Married to a nonresident alien spouse? These are your U.S. tax filing options

It’s common for U.S. citizens to marry foreigners while they’re living and working abroad, and—as with many life changes—with a new spouse comes new tax questions. Can you file single with a nonresident alien spouse? How do you file taxes if your spouse does not have an SSN (Social Security Number)? Can you still file jointly? How do taxes work when you’re married to a nonresident alien spouse?

American getting married to nonresident alien spouse with wedding cake

We get it—and here’s what you should know: You can file as Married Filing Separately, Married Filing Jointly, or file as Head of Household. The default filing status if you’re married to a nonresident alien is Married Filing Separately (MFS).

Choosing a tax filing status isn’t a decision you should make lightly, so we’ve outlined the basics to give you an idea of which path works best for you and your spouse. Need help choosing how to file if you’re married to a nonresident alien? Let us file your expat taxes for you.

Confused about expat taxes? Learn the basics with our top 20 U.S. expat tax tips.

Can I file single if I’m married to a nonresident alien?

Let’s say you’re an American and you’ve married a Canadian while living and working in Vancouver. When tax season rolls around you may wonder if you can still file single. Unfortunately, you can’t file single if married to a nonresident alien (NRA). Once you tie the knot, you must either go with Married Filing Separately or Married Filing Jointly. Even if your spouse remains in Canada or lives in another country, the tax rules remain the same.

Married Filing Jointly with nonresident alien spouse

Filing jointly with a nonresident alien spouse is a popular choice, and in certain circumstances, can give you a big boost in the standard deduction. For example, let’s say you’re a U.S. citizen married to a Canadian citizen who doesn’t work. If you chose to file separately you would only get a standard deduction of $12,200 on your U.S. taxes.

However, if you treat your nonresident alien spouse as a resident and filed jointly, you would get the standard $24,400 deduction for married couples. Hold on, though—before you jump on the married-filing-jointly train, you should know it might not be in your best interest.

Once you file jointly and elect to treat your nonresident alien spouse as a resident, his or her worldwide income is subject to U.S. taxation. That means your Canadian spouse will be subjected to the same U.S. taxation that you are, even if you both remain in Vancouver. If your spouse doesn’t work or makes minimal income this may not be an issue, but if your spouse has a swanky job and pays most of the bills it might make more sense to file separately. If you do choose to treat your nonresident alien spouse as a resident there are many tax benefits that wouldn't otherwise be available to a nonresident.

To elect Married Filing Jointly, you’ll have to:

  • Attach a statement that serves as a declaration that one spouse is a nonresident alien and the other is a U.S. citizen or resident alien, and that you both choose to be treated like U.S. residents. This statement must be signed by both parties.
  • Include each spouse’s information, including name, address, SSN (or if you’re married to someone without an SSN, their ITIN). If your spouse has no SSN or no ITIN, they can get one by filing the proper forms and applications with the IRS.

The best situation to file jointly is if the nonresident spouse does not work. But in order to do that, they have to get an ITIN.

While you both have to elect to file a joint return the first year, there is an option for both of you to file separate returns in following years if you make a revocation of the joint election. If you do choose to revoke the election, your nonresident alien spouse would file Form 1040 NR and be subjected to the same criteria for filing as other nonresident aliens. It’s also important to note that you must elect to revoke this choice of filing in writing—otherwise, your NRA spouse will continue to be treated as a resident alien for tax purposes.

Married Filing Separately with nonresident alien spouse

If your spouse doesn’t file as a resident, you can file as Married Filing Separately. This is the default filing status for a U.S. citizen married to a nonresident alien. Or, if you are married to a nonresident alien, you might be able to use the Head of Household filing status. To qualify and file as Head of Household when married to a nonresident alien, you must pay more than half of all household expenses, your dependents live with you, and they have a valid U.S. social security number.

What if you’re married filing separately without a spouse’s Social Security Number? You can still e-file by indicating they are a nonresident alien without an ITIN. Or, you can let H&R Block’s expat tax experts handle filing it for you.

Expat taxes for resident aliens vs. nonresident aliens can be tricky in the best circumstances. An H&R Block expat Tax Advisor can help you decide the best option for your circumstances.

Confused on filing taxes when married to a nonresident alien? Trust your expat tax return with H&R Block

Want to learn more about U.S. expat taxes? Ready to file? No matter how complicated your U.S. tax return is, there’s an Expat Tax Expert ready to help. Get started with Virtual Expat Tax Preparation from H&R Block.