Nonresident alien investors and Ireland domiciled ETFs
This page shows why it is better for a non-US investor who is a US nonresident alien (commonly abbreviated to NRA) with poor or no coverage from a US income tax tax treaty, or with poor or no coverage from a US estate tax treaty, to invest in Ireland domiciled exchange traded funds (ETFs) instead of the popular US domiciled mutual funds and ETFs discussed by US-based investors.
This page uses the rate of 30% for any dividend withholding calculations. This is the US dividend tax rate in the absence of a US income tax tax treaty. A poor US income tax treaty is one where the US dividend tax rate exceeds the 15% US/Ireland treaty rate.[note 1]
In addition, US estate taxes begin at just $60,000 of US holding for nonresident aliens, and apply at rates of 26-40% of assets above that level in the absence of a US estate tax treaty. Only fifteen countries have estate tax treaties with the US, and not all of these treaties are good ones. A poor US estate tax treaty is one that does not increase the US estate tax exemption for nonresident aliens to more than the standard $60,000 amount.[note 2]
In law, domicile is the status or attribution of being a lawful permanent resident in a particular jurisdiction. A person's domicile is often the determining factor for many legal aspects, including investing and taxation. Investment funds also have a domicile, and here this too determines the applicable legislation, including taxation.
US tax treaties
Depending on your country of residence, you may be able to benefit from a US tax treaty for lower rates on dividends from US domiciled ETFs, and higher exemptions from US estate taxes. In that case, some parts of this page may not apply directly. For a list of US income tax treaties, see: United States Income Tax Treaties - A to Z.[note 1] For a list of US estate tax tax treaties, see: Estate Gift Tax Treaties International.[note 2]
Canada does not have a separate estate tax treaty with the US. Instead, the US maintains a single treaty with Canada that combines both income taxes and estate taxes. Under this combined treaty, Canadians receive protection up to the level of the US estate tax exemption allowed to US citizens, the same as generally provided by the separate US estate tax treaties for other countries.
European and UK investors should note that it has become difficult to buy US domiciled funds due to 2018 European MiFID and PRIIPs regulations.
Why invest in Ireland domiciled ETFs?
A few reasons for US nonresident alien investors to prefer Ireland domiciled ETFs over US domiciled ETFs:
- Ireland domiciled ETFs can benefit from the US/Ireland tax treaty rate of 15% on dividends and 0% on interest paid to Irish corporations, instead of 30% for US nonresident aliens in countries without a US tax treaty.
- Ireland domiciled ETFs insulate investors from US estate taxes of up to 40% of the balance of US situated assets above $60,000.
- US domiciled ETFs holding non-US securities can suffer double tax withholding. The US domiciled ETF pays withholding to international governments, then the US levies 30% of the remaining distributed dividends. Ireland domiciled ETFs avoid this.
- Complex and constantly changing US tax laws affecting US nonresident aliens. Leave it to iShares and Vanguard Dublin to deal with those.
- Non-residents of Ireland are not liable to Irish gift tax or inheritance tax.
- Availability of accumulating funds that reinvest dividends and which may help some investors reduce or avoid Level 3 tax.
- For Europeans it has become difficult to buy US domiciled funds due to 2018 European MiFID and PRIIPs regulations.
Caveats of investing in Ireland domiciled ETFs
Some of the downsides:
- US domiciled ETFs may have lower expense ratios.
- US domiciled ETFs may have narrower bid/ask spreads.
- Some Ireland domiciled USD denominated ETFs have rather low daily trading volumes. However, this may not be a problem. For why, see: Understanding ETF liquidity at ETF.com, and Understanding ETF liquidity and trading from Vanguard.
- ETF options are limited, but they are sufficient to build Bogleheads-style simple portfolios and more complex portfolios.
- Depending on your broker, buying Ireland domiciled ETFs may incur a higher transaction cost. Beware that next to transaction costs, brokers can have annual custody fees.
- Some EU domiciled ETFs are synthetic. See Index funds and ETFs outside of the US for more information.
- The taxation mentioned here is only applicable for non-Irish residents. For people residing in Ireland another set of rules applies.
No Irish taxes of any kind for Ireland domiciled ETFs
Ireland does not withhold or levy any taxes on capital gains from, or dividends paid by, Ireland domiciled UCITS ETFs for non-residents of Ireland.[note 3] According to Dillon Eustace law firm:
Taxation of investors from the perspective of the investment funds (Non-Residents):
... Irish investment funds are not subject to any taxes on their income (profits) or gains arising on their underlying investments. In addition, there are no Irish withholding taxes in respect of a distribution of payments by investment funds to investors or in relation to any encashment, redemption, cancellation or transfer of units in respect of investors who are neither Irish resident nor ordinarily resident in Ireland, provided the fund has satisfied and availed of certain equivalent measures or the investors have provided the fund with the appropriate relevant declaration of non-Irish residence.
