2020 is a census year in the United States. If you’ve only been living as an expat within the last 10 years, then you’ve never been abroad during the U.S. census. And you might be wondering if you have an obligation to participate.
If you’re a U.S. expat living in another country, do you have to fill out the 2020 census? In short, no, you don’t. The Census Bureau does not count people living outside the U.S.
According to 2020census.gov, the purpose of the 2020 Census is:
“A complete and accurate count of everyone living in the United States and its five territories.”
The only exceptions are U.S. military and civilian personnel. So if you’re living abroad and you’re not employed by the U.S. government, then you won’t be counted in the 2020 census.
What about Digital Nomads?
If you consider yourself an expatriate, then presumably your full-time residence is a single foreign country. For nomads, or those who don’t settle in one place, the situation is different. The Census Bureau uses a “usual residence” principle to count people. You should list the place where you are living and sleeping most of the time as of April 1, 2020. If you’re a digital nomad who spends most of their time outside the U.S., then you don’t need to fill out the census.
Again, the aim is to count everyone who is living in the U.S. as of April 1, 2020. If you’re not, then don’t count yourself.
How Does the U.S. Count Expats?
Considering other obligations forced on U.S. expats by their government – tax requirements in particular – the logic behind census participation seems suspiciously simple. In fact, the U.S. government doesn’t keep good track of expats. And it’s the only major developed country in the world not to do so.
Officially, the number of Americans living abroad is 9 million. This is the number quoted by the U.S. State Department. The methods they use for counting are less than rock-solid, however, leading many experts to doubt this number.
The State Department’s Numbers
The State Department primarily relies on passport applications and birth registrations at embassies and consulates. Data from consular services to Americans living abroad doesn’t account for all U.S. expats, though. There’s also no clear definition of an “American expatriate.” Some people counted could be students or those residing abroad short-term. They could also be workers who moved overseas for their job and decided to stay. There might also be “accidental Americans.” Americans who are born to non-American parents in the U.S. or who were born overseas to American parents have U.S. citizenship, making them “accidental.”
Expat Numbers From Other Sources
The State Department isn’t the only entity we can look to for data on Americans residing overseas. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS), private financial institutions, and nonprofits also collect information on American expatriates.
Financial data on Americans abroad is particularly useful since the U.S. requires its citizens to file taxes no matter where they reside. U.S. expats are also subject to the FACTA and FBAR reporting mandates. FACTA requires U.S. citizens to declare their foreign bank accounts, no matter the amount in them. An FBAR must be filed if an account exceeds $10,000.
Looking at financial data isn’t so reliable, either though. Only 900,000 FBARs are submitted each year and the IRS only received about 600,000 tax returns each year. These numbers are nowhere near the State Department’s 9 million.
Lobbying Groups and Other Government Agencies
The large lobbying organization American Citizens Abroad (ACA) believes the number to be closer to 5.1 million. ACA adjusted their total count for the 1.3 million people who are affiliated with the U.S. government.
The Federal Voting Assistance Program (FVAP) conducts its Overseas Citizen Population Analysis (OCPA) every four years. According to their 2016 OCPA, there are 5.5 million U.S. citizens overseas, 3 million of whom are old enough to vote. The OCPA uses data from U.S. and foreign government sources, state records, and a survey of registered voters living abroad who requested a ballot for the 2016 election.
Some of these organizations rely on data from foreign governments who attempt to count the number of Americans residing in their country. One such example is the UK’s Office for National Statistics. They estimate between 120,000 and 156,000 Americans residing within its borders. If you’re interested in knowing more about where Americans reside abroad, the most reliable and accessible list right now seems to be the “American diaspora” Wikipedia page.
Numbers Are Inconclusive
As you can see, the number of estimated Americans living abroad varies depending on who you ask. And since the terms for Americans overseas (expatriate, emigrant, migrant, overseas American, etc.) are loosely defined and used interchangeably, each organization or agency counts differently.
So why does it matter that estimates vary so widely? There’s one reason, which I mentioned earlier: the U.S. is the only developed country not to actively try to count its citizens abroad. It’s a bit of an anomaly when it comes to counting overseas citizens.
Other reasons could be related to taxes, voting, and citizenship rights. If the government keeps a more accurate count of its overseas citizens, it could create better policies in these areas. As an American expat entering tax season, I sure wouldn’t mind a revision to the citizenship-based tax structure!
What could be the most intriguing aspect of counting U.S. expats has nothing to do with tax policy, however. The topic also poses curious questions about identity and belonging. How do Americans living abroad consider themselves and who exactly should be “counted”?
Identity and belonging is wholly another topic, albeit a related one. So I’ll cover that in a follow-up blog post to this one.
A simple question about filling out the U.S. census as an expat led me down a rabbit hole. I set out with the census, looked at gathering financial data on Americans abroad, and ended up at expat identity. And I didn’t even touch on the history of the census and expats (because there’s plenty more to delve into there).
If you’re an expat, you do not have to fill out the U.S. census.
But should you be allowed to if you so choose? How does the way American expats are counted affect their relationship with their home country? I’ve answered these questions, and others about American migrants and identity, in another blog post.