What Is the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion?

Quick Answer

The foreign earned income exclusion (FEIE) allows U.S. taxpayers living abroad to exclude up to $126,500 of foreign income if they meet foreign residency requirements. The FEIE may help you avoid paying taxes twice: once in a foreign country and again in the U.S.

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When you live and work abroad, the IRS still expects you to pay taxes in the U.S. Unless you exclude your foreign income using the foreign earned income exclusion (or use another IRS provision), you'll pay U.S. taxes on your worldwide income—even if you paid taxes on it already in another country.

The foreign earned income exclusion (FEIE) allows you to exclude up to $126,500 of your foreign income plus up to $37,950 in qualifying housing expenses on your U.S. tax return in 2024. Here's how the FEIE works and how to claim it.

What Is the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion?

The FEIE allows you to exclude income you've earned and paid taxes on in a foreign country from your U.S. taxable income. Excluding this income on your U.S. federal tax return lets you avoid paying taxes on it twice—once in the country where you earned it and again in the U.S.

The FEIE applies only to earned income such as wages, salaries and self-employment income. Passive income, including interest, dividends, capital gains and rental income, don't qualify for this tax benefit.

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Who Qualifies for the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion?

To qualify for the FEIE, you must be a U.S. citizen or resident alien living abroad. According to the IRS, your tax home must be in a foreign country and you must meet one of the following requirements to be eligible for the FEIE:

  • You are a U.S. citizen who is a bona fide resident of a foreign country or countries for an uninterrupted period that includes an entire tax year.
  • You are a U.S. resident alien who is a citizen or national of a country with which the United States has an income tax treaty in effect, and you are a bona fide resident of a foreign country or countries for an uninterrupted period that includes an entire tax year.
  • You are a U.S. citizen or resident alien who has been physically present in a foreign country or countries for at least 330 full days during any 12 consecutive months.

What Is the Maximum Foreign Earned Income Exclusion?

For the 2024 tax year, the maximum exclusion for the FEIE is $126,500. If you're married and both you and your spouse are eligible to claim the FEIE, you can each claim it for a combined exclusion of $253,000. The FEIE maximum adjusts each year for inflation.

In addition to the FEIE, you may be eligible to claim the foreign housing exclusion. The foreign housing exclusion has the same residency requirements as the FEIE. You can use it to exclude eligible housing expenses that exceed 16% of the maximum FEIE. In 2024, that baseline is $20,240 (or 16% of $126,500).

Translated to plain numbers, that means if you have $30,000 in eligible foreign housing expenses in 2024, you can exclude $9,760 of it. The exclusion also tops out at 30% of the FEIE, or $37,950. Your exclusion amount can vary depending on where you live and how many tax days there are in the year.

Foreign Earned Income Exclusion vs. Foreign Tax Credit

The foreign tax credit (FTC) is an IRS provision that allows U.S. citizens and resident aliens to offset their U.S. tax liability by the amount of foreign income tax they've paid. Both the FEIE and the FTC can save you money on federal income taxes, but they operate in different ways. The FEIE excludes foreign-earned income from your taxable income, similar to a tax deduction. The FTC lowers your tax bill dollar-for-dollar by the amount of eligible foreign tax you've paid.

Here's a simplified example: Suppose you earned $50,000 working in another country and paid $10,000 in foreign income taxes. Claiming the FEIE would allow you to reduce your U.S. taxable income by excluding your $50,000 of foreign income. Alternatively, you could claim the FTC and reduce your tax bill by $10,000, the amount of tax you paid in the country where you live. In either case, you're avoiding double taxation by either excluding your foreign income or claiming a tax credit.

Pros of the Foreign Tax Credit vs. Foreign Earned Income Exclusion

Though each option has its advantages, there are a few instances when you might consider the FTC over the FEIE.

  • You don't meet FEIE residency requirements. Although the FTC requires you to be a U.S. citizen or resident alien to qualify, you don't need to pass the bona fide resident or physical presence tests required for the FEIE.
  • You have foreign-sourced passive income. This might include capital gains, dividends, interest or rental income. These income sources don't qualify for the FEIE but may be eligible for the FTC.
  • You want to contribute to an IRA. Your contribution to either a traditional or Roth IRA also can't exceed your taxable compensation for the year, which is affected by how much income you exclude under the FEIE.
  • You want to be able to carry credits forward (or back). You can carry forward unused foreign tax credits to future years, or carry them back from prior years, subject to FTC requirements.

Cons of the Foreign Tax Credit

  • Requirements and restrictions can be complicated. Here are a few examples: Foreign taxes paid to a government being sanctioned by the U.S. are not eligible for the credit. The FTC also limits the amount of foreign tax you can claim based on the ratio of foreign earnings to combined foreign and U.S. earnings. Foreign taxes you've paid may not be eligible for the FTC, or only a portion may qualify. In fairness, residency tests for the FEIE are also complicated: Take your pick.
  • Your savings may be greater with the FEIE. The only sure way to know which option is better for you is to calculate (or at least carefully estimate) your taxes both ways. If the foreign taxes you paid are far less than your U.S. tax bill would be, the FTC might not beat the FEIE. Also, the FEIE allows you to exclude qualifying housing expenses, which may tip the scales.

Can You Claim Both?

You can claim both the FEIE and the FTC in the same year, but not on the same income. Suppose you earn $150,000 working abroad in 2024. You can exclude $126,500 of your income using the FEIE (using the 2024 maximum), then claim a credit for the foreign taxes you paid on your remaining $23,500 in income. You cannot, however, claim a credit for taxes you paid on the excluded $126,500.

You can claim the FTC using IRS Form 1116. You may also want to review Publication 514: Foreign Tax Credit for Individuals to better understand how this provision works, or consult a tax advisor for help sorting through the applicable rules.

How to Claim the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion

To claim the FEIE, you must file a U.S. tax return (Form 1040), and complete and file Form 2555 with your federal tax return. If you are not claiming the foreign housing exclusion or deduction, file Form 2555-EZ.

Be prepared to provide information about your employer, foreign-earned income, residence and dates of travel to and from the U.S. If you're claiming the foreign housing exclusion (or foreign housing deduction if you're self-employed), you'll also need information on your documented expenses for housing, utilities, parking rental and other qualified expenses.

A few points to remember:

  • If you're self-employed, you must pay U.S. self-employment taxes on your income before applying the FEIE.
  • If your income exceeds the FEIE limit, you must figure the tax on your non-excluded income using tax rates that would have applied had you not claimed the exclusion.
  • If you need additional time to qualify for the foreign earned income exclusion and you plan to file Form 2555, you can file for an extension using Form 2350.

The Bottom Line

If you're an expat living and working outside the U.S., avoiding double taxation is key. The FEIE and the foreign housing exclusion give foreign-based citizens and resident aliens a workaround, though understanding these provisions isn't always easy. Your best options may vary depending on where you live, how long you've lived there, the foreign tax rate you paid, your eligibility for foreign tax credits and more. Working with a trusted tax advisor may save you confusion and help you implement the best option for your individual situation.