— Dillon Eustace law firm
And according to iShares UK:
Distributions from Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) such as Dublin-domiciled iShares are exempt from Irish withholding tax by virtue of the shares issued by Dublin-domiciled iShares being settled via a recognised clearing system (Crest).
— iShares UK
23.6 Exemption of certain investment entities
CATCA 2003 s.75 provides an exemption from tax for gifts and inheritances of units of certain investment entities (defined in the TCA 1997, Part 27). Units held in collective investment schemes, common contractual funds, investment limited partnerships or investment undertakings are exempt from tax in cases where neither the disponer nor the donee or successor is domiciled or ordinarily resident in the State, at the date of the disposition and at the date of the gift or inheritance, respectively. The CAT exemption applies in the case of the transfer of units in an investment limited partnership notwithstanding that this type of entity has been removed from the definition of “investment undertaking” in section 739B(1) TCA 1997.
— Revenue Ireland
Ireland applies no taxes of any kind on non-Irish residents who hold Ireland domiciled ETFs. Ireland domiciled ETFs are therefore completely 'tax transparent' to investors, making them preferable to US domiciled ETFs for investors in any country with poor or no US tax treaty coverage, and often acceptable to investors even in countries with good US tax treaty coverage.
Multiple levels of dividend tax withholding
Investors that hold funds that hold securities can be taxed on dividends by multiple countries at multiple levels.[note 4]
There are 3 levels of dividend taxation to apply.
- L1TW: Percentage of tax withholding by a security's home country on dividends distributed by that security to the fund (Level 1).
- L2TW: Percentage of tax withholding by the country where the fund is domiciled on the dividends distributed to the investor by the fund (Level 2).
- L3T: Percentage of taxation that the individual investor needs to pay in their home country (Level 3).
Estimating Level 1 dividend tax withholding paid by US domiciled funds
According to the PWL Capital white paper,[note 4] the following are the percentages of tax withholding paid by different types of US domiciled ETFs
|Fund Type||Fund Used||2009||2010||2011||2012||2013||5-Year average|
|US-listed ETF of [ex-US] developed markets stocks||iShares MSCI EAFE ETF (EFA) †||7.5%||8.1%||7.6%||7.2%||6.9%||7.5%|
|US-listed ETF of emerging markets stocks||iShares MSCI Emerging Markets ETF (EEM)||10.3%||12.2%||10.4%||10.1%||11.1%||10.8%|
† Note that iShares MSCI EAFE ETF (EFA) excludes the US. You can use that number to approximate Level 1 taxes for the ex-US developed markets portion of the fund in question. If the US domiciled fund you are analyzing has 60% US stocks and 40% ex-US developed markets, the Level 1 tax withholding will be 0.40 × 7.5% = 3.0% approximately.
Estimating Level 1 dividend tax withholding paid by Ireland domiciled funds
Using annual reports of the most traded funds from iShares and Vanguard, the following is the resulting Level 1 percentages leaked by funds per percent dividend yield. Those figures were calculated for this wiki post. If you find other sources online confirming, please update and reference accordingly.
|ETF / Year||Inception Date||2011||2012||2013||2014||Average|
|Vanguard FTSE Developed World UCITS ETF (VEVE)||30-Sep-2014||-||-||-||12.3%||12.3%|
|Vanguard FTSE Developed Europe UCITS ETF (VEUR)||21-May-2013||-||-||-||5.5%||5.5%|
|Vanguard FTSE Emerging Markets UCITS ETF (VFEM)||22-May-2012||-||-||9.8%||9.0%||9.4%|
|Vanguard FTSE All-World UCITS ETF (VWRL)||22-May-2012||-||-||10.7%||9.8%||10.3%|
|iShares Core MSCI World UCITS (IWDA)||25-Sep-2009||12.6%||12.2%||11.9%||11.6%||12.1%|
|iShares MSCI Emerging Markets UCITS ETF (IDEM)||18-Nov-2005||11.4%||10.0%||10.1%||11.4%||10.7%|
|iShares US Aggregate Bond UCITS ETF (IUAG)||13-Sep-2011||-||-||0.0%||0.0%||0.0%|
|iShares $ Corporate Bond UCITS ETF (LQDE)||16-May-2003||0.0%||0.0%||0.0%||0.1%||0.0%|
|iShares US Property Yield UCITS ETF (IUSP)||3-Nov-2006||12.6%||12.7%||13.6%||13.4%||13.1%|
Keep in mind that each index provider (MSCI/FTSE) has a different definition of "Developed Markets" and "Emerging Markets". Different indices have different allocations of those markets, too.
