IRAs for Americans Working Abroad

Expat Americans working with local coworkers
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Some Americans working in foreign countries are able to set money aside in individual retirement accounts or IRAs, but technical rules call for close scrutiny to make sure their savings achieve the best tax result. The foreign earned income exclusion coordinates with the rules for IRA eligibility, and this creates a very narrow range of options for Americans who are living and working abroad.

Foreign Earned Income and Housing Exclusions

Many Americans who live and work abroad qualify for the foreign earned income exclusion, which provides that the first $108,700 of foreign wages or self-employed income is excluded from U.S. federal income taxes as of the 2021 tax year. This threshold is indexed for inflation, so it's up from $107,600 in 2020. It can increase periodically to keep pace with the economic climate. 

People working abroad might also be eligible for the foreign housing exclusion, allowing them to deduct certain housing expenses from their gross incomes. There are limits to the exclusion based on where the expenses are incurred.

Any income that's excluded from taxation as a result of either of these two tax breaks can't be contributed to an individual retirement account. Income that's not excluded from income tax can potentially be contributed to an IRA, however.

Coordinating the Exclusion With Roth IRAs

Roth IRAs have income limitations. A single taxpayer is eligible to fund a Roth IRA up to the full contribution limit if their modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) is under $125,000 as of 2021. The amount that can be contributed to a Roth is gradually reduced for a single filer whose income falls between $125,000 and $140,000. No Roth IRA contribution is allowed if your MAGI is more than $140,000.

These thresholds increase to $198,000 and $208,000 for taxpayers who are married and file a joint tax return. They're also indexed for inflation, so they tend to increase somewhat from year to year.

The limit plunges to just $10,000 for taxpayers who are married but who elect to file separate tax returns from their spouses.

A taxpayer's AGI is modified to add back any foreign earned income exclusion and/or foreign housing exclusion that they might have claimed. This creates a very narrow range of income possibilities for funding a Roth IRA if you live and work abroad.

A single filer claiming the full $108,700 foreign earned income exclusion would have to have foreign wages over $108,700, and modified adjusted gross income not more than $140,000, to be eligible to contribute some money to a Roth IRA.

Coordinating the Exclusion With Traditional IRAs

Traditional IRAs are coordinated with the foreign exclusion in two ways. First, like the Roth IRA, an individual can't contribute excluded income to a traditional IRA.

Second, a deduction for a traditional IRA contribution might be limited or eliminated entirely if the individual is covered by their employer's retirement plan. A traditional IRA would be available only on foreign wages or net self-employed income in excess of the foreign earned income exclusion amount if a taxpayer isn't eligible to participate in a group retirement plan.

Roth IRAs vs. Traditional IRAs

These distinctions can be important because taxation of funds contributed to a Roth or traditional IRA is very different.

Contributions to a traditional IRA are tax-deductible in the year they're made, while contributions to a Roth are not. But taxation will occur eventually: Distributions taken from a traditional IRA are subject to income tax at the time they're taken, while distributions from a Roth are not. And earnings in a Roth IRA can be tax-free as well if they're qualified.

Consider Using the Foreign Tax Credit Instead

Americans working abroad might find that the foreign tax credit yields more advantageous results than the foreign earned income exclusion in certain situations.

You'll have taxable wages or net self-employment income that will provide you with an opportunity to fund an IRA in the United States if you claim the foreign tax credit instead. The credit also provides a tax reduction in the United States based on taxes paid to the country where you work. You're taxed on this income so it's not excluded and you can therefore receive the full benefit of contributing it to an IRA.