Foreign Tax Credit: A Comprehensive Guide for U.S. Expats

Apr 19, 2024

Understanding the Foreign Tax Credit (FTC) is crucial for U.S. expats looking to reduce their tax liabilities. This guide offers a detailed examination of the steps required to qualify for, calculate, and claim the FTC. It aims to help you maximize this tax advantage. We’ll discuss everything from the basic eligibility criteria to advanced tactics, providing practical examples and expert insights to enhance your tax return strategy as an expat.

What Is the Foreign Tax Credit?

Definition and Purpose The Foreign Tax Credit (FTC) is designed to help U.S. taxpayers avoid the double taxation of income earned overseas. This credit applies to the amount of foreign income tax paid or accrued, providing a dollar-for-dollar reduction on U.S. taxes on the same income. By claiming this credit, individuals can effectively reduce their U.S. tax liability and avoid double taxation on the same income earned internationally

Unlike the FEIE, which allows you to exclude a certain amount of foreign earnings from taxable income, the FTC allows you to reduce your actual tax liability by crediting foreign taxes you have already paid against your U.S. tax obligations.

Related: FEIE vs. Foreign Tax Credit: Which One to Choose?

Who Qualifies for the FTC?

General Eligibility: The FTC is available to any U.S. taxpayer—individual, estate, trust, or corporation—who has foreign income and has paid or accrued tax to a foreign government on that income. This includes foreign taxes paid on wages, dividends, interest, and rental income, among other types of foreign earnings. Additionally, ‘foreign business income’ and ‘investment income’ are also types of income that qualify for the FTC, broadening the scope of eligible foreign earnings for taxpayers.

To qualify for the foreign tax credit, the foreign taxes paid must be on income derived from foreign sources, such as income earned abroad or from foreign investments. The taxpayer must have a legal obligation to pay foreign income taxes, and there must not be any dual taxation agreements that affect the eligibility for or calculation of the FTC.

Specific Conditions and Restrictions: To qualify, the tax must be a legal and actual foreign tax liability that is not refundable, and it must be an income tax or a tax in lieu of an income tax imposed on you. The credit cannot be more than the amount of U.S. tax on the same income, preventing any possibility of generating a refund from the FTC.

What Types of Foreign Taxes Qualify for the FTC?

Generally, to qualify for the FTC, the foreign taxes must be imposed on you as an individual, and you must have paid or accrued them. Here are the main types of foreign taxes that typically qualify for the FTC:

  1. Foreign Income Taxes: Taxes charged by a foreign government on your income are the most common type eligible for the FTC. This includes wages, dividends, interest, rental income, business income tax, and non business income tax.
  2. Taxes in Lieu of Income Taxes: Sometimes, foreign countries impose taxes that are not explicitly labeled as income taxes but are treated as such for the purpose of the FTC. These taxes must be similar to the U.S. income tax and generally accepted as an income tax in the country that imposes it.
  3. Withholding Taxes on Dividends and Interest: Taxes withheld by a foreign country on dividends and interest can often be credited.

It’s important to note that certain taxes do not qualify for the FTC. These generally include:

  • Taxes on excluded income (like the foreign earned income exclusion),
  • Taxes for which you can only take an itemized deduction,
  • Taxes on mineral income,
  • Social security taxes paid or accrued to a foreign country with which the U.S. has a social security agreement,
  • Taxes related to a foreign oil or gas extraction income (FOGEI),
  • Taxes from international boycott operations.

Determining which foreign taxes qualify for the FTC and calculating the credit can be complex, especially considering the various tax treaties and specific country rules. It’s often wise to consult with a tax professional who understands international tax law to ensure compliance and optimize tax benefits.

What Forms Do I Need to Claim the Foreign Tax Credit?

To claim the Foreign Tax Credit, you must complete Form 1116, Foreign Tax Credit (Individual, Estate, or Trust). This form is essential for calculating the credit based on foreign income and the corresponding foreign taxes paid or accrued on that income. It segregates different types of income, such as passive, general, or specific category income, ensuring the credit is accurately computed and applied​​.

How Do I Calculate the Foreign Tax Credit?

The Foreign Tax Credit calculation involves several steps to ensure you do not claim more than what is allowable by U.S. tax laws. You must identify the total foreign taxes paid or accrued on ‘income or profits’ and allocate these taxes to the specific types of income they relate to. This calculation determines the maximum amount of credit you can claim, preventing any potential for claiming more credit than the U.S. tax imposed on the same foreign income. For a detailed breakdown of these calculations, refer to our comprehensive guide on Form 1116.

Case Studies: U.S. Expats Leveraging the Foreign Tax Credits

Case Study 1: Foreign Income

Background: Jane, a U.S. citizen living in Canada, works for a Toronto-based company and earns CAD 70,000 annually. She pays CAD 15,000 in income taxes to the Canada Revenue Agency, contributing to her Canadian tax obligations.

Scenario: Jane wants to reduce her U.S. tax liability by claiming the foreign tax credit for the Canadian taxes she paid, navigating the complexities of both U.S. and Canadian tax laws regarding the FTC.


  • Foreign Earned Income: CAD 70,000
  • Canadian Taxes Paid: CAD 15,000
  • Converting her income and taxes into U.S. dollars at a 0.78 exchange rate, her U.S. equivalent income is $54,600 and taxes paid are $11,700.
  • Jane completes Form 1116, attaching it to her U.S. tax return. She applies the $11,700 as a credit against her U.S. tax liability, which is calculated on her global income, including her Canadian earnings.

Outcome: The foreign tax credit effectively reduces Jane’s U.S. tax bill, potentially to zero, depending on her total U.S. tax liability, helping her avoid double taxation on the same income.