Comparing the dividend yields shown on fund factsheets
When looking at the dividend yield shown on an ETF's factsheet, take care to understand that for the portion of the dividend that comes from underlying US stocks, US domiciled ETFs will show this dividend portion as gross, but Ireland domiciled ETFs will show it net of 15% US withholding tax. This can make it appear as if Ireland domiciled ETFs pay out lower dividends. And in practice, they may (depending on what assets they hold); it is just that nonresident aliens who do not live in countries with a US tax treaty will lose 30% of every US domiciled ETF's dividend in broker US tax withholding, whereas there is no broker tax withholding for any country for an Ireland domiciled ETF.
For example, as of the current date, the factsheet for US domiciled Vanguard S&P 500 ETF (VOO) indicates a 1.74% dividend yield, whereas that for Ireland domiciled Vanguard S&P 500 UCITS ETF (VUSA) indicates a 1.47% dividend yield.[note 5] However, on payment of the dividend from VOO to a nonresident alien investor in a country without a US income tax treaty, 30% lost to US tax reduces the 1.74% dividend to an effective 1.218%. This is considerably less than the 1.47% that would be received from VUSD.
Calculating dividend tax withholding as a ratio
To better compare different ETFs we can convert the tax withholding percentages into a total annual approximation of percentage 'tax drag'; call this the Tax Withholding Ratio (TWR). This makes it easily comparable to the expense ratios found on funds' fact sheets.[note 6]
To calculate the dividend Tax Withholding Ratio (TWR), we need four pieces of information:
- L1TW: Percentage of tax withholding by a security's home country on dividends distributed by that security to the fund (Level 1). This can be estimated using a fund's annual report, dividing "Non-reclaimable withholding tax" by "Dividend income".
- L2TW: Percentage of tax withholding by the country where the fund is domiciled on the dividends distributed to the investor by the fund (Level 2). If you are a non-treaty US nonresident alien investing in US domiciled ETFs, that number is 30%. If you are investing in Ireland domiciled ETFs and you do not reside in Ireland, you do not have to pay any Irish tax withholding.
- YIELD: Gross yield of the assets held by fund.[note 7] The best estimate will come from using the fund's annual report, dividing "Dividend income" by "Total assets under management". As you cannot know the amount of future dividends in advance, an approximation based on historical values (gross before withholding was paid) should be sufficient. Dividend yield is used in the formula as the Level 1 taxes are paid on dividends received by fund.
- TER: The fund's Total Expense Ratio. This can be obtained from a fund's factsheet or KIID document.[note 8]
The calculation after that is rather simple:
TWR = (YIELD × L1TW) + ((YIELD × (1 - L1TW) - TER) × L2TW)
The first term in parentheses calculates the Level 1 leakage. The second term uses the remaining dividend, deducts the fund's TER[note 9] and then applies the individual's Level 2 tax to the remaining sum.
You can now add the TWR to the fund's published expense ratio (TER) to get a comparable total ratio paid annually. Note that this does not include the dividend tax that the investor pays to their resident-country on the dividends actually received.
Example calculation for S&P 500 ETFs
Vanguard S&P 500 ETF (VOO):
- L1TW = 0%, as it is US domiciled, holding US securities
- L2TW = 30%, US nonresident alien rate for countries without a US tax treaty
- YIELD = 1.74%, estimated as we need it for comparison purposes, not exact dollar calculations
- TER = 0.03%
TWR for VOO = (1.74% × 0) + ((1.74% × (1 - 0) - 0.03%) × 0.3) = 0 + 0.513 = 0.513%
Vanguard S&P 500 UCITS ETF (VUSA):
- L1TW = 15%, as it is Ireland domiciled, holding US securities
- L2TW = 0%, no Irish tax withholding on UCITS funds
- YIELD = 1.74%, estimation, from VOO
- TER = 0.07%
TWR for VUSA = (1.74% × 0.15) + ((1.74% × (1 - 0.15) - 0.07%) × 0) = 0.261 + 0 = 0.261%
L1TW for VUSA can be also calculated using its annual report. For 2014, Foreign Withholding Tax (7,721,652) divided by Dividend Income (52,371,805) = 14.74%. TedSwippet suggests that it's not 15.0% on the dot due to a 2.5% REIT allocation, which may distribute dividends or capital gains at different rates than the US treaty rate of 15% for dividends. A tax drag differing from the treaty rate may for instance be caused by foreign companies in an index, capital gains being taxed differently than dividends and REITs can recharacterize distributed dividends as return of capital, which is not to be taxed.
