What happens to your pension when you retire abroad?

We look at what would happen to your pension if you retire abroad. Can you transfer a UK pension scheme overseas, how do you withdraw money from it, and will you still receive a state pension?

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(Image credit: Getty Images)

As the summer holiday season begins, some of us may be thinking about going on a more long-lasting break and moving abroad permanently.

While retiring abroad sounds great, what would happen to your pension savings? And do you still get the UK state pension if you retire abroad? 

Whether it’s France, Spain or Greece, or a more far-flung destination like Canada or Australia, becoming a UK expat can mark the start of an exciting chapter.

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However, there’s plenty to think about when organising a move overseas, and that includes what you do with your pension. This applies to both workers and those who are retiring abroad.

Every year around half a million people leave Britain and relocate to another country.

According to the Office for National Statistics, about 532,000 people emigrated from the UK last year. In 2022, the figure was 493,000.

“In recent years the rise in remote work, accelerated by the pandemic, and the cost-of-living crisis have led to many people considering moving abroad,” comments Dean Butler, a managing director at Standard Life.

“We’re also approaching the summer holiday season, and some people might come back with sand in their shoes and plan to move abroad permanently.”

If you’re thinking of relocating to another country, we run through what happens to your pension - as well as whether you’ll receive a state pension when you retire.

What happens to my UK pension pots when I move abroad?  

When you move to a different country, any pension plans you have in the UK won’t follow you unless you arrange for them to be transferred overseas. 

“Instead, they’ll stay where they are, meaning once you reach 55 (57 from 6 April 2028) you can start taking money from them, even while you’re overseas,” explains Butler.

Can I transfer my pensions to the country I’ve moved to? 

According to Butler, you can usually transfer your UK pension plan(s) to a different pension scheme abroad, but you’ll need to make sure you’re transferring into a “Qualifying Recognised Overseas Pension Scheme”, or QROPS for short. 

This is essentially a pension scheme that follows similar rules to UK schemes - there’s a list on gov.uk.

“You may be able to make this transfer tax-free, or otherwise you might need to pay 25% tax on the amount you’re transferring out of the UK - it depends on your individual circumstances, including where you live when you make that transfer,” comments Butler.

There is also an “overseas transfer allowance”, which is a cap on the amount of pension savings you can transfer out of the UK. There’s more detail in our article 3 new pension allowances.

Unless you have protection in place, the overseas transfer allowance is usually £1,073,100. If you move any more than this you’ll normally need to pay a 25% tax charge on the excess.

“If you try to transfer your UK plans to a scheme that isn’t a QROPS, you could face a 55% tax charge and even extra penalties on top of that. This is because it could be seen as making an unauthorised payment from your plan. Transferring to a scheme that isn’t a QROPS also probably won’t be regulated, and you might not be able to get any compensation if there’s any issue with the scheme in the future,” says Butler.

Moving a pension plan overseas is a big decision, and it won’t be right for everyone. It’s wise to get financial advice to consider the pros and cons properly.

Can I keep paying into a UK pension if I live overseas? 

You should check this with your provider as it depends on the rules of your pension scheme. Butler warns that you may not be eligible to get any tax relief on the payments you make into the UK pension. Or the amount you do get might be limited. 

Whether you get pension tax relief and how much you get depends on your circumstances. For example, you can still get tax relief if, in that particular tax year, you have “relevant UK earnings” that could be taxable in the UK. 

This includes things like income from employment, including salary and overtime. The government website MoneyHelper gives some more examples.

What about my state pension? 

You can still claim your UK state pension abroad as long as you’ve paid enough National Insurance (NI) contributions to qualify. 

This means 35 years of National Insurance contributions to get the full state pension, and at least 10 years to be entitled to a reduced payment. However, you must notify the Department of Work and Pensions of your move.

It's worth being aware that the state pension triple lock only applies in certain countries. These are currently any country in the European Economic Area (EEA) and Switzerland, as well as any country that has a social security agreement with the UK allowing it to pay state pension increases. 

This includes Jamaica and the USA. Here’s a full list of the countries where you get an annual increase to your state pension.

If you’re emigrating to Canada or Australia, or a host of other countries like Thailand, India and South Africa, your state pension will not increase.

This is something to bear in mind, as over a 20 or even 30-year retirement, this could mean you lose out on thousands of pounds due to your state pension being frozen.

According to the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Frozen British Pensions, 450,000 British pensioners - half the pensioners living overseas - do not benefit from state pension up-rating.

How can I take money out of my UK pension pot? 

If you’re abroad, you’ll generally be able to take your money in the same ways as you would in the UK. However, some providers may limit payment options.

Butler advises: “For added clarity, contact your existing provider regarding the payment options available, and then if your existing plan doesn’t offer what you want, shop around. 

“However, your options may be still limited as some providers won’t let you open a new plan if you live abroad.”

Can the money I withdraw from my pension be paid into a foreign bank account? 

Some pension providers may be willing to pay into an overseas bank account, although they may charge extra for this. But others might only pay into a UK account. 

Be aware that the exchange rate will affect how much you get when your pension money is changed into your local currency.

How will I be taxed on my UK pensions when I live abroad? 

This is where it can get complicated. If you take money from a UK pension scheme, you might need to pay UK income tax on it, as it counts as UK income, but the country you’re living in might also tax you. 

“The UK has a ‘double-taxation agreement’ with numerous countries, which means you may either be able to get tax relief or a refund, so you won’t end up paying tax on your pension savings twice. You can find out more about tax on your UK income when you live abroad on gov.uk,” says Butler.

“In the UK, you can normally take up to 25% of your pension tax-free (with the total amount you can normally take tax-free across all your pension plans being £268,275). However, you might not be able to take money tax-free in the country you’ve moved to, and it may be taxed as income, so it’s important to investigate how this works in the overseas country.”

Ruth Emery
Contributing editor

Ruth is an award-winning financial journalist with more than 15 years' experience of working on national newspapers, websites and specialist magazines.

She is passionate about helping people feel more confident about their finances. She was previously editor of Times Money Mentor, and prior to that was deputy Money editor at The Sunday Times. 

A multi-award winning journalist, Ruth started her career on a pensions magazine at the FT Group, and has also worked at Money Observer and Money Advice Service. 

Outside of work, she is a mum to two young children, while also serving as a magistrate and an NHS volunteer.