Filing Taxes as an International Student

Every year, Americans complain about paying taxes. But if you thought you won’t be filing taxes because you’re an international student, think again.

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is the U.S. government bureau that collects taxes, and they have a stringent target of April 15 (or the next Monday if that falls over the weekend) to file tax returns for the previous calendar year of January 1 to December 31.

Just like Americans, international students in the USA are required to file a tax return. It’s important to understand that filing tax returns is mandatory for international students, and not doing so by the deadline could result in problems with or revocation of your visa as well as possible ineligibility for a green card.

If this all sounds extremely complicated, that’s because it is. Before you begin collecting your documents or organizing anything, get in touch with your school’s international student service for help navigating the process or think about consulting a professional tax advisor.

Important terms

Before we even get to forms, you need to know basic definitions according to the IRS.

  • Non-resident alien for tax purposes: Foreign students with an F, J, or M visa who have been in the United States for less than five years
  • Resident alien for tax purposes: Foreign students with an F, J, or M visa who have been in the United States for over five years
  • Income: All earned income, scholarships, grants, stipends, etc. not related to a student loan. Some earnings don’t apply towards taxes, however, and you can check the Department of Homeland Security’s website to see which list you’re on.

Who should file taxes?

All foreign students and their partners and dependents, irrespective of income, are required to complete Form 8843, which is informational and lets the IRS know how long you’ve been in the United States.

Students in the United States on F-1 visas are NOT expected to pay employment taxes (i.e. Medicare and Social Security, also referred to as FICA), but ARE MANDATED to pay both federal and state income taxes. These taxes are withheld from your pay and you must file a tax return as part of the process.

Because M-1 visa holders are not allowed to accept employment (except during practical training), they are NOT required to file income tax unless in rare situations where they’re paid for the practical training.

If you’re in the United States on a J-1 visa, you are required to pay income taxes on the income you earn.

In addition to paying federal taxes, some foreign students are required to also pay state and/or local taxes. Don’t get worried about the math yet, though – some nations have a tax treaty with the United States, and foreign students from those nations may be exempt or have a reduced rate.

Here’s an easy way to think about it: By definition, M-1 visa holders don’t pay taxes because they’re in the USA only to learn and therefore don’t earn any income, F-1 visa bearers pay federal and state income taxes, and J-1 visa bearers pay taxes just like U.S. nationals.

If you did earn income and are required to pay some of the many taxes listed above, you’ll have to complete Form 1040NR or 1040NR-EZ (the easy version of 1040NR). Again, talk to a professional first!

In certain situations, you may get money back if the employer withheld more taxes than you owed; in other words, you must have taxable income greater than a certain amount to “owe” tax. And the money doesn’t just show up in your mailbox – you have to file for it, too.  

How to file taxes – Filing Taxes as an International Student

When Americans file their tax returns, they use their social security number (SSN) in various forms. As an international student, you may need to use an SSN as well. You have to apply for it with the Social Security Administration if you worked in the United States and obtained taxable employee compensation. If you are not eligible for an SSN, however, you must apply for an individual taxpayer identification number (ITIN) from the IRS to use on forms.

If you’re beginning to fret about tax identification numbers, don’t. If you didn’t receive any income and only need to file Form 8843, then you don’t need either an SSN or ITIN.

In terms of the actual filing, Form 8843 must be mailed in an envelope directly to the IRS. However, you, your partner, and each dependent have to send the form in individual envelopes. You can electronically file (e-file) Form 1040NR on the IRS website, but you can’t e-file Form 1040NR-EZ. Other e-filing services are available, but remember that some of those services may charge you.

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