Including the funds' expense ratios: VOO's total cost is 0.54% for a nonresident alien with no US tax treaty, while VUSA's total cost is 0.33%. For this investor then, VUSA is the better holding.
Example calculation for FTSE World ETFs
Vanguard Total World Stock ETF (VT):
- L1TW † = 0% × 52% (US) + 9% × 10.8% (Emerging Markets) + 39% × 7.5% (ex-US developed) = 3.9%
- L2TW = 30%, US nonresident alien rate for countries without a US tax treaty
- YIELD = 2.0%, estimation as we need it for comparison purposes, not exact dollar calculations
- TER = 0.08%
† Ratios of US/EM/DM obtained from VT's Vanguard.com portfolio page.
TWR for VT = (2.0% × 0.039) + ((2.0% × (1 - 0.039) - 0.08%) × 0.3) = 0.078 + 0.5526 = 0.6306%
Vanguard FTSE All-World UCITS ETF (VWRL):
- L1TW = 10.3%
- L2TW = 0%, no Irish tax withholding on UCITS funds
- YIELD = 2.0%, estimation, same as used for VT
- TER = 0.22%
TWR for VWRL = (2.0% × 0.103) + ((2.0% × (1 - 0.103) - 0.22%) × 0) = 0.206 + 0 = 0.206%
Including the fund expense ratios: VT's total cost is 0.71% for a nonresident alien with no US tax treaty, while VWRL's total cost is 0.43%. For this investor, VWRL is the better holding. Note that as allocation to countries changes over time, the tax drag will change over time as well. Also note that as yield changes over time, the tax drag will change over time as well.
Dividend tax withholding ratio calculator
The following form calculates a Tax Withholding Ratio (TWR). Enter the Level 1 and Level 2 tax withholding, the ETF yield, and the ETF's Total Expense Ratio (TER). Enter all values as percentages.
Taxation of investments from outside of the country of the investor (dividend withholding tax leakage)
Investors holding funds that hold securities are taxed at multiple levels on dividends. Depending on the tax treaties (for example, US tax treaties or US estate taxes) there will be withholding taxes by the country of domicile of the asset, or the country of the domicile of the fund, or both.
This taxation will apply before the taxation of the domicile of the investor applies.
International withholding tax
As explained above, funds themselves will be taxed internally on the dividends they receive from individual stocks they hold.
Funds that are domiciled in Ireland are liable to foreign (most notably, US) dividend withholding taxation. As of 2020 there is no easily accessible way for individual investors to recuperate these foreign withholding taxes incurred by funds domiciled in Ireland. This has been named international withholding tax leakage, often referred to as "dividend leakage". While this is highly technical fiscal material, investors should carefully consider the effect of foreign withholding tax on their investment because it lowers expected returns.
See Estimating Level 1 dividend tax withholding paid by Ireland domiciled funds above for some common figures on well known funds.
Distributing ETF example: FTSE All-World UCITS ETF (VWRL)
The Vanguard FTSE All-World UCITS ETF (VWRL) fund notes 9.8% percent Level 1 dividend tax withholding for each percent of dividend yield received during the year 2014. Assuming a typical 2% dividend yield, we can estimate the dividend leakage as follows:
- 9.8% dividend withholding of a 2% gross dividend = 0.20% dividend leakage
On the other hand, funds gain some income from "securities lending". Vanguard states that it lends some of the securities, although this seems to only add 0.01% to the performance of this fund.
As of 2020, the FTSE All-World charges an 0.22% ongoing cost figure (OCF). But for investors, an additional estimated 0.20% would be lost to foreign withholding tax, and 0.01% would be gained from securities lending. This brings the total estimated figure of cost and taxation incurred by the fund itself to 0.41%. A significant difference although an average 10% dividend leakage is likely lower than the Level 1 dividend withholding rate that the investor can obtain themselves.
A simpler way to account for dividend leakage without delving into balance sheets is to look at the difference between reported fund return (performance) and gross index benchmark return. When funds report annual returns they usually measure these against net index benchmark returns. This is the gross index return minus a tax index benchmark.
