Social Security or Vocational Rehabilitation and Going Abroad
Find out how people with disabilities who receive SSI benefits and VR funds can continue while studying abroad.
"While preparing to study abroad in England, I was concerned about how much it was going to cost. I was receiving SSI benefits and involved with the Department of Rehabilitation Services (DORS), and remained eligible for the year I was in England.
- Beth Ocrant, who has a vision disability
- Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits overseas
- Medicaid or Medicare coverage while overseas
- Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) benefits overseas
- Plan to Achieve Self-Support (PASS) benefits overseas
Some people with disabilities are eligible for financial assistance under the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program if they meet the definition of disability and their income and resources are within the allowed limits. Learn more about SSI and how to qualify.
How to receive SSI while studying abroad:
If you are a student who receives SSI payments in the U.S., you may be able to continue receiving SSI payments while outside the U.S. for study abroad for up to one year if:
- The international exchange course of study is not available to you in the U.S.
- The study abroad program is sponsored by a school in the U.S.
- Participation is critical to your educational and vocational success
- You are eligible for SSI for the one month immediately prior to leaving the U.S.
- You will earn academic credits towards your high school or college degree while abroad
Work with your transition or benefits specialist to arrange to continue your SSI payments while you are abroad. Specific SSI and study abroad guidelines are listed here.
Social Security Disability Income
SSI should not be confused with Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI, also called SSD). If you are a U.S. citizen, you can travel to or live in most foreign countries without affecting your Social Security Disability benefits. There are, however, a few countries where SSA cannot send Social Security payments. You should notify SSA if you plan to go outside the United States for a trip that lasts 30 days or more, including the name of the country or countries you plan to visit and the date you expect to leave the United States. SSA will tell you how to arrange for your benefits while you are away. Notify SSA when you return from your trip.
Visit the SSA website for more information about receiving Social Security benefits if you leave the United States, including restricted countries and information for noncitizens.
How fellowships affect payments overseas:
If you receive a fellowship to go overseas, such as the Fulbright program through the U.S. Department of State, the fellowship will be considered income. Contact the Social Security Administration (SSA) to find out how the fellowship income will affect your SSI or SSDI payments.
If the fellowship ends in less than one year, you probably won't need to reapply for SSI or SSDI once you return to the United States. However, if you receive fellowship income for 12 or more months, your SSI or SSDI eligibility could be terminated. Even after eligibility has terminated, it may still be possible to get back on SSI or SSDI benefits by contacting SSA and asking for expedited reinstatement.
People who have Medicaid or Medicare will not be covered while they are outside the United States.
- Medicaid recipients may be dropped from enrollment in the medical plans if they
do not keep a U.S. state residence/address or if they lose their SSI
eligibility. People can lose their SSI eligibility
by being out of the country for more than 30 days for anything other
than studying abroad for credit through a U.S.-based educational
program for up to a year.
Loss of enrollment creates a gap of coverage on return home from being abroad, especially if the travel health insurance does not cover participants in their home country. Contact the Medicaid office for more information.
- Medicare will
not make payment for services rendered or supplies sent outside the
United States, except in some special exceptions. Learn about special exceptions for receiving Medicare coverage in a foreign country.
Research alternative travel health insurance by reading the tipsheet Insurance Considerations for Exchange Participants with Disabilities.
"Since this was the first time traveling to a another country without family or friends, this experience was a big step for me, and it built my self-esteem in traveling alone."
- Mallory Watts, who is Deaf, and used VR funds towards her international exchange in Mexico
Vocational rehabilitation (VR) funding is available to some individuals with disabilities. Students with disabilities who receive VR funding for their education should consider studying abroad to be competitive in their future careers.
Did you know that it's possible to use your VR funds towards study abroad-related expenses? Common examples include program fees, tuition, books, and housing. Some students have also used VR funds to cover their disability-related expenses while abroad, such as hiring a personal assistant or renting a golf cart for mobility.
Include Study Abroad in Your VR Plan! Here's how:
- Visit your campus study abroad or department head office to find out about study abroad programs related to your major.
- Contact the National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange for other programs, accommodations abroad, insurance tips, and financial aid resources.
- Check with your international exchange advisor and health insurance provider to find out about medical coverage abroad.
- Bring information on a study abroad program that is required or supports your educational/vocational goal to your VR counselor's attention.
- Write down the program information in a letter to your VR counselor.
- Clearly state how the experience will enhance your educational and vocational goals.
- List all the study abroad program expenses. For help with this part, request cost information from the study abroad office, and consider any disability accommodation expenses (see a sample expense form here).
- Include how much you are able to financially contribute towards the expenses.
Another option available to SSI beneficiaries to proactively plan for international exchange is through the SSI work incentives program. An individual with a disability receiving SSI benefits can apply for a PASS (Plan for Achieving Self-Support). Through a PASS, an individual can set aside income and/or resources that will be used to achieve a career goal. The income set aside in a PASS will then not be included in determining the individual’s continued eligible for SSI benefits.
If international experience is approved by the VR counselor as necessary to meet an individual’s career goal, income can be set aside to be used to cover some of the expenses related to participating in the program. For example, Sam has the approved career goal of becoming a German language interpreter. VR may approve the funding to cover his tuition and books to study in Germany for a semester and a PASS plan would allow him to set aside income from his part-time job to purchase the airline ticket.
- Download "Going to Work: A Guide to Social Security Benefits and Employment for Young People with Disabilities," for more information about social security benefits and how these benefits can be affected by earned or unearned income. For alternative formats of the guide email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Read a teleconference transcript about how international exchange can lead to employment, including advice from a Social Security Administration representative.
- Are you a VR counselor? Download a handout to learn how you can advise students with disabilities in study abroad.
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