The Foreign Earned Income Exclusion

Exclude foreign wages from U.S. taxes using Form 2555

United States passport against a backdrop of foreign currency

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Not everyone who pays taxes in the U.S. lives and works on American soil. Taxpayers who live elsewhere might qualify for the foreign earned income exclusion, allowing them to exclude all or part of their foreign-source wages and self-employment income from U.S. federal income tax. You must work and reside outside the U.S. and meet either the bona fide resident or physical presence test to qualify. If you do, you're eligible to exclude up to $105,900 in foreign earned income in tax year 2019, and $107,600 in tax year 2020. The amount of the exclusion generally increases each year because it's indexed for inflation. 

Bona Fide Residence Test

You're considered a bona fide resident of a foreign country if you reside in that country for a period that includes an entire tax year. Because a tax year is January 1 through December 31, the qualifying period for the bona fide residence test must include at least one full calendar year. Trips or vacations outside the foreign country won't jeopardize your status as a bona fide resident, as long as the trips are short, and you clearly intend to return to the foreign country where you were living. You can even make brief visits to the U.S.

You're not considered a bona fide resident of a foreign country if you've submitted a statement to that country indicating that you're not a resident, and the government there has determined that you're not subject to their tax laws. Your income can't be excluded from taxation in both the foreign country and the U.S. Special treatment of income under an income tax treaty doesn't prevent you from meeting the bona fide residence test.

Physical Presence Test

You're considered to be physically present in a foreign country if you reside there for at least 330 qualifying full days in any consecutive 12-month period. A full day is 24 hours, so the days of arrival and departure from a foreign country don't count toward the physical presence test. This rule is a bit more lenient and may be easier to meet than the bona fide residence test because the qualifying period can occur in any consecutive 12-month period, not necessarily a calendar year.

You don't have to begin your qualifying period with your first day in a foreign country. You can choose which 12-month period to use, which gives you the freedom to choose the period providing the greatest income exclusion. Vacation days and business days spent in the foreign country both count toward meeting the 330-day threshold, and travel outside the country generally does not jeopardize the 330-day requirement. 

Waiver Due to Adverse Conditions

The minimum time requirements for both the bona fide residence and physical presence tests can be waived if you're forced to leave the foreign country because of war, civil unrest, or similar adverse conditions. You should be able to prove that you would have met the time requirements if these adverse conditions hadn't interrupted your residence.

Eligible Income Types

The foreign earned income exclusion applies only to earned income resulting from performing services as an employee or as an independent contractor. Earned income includes salaries, wages, professional fees, and other amounts received as compensation for personal services. Self-employed people working abroad don't qualify for the foreign housing exclusion, but they can deduct allowable housing expenses under the foreign housing deduction. This deduction can be calculated on IRS Form 2555 Parts VI and IX. The foreign housing deduction reduces your federal income tax, but it won't reduce your self-employment tax. 

Affect on the Tax Calculation

You still pay tax at the rate that would have applied had you not claimed the exclusion, so your federal income tax is calculated by figuring the amount of income tax on your total income, then taking the foreign earned income exclusion. You can subtract the tax as calculated on just the amount of foreign earned income that is excluded. The result is your federal income tax liability amount. Use the Foreign Earned Income Tax Worksheet found in the Instructions for Form 1040 if you need help. 

Prorated Exclusion

Choosing any consecutive 12-month period to qualify for the foreign earned income exclusion under the physical presence test means that you might have to spread the exclusion amount over two tax years. You'd have to prorate the maximum exclusion in each year using the number of days you were physically present in the foreign country during the tax year. The prorated exclusion amount can't exceed the maximum allowable exclusion, and you might also qualify for a prorated exclusion if you intended to meet all the time requirements but left the country due to civil unrest.

Housing Exclusion

You may be able to exclude any amounts your employer paid you for housing—including money paid to you or directly to someone else on your behalf—but you must meet the same time requirements under the bona fide residence or physical presence tests. The following expenses qualify for the foreign housing exclusion:

  • Rent
  • Fair rental value of housing provided by the employer
  • Repairs
  • Utilities (except telephone)
  • Real property and personal property insurance (homeowners and renters insurance)
  • Occupancy taxes
  • Nonrefundable security deposits or lease payments
  • Furniture rental
  • Residential parking fees

You might also be eligible to exclude other amounts paid by your employer, including tax equalization payments and education expenses for your dependent children. The following expenses do not qualify for the foreign housing exclusion:

  • Lavish expenses
  • Deductible interest and taxes
  • Costs of buying property, such as principal payments on a mortgage
  • Domestic labor
  • Pay television
  • Home improvements
  • Purchased furniture
  • Depreciation of property or improvements

Combining the Exclusions 

You can claim the foreign earned income exclusion, the foreign housing exclusion, or both, but the same income cannot be excluded twice. It's usually more advantageous to use the foreign housing exclusion if your foreign earned income exceeds the maximum amount of the foreign earned income exclusion amount. The housing exclusion is 16% of the foreign earned income exclusion amount divided by 365 (366 during leap years), then multiplied by your qualifying days during that tax year. There are higher maximum amounts for selected foreign locations, which the IRS lists in an appendix to the Instructions for Form 2555.

Article Sources

  1. IRS. "Foreign Earned Income Exclusion - Bona Fide Residence Test." Accessed March 1, 2020.

  2. IRS. "Foreign Earned Income Exclusion - Physical Presence Test." Accessed March 1, 2020.

  3. IRS. "Exceptions to the Bona Fide Residence and the Physical Presence Tests." Accessed March 1, 2020.

  4. IRS. "2019 Form 2555." Accessed March 1, 2020.

  5. IRS. "Instructions for Form 2555 (2019)." Accessed March 1, 2020.

  6. IRS. "Foreign Housing Exclusion or Deduction." Accessed March 1, 2020.