Accumulating ETF example: FTSE All-World UCITS ETF (USD) Accumulating (VWRA)
When we compare the Vanguard FTSE All-World UCITS ETF (USD) Accumulating (VWRA) fund to its gross benchmark published by FTSE Russell for 2019 we obtain these figures:
- A gross index return of 27.22%
- A net index return of 26.53% - this takes into account the "typical" level-1 taxation.
- A reported fund return of 26.52%
First, note that the reported fund return is only 0.01% lower than the net index return of 26.53%. A difference that is not intuitive due to the stated 0.22% total expense ratio of the fund. This is likely due to the fact that the tax index benchmark used to obtain the net index return overestimates the 15% withholding tax tariff on US dividends. See the average 10% figure computed in Nonresident alien investors and Ireland domiciled ETFs. This is also one of the reasons why the fund sometimes "outperforms" the net index benchmark.
Secondly, note that there is a difference of almost 0.7% between the reported fund return and gross index benchmark. 0.25% of that is explained by the funds' stated expense ratio for 2019. The remainder of that difference consists of dividend leakage, the internal transaction cost, the income from securities lending etc.
US estate tax considerations
For investors in countries without a US estate tax treaty, and where total US situated holdings are below $60,000, the choice of whether to use US domiciled or Ireland domiciled ETFs might be made based on which will return the dividends from the underlying stocks in the most tax-efficient way.
Where total US situated holdings exceed $60,000 however, the risk of US estate tax can dominate the decision. For example, the US tax treaties with Bulgaria, China, Mexico, Romania and Russia allow investors in these countries a 10% US tax withholding rate on dividends. This is below the 15% US/Ireland tax treaty rate, and so may make US domiciled ETFs a slightly more tax-efficient way to receive dividends from US stocks. However, none of these countries has a US estate tax treaty. Investors in these countries and who hold more than $60,000 may nevertheless prefer Ireland domiciled ETFs over US domiciled ones.
- The countries with poor US income tax treaties, ones that provide a US dividend tax rate that is above the 15% US/Ireland tax treaty rate, are Greece, Pakistan, Trinidad and Tobago, India, Israel, Philippines, Tunisia, and Turkey.
- The countries with poor US estate tax treaties, ones that appear not to raise the exemption above the standard $60,000 for nonresident aliens, are Ireland and South Africa.
- A reply received from Saxo Bank customer support dated March 2015: "Our corporate actions team replied that on VWRL there has previously been 0% tax. On Irish ETFs in general they can’t give an answer – it may be different on different ETFs."
- From a Canadian perspective, according to PWL Capital: PWL Capital - Foreign Withholding Taxes: How to estimate the hidden tax drag on US and International equity index funds and ETFs "Investors are potentially subject to withholding taxes levied by the countries where the stocks are domiciled, whether that is the US, developed markets outside North America (western Europe, Japan, Australia), or emerging markets (China, Brazil, Taiwan). We refer to this as Level 1 withholding tax. When international stocks are held indirectly via a Canadian-listed ETF that holds a US-listed ETF, investors may also be subject to what we've called Level 2 withholding tax. This is an additional 15% [30% if no tax treaty] withheld by the US government before the US-listed ETF pays the dividends to Canadian investors. You can think of Level 1 foreign withholding tax like a departure tax you pay when taking a direct flight to Canada from a foreign country (including the US). Level 2 tax is like a second departure tax you pay when an overseas flight to Canada has a layover in the US."
- Notice here that VUSD's 1.47% is 85% of VOO's 1.74%. The missing 15% is the US withholding tax, US/Ireland tax treaty rate, paid internally by VUSD.
- For more about this method, see "Tax withholding calculation indirectly mentioned by Canadian Couch Potato", in post "Foreign Withholding Tax Explained". Also, "Foreign Withholding Taxes: How to estimate the hidden tax drag on US and International equity index funds and ETFs". PWL Capital. Retrieved June 30, 2016.
- Note that this is not necessarily the same as the fund's indicated dividend yield.
- Background info for KIID: UCITS IV: Key Investor Information Document-KIID, from PwC Luxembourg
- Some countries allow funds to subtract the fund's TER before paying the dividends, others do not. Please review the taxation of the country where the fund is domiciled.
- Bogleheads® investing start-up kit for non-US investors
- Nonresident alien taxation
- Non-US investor's guide to navigating US tax traps
- Nonresident alien's ETF domicile decision table
- EU investing
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- Bogleheads® forum topic:
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- Bogleheads® forum post: , by Micks (and Galeno).
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