Non-US investor's guide to navigating US tax traps
US tax laws contain multiple traps for unwary non-US investors, a category that includes both US nonresident aliens and US citizens living outside the US. In the worst cases they can lead to outcomes such as US income tax rates of 100% on gains, loss of 40% of total assets to US estate taxes, and huge fines for non-disclosure of assets.
This page contains a guide for non-US investors planning to use index tracker funds or ETFs, with the aim of helping these investors to avoid falling into US tax traps by navigating around, through, or between them.
- 1 Introduction
- 2 Why fund domicile matters
- 3 Decision flowchart
- 4 Interview section
- 4.1 Start
- 4.2 Q1. Are you a US citizen?
- 4.3 Q2. Are you a green card holder (US lawful permanent resident)?
- 4.4 Q3. Are you a US resident?
- 4.5 Q3b. Are you a US tax resident?
- 4.6 Q4. Do you plan to retire in the US?
- 4.7 Q5. Do you plan to get a green card?
- 4.8 Q6. Does your country have an income tax treaty with the US?
- 4.9 Q7. Does your country have an estate tax treaty with the US?
- 4.10 Q8. What is the US dividend tax treaty rate for your country?
- 4.11 Q9. Do you hold more than $60,000 in US situated assets?
- 5 Results section
- 5.1 Results
- 5.2 A1. This chart does not apply to you
- 5.3 A2. Avoid non-US domiciled funds and ETFs
- 5.4 A3. Create a relocation-resistant portfolio
- 5.5 A4. Avoid US domiciled funds and ETFs and prefer Ireland or other non-US offerings
- 5.6 A5. Consider preferring US domiciled funds and ETFs
- 5.7 A6. Choose your funds and ETFs for best local tax outcome
- 6 See also
US tax laws are extensive, intrusive, complicated, and far-reaching. In common with many countries, the US taxes the worldwide income of its residents. However, it is virtually unique in taxing the foreign income of its citizens and lawful permanent residents who live outside the country either temporarily or permanently. It also applies onerous estate taxes to US situated assets held by non-US persons (that is, non-US citizens who are also not US residents, referred to in IRS documents and US tax laws and regulations as 'nonresident aliens').
Non-US investors susceptible to hidden US tax traps fall into three main categories:
- Nonresident aliens living outside the US and holding US investments or assets
- US citizens and green card holders living outside the US
- Non-US citizens living temporarily in the US on a nonimmigrant work visa (such as H1B or L1) or a green card
All three groups face significant difficulties with US taxes. By following the guidelines below a non-US investor should be able to avoid the worst of the issues presented by US taxes. If you fall into any of these groups, read on.
|This guide is not, and can never be, entirely complete and unambiguous. While it will give you the broad outline of common US tax traps, there are often exceptions that can alter the outcome for a particular case. So after following it, take care to investigate your own individual circumstances carefully to make sure that it really applies to you as expected.|
Why fund domicile matters
Just like a person, a fund or ETF has a domicile. This is the country in which the fund's holding company is legally incorporated, and typically where the administration and management of the fund itself takes place.
For example, Vanguard offers two separate S&P 500 index tracker ETFs, and they have different domiciles:
- VOO, provided by Vanguard US, domiciled in the US and traded on US exchanges
- VUSD, provided by Vanguard in Europe, domiciled in Ireland and traded on the London Stock Exchange and other European exchanges
Both of these ETFs hold the same underlying stocks, and so the return to investors from them should be the exact same (excluding perhaps a tiny offset due to any small difference in annual charges). So why do Vanguard do this? Surely an investor could choose either at will and get the same results?
The answer is US taxes. Despite investing in identical underlying assets -- that is, not just asset class, but actual assets -- investors in varying personal 'tax circumstances' will get different results depending on which of these two ETFs they choose to hold. Sometimes wildly different.
