What do US expats need to know about PFICs?

Published on November 15, 2023
by Clark Stott

Clark Stott has been with Expat Tax Online since 2015. Being a dual national based in the UK, Clark has unique experience helping US citizens (and Accidental Americans) become tax compliant via the Streamlined Tax Amnesty program. Clark likes to help Americans in the UK keep their tax situations as simple as possible to avoid harsh IRS treatment.

What exactly are PFICs?

PFICs, or Passive Foreign Investment Companies, are foreign corporations mainly earning passive income, like dividends, or holding assets that generate such income. Think of a mutual fund: it typically earns through dividends or stock trading gains.

The IRS watches PFICs closely to prevent US taxpayers from avoiding taxes via foreign investments. As an expat, it’s key to understand the intricate tax rules around PFICs.

Is it best for US citizens and green card holders to steer clear of PFICs?

Generally, yes. PFICs come with complex tax implications and strict reporting rules. It’s usually smarter to avoid them.

What's an excess distribution in PFICs?

Excess distributions are larger than the average of the past three years and face higher taxation. Also, there’s the “Mark-to-Market” method, where you adjust the value of PFIC shares annually, treating gains or losses as ordinary income or loss. While this might make tax reporting easier, understanding its full impact is vital.

Why expert advice on PFICs is a game-changer:

  • Expert Guidance: Tax pros with PFIC know-how can help you navigate the IRS’s intricate rules.
  • Social Security Implications: Your PFIC dealings could impact your US Social Security benefits.
  • Ensuring Compliance: Given the complexity of PFIC rules, professional advice is crucial for compliance and optimizing your investments.

Are all foreign investments classified as PFICs?

Not at all. It’s a myth that all foreign investments are PFICs. The IRS has clear criteria for PFIC status.

  • Income Nature: A corporation is a PFIC if over 75% of its income is passive. But many foreign corporations mix active and passive income, possibly avoiding PFIC status.
  • Asset Composition: If more than half of a corporation’s assets produce passive income, it’s a PFIC. However, many foreign corporations have diverse assets, some actively used in business, keeping them outside the PFIC category.

It’s crucial to know that not every foreign investment is automatically a PFIC. Many foreign corporations don’t fit the IRS’s PFIC criteria.

What does PFIC status mean for your tax reporting?

Having a PFIC means you’ve got some extra tax reporting to do. If you’re a US taxpayer with PFICs, you need to fill out Form 8621. This form covers the income, distributions, and any gains or losses from these investments. It’s an additional step beyond your regular tax return, making tax time a bit more complex.

What are the tax challenges of owning a PFIC?

Owning a PFIC can bring some hefty tax challenges. The IRS has special tax rules for PFICs to prevent delaying taxes on foreign investments. This can mean higher tax rates and extra interest charges on distributions and gains.

Here’s how you can handle the tax impact of PFICs:

  • Qualified Electing Fund (QEF) Election: This lets you pay taxes annually on your share of the PFIC’s income, which can help manage the tax load.
  • Mark-to-Market Election: This method involves reporting unrealized gains or losses each year, which can make tax reporting easier and might lower your tax bill.

PFICs are tricky and come with big tax implications. But if you get the hang of the IRS’s rules and look into different tax strategies, you can manage these investments better. It’s always a smart move to talk to a tax pro who knows about PFICs and international tax laws to make sure you’re doing things right and making the most of your situation.

Are there any exceptions to PFIC rules?

Absolutely. PFIC rules are tough, but there are some exceptions and exemptions. Certain types of income and assets might not count as “passive,” which affects whether something’s a PFIC. Also, choosing options like the Qualified Electing Fund (QEF) or Mark-to-Market can change how PFICs are taxed. But remember, these choices come with their own set of rules and details.

What do US expats need to understand about PFICs?

For US expats, grasping the ins and outs of PFICs is crucial. The IRS requires all US taxpayers to report their worldwide income, including earnings from PFICs. If you don’t follow these rules, you could face some serious fines. Plus, how PFICs affect your taxes can really impact your overall financial and investment plans.

Here’s what you need to do to stay on top of PFIC rules:

  • Know the Rules: First, figure out what makes a foreign corporation a PFIC.
  • Report Accurately: You need to file IRS Form 8621 for each PFIC you own, along with your regular tax return.
  • Plan Smartly: Think about options like the QEF or Mark-to-Market elections, which might reduce your tax hit.


Given how complex PFIC rules are and the big tax implications they can have, it’s a smart move to get advice from a tax pro. They can give you tailored guidance to make sure you’re handling these rules right and lining them up with your financial goals.

What are common PFIC mistakes to avoid?

  • Misidentifying PFICs: Getting it wrong on whether something’s a PFIC can lead to unexpected tax costs.
  • Poor Record-Keeping: Not keeping good records of transactions and dividends can make filling out IRS Form 8621 really tough.
  • Ignoring Reporting Requirements: Underestimating the importance of reporting PFICs can lead to big trouble.
  • Filing Mistakes: IRS Form 8621 is complex, and errors can bring penalties.

Can you fix mistakes?

Yes, you can fix PFIC compliance errors, but it’s not easy. Correcting mistakes on IRS Form 8621 usually needs someone who really knows their stuff, like a seasoned tax professional.

How does PFIC taxation differ from other foreign investment taxes?

PFIC taxes are more complicated than most other foreign investment taxes. They’re covered by Sections 1291 to 1298 of the US income tax code, making them some of the trickiest assets for tax purposes.

Dealing with PFIC rules and avoiding common errors is tough. The complexity of these rules and the harsh penalties for not following them show just how important it is to get professional tax advice. For US expats, talking to a tax expert isn’t just helpful-–it’s a crucial step to make sure you’re compliant while keeping your finances stable.

The information provided herein is for general informational purposes only and should not be considered professional advice. While we aim to provide helpful and accurate information, we make no warranties or guarantees about the accuracy, completeness, or adequacy of the information contained here or linked to this material.

Always get professional advice from a US international tax specialist.