Case Study 2: Teaching Professional in Spain

Background: Emily, a U.S. citizen teaching English in Spain, earns €40,000 annually and pays €8,000 in Spanish income taxes.

Scenario: Emily wants to calculate her foreign tax credit to determine how much she can offset her U.S. tax liability.


  • Foreign Earned Income: €40,000 (approximately $44,000, assuming a conversion rate of 1.10).
  • Foreign Taxes Paid: €8,000 (approximately $8,800).
  • Emily files Form 1116 with her U.S. tax return, reporting her income and taxes paid in euros converted to U.S. dollars.
  • She calculates her foreign tax credit based on the $8,800 paid in Spain, which she can use to offset her U.S. income tax liability on her Spanish income.

Outcome: By claiming the foreign tax credit, Emily potentially eliminates her U.S. tax liability on her Spanish income, thanks to the taxes already paid in Spain. This effectively helps her avoid double taxation on the same income.

What Are the Carryover and Carryback Rules for the Foreign Tax Credit?

The FTC carryover and carryback provisions allow U.S. taxpayers with foreign income to strategically manage their tax obligations over multiple years. Unused foreign tax credits from a given tax year can be carried forward for up to 10 years or carried back to the previous year, subject to specific limitations and considerations.

How Can I Use Excess Foreign Tax Credits?

When a taxpayer finds themselves in an excess credit position, meaning they have foreign tax credits that exceed their U.S. federal income tax liability for a particular year, these excess credits do not go to waste. Instead, taxpayers can leverage them by carrying them forward or back to other tax years, ensuring that the benefits of the FTC are maximized over time.

What Is the Carryback Option for Foreign Tax Credits?

The carryback option allows taxpayers to elect to carry back excess foreign tax credits to the previous tax year. This strategic move can potentially result in a refund of taxes paid in the prior year if the foreign tax credit surpasses the U.S. tax liability for that year, providing immediate tax relief.

How Does the Carryforward Option Work for Foreign Tax Credits?

In cases where carrying back the excess credit is not feasible or does not fully utilize the credit, taxpayers can opt to carry forward the remaining credit for up to ten years. This extended timeframe enables individuals to apply excess foreign tax credits against U.S. tax liabilities in future tax years, offering a long-term tax planning opportunity to optimize tax savings.

What Limitations Should I Be Aware of When Carrying Over Foreign Tax Credits?

It’s essential to note that there are limitations on carryovers, such as the specific number of years credits can be carried forward or back and how they can be applied against taxes paid in previous years. Understanding these limitations and the interplay between carryover and carryback options is crucial for taxpayers aiming to make the most of their foreign tax credits.

What are the Implications of Tax Treaties on claiming FTC?

Tax treaties play a crucial role in determining the eligibility for the Foreign Tax Credit (FTC) for U.S. taxpayers. These agreements aim to mitigate the potential for double taxation by establishing reduced rates or exemptions for certain items of income earned by residents of foreign countries.

For instance, the U.S. has tax treaties with several countries, including India, Armenia, Australia, Austria, Canada, China, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Kazakhstan, Korea, Luxembourg, Mexico, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Russia, Slovak Republic, Slovenia, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, Ukraine, and the United Kingdom. These treaties outline the terms and conditions for taxing residents of the respective countries on their income sourced from the other country.

Under these treaties, residents of foreign countries may be taxed at reduced rates or exempted from U.S. taxes on certain items of income they receive from sources within the U.S. Similarly, residents or citizens of the U.S. may be taxed at reduced rates or exempted from foreign taxes on certain items of income they receive from sources within foreign countries.

However, it’s important to note that most income tax treaties contain a ‘saving clause’, which prevents a citizen or resident of the U.S. from using the provisions of a tax treaty to avoid taxation of U.S.-source income. This clause ensures that U.S. taxpayers cannot exploit tax treaties to evade taxes on income earned within the U.S.

When Should You Choose the Foreign Tax Credit Over the Foreign Tax Deduction?

Choosing the Foreign Tax Credit (FTC) over the Foreign Tax Deduction generally results in more substantial tax savings. The FTC offers a dollar-for-dollar reduction of your U.S. tax liability based on taxes paid to foreign governments, effectively reducing the actual amount of tax you owe. This is typically more advantageous than opting for a deduction, which only lowers your taxable income. While a deduction could potentially drop you into a lower U.S. tax bracket, the direct reduction of your tax through the FTC usually provides a greater financial benefit. However, the best choice depends on specific factors in your tax situation, such as your income level, tax bracket, and the total amount of foreign taxes paid.

Avoiding Common Pitfalls and Maximizing Your FTC

Navigating the FTC process can be fraught with complexities that may lead to costly errors. Common pitfalls include failing to report all foreign income, misinterpreting which taxes are creditable, and miscalculating the credit amount. To avoid these, engage with tax professionals who specialize in expatriate taxation for expert advice. These experts can offer tailored strategies and best practices to ensure you maximize your FTC while staying compliant. Remember, meticulous record-keeping and understanding the specific requirements for each type of foreign income are paramount in leveraging the full benefit of your FTC.

Why Choose 1040 Abroad for Your Tax Needs

At 1040 Abroad, we understand the unique challenges faced by U.S. expats when managing their tax obligations. Our goal is to demystify the complexities of the FTC and provide you with the knowledge needed to navigate the world confidently while remaining tax compliant. We offer free tax advice via email, guiding you through the intricacies of expatriate taxation and helping you to optimize your financial health. Trust us to be your partner in managing your U.S. tax liabilities, wherever in the world you might be.

Written by

Kasia Strzelczyk, EA

A certified accountant and IRS enrolled agent with over 8 years of experience working with US expats. With a deep understanding of the unique financial challenges faced by expats, Kasia is dedicated to helping clients navigate complex tax laws and regulations.

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