When it comes to tax residency, the six month rule is quite simple to understand: live in a country for at least six months, or 183 days, and you’re considered a tax resident of that country.
The simplicity in this rule explains why it is a common way of determining when an individual taxpayer is considered to be a tax resident of the country they are living in. In fact, for some countries, this is exactly how they determine tax residency.
For this reason it can be natural to assume that if you live overseas for at least six months then you are a tax resident of that country and no longer a tax resident of Australia. This is particularly the case if that country specifically states that they consider you to be a tax resident when you are living in their country for at least six months.
If you are an Australian citizen then Australia is your default home country in relation to tax residency. This means that it’s not just about meeting the tax requirements of the other country to be classed as a foreign tax resident for Australian tax purposes.
Under Australian tax laws an Australian citizen, who has been living as a tax resident, continues to be an Australian tax resident until they make a permanent move overseas. A permanent move overseas requires them to effectively cut ties with Australia. Typically the move overseas must be for a minimum of two years, and you must be setting up a permanent home in your new country (not just travelling around, or staying in hotels).
A double tax agreement (DTA) between two countries may contain provisions that help determine which country has taxation rights when an individual’s tax residency status is not clear cut.
For example, this might happen when an individual goes to a country that treats them as a tax resident after six months living there, however, under Australian tax laws they are also still treated as a tax resident. The DTA, through the tie-breaker provisions, helps determine in which country the individual taxpayer should be treated as a tax resident.
DTA typically gives weight to the country where the person has their permanent home, by virtue of birth or choice. In practice this means there is an expectation that the country in which an individual is a citizen, particularly if they clearly intend to return to their home country, retains more rights than a country they are temporarily living in. Beyond this, DTAs tend to consider where an individual’s personal and economic ties are stronger.
Most people find themselves in clear situations. They are either an Australian tax resident or a foreign tax resident, based on the country that they are a permanent resident. However, since individual circumstances can be very unique, there are plenty of situations that are not so clear cut.
Consider a situation where an individual lives in multiple countries, moving from one to another through the year. Or there are situations where an individual moves to one country, intending to remain there permanently, only for an unexpected issue to arise that results in them changing their mind and relocating to another country.
COVID-19 has resulted in many people staying in countries for significantly longer periods than they ever planned. Conversely, many Australian expats have returned home to Australia to ride out the pandemic, despite previously intending to remain living overseas.
Since each situation is different, it is impossible to give clear, generic advice on these grey areas. The special circumstances of COVID-19 mean that even some Australians who were holidaying overseas have been unable to return home to Australia as planned. Their time overseas does not automatically cause them to become a foreign tax resident, especially where their intent and actions remain to return to Australia as soon as they are able to.
Others who have been living overseas for many years have returned to Australia for a prolonged period due to the pandemic. Their time in Australia does not automatically mean they resume Australian tax residency, however this requires them to be intending to return to the country they consider home as soon as possible. As the pandemic continues, it becomes more difficult to ascertain what “as soon as possible” means, and what actions would indicate a change in circumstances and intent.
We cannot treat six months living overseas as automatically resulting in a change of tax residency. It should be understood that a change of tax residency will only occur if an Australian moves overseas for a period no shorter than six months, and a permanent place of abode is established. The subtle difference means that a stay of less than six months can clearly be understood to be temporary and would not change tax residency, while an overseas move that is expected to last more than six months requires review to determine if, and when, there is an actual change in tax residency.