How to Calculate and Pay Taxes on Foreign Investments

Making Sense of Foreign Tax

Close-up of the hands of a foreign investor holding a globe.
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The rapid growth of the international marketplace has created many opportunities for investors in recent years. Unfortunately, it has also created a complicated and difficult to understand foreign investment tax situation. In addition to paying U.S. tax on all income earned from foreign sources, international investors may also have to pay taxes to the foreign country in which their investment is located.

While this double-taxation can often be recouped via foreign tax credits, international investors should still familiarize themselves with foreign tax rules and regulations. These regulations differ from country to country, but with information, you will become a more knowledgable investor.

Albert Einstein once said, "The hardest thing to understand in the world is the income tax."

Do You Have to Pay Foreign Taxes?

Investors looking for exposure to foreign markets have several options that include mutual funds, exchange-traded funds (ETFs), and American depository receipts (ADRs).

Both mutual funds and ETFs are pooled-money investments that allow the investor to buy shares. These are typically professionally managed, and the fund will pay the foreign taxes on the investors' behalf. However, some funds may allocate foreign taxes to shareholders, providing a tax benefit for the pooled asset entity.

Investing in ADRs shares can prove somewhat more complicated. Financial institutions will buy the foreign shares and hold them and sell the ADR representing the bundle of shares of that foreign entity. ADRs will allow a foreign company to trade on a U.S. stock exchange in the same manner as do shares of American companies. ADRs generally trade the same as domestic investments.

Most ADRs will have tax withholding on any investment income or capital gains that come from owning the shares. The amount withheld will vary by home country of the business. The U.S. will also levy a tax on investment income and profit from ADRs.

Reporting is complicated and investors are encouraged to consult a professional investment or tax advisor to ensure they are properly reporting and paying taxes on their foreign holdings.

Are You Eligible for a Foreign Tax Credit?

The U.S. Internal Revenue Service offers a foreign tax credit or deduction to eligible investors who realize income from foreign sources. While all foreign investment income must be reported on Form 1040 in U.S. dollars, investors may file Form 1116 to receive the credit or deduction.

Investors who paid less than $300 in creditable foreign taxes can usually deduct the taxes paid on Line 51 of Form 1040. According to the IRS, the following basic criteria must be met in order to be eligible:

  • The tax must be imposed on you.
  • You must have paid or accrued the tax.
  • The tax must be the legal and actual foreign tax liability.
  • The tax must be an income tax (or a tax in lieu of it).

Additional criteria, including restrictions on resident and non-resident aliens, may also apply. For a complete listing of these criteria and instructions for completing the form, see IRS Publication 514.​

How Do You Pay Foreign Taxes?

Investment income generated in foreign countries is taxed at various rates, depending on the laws and regulations in each country. Fortunately, many countries have treaties with the United States making it easier to avoid double-taxation. In the case of dividends, these taxes are often withheld automatically, but capital gains taxes may also apply.

Capital gains tax rates and rules vary significantly by country, so investors are advised to consult a professional investment or tax advisor.

The Balance does not provide tax, investment, or financial services and advice. The information is being presented without consideration of the investment objectives, risk tolerance or financial circumstances of any specific investor and might not be suitable for all investors. Past performance is not indicative of future results. Investing involves risk including the possible loss of principal.