U.S. Income Tax Basics (F and J)

U.S. income tax law is quite complex. This brief overview provides the basics of what you need to know.

Start by introducing yourself to U.S. income tax basics -- watch our short "Start Here" video below:

Start Here: US Tax Basics for International Students and Scholars
SESSION LEADER: Good morning. Thank you for coming to today’s session on what you as international students and scholars need to know about U.S. taxes.

“Doing your taxes” as they say here in America, is fairly straightforward, but knowing what your obligation is may not be so obvious.

So, we’ll start with a very basic question -- Who here in the U.S. has to “do their taxes”?

The answer is… All of you!

VISITING SCHOLAR: Us? Why? Isn’t it just U.S. Citizens?

SESSION LEADER: Not quite. You see, there are actually two types of tax status in the U.S.--resident and nonresident alien. Since you are new to the U.S. you all are considered Nonresidents. As F and J Nonresidents, there is at least one thing you are required to do --the IRS Form 8843.

STUDENT # 1: Wait— what?? I’m an undergrad and I haven’t worked a single day in the U.S. I still have to submit a tax form?!

SESSION LEADER: Yes. The 8843 is a requirement even if you had no U.S. income. All F and J students and scholars--and their visa dependents, including children--must send this short simple form to the Internal Revenue Service, the U.S. tax agency.

Since this information is probably new for all of you, let’s open the floor for questions!

STUDENT 2: So, I’m a graduate student. I don’t work, but I do get a stipend from my fellowship. That’s not considered income, is it?

SESSION LEADER: Well, actually it is. In addition to paid work, you can also get income from a U.S. scholarship, fellowship, or travel grant that is for expenses other than tuition, such as food and rent. However, if you receive funding from your home country, then that wouldn’t count.

VISITING SCHOLAR: So I’m a visiting scholar and didn’t work last year. I didn’t receive any other kind of income. Does that mean that both my husband and I would have to complete our own 8843 form?

SESSION LEADER: Correct. To complete an 8843 all you need to do is go to the ISSO website for free access to Sprintax, which is an easy-to-use tax preparation software.

STUDENT 1: Do I have to use Sprintax? My roommate used TurboTax.

SESSION LEADER: Good question! No, you can’t use TurboTax because that is only for resident tax returns, and you certainly don’t want to commit tax fraud. Sprintax is designed specifically for nonresidents like you.

STUDENT # 1: So, when is this 8843 form due?

SESSION LEADER: The deadline for sending the 8843 to the IRS is June 15th, IF it is your only requirement because you had no U.S. income.

However, if you did have U.S. income, you will need to file a federal tax return in addition to Form 8843. This is free when you use Sprintax from Columbia’s website.

SESSION LEADER: A tax return has an earlier deadline. It’s usually April 15th, but may vary slightly each year. Check the ISSO website to be sure. Keep in mind that your tax return reports income from the previous tax year.

STUDENT #2: I hate to ask such a basic question, but what exactly is a tax return?

SESSION LEADER: Simply put, a tax return compares the tax that has already been taken out from your income with the amount of tax you may owe to the IRS. Don’t worry, this is all calculated for you when you use Sprintax.

The result is that either the government owes you money and sends you a refund … or you may owe them more money. Oh, and beware of phone scams! The IRS will communicate with you only by mail.

STUDENT # 2: Okay. Anything else I should know?

SESSION LEADER: Well, you may also need to file a state tax return, depending on the amount of your income and the state in which you received it. Sprintax will inform you if you need to file a state tax return and will give you the option of preparing it for a fee.

STUDENT #2: What? You mean this is in addition to the federal tax return?

SESSION LEADER: Yes. This is a completely separate process. Each state has its own tax regulations.

And just to keep things interesting, states define tax status differently than the IRS! For example, New York may consider you to be a resident for state tax purposes, even if you are a nonresident for federal tax purposes. This is all explained on the ISSO website.

STUDENT #2: …Is there anything more?

