Traditional IRA vs. Roth IRA: Which is Better for U.S. Citizens Living Abroad?

Comparing the features and considerations of Traditional and Roth IRAs for expats

When it comes to saving for retirement, U.S. citizens living abroad have options, including Traditional IRAs and Roth IRAs. Both types of IRAs offer tax advantages and the opportunity to build a nest egg for the future. However, choosing between a Traditional IRA and a Roth IRA can be a critical decision for expats.

On this page, we will compare the features and considerations of Traditional and Roth IRAs for U.S. citizens living abroad, helping them make an informed choice based on their individual circumstances.

1. Tax Treatment and Contributions

One of the key differences between Traditional and Roth IRAs lies in their tax treatment and contributions.

Traditional IRA:

  • Contributions to a Traditional IRA are tax-deductible, potentially reducing your taxable income in the year of contribution.
  • However, distributions in retirement are taxed as ordinary income.
  • Expats may find the tax deduction valuable, particularly if they anticipate being in a lower tax bracket during retirement.
  • Roth IRA:

    • Contributions to a Roth IRA are made with after-tax dollars, meaning you don’t get an immediate tax deduction.
    • However, qualified distributions in retirement are tax-free.
    • Roth IRAs can be advantageous for expats who anticipate being in a higher tax bracket during retirement or want tax-free distributions.

    2. Income and Eligibility

    Eligibility for Traditional and Roth IRAs can also vary based on income levels.

    Traditional IRA:

    • There are no income restrictions for contributing to a Traditional IRA.
    • However, the tax deductibility of contributions may be limited based on income and participation in an employer-sponsored retirement plan.

    Roth IRA:

    • Contributions to a Roth IRA have income limits. In 2023, the ability to contribute to a Roth IRA phases out for single filers with modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) between $125,000 and $140,000, and for married couples filing jointly with MAGI between $198,000 and $208,000.
    • Expats with higher incomes may find their eligibility for Roth IRAs limited or eliminated.

    3. Taxation of Distributions

    Another significant consideration when choosing between a Traditional IRA and a Roth IRA is the taxation of distributions in retirement.

    Traditional IRA:

    • Distributions from a Traditional IRA are taxed as ordinary income.
    • If you expect to be in a lower tax bracket during retirement, this tax-deferred growth can be beneficial.


    Roth IRA:

    • Qualified distributions from a Roth IRA are tax-free.
    • Having tax-free income in retirement can be advantageous, especially if you anticipate being in a higher tax bracket or want to minimize your future tax liability.

    4. Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs)

    One important difference between Traditional and Roth IRAs is the requirement for taking distributions.

    Traditional IRA:

    • Traditional IRAs have Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs) starting at age 72.
    • RMDs are taxable and can impact your tax liability during retirement.
    • Expats must ensure compliance with RMD rules, taking the required distributions to avoid penalties.
    • Roth IRA:

      • Roth IRAs do not require RMDs during the account holder’s lifetime.
      • This provides flexibility for managing your retirement income and potentially allows your Roth IRA to grow tax-free for a more extended period.

      5. Estate Planning Considerations

      Estate planning is another factor to consider when choosing between a Traditional IRA and a Roth IRA.

      Traditional IRA:

      • Traditional IRAs are subject to estate tax and may be included in the taxable estate upon the account holder’s passing.
      • Beneficiaries who inherit a Traditional IRA will be required to pay income tax on the distributions they receive.

      Roth IRA:

      • Roth IRAs offer potential estate planning benefits as they are not subject to income tax for beneficiaries who inherit the account.
      • This can be advantageous in passing on assets to loved ones without creating a tax burden.

      6. Flexibility and Access to Funds

      The flexibility and access to funds can also differ between Traditional and Roth IRAs.

      Traditional IRA:

      • Withdrawals from a Traditional IRA before age 59½ may be subject to an early withdrawal penalty of 10% in addition to income tax.
      • However, there are exceptions to the penalty, such as for certain qualified education expenses or first-time homebuyers.

      Roth IRA:

      • Roth IRAs offer more flexibility for accessing funds before retirement age.
      • Contributions to a Roth IRA can be withdrawn at any time, tax-free and penalty-free.
      • Additionally, qualified distributions of earnings can be withdrawn tax-free and penalty-free.

      Choosing between a Traditional IRA and a Roth IRA is a significant decision for U.S. citizens living abroad who are planning for retirement. Consider your tax situation, current and future income levels, and long-term financial goals when making this decision.

      A Traditional IRA offers potential immediate tax deductions, tax-deferred growth, and may be suitable for those anticipating a lower tax bracket in retirement. On the other hand, a Roth IRA provides tax-free distributions in retirement, flexibility for accessing funds, and can be advantageous for individuals expecting higher tax rates in the future.

      It’s crucial to consult with a financial advisor or tax professional who specializes in international tax matters to evaluate your specific circumstances and determine which type of IRA aligns best with your retirement goals.

      Remember, each individual’s financial situation is unique, and what works best for one person may not be the ideal choice for another.

      Make an informed decision based on careful consideration and expert guidance to maximize the benefits of your chosen IRA type.