DISCLAIMER: The following information is general guidance for the benefit of Tufts international students, scholars, and employees. The International Center is not authorized to provide specific tax guidance on individual tax situations.
US Income Tax Basics
As an international student, scholar, or employee at Tufts, it is important that you be aware of your US income tax obligations. To get you started, here are some basic pointers about the US income tax system.
Tax Year: the US tax year is the same as the calendar year (January 1- December 31).
Federal and State Taxes: US income taxes can be at both the US federal (national) level as well as the state level. While the US federal government and states usually follow the same tax calendar, there are often different tax rules between the federal government and different states. For example, US federal taxes are managed by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) while the Massachusetts Department of Revenue manages Massachusetts state tax requirements.
Tax Residency: the US federal government differentiates between tax residents (who are taxed in the same way as US citizens and permanent residents) and tax non-residents; most international students and scholars will be non-residents, at least for their initial period of study or stay in the US. F-1 students, for example, are usually considered tax non-residents for the first five years of physical presence in F-1 status.
Pay-as-You-Go System: the US has a 'pay as you go' tax system, which means that taxes can be taken out or "withheld" from your pay; you will then file a tax return by April 15 to calculate if you paid too much, or too little, tax during the tax year.
Tax Withholding: under the pay-as-you-go system, part of your salary may be 'withheld' from your paycheck and submitted as tax payments to the US and/or state government. When you file your tax return (see next point), you will calculate whether or not enough, or too much, tax was withheld from your pay. If too much was withheld, you will be eligible for a tax refund; if too little, you will have to make additional tax payments.
Tax Return: a tax return is a form that you complete and submit to the federal government (IRS) that includes a calculation of your taxes for the previous year. In most years, the deadline to submit the tax return is April 15. By filing the tax return, you state how much income you earned during the previous year, how much taxes you already paid, and whether you owe more taxes or deserve a refund. In certain situations you may also need to complete a tax return for the state in which you lived or worked.
Tax Residency, Tax Treaties, and Tax Withholding
Your income tax situation in the US will depend on your tax status as a resident or non-resident. Note that the information in this section is specifically for tax non-residents, since most international students and scholars will be considered non-residents. Your tax status in turn affects your eligibility for tax treaty benefits and your tax withholding.
(1) Determine Your Tax Residency
US Federal Tax Residency
US federal tax laws distinguish between residents and non-residents for tax purposes. Tax residency affects your level of taxes and your tax benefits, and what kinds of tax forms you need to complete. Some of the differences include:
In general, the US taxes the worldwide income of tax residents, but only the US-source income for non-residents
There are significant differences in the kinds of benefits and deductions residents and non-residents can claim
Who are Tax Residents / Non-Residents?
The IRS categorizes all US citizens and lawful permanent residents as tax residents. However, most incoming F and J student visa holders are considered tax non-residents for the first five (5) calendar years in F or J student status. These five years are lifetime maximums counted from January 1, 1986 onward. For example, an F-1 student who was in the US in F-1 status in 2012 and 2013, and then again in the years 2015 to 2017, would have reached the five years in 2017 (2011, 2012, 2015, 2016, and 2017). From 2018 onward, a different test would need to be used to determine tax residency.
J-1 scholars are considered non-residents for the first two (2) calendar years in the US. Other visa holders may need to determine tax residency by following IRS guidance for determining tax status.
Once you are beyond the five year / two year limitations, you may need to decide your tax residency by taking two different tests: the "green card" test and the "substantial presence" test. For more information about these tests, go to Chapter 1 of IRS Publication 519.
(2) Identify Tax Treaty Benefits
F-1 / J-1 students and J-1 scholars may be eligible for certain types of tax benefits available under a US tax treaty. A description of current tax treaties between the US and other countries is listed in IRS Publication 901, US Tax Treaties. When reading Publication 901, it is important to realize that each tax treaty is negotiated differently. Not every country has a tax treaty with the US, and the terms of each treaty provide different types of benefits for different groups, such as students, scholars, or others. Tax treaty benefits may be limited by income maximums and/or available for only a limited number of years, and in certain cases, tax benefits may be lost retroactively if your stay in the US and/or your US source income exceeds treaty limits.
If you have tax treaty benefits, you can request that they be applied at the time of tax withholding (see next section on Tax Withholding) or your annual tax filing (see section on Annual Tax Filing). You must have a valid Social Security Number (SSN) when requesting your tax treaty benefits - no other number can be used to claim tax treaty benefits.
(3) Tax Withholding (including W-4 Information)
When you earn income in the US through employment or other types of income-generating sources, your income may be subject to tax withholding. Under tax withholding, your employer (or the entity providing you with US income) is required to deduct taxes from your overall earnings and send those taxes to the IRS (and state tax agencies, if applicable). In addition to employment, certain other types of income-generating activities (e.g., such as certain types of stipends, prizes, or investment income) may be subject to tax withholding.
How much income tax is withheld will depend on your tax residency and your estimated income tax obligation for the year. In addition, some tax non-residents may have tax treaty benefits that will affect the overall rate (percentage) of withholding on your income.
Tax Withholding and Employment
When you start employment, you may be required to complete forms that will tell your employer how much tax to withhold from your salary. For non-residents, these include:
IRS Form W-4 withholding allowance certificate: File this form with your employer. F-1 and J-1 students who are within their first five years of student status are usually considered non-resident aliens and should complete Form W-4 using the special instructions for nonresident aliens
IRS Form 8233 to request exemption or reduced withholding based on tax treaty benefits and accompanying Tax Treaty Statement (from IRS Publication 519 Appendix A for students and Appendix B for professors / teachers)
Social Security Numbers and Individual Taxpayer ID Numbers
When filing a US federal or state tax form you must have a valid Social Security Number (SSN) or Individual Taxpayer ID Number (ITIN).
A Social Security Number is required if you are earning income from authorized employment. Read our Social Security section for more information about how to obtain a Social Security Number if you are working at Tufts in an on-campus job or employment position.
Individual Taxpayer ID Numbers are available to persons who have US source income from non-employment sources. They can also be requested for dependents who are being claimed on tax returns.
Tax Information Forms for Your Annual Tax Filing
You will receive certain kinds of tax forms from Tufts and/or any other company, organization, or entity that has provided you with US-source income. These forms report your US income for the tax year. You should keep these forms in your permanent tax records. If you notice any errors, contact the employer / agency that issued you the form.
Form W-2 Wage and Tax Statement
January 31 for the previous year
Issued to all employees
Reports wages (salary) and any US federal and state taxes withheld from earnings from employment
Form 1042-S, Foreign Person's US Source Income Subject to Withholding
March 15 for the previous year
Issued to foreign persons or persons presumed to be foreign
Reports various kinds of income, including (1) the amount of wages that was exempt under a tax treaty benefit and (2) the non-qualified taxable amounts of a fellowship or scholarship
In general, the non-qualified taxable portion of a fellowship / scholarship is the amount that exceeds the cost of tuition and fees required for attendance; scholarships for non-degree students are considered taxable in their entirety
Form 1099-MISC, Miscellaneous Income
January 31 for the previous year
Issued to persons receiving miscellaneous income and/or medical and health care payments
Form 1099-INT, Interest Income
January 31 for the previous year
Reports interest income earned, e.g., simple interest from a savings account