Traveling on disability is simultaneously an attractive idea and a serious challenge. The idea of not needing to live in one place and developing a nomadic lifestyle feels appealing to me, and I am sure to many others as well.
Once you’ve gotten over the initial shock of your condition, and once you have your disability benefits coming in regularly, the idea of having that money available no matter what you do or don’t do may lead you to daydream about sunny beaches, rainforests in every shade of green, or wandering through cities full of exotic languages, smells, and sights.
I have done some research and would like to share what I have learned. As usual, the rules for Social Security Disability Insurance(SSDI) are profoundly different from those for Supplemental Security Income(SSI)
Leaving the country on SSDI
There are some countries that the US does not deposit money into(for example, North Korea), but for the most part, it may be possible to run away to another country where the cost of living is lower and stay there, as long as nothing else stops you.
Personally, I have fantasized a little about traveling around the world, but it’s never been more than a fantasy.
Leaving the country on SSI
SSI benefits have different rules, and focus on length of time spent outside the US – if you are gone longer than 30 days, your SSI coverage is suspended.
If the SSI coverage is for children who moved due to a parent being stationed in another country, they are covered by SSI, but that is the primary exception.
Sadly, if SSI is your primary source of financial support, you really just can’t leave the country for more than a month without consequences to your benefits.
On the bright side, if you do leave the country and then come back to the US, restarting your SSI benefits is possible, as opposed to reapplying.
Visiting another country
I have, however, left the country for vacations and to visit people, and there has never been anything keeping that from happening(other than what slows everybody down..time, money, and energy).
A good friend of mine from college lives in Copenhagen, Denmark, and I visited her for a bit over a week in 2009. I had a wonderful time there, and my being on SSDI had no impact on my trip.
The money was tight for me, of course, both in terms of going on the trip and on paying my bills, but I did manage to cover it all.
I haven’t yet had the opportunity to repeat that experience, but I am hoping to do more international travel in the future.
Again, if you are on SSI, you need to be more aware of the length of your visit, as being outside of the US for more than 30 days will prevent you from collecting benefits.
Long-term travel within the US
What if you don’t want to leave the US, but the idea of traveling around the country is appealing? Do you want to sell your home, or stop spending money on rent, and just drive? Or do you want to trade things in for a camper and live on the road?
It’s not impossible, but there would, of course, be challenges. It’s more doable on SSDI, though it would likely take some really creative budgeting, and of course for your condition to be relatively stable and not require frequent medical care (you don’t want to spend your trip visiting hospitals or breaking in new doctors all the time).
As long as you maintain your primary address, it’s unlikely that the government will know or care that you are currently spending time elsewhere.
If you are receiving SSDI, it is a completely federal program, so as long as you can access your bank account, your check should keep coming in as it always has.
If you need to go talk to Social Security for any reason, they will assume you can get to the office nearest your home address.
If you do reach a point where you need a new or different permanent address, you should update SSDI.
Medicare benefits are also nationally recognized, so you should still be able to pick up your prescriptions(if you use a large chain pharmacy, they can generally transfer your prescription information to their nearest branch).
If you need to see a doctor, you will need to find the right one to see, but as long as they accept Medicare, most of your costs are covered – if you have a secondary insurance you will need to confirm if they accept that as well, which may be more challenging in a different part of the country.
Visiting other states on SSI
SSI is, of course, a completely different set of issues.
While SSI is a national program, the benefits are managed by your state of residence, and in many cases are managed on the county level.
Many states pay more than the federally generated amount to make up for cost of living disparities or follow state laws about disability needs.
When you visit other states your checks will continue, but your Medicaid coverage may not get you any service wherever you are visiting.
Neighboring states will sometimes have reciprocal agreements to treat patients, primarily in larger and research hospitals, but that’s about the limit of cross-state honoring of Medicaid.
I experienced this personally when I went through a brief period of only having Medicaid coverage – even though I live in New Jersey, my neurologist worked at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in New York City, and he was able to admit me there due to the reciprocal agreement between the hospital and NJ Medicaid.
There are also some Medicaid programs(especially HMOs) that might be primarily managed on the county level, which can make a doctor or hospital visit in another county more challenging.
While treatment options are often limited while on Medicaid, you need to be aware that you may have effectively no coverage while in another state(or county in some cases).
If you are going to visit friends or family who live more than a few hours away, you may want to do some research about how far your Medicare coverage extends, so you know your options should an emergency occur.
Moving to another state while on SSI is likely to disrupt your benefits, and you will only be eligible for that state’s Medicare coverage.
This is generally expressed in terms of what is in-network and how much coverage you have out-of-network.
If your Medicaid doesn’t cover out-of-network providers, please proceed with caution.
To give you an idea of Medicaid complications, a friend of ours moved to Florida from New Jersey.
She had applied for Disability coverage and was waiting for her answer, but had been granted NJ Medicaid while she lived here.
She wasn’t eligible for Medicaid coverage in Florida, as their eligibility rules are different.
She had to pay out of pocket for doctor’s appointments in Florida, as her NJ Medicaid wasn’t accepted by any doctors down there.
Eventually, she moved back to New Jersey so she could see specialists up here.
Conclusion: Can you travel while on disability?
Yes, you can. Traveling is generally more expensive than staying in one place(or at least more variable) which is challenging to manage on a limited budget like you are prone to having while on disability benefits.
You also need to be in reasonably stable condition, where you are less likely to need constant medical attention(what fun would it be otherwise?).
If you are on SSDI, there are fewer restrictions and living overseas is an option, with overseas travel relatively unlimited. SSI is more limiting in terms of resource availability, insurance coverage, and time permitted out of state or country.
If you place a high value on that freedom to travel, you may be able to find a solution for yourself and be able to travel and explore once your condition has stabilized.
I wish you the best on your journey, wherever it may take you!