If you are a US citizen who lives and works abroad, you can potentially exclude a portion of your income, up to around US $100,000 under the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion.
There are two ways that you can qualify for the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion. The first is what is called Physical Presence Test. You qualify for the exclusion under this test if you are out of the US for 330 out of 365 days. “Out of the US” means, literally “out of the US.” You can’t fly to the United States, you can’t come into Miami on a flight and then fly to England because, in this example, you were not out of the United States.
For example, I would qualify under the Physical Presence Test if I were working for a US company that stations me in China for a year, so that year I am not working in the US and I get a salary paid from that company to me in China. In this case, I earned that money outside the US, so this qualifies me under the Physical Presence Test. My contract work or my corporation put me somewhere else for the year, and I work there.
The second way you can qualify for the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion is through what we call a Bona Fide Residence Test. In order to qualify under the Bona Fide Residence Test, you have to be a resident of a foreign country and you have to have established that foreign country as the place you reside. That means you pay rent there, you work there, you have houses there, or you have utilities that you pay there; all the things that help establish the fact that you are living in a foreign country.
In order for me to qualify under the Bona Fide Residence Test, I am telling the US that I am living somewhere else, that I am working somewhere else, that I have plans of continuing to live and work in that country on an ongoing basis.
With the Bona Fide Residence Test, your timeframe gets a little bit longer. In general, you would now have to be outside of the US for 8 months and I can be inside the US for about 4 months, but its a bit more technical and includes the concept of a rolling 3-year average. It is a little bit complicated, so your CPA can help you figure out the exact details. If you have been gone for a total of 3 years completely, in your fourth year, you can actually spend just under 6 months in the United States.
If you qualify for the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion, you still report the ordinary income you earn in that foreign country, and then you would be able to exclude a portion of that income from your US tax liability. You can meet either of the criteria above; you don’t have to meet both.