How to File Tax Return for International Students in USA

Albert Wilson

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As an international student studying in e hall pass the United States, understanding your tax responsibilities is crucial. While taxes can seem daunting, proper knowledge and preparation can help you navigate the process smoothly. In this article, we’ll break down the essential steps for filing your tax return, ensuring compliance with US tax laws, and maximizing any potential refunds.

1: Determining Your Residence Status for Students

International students in the USA need to understand their tax residency status, as it significantly impacts their tax obligations. Here’s what you need to know:

Resident vs. Nonresident Status

  • Resident Aliens: These individuals are considered residents for tax purposes. You are a resident alien if you meet either the “substantial presence test” or the “green card test.” Resident aliens are taxed on their worldwide income, just like US citizens.
  • Nonresident Aliens: Most international students fall into this category e-hall. Nonresident aliens are only taxed on their US-source income. If you’ve been in the US for a limited time (usually less than 5 years), you’re likely a nonresident.

Substantial Presence Test

The substantial presence test determines whether you’ve spent enough time in the US to be considered a resident. It considers the days you were physically present in the country over a three-year period. If you meet the following criteria, you’re a resident alien:

  • You were present in the US for at least 31 days during the current year.
  • The sum of your days in the current year, plus one-third of the days from the previous year, plus one-sixth of the days from the year before that, equals 183 days or more.

Green Card Test

If you have a US green card (permanent resident status), you’re automatically a resident alien for tax purposes. Green card holders are subject to the same tax rules as US citizens.

Nonresident Alien Taxation

As a nonresident alien, you’ll generally file Form 1040NR or 1040NR-EZ. These forms are specifically designed for nonresidents. You’ll report your US-source income, such as wages from on-campus employment, scholarships, and interest income.

2: Identifying Your Income Sources

Types of Income

As an international student, it’s essential to recognize the various income sources that may impact your tax return. Here are common types of income:

  1. Wages and Salaries: If you worked on-campus or off-campus during the tax year, your earnings from employment fall into this category.
  2. Scholarships and Fellowships: Any scholarship or fellowship grant you received is considered income. However, some scholarships may be tax-exempt if they cover tuition, fees, and required course materials.
  3. Interest and Dividends: If you earned interest from a US bank account or received dividends from US stocks, report these amounts.
  4. Capital Gains: If you sold investments (such as stocks or real estate) and made a profit, you’ll need to report capital gains.
  5. Other Income: This includes income from sources like rental properties, royalties, or freelance work.

3: Tax Treaty Benefits

Many countries have tax treaties with the US to prevent double taxation. Check if your home country has a tax treaty, as it may exempt certain types of income from US taxation or provide reduced tax rates.

Form 1042-S and Form 1099

  • Form 1042-S: If you received scholarships, fellowships, or other income subject to withholding, you’ll receive Form 1042-S. It summarizes your US-source income and any tax withheld.
  • Form 1099: This form reports various types of income, such as interest, dividends, and capital gains. You’ll receive a Form 1099 from the payer (e.g., your bank or investment company).

Keeping Accurate Records

Maintain detailed records of your income, expenses, and relevant documents. This will help you accurately complete your tax return and maximize any eligible deductions or credits.

4: Gather Necessary Documents

Before you start filling out your tax return, gather the essential documents. Having these ready will streamline the process and ensure accuracy. Here’s what you’ll need:

Form 1042-S and Form 1099

  1. Form 1042-S:
    • This form summarizes income subject to withholding, such as scholarships, fellowships, or other payments.
    • Your university or employer will provide you with Form 1042-S if applicable.
    • Check it carefully to ensure accurate reporting of your income.
  2. Form 1099:
    • Form 1099 reports various types of income, including interest, dividends, and capital gains.
    • You’ll receive Form 1099 from banks, investment companies, or other payers.
    • Review each Form 1099 you receive to verify the amounts.

Other Relevant Documents

  1. W-2 Forms:
    • If you had on-campus or off-campus employment, you’ll receive a W-2 form from your employer.
    • The W-2 shows your total wages, any taxes withheld, and other relevant details.
  2. Scholarship and Fellowship Letters:
    • Collect letters or documentation related to scholarships or fellowships you received.
    • These letters may specify the purpose of the funding and any tax implications.
  3. ITIN or SSN:
    • If you have an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN), make sure you have it handy.
    • Alternatively, if you have a Social Security Number (SSN), keep that accessible.
  4. Previous Year’s Tax Return:
    • Having your previous year’s tax return can be helpful for reference.
    • It may contain carryover information or other relevant details.

