Can Foreign Investors Buy US Mutual Funds?

by Eric Feigenbaum ; Updated April 19, 2017

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.

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.

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

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

Foreign national living in foreign countries can apply for an exemption from American tax withholding on their investment returns by filing an IRS Form 1001. 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.

About the Author

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.