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Sritama Chatterjee is a second-year Ph.D. student in the Department of English at the University of Pittsburgh. You can find her on Twitter @SritamaBarna.
It’s that time of the year, when you, as an international student, receive documents from the payroll office that you need to file your taxes and constant reminders from the office of international affairs about deadlines that you just cannot miss. You might be baffled, especially if you are just starting out as an international graduate student in the U.S., trying to make sense of how tax procedures work here. You’re probably thinking, “I am only a graduate student. Do I still need to file my tax returns?” The answer is that if you are a graduate student in the U.S. who earns a wage of some kind, either through a fellowship or through employment on campus, you do have to file your tax returns, because your taxes are deducted by your employer before they pay you your wage. For the purpose of taxes, when you are just starting out as an international student, you are probably considered a nonresident alien in the U.S., which is not the same as your residency status in the U.S. Be sure to determine your alien tax status before you start your filing. The procedure for filing your tax return might be different from your home country, where graduate students might not be required to file taxes. This article speaks specifically about filing of federal taxes, though you need to be aware that state taxes exist and their mode of filing might vary (for example, some states would allow you e-filing while others might require you to send them via U.S. postal mail)
If you are an international graduate student, you are responsible for your federal tax returns. So make sure that you don’t miss the April 15 deadline. In case you anticipate missing the deadline, you may consider requesting an extension. Before you actually get to filing your tax returns, check if your university payroll has given you the necessary documents that are required for filing your tax returns. Two of the most important documents are 1042-S (foreign person’s U.S. source income subject to withholding) and/or W2. You can also generally request your W2 form (wage and tax statement) to be sent electronically to you by the institution rather than having to wait for a physical copy.
Once you have these documents with you, you may start filing your tax returns. The easiest way for international grad students to file tax returns is often to use tax-filing software or the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program. Whatever you choose, be sure to check for fees, because there is some taxation software that you can avail yourself of for free, whereas other programs will charge you a fee. Graduate schools sometimes give student discounts that you might want to use. As you are filing your taxes, be careful to check the accuracy of your responses and keep all documents such as your passport, I-20 and I-94 with you. If you use software, it will generally prepare the documentation for you, including finding out if a tax treaty is applicable for you, along with detailed instructions about where to mail what documents. Your job is not complete merely by using the software. You do have to print out documents, sign the forms and then, as per the instructions, mail it to the offices (I used U.S. postal mail to send the documents).
Another good idea is to find out whether your school or the grad union sponsors free sessions with financial advisers who can walk you through the process of how tax preparation actually works and its impact on your larger financial situation. If this is a paid service, it can be expensive. So you may consider finding out first if there is a free session offered.
Finally, filing taxes is not as time-consuming as it might seem, though initially it is an overwhelming process. I blocked out 10 minutes every day to complete my tax documentation using Sprintax, and it took me three days to complete the entire procedure. So keep calm!
When I got my tax returns back in June (and that was a lot of money!), I was very happy and decided that I would file my tax returns even faster this year because now I feel a little more confident about it.
Acknowledgment: Many thanks to Abhishek Viswanathan, Danny Doucette, Kay Sohini, Shiladitya Sen and Silpa Mukherjee for their inputs.
What methods have you used as an international student in the U.S. to file your taxes?