Organize Your Records

  • Create a folder or digital file to keep all these documents together.
  • Label each document clearly to avoid confusion during the filing process.

5: Calculate Your Tax Liability

Understanding Tax Rates

As a nonresident alien, your tax liability depends on your income and filing status. Here’s how to calculate it:

  1. Federal Income Tax Rates:
    • Nonresident aliens are subject to graduated tax rates. These rates apply to your taxable income after deductions and exemptions.
    • The tax brackets for 2024 are as follows:
    Taxable Income Range Tax Rate
    Up to $10,000 10%
    $10,001 – $40,000 12%
    Over $40,000 22%
  2. State Income Tax:
    • Some states impose income tax on nonresidents. Check the rules for your specific state.
    • State tax rates vary, so research the rates applicable to your situation.

Calculating Your Tax

  1. Determine Your Taxable Income:
    • Subtract any allowable deductions (such as the standard deduction or itemized deductions) from your total income.
    • Report this taxable income on your tax return.
  2. Apply the Tax Rates:
    • Use the tax brackets to calculate your federal income tax.
    • For example, if your taxable income is $30,000, your federal tax would be:

  3. Consider Tax Credits:
    • Nonresident aliens may be eligible for certain tax credits, such as the Child Tax Credit or the Education Credits.
    • These credits directly reduce your tax liability.
  4. Total Tax Owed:
    • Add your federal and state tax liabilities (if applicable) to determine your total tax owed.

Withholding and Refunds

  1. Withholding:
    • If you had taxes withheld from your wages (common for on-campus employment), subtract this amount from your total tax liability.
    • The difference is either the additional tax you owe or the refund you’ll receive.
  2. Refund or Payment:
    • If your withholding exceeds your tax liability, you’ll receive a refund.
    • If your withholding is less than your tax liability, you’ll need to pay the difference.

6: Filing Your Tax Return

Completing Form 1040NR or 1040NR-EZ

Now that you’ve gathered all the necessary information, it’s time to fill out your tax return. Follow these steps:

  1. Download the Forms: Obtain Form 1040NR or 1040NR-EZ from the IRS website. You can also use tax software that supports nonresident alien returns.
  2. Personal Information: Fill in your name, address, and other personal details. If you have an ITIN, include it here.
  3. Income Reporting:
    • Report your income sources (wages, scholarships, interest, etc.) on the appropriate lines.
    • Attach any required schedules (e.g., Schedule OI for other income).
  4. Deductions and Credits:
    • Nonresident aliens have limited deductions, but you can still claim certain education-related expenses or treaty benefits.
    • Check if you qualify for any education credits (e.g., the Lifetime Learning Credit).
  5. Calculate Your Tax Liability:
    • Use the tax tables provided in the instructions to determine your tax owed.
    • If you have tax withheld from your wages, report it on the appropriate line.
  6. Sign and Date the Form:
    • Sign your tax return and include the date.
    • If you’re mailing the form, keep a copy for your records.

7: Filing Options

  • Paper Filing: Mail your completed tax return to the appropriate IRS address. Make sure to send it before the deadline.
  • Electronic Filing (e-File): Consider e-filing for faster processing. Some tax software allows nonresident alien e-filing.

State Tax Returns

If your state requires a tax return, follow similar steps for your state forms. Some states have their own versions of Form 1040NR.

Refunds and Payment

  • If you’re due a refund, the IRS will send it to you via direct deposit or a paper check.
  • If you owe taxes, pay by the deadline to avoid penalties. You can pay online or by mail.


International students in the USA must file their tax returns if they were present in the country during the previous calendar year and earned income. Students on F or J visas must file Form 8843, even if they didn’t earn income. File a federal income tax return for any year you’ve been in the US, even if it’s for a short period. Complete the correct US income tax form. International scholars can’t file electronically, so it must be done manually. Utilize online platforms like the International Student Tax Return and Refund Center for assistance with tax filing.

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