How to Be Exempt From Federal Taxes When Working Out of the Country

Living and working abroad can put you in a taxing situation

Living and working abroad can put you in a taxing situation

Dealing with U.S. taxes can put a damper on the adventure of foreign travel and work. Unfortunately, the IRS -- unique among the world's taxing agencies -- demands that you account for your income no matter where you are and pay taxes on it. There are rules that lessen the burden if you pay foreign income and social security taxes, or if you stay abroad for all but 35 days out of the year.

Claim the foreign tax credit. If you have worked in and paid taxes to a foreign country, the IRS allows you to subtract these payments from your U.S. tax obligation. You must file a return with the IRS to claim the credit. You may not apply the tax credit to any foreign taxes paid on money that the IRS excludes from taxable income.

Stay put in your foreign country of choice and don't return to the United States for more than 35 days out of the year. You'll pass the bona fide foreign residence test and the IRS will exclude up to $95,100 of your income from taxes (as of tax year 2012). You can exempt up to that amount of your spouse's income as well. This exemption applies only to earned income -- not to investment income, capital gains, rents and the like.

Work for a foreign employer and pay foreign social security and other payroll taxes according to local law. You will be exempt from U.S. Social Security and Medicare taxes. If you are self-employed, however, you must file Schedule C and Schedule SE to pay the U.S. self-employment tax, unless the foreign country has a social security agreement with the United States and you elect to pay the foreign taxes.

Items you will need

  • Form 1040, Individual Tax Return
  • Form 2555-EX, Foreign Earned Income Exclusion
  • Form 1116, Foreign Tax Credit


  • Always file a tax return, even if you don't owe any taxes or have no income to declare.
  • U.S. taxpayers living abroad have the right to an automatic two-month extension for filing taxes, without filing the usual Form 4868 to request the extension.


  • The United States has tax treaties with more than 40 foreign countries. Information on the income and location of citizens living outside their home countries is shared between governments.
  • It is illegal to renounce U.S. citizenship to avoid taxes, and failure to file a tax return when required will cause your overdue tax bill to grow as the IRS charges penalties and interest.
  • Your state may also assess taxes on your foreign income if it determines that your "tax domicile" remains within the state. This means you own property or earn income within the state or from any company located within the state.

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About the Author

Founder/president of the innovative reference publisher The Archive LLC, Tom Streissguth has been a self-employed business owner, independent bookseller and freelance author in the school/library market. Holding a bachelor's degree from Yale, Streissguth has published more than 100 works of history, biography, current affairs and geography for young readers.

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