any unpaid tax amount from the original due date of the return.

What penalties do expats pay for failing to file or pay taxes?

If you failed to file your tax return by the original deadline, or the deadline granted by the automatic 2-month extension, or if you failed to file Form 4868 requesting a full 6-month extension, it's very important to file your taxes as soon as possible.

Filing an extension automatically pushes back the tax filing deadline and protects you from possible penalties for failing to file your return in a timely manner. If you fail to file your return on time, you generally encounter late-filing penalties that amount to a rate of 5% of the amount due with your return for each month that you're late.

  • For example, if you owe $2,000 and are three months late, the late-filing penalty would be $300.  ($2,000 x 0.05) x 3  = $300
  • If you're more than 60 days late, the minimum penalty is $100 or 100% of the tax due with the return, whichever is less.
  • You may owe a late payment penalty of 0.5% per month, or a prorated amount, until you pay your taxes owed.
  • The maximum late payment penalty is 25% of the amount due.
  • Filing for the extension wipes out the penalty for failing to file your taxes on time at least until the extension deadline.

If you take advantage of the automatic 2-month extension or file for a full 6-month extension, you will still need to pay taxes you owe by the original April deadline. Otherwise, in addition to the taxes you owe, you’ll likely need to pay interest on your unpaid tax balance. That means you’ll need to estimate how much your tax bill will be and make sure you pay enough money to cover this balance by the original deadline.

On the other hand, if you expect a refund, you don’t need to submit payment by the deadline. Further, you would not likely have any penalty or interest for late filing since these are a percentage of the amount due. However, you won’t get that money back until you file and some tax elections must be made by the original due date, even if you are getting a refund.

Separately, these concerns might not apply for state taxes. The rules around interest on owed taxes or penalties for filing late or paying late will vary, depending on your state filing requirements.

How expats can reduce their tax liability

Foreign income tax exclusion

American expats most commonly claim the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion to exclude all or a portion of their foreign-earned income from their U.S. taxes. To qualify to claim the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion, the Foreign Housing Exclusion, or the Foreign Housing Deduction, you’ll need to meet all of the following qualifications:

  • Your tax home is in a foreign country
  • You have foreign earned income
  • You are 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. resident alien who is a citizen or national of a country that the United States has an income tax treaty in effect and 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 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

You’ll also need to pass either the Physical Presence test or the Bona Fide Residence Test to claim the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion. Partial-year exclusions are available if you've recently moved to a foreign country or returned to the U.S. mid-year. If you have any questions about whether you qualify under either test, you can review Publication 54 from the IRS.

If you work as an employee for the U.S. government, you typically aren’t eligible to claim the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion. However, if you work as an employee of a private company and perform work under contract for the U.S. government, you may still be eligible to claim this exclusion on your tax return.


 

TurboTax Tip: If you want to qualify under the Physical Presence Test, you need to live outside the U.S. for a full 330 days during the tax year. A "full day" counts as 24 hours starting at midnight, and you need to be in the foreign country for every minute of those 24 hours.


 

Foreign tax credit or foreign tax deduction

The Foreign Tax Credit is a method American expats can generally use to offset foreign income taxes you’ve already paid abroad on a dollar-for-dollar basis. U.S. citizens and resident aliens who pay income taxes to a foreign government or U.S. possession can typically claim the credit, thus reducing your U.S. tax liability and avoiding most double taxation on the same income.

Foreign income covered by the tax credit includes:

  • Income
  • Wages
  • Dividends
  • Interest
  • Royalties

Instead of claiming a credit for eligible foreign taxes, you can choose to deduct foreign income taxes that you paid. This means you can take the benefit as a tax credit or as a tax deduction depending on which one is best for you.

When taken as a credit:

  • The credit directly reduces your U.S. tax liability
  • You claim the credit on your tax return and attach a completed Form 1116

When taken as a deduction:

Generally, you can only claim a foreign tax credit or a deduction in any given year—you can’t claim both in the same tax year. However, even if you take one for the current year, you can take the other for the following year.

Tax treaties

A tax treaty is a mutual agreement between two countries to resolve issues related to double taxation on income from each other’s respective citizens. Tax treaties typically determine how much tax each country can apply to a taxpayer’s income, but also to their capital, estate or wealth.

What is an income exclusion vs. tax credit?

An income exclusion works by simply excluding certain types of income from taxation. It reduces how much income is subject to taxes. A tax credit counts as a reduction to your tax liability, reducing your tax bill directly.

Income exclusions generally have a greater impact for lowering your tax bill than tax credits because they can exclude all or part of your income from taxation.

In the case of the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion, you can exclude up to:

  • $108,700 of qualified foreign earned income and housing income in 2021
  • $112,000 of qualified foreign earned income and housing income in 2022

Do American expats end up owing U.S. taxes?

Despite often needing to file a tax return, even while living abroad, U.S. expats don’t usually end up owing U.S. taxes due to a variety of tax options that prevent Americans from being taxed on foreign income. No exemption exists that broadly excludes foreign-income from U.S. taxation, but the foreign income exclusion, foreign tax credit and foreign tax deduction can help to reduce your tax bill while living abroad and earning foreign income.

Do expats get the Child Tax Credit?

Americans living abroad qualify for claiming the Child Tax Credit. This means you can generally claim a credit for tax year 2021 worth up to $3,600 per child under 6 or $3,000 per child 6-17, though income limits apply. Expats who lived outside the U.S. for more than 6 months in 2021 can only receive a maximum Child Tax Credit refund of $1,400 per child.

Do U.S. expats get tax refunds?

If you paid more than you owe, whether you’re an expat or not, you’re generally entitled to a tax refund but you will need to file a return to get it. Because you live abroad, you might want to e-file your return and receive your tax refund via direct deposit instead of as a check.

Filing taxes as a U.S. expat

When you live abroad as a U.S. citizen or resident, you still need to consider the tax consequences back home. Even if you are a U.S. citizen living and working outside of the United States for one or more years, you still likely need to file a U.S. tax return.

The United States subjects your worldwide income to U.S. income tax, regardless of where you live. To make this easier, the Internal Revenue Code offers certain foreign income tax credits, tax deductions, and income exclusions, potentially reducing your U.S. tax bill each year. Additionally, U.S. citizens and resident aliens living outside the United States are generally allowed the same deductions as citizens and residents living in the United States.

That means, if you pay too much in U.S. taxes as a U.S. expat, you should consider filing a tax return to claim your tax refund.

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