Unlike many countries, the United States has very relaxed laws about foreign investment. Not only can foreigners own land and businesses, but they can buy securities both directly and through American brokerages. The only hurdles a foreign investor needs to overcome when buying American mutual funds is registering with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). Of course, they can also avoid restrictions and registration by using brokerages in their home countries.
Foreign investors are legally allowed to purchase US mutual funds. However, if a foreign investor decides to use an American brokerage firm to complete their purchase, they will be required to first register with the IRS.
Information on Local Brokerages
Financial institutions and brokerages around the world participate in trade of American securities. Some are licensed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission to make trades directly, while others go through intermediaries. A foreign national of a country with open markets and strong financial institutions can have the easiest time buying mutual funds through local brokers. Those living in countries with restrictive or prohibitively expensive financial systems can forge relationships directly with U.S. brokers or mutual fund companies. For instance, India and Indonesia are considered to have expensive stock markets, so residents there might prefer to invest in U.S. markets. In some cases, you are able to open U.S. brokerage accounts online from overseas, though you may have to submit an application on paper or even visit in person.
Exploring the Patriot Act
The Patriot Act requires, among other things, for U.S. financial institutions and brokerages to identify investors before conducting business. Although the law allows financial firms some room to develop their own policies on how they identify people, they commonly require an official photo ID, such as a passport. Some brokerages also insist on face-to-face visits to positively confirm identity when opening an account.
IRS Registration Requirements
Federal tax regulations require foreign investors to register with the IRS. Anyone who is not a U.S. citizen or permanent resident – even those in the country on a valid visa – must complete an IRS Form W-8BEN Certificate of Foreign Status of Beneficial Owner. An investor can complete a form on her own or through an American brokerage or financial institution.
Tax Exemption Rules
Foreign national living in foreign countries can apply for an exemption from American tax withholding on their investment returns by filing an IRS form. The IRS typically grants exemption to those who never enter the U.S. or who only visit on a limited basis. However, those who spend significant amounts of time and appear to be living in the country part-time may be scrutinized and even denied exemption to tax withholding on capital gains.
- IRS.gov: Form W-8BEN
- E-Trade: Account Requirements and Restrictions
- U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission: Regulation D and Rule 701
- Congressional Research Service; Foreign Investment in U.S. Securities; James Jackson; June 2010
- The Motley Fool: Can a Non-U.S. Citizen Trade U.S. Stocks?
- SeekingAlpha: Is This The Most Expensive Stock Market In The World?
- FinCEN: USA Patriot Act
Eric Feigenbaum started his career in print journalism, becoming editor-in-chief of "The Daily" of the University of Washington during college and afterward working at two major newspapers. He later did many print and Web projects including re-brandings for major companies and catalog production.