SESSION LEADER: No, this just about covers the basics, and please — do your taxes on time!
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U.S. Income Tax Overview

The tax year is from January 1 to December 31, and is “pay-as-you-go” which means that in most cases taxes are withheld from your income throughout the year.  Withholding means employers are required to take money out of your paycheck for taxes during that year and send it to the tax collection agency. The federal tax agency is called the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). In addition, each state in the U.S. has its own tax regulations.

Your situation is unique and different from your fellow students and scholars because it is dependent upon the amount of time you have spent in the U.S., the nonimmigrant statuses that you have held, the type of income you may receive, and your nationality, if your country has a tax treaty with the U.S.

New York State residency rules are different than those of the Internal Revenue Service. You may be a nonresident alien (NRA) for federal tax purposes but be considered a resident for state tax purposes.

There are exceptions to the April 15th date, when it falls on a weekend or state holiday. The deadline for filing a 2018 tax return is April 15, 2019.

If you have had U.S. income during the year, you need to send a tax return by April 15th the following year to the tax authorities. Basically, it’s a reconciliation between tax that has been withheld and tax that is owed--sometimes you get a refund and other times you may owe the government money to make up for the shortfall.

If you're a non-resident for federal tax purposes you have to file a non-resident tax return. Don't commit tax fraud in error by filing a tax return for which you are not eligible!

Learn more about filing your tax return.

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need to know

Federal Tax Form 8843 Requirement for All F and J Students and Scholars

Form 8843 is required by the IRS of all Fs and Js (including F-2 and J-2 dependents) who are "nonresident aliens" for federal tax purposes--even if you had no U.S. income in 2018. Sprintax is free for you to use for all your federal tax forms when you login from our web page using your Columbia UNI and password---whether it's just the 8843 or a complete multi-page tax return if you had U.S. income.

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Income Overview

Sources of income include, but are not limited to:

Read more about withholding here. The amount of taxes you will pay will depend on the type of income you receive and your tax residence status in the United States.

Receiving Money from Columbia

If you are receiving money from Columbia as payment for work or  “non-work” scholarship or fellowship, read more here.

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Determining Your U.S. Tax Status

You tax status is separate from your immigration status. It is based only on your presence in the U.S. over a period of years, with special rules for students and scholars in F or J status. When you use Sprintax, the first set of questions will ask about your physical presence in the U.S. going back a number of years, and your response will determine your U.S. Tax Status. 

Students in F-1 and J-1 status (and their dependents) are generally considered a Non-Resident Alien (NRA) for their first 5 tax years* in student status.

*The tax year is from January 1 - December 31. Any time spent in the U.S. during a calendar year counts as one tax year--even one day!

Scholars (professors and researchers) in J-1 status are typically considered a Non-Resident Alien (NRA) if they have been in the U.S. for no more than 2 out of the last 6 tax years*.

*The tax year is from January 1 - December 31. Any time spent in the U.S. during a calendar year counts as one tax year--even one day!

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How to File

We have teamed up with Sprintax to provide you with easy-to-use tax preparation software designed for non-resident students, scholars, alumni and their dependents in the U.S. We (and and all other university staff) are not qualified or allowed to provide individual tax advice.

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2018 Sprintax Tax Workshop

This is from a 2018 workshop covering the 2017 tax year. Dates and amounts may have changed but the concepts are the same. Watch it in its entirety or by specific topics below. 

Topics Covered:

  • Tax Overview 00:00
  • Everyone Has an IRS Filing Obligation 3:32
  • Form 8843 4:16
  • Tax Forms and Definitions 11:02
  • Tax Scams 25:09
  • State Taxes 27:08 
  • Timelines for a Refund 35:04
  • What to Do If You Missed a Year or Misfiled 36:05 
  • Fake News About Taxes, Tips, and Implications of not Filing 38:43 
  • Using Sprintax 46:13
Tax Overview
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For login instructions, visit our webpage on Filing Non-Resident Tax Forms with Sprintax (F & J).