Introduction to U.S. Taxes

U.S. tax laws and regulations are very complex.  For this reason, many international students and their dependents fail to comply with U.S. tax laws.  However, it is essential that you know and comply with your tax obligations.  Failure to do so may lead to significant tax penalties and fines, and may complicate or even jeopardize your immigration status or your eligibility for future immigration benefits.

Conversely, it is important to understand tax laws to ensure that you do not pay more taxes than you need to.  Many students who pay taxes fail to take full advantage of the tax benefits for which they are eligible.  It is therefore to your benefit to attain an understanding of the U.S. tax system.

The U.S. Income Tax System

The U.S. payroll or income tax system follows a reconciliation system.  Employers or Payers are, in most cases, required to withhold taxes from an individual's income.  Then, the individual employee must file an annual tax return to reconcile how much taxes were withheld against how much taxes the individual owes.  If too much tax was withheld from the individual's income, the individual receives a refund when they file their income tax return.  In contrast, if not enough taxes were withheld, then the individual owes additional tax to the taxing agency.  Income can include compensation for work, scholarships, stipend, fellowships, prizes/awards, reimbursements, etc.

Therefore, there are two circumstances in which students may have questions about taxation:

  • Tax Withholding at the Time Compensation/Income is Earned - Every time you are paid wages, salary, or other forms of income, the payer may be required to withhold taxes from your payment.  The taxes that are withheld by the payer are submitted to the U.S. Internal Revenue Service or other applicable tax authorities.   Whether taxes should be withheld, and if so what kinds of taxes and how much tax, will depend on your individual situation and the character (facts and circumstances) of the income. 
  • Annual Filing and Tax Reconciliation (Income Tax Return) - Every April, you must file an annual income tax return to reconcile (a) how much taxable income you made in the previous calendar year against (b) how much taxes were withheld.  If too much taxes were withheld, you will be eligible for a refund. If too little taxes were withheld, you owe additional tax to the taxing authority.  Note: International students and their dependents are required to file Form 8843 with the U.S. federal government (IRS) even if they had no taxable income during the previous calendar year.

Different Levels of Taxes

A student who receives income may be subject to different kinds of tax withholding.  The following types of taxes may be withheld:

  • Federal Income Tax (Internal Revenue Service or IRS)
  • State and Local Income Tax (Connecticut Department of Revenue Services)
  • Federal Social Security and/or Medicare taxes under the Federal Insurance Contributions Act (FICA)

The amount of federal income tax that is withheld will vary according to your tax status and whether there is an applicable tax treaty between the U.S. and your country of residence.

The amount of state and local income tax that is withheld will depend on the state you are working in, the state you are living in, and the type of activity you are conducting. Note that in addition to the U.S. federal government, each state has its own tax laws and regulations. A student who has taxable income and is subject to federal income taxation may or may not need to pay state or local income taxes. For example, Connecticut has income taxes requirements that are different from the IRS.  

Whether or not you are required to pay Social Security or FICA taxes depends on your tax status and the type of work you are doing.

Tax Advice

Because of the complexity of U.S. federal and state tax laws, Wesleyan is unable to provide tax advice or assistance in individual cases.  However, the information presented in this website will cover most situations applicable to F-1 or J-1 students and their dependents.