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What Is Foreign Earned Income

Foreign “Earned” Income on Form 2555

Americans who live and work abroad are eligible to exclude a substantial amount of their earnings from the income tax by claiming the foreign earned income exclusion (FEIE). However, the FEIE only covers the income you earn from providing services, such as employment, but not from investments and other passive activities. For many expatriates who receive income from various sources, preparing Form 2555 can be a time-consuming endeavor when allocating gross income between earned and unearned.

The IRS treats your salary, wages, commissions, bonuses, professional fees and tips as earned income since receipt of these payments always relates to services you provide, regardless of whether it’s in a foreign country or within the U.S. The government also treats the additional benefits you receive from an employer, whether in the form of cash or property, as income you earn. This includes the fair market value of the lodging your employer provides you with in a foreign country, meals and the use of a car. And if your employer includes certain allowances or reimbursements in your paycheck, those payments closely relate to the services you provide, and therefore, are always treated as earned income. Expats typically receive these benefits in the form of cost-of-living allowances, foreign differentials, family travel allowances and educational allowances.

Foreign Income That Can Be Earned or Unearned

If you find yourself living in a foreign country for academic purposes and are the recipient of a scholarship, the funds you receive are usually tax-free. However, if the scholarship requires that you perform services in order to receive the funds, such as accepting a research or teacher’s assistant position, the IRS requires you to include those amounts in gross income since the scholarship is earned income. Therefore, when you prepare your 2555 or 2555EZ to claim the FEIE, the scholarship funds satisfy the “earned” requirement and are eligible for the exclusion. Rental income presents similar issues for foreign exclusion purposes. Generally, the IRS treats the rental income you receive as unearned income. But if you actively participate in the day-to-day operations of your rental property, you can treat that income as earned, regardless of the country your real estate is located in.

Reference: IRS Publication 54-Tax Guide for U.S. Citizens Abroad