For a US resident, US citizen or green card holder investing in the S&P 500 through VOO, the US will not withhold any tax on dividends, and the individual investor is responsible for their own tax payments to the US. If this person invested in the S&P 500 through VUSD instead, the US would apply a punitive 'offshore fund' tax regime on the ETF returns that in some cases could reduce the overall gain to nothing.
For a nonresident alien or non-US person investing in the S&P 500 through VOO, the US will withhold up to 30% tax on dividends (the actual rate might be reduce by a tax treaty, typically to 15%), and could levy a 40% estate tax to the balance on the holder's death (again, depending on treaty). If this person invested in the S&P 500 through VUSD instead, the fund pays 15% internally to the US on dividends but the investor receives all of the remaining 85%, and there is no risk of US estate tax.
And for either of the above cases, whether or not the investments are held inside a pension or other tax-mitigating wrapper may create further significant differences to the tax results.
Between the extremes lies a whole spectrum of outcomes. The decision flowchart below aims to help you uncover where you fall on this spectrum, as a way to guide the decision of whether to hold your investments through the usual Vanguard ETFs discussed by and used by US investors, or whether to hold them through different ETFs -- specifically, non-US domiciled ones.
This is the flowchart we will be using to navigate around US tax traps. Scroll down to Start to begin the process of following it.
Navigate the flowchart by answering a series of questions and then following the links that apply to you until you reach a result. Most questions have simple yes/no answers.
Often you will need to read external documents to decide which answer to a question is the right one for you. But by following it, this flowchart should help you to determine how best to invest in index funds or ETFs while minimising US tax difficulties.
|This process does not cover anything other than funds or ETFs. If you hold US or other real estate (outside of REITs), US shares directly, or any other type of investment then this flowchart will not provide any insights for you. It is exclusively a way to guide you in deciding which are the best fund and ETF domiciles for you to use, which are the worst, and any special issues relating to pensions and similar tax-mitigating wrappers.|
Go to Question 1 to begin.
Q1. Are you a US citizen?
Q2. Are you a green card holder (US lawful permanent resident)?
Q3. Are you a US resident?
Q3b. Are you a US tax resident?
Q4. Do you plan to retire in the US?
Q5. Do you plan to get a green card?
Q6. Does your country have an income tax treaty with the US?
Q7. Does your country have an estate tax treaty with the US?
Q8. What is the US dividend tax treaty rate for your country?
Q9. Do you hold more than $60,000 in US situated assets?
For holdings below $60,000, see also the results from following Question 8.
Following the flowchart interview will guide you one or more of the Results sections below.
You can of course read others for interest or entertainment, but the one or ones that the flowchart guides you to are the only Results that are relevant to your own circumstances and which you should consider applying to your own investing.
A1. This chart does not apply to you
You are a US resident US citizen or green card holder fully intending to retire in the US.
A2. Avoid non-US domiciled funds and ETFs
- See also Taxation as a US person living abroad.
You are tax-resident outside the US, but at the same time the US claims you as a 'US person'.
Or, you are tax-resident inside the US, but still hold investments in a country you lived in previously.
A3. Create a relocation-resistant portfolio
- While a US resident or green card holder, see also Result A2.
- For an outline of the situation when you are no longer a US resident or green card holder, see also the results of following Question 6 as if you are now resident in your new country.
You are tax-resident in the US, but think you might move or retire outside the US.
A4. Avoid US domiciled funds and ETFs and prefer Ireland or other non-US offerings
You are a US nonresident alien with poor or nonexistent US tax treaty coverage.
A5. Consider preferring US domiciled funds and ETFs
- See also Nonresident alien taxation.
You are a US nonresident alien with surprisingly good US tax treaty coverage.
A6. Choose your funds and ETFs for best local tax outcome
You are a US nonresident alien with average US tax treaty coverage.
- Nonresident alien's ETF domicile decision table
- Nonresident alien taxation
- Nonresident alien with no US tax treaty & Irish ETFs
- Passive foreign investment company
- Taxation as a US person living abroad