U.S. Income Tax Basics Landing Page

Start Here: Determining Your Federal Tax Status

Your tax residency status (nonresident or resident) 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. If you spend any part of the year in the U.S.--even one day---that year counts as a tax year.

F and J students are generally considered "nonresident aliens" (NRA) for federal tax purposes for the first 5 tax years, not necessarily consecutive, going back a number of years. J scholars (researchers and professors) and their dependents are considered nonresident aliens for two out of every six tax years.

Don't commit tax fraud in error by using TurboTax or other similar software and file a resident tax return if you are not eligible!

Don’t worry! Sprintax Can Help!

Use Sprintax to determine whether you are a nonresident or resident for federal tax purposes. The ISSO provides access to Sprintax for you to use at no cost to determine your federal tax status, and to complete the 8843 and any other nonresident federal tax form(s) applicable to your personal situation.  Sprintax is a nonresident tax preparation software designed for international students, alumni, scholars, and their dependents. Before logging into Sprintax, watch their short video on the residency section.

If Sprintax determines that you are a resident alien, check out our resource page for resident tax-filers.

The Basics

Form 8843 is required by the IRS for all Fs and Js (including F-2 and J-2 dependent spouses and children) who are "nonresident aliens" for federal tax purposes*--even if you had no U.S. income. Form 8843 is an informational statement that shows you were in the U.S. and were a Nonresident Alien (NRA).

If you were in the U.S. in F or J status at any time in 2020 and didn't have any U.S. income , the 8843 is the only form** you need to send to the IRS, and the deadline is June 15, 2021You do not need a Social Security number or an ITIN if this is the only form you need to file. (*Residents do not have the 8843 requirement.)

You can log in to use Sprintax from the next page to complete the 8843 form at no cost, along with mailing instructions.  

**If you choose not to complete Form 8843 with Sprintax, be aware that the ISSO is not able to answer any questions about it and note that the IRS mailing address is on page 3 of its instructions.

  • IRS Form 8843 is required for each F or J dependent, including children. Each 8843 must be mailed in a separate envelope. When you use Sprintax, they will ask for information about your dependents and will generate a complete 8843 form for each family member. 
  • J-2 spouse with employment authorization who had income will need to file their own tax return because nonresidents are not able to file a joint tax return. Request a Sprintax code by email from the ISSO that serves your campus. 
     
    • ISSO Morningside campus: isso@columbia.edu
    • ISSO-CUIMCcumc-intl-students@columbia.edu

The tax year is January 1 - December 31. The tax system is "pay-as-you-go” which means that in most cases employers withhold money out of your paycheck for taxes during the tax year and send it to the federal and state tax authorities. A personal tax return is due April 15th of the following year. 

If you had U.S. income in 2020, the 8843 is part of your tax return that is due on April 15, 2021. A tax return is a reconciliation between tax that has been withheld and tax that is owed, depending on the amount of taxable income. You either get a refund for overpayment or owe the government money for underpayment. Log in from the Columbia portal on the next page for federal forms at no cost to you..

Nonresidents report and pay taxes only on U.S. income. Residents follow the same tax rules as U.S. citizens and pay taxes on their worldwide income.

If you have taxable U.S. income, you will receive a form by mail or electronically that reports the annual total. You need this to file a tax return. 

  • The most common, a W-2 form, also known as the Wage and Tax Statement, reports an employee's annual wages and the amount of taxes withheld from their paychecks. The employer is required to send a W-2 to each employee (and to the IRS) by the end of January the following year. At Columbia, Payroll in the Finance Division is responsible for the W-2.
     
  • The 1042-S is another form that reports different types of U.S. income (e.g. fellowship and travel grants, income covered by a tax treaty). The Payer must send you this form by March 15th the following year. See Year-End Tax Reporting Documents from Columbia's Division of Finance.

See the list of documents you may receive or require for a tax return on our Filing Your Nonresident Tax Forms page.

If you earn money in more than one state during the calendar year, you may need to file a state tax return for each.

You may be a nonresident alien (NRA) for federal tax purposes but be considered a resident for state tax purposes. 

When you live in NYC and have income, you are liable for NY State and maybe NYC taxes in addition to federal taxes. Unlike your federal tax status, your immigration status as an international student or scholar is not relevant to your New York State and NYC tax status. You may be a nonresident alien (NRA) for federal tax purposes but be considered a resident for New York state tax purposes. Here's what to expect: 

Columbia provides free access to Sprintax for federal nonresident tax forms. You have the option to use Sprintax for your state tax return(s) for a $29.95 individual fee, or you may want to do the NY state tax return on your own through "freefile". 

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 status(es) that you have held, the type of income you may receive, and if your nationality makes you eligible for a tax treaty benefit. Note that even if you have a tax-exempt income through a treaty benefit, you still must file a tax return.

Human Resources has an office that processes tax treaty applicability and issues Form 1042-S for certain types of income. While they are working remotely and not available for walk-in appointments, you may submit an inquiry to their ServiceNow Form or call the HR Service Center at 212-851-2888. 

The deadline for filing a 2020 tax return was extended to May 17, 2021.

In other years, there are exceptions to the April 15th date when it falls on a weekend or state holiday.

"Nonresident aliens" for federal tax purposes must file a nonresident tax return. Don't commit tax fraud by mistakenly filing a resident tax return for which you are not eligible! 

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the US government introduced the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security) Act in April 2020, which provided a $1200 to most US citizen and resident tax filers. Learn more about navigating the first stimulus payment here.

In December 2020, the US government authorised the release of a second pandemic stimulus payment – worth $600.

This Sprintax blog post gives an overview of the second stimulus payments provided by the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act , covering:

  • Who is eligible to keep/receive the first and second stimulus payments
  • Who is not eligible to keep/receive the second stimulus payment
  • What to do if you have received the payment in error
  • What to do if you already amended your tax return, returned the first stimulus payment but have now received the second payment
  • Other useful Q & A’s about the topic

Feel free to reach out to Sprintax if you have further questions.

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Click here to view this short video Your Filing Obligations by Sprintax Tax Preparation for Nonresidents.

How to File

Most international students and scholars are nonresidents for federal tax purposes. Due to the complexities of U.S. tax law and legal restrictions, the staff of the ISSO (and all University offices) are neither qualified nor permitted to provide individual tax advice.

To assist you, Columbia provides access to Sprintax, an easy-to-use tax preparation software at no cost for your federal forms. You also have the option of using it for a state tax return for an individual fee of $29.95.

Check out our youtube tax workshop playlist for an overview.