US News International Student Blog: Handle Money Matters as an International Student

Many international students – even those in the country for a relatively short period of time – choose to open a bank account in the US for convenience and to save money on ATM fees and transaction charges.  A checking account normally comes with a debit card for withdrawing cash and allows you to write checks, while savings accounts accrue some interest, but are usually not as easy to access.  Normally, you can open a basic checking account with a minimal amount of money, but it is important to ask about annual fees and any penalties for going below an account minimum. 

In order to open a bank account, you will need to bring:

  • Your Western card
  • Your passport
  • Your DS-2019, I-20, or H1B approval notice
  • Proof of a local address (usually a bill or rental agreement – ISSS can also provide a letter confirming your address)

You may be asked for a Social Security Number.  A Social Security Number is not required to open a bank account.  If you do not have a Social Security Number, just explain that to the bank and they will ask you to fill in an additional form, the W-8BEN.

There are many banks with branches in Bellingham.  Bank of America and Whatcom Educational Credit Union (WECU) have ATMs in the Viking Union.  Keep in mind that using an ATM that doesn’t belong to your bank may incur charges from both your bank and the other bank. One way to avoid this is by asking for cash back when you make purchases using your debit card at supermarkets.

If you are unfamiliar with the process of writing a check, take a look at Business Insider's step-by-step guide for writing a check.


Income Tax

In the US, the tax year runs from January 1 – December 31, with tax returns due on April 15 of the following year.  All international students and scholars will need to file documentation with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), even if they did not have any US income.

Filing is each individual’s responsibility and it is important that documentation is filed on time.  US tax laws can be complex and confusing and the laws that apply to internationals are not the same as those that apply to US citizens. We have compiled these resources to help you to better understand your tax obligation and to successfully submit your tax forms.

Please note: ISSS staff are not qualified tax accountants. While we may be able to help with some very basic questions, we are not able to advise students and scholars on individual tax cases.

If you did not have any US income:

If you received no US-source income during the tax year you attended WWU, you must complete Form 8843 and send it by mail. Use the information and address in the section titled "When and Where To File" in the General Instructions part of the form.

The usual deadline for sending the form if you did not have any income is June 15 of each year after you began attending WWU.

If you did have US income:

While employers do deduct money from your pay check throughout the year and send it to the IRS, it may not equal the exact amount owed at the end of the year.  If too much was deducted, you may be eligible for a refund.  Or, if not enough was deducted, you may owe more.  Salary from a job is not the only kind of earning taxed -- many types of income are taxable. **Remember, unless you have specific permission you should not be making any money from freelancing/selling any products online as an F1 student.

Before you file

Before you begin the filing process, be sure you have all the necessary information with you.

  • Form W-2: W-2 forms are mailed to current and former employees.  This form shows how much you earned last year and how much was taken out for taxes.  You will only receive this form if you have been employed.
  • 1042-S: The 1042-S form will only be given to nonresident alien students who have received scholarship or fellowship money that exceeds tuition and related fee charges.  You will not receive a copy of the 1042-S form if you only have a tuition waiver on your account and do not receive any checks.  If you expect to receive a 1042-S form, wait until it is issued before filing your tax return.
  • Passport
  • Immigration document --  I-20 (F-1 status), DS-2019 (J-1 or J-2 status), or approval notice (H1B)
  • Social Security number or Individual Tax Identification number (ITIN)
  • Address information: current US address and foreign address
  • Entry and exit dates for current and past visits to the US (you can find these on your I-94 record)
  • Academic institution or host sponsor information: name, address, phone
  • Scholarship/fellowship grant letter, if any
  • A copy of last year's federal income tax return, if filed

Determining Residency for Tax Purposes

In legal terms, noncitizens of the US are called "aliens." There are three types of aliens for tax purposes: (1) nonresident; (2) dual-status; and (3) resident.  These categories are for tax purposes only and are not related to your immigration status.   You may be in F-1 or J-1 nonimmigrant status and considered a resident for tax purposes.

Nonresident for tax purposes

F-1 students and J-1 students are considered nonresident for tax purposes if they have been in the US for a total of less than five years.  J-1 scholars are considered nonresidents for tax purposes if they have been in the US for less than two years.  H1B scholars are considered nonresidents if they have been in the US for less than 183 days.

Nonresidents will use Form 1040NR in addition to Form 8843.

Forms must be sent by mail to the addresses specified in the instructions in the section "When and Where Should you File?" These addresses do change sometimes, so please look at the most current form instructions for the correct addresses.

Usual deadline for posting is April 15 for the previous calendar year's earnings (Jan 1 - Dec 31)

Resident for tax purposes

If you are an F-1 or J-1 student who has been in the US for more than 5 years, a J-1 scholar who has been in the US for more than 2 years, or an H1B scholar who has been in the US for more than 183 days, you will be considered a resident for tax purposes.  This is for tax purposes only and will not affect your immigration status.  Residents will file the same form as US citizens, Form 1040.

Forms must be sent by mail to the addresses specified in the instructions in the section "When and Where Should you File?" These addresses do change sometimes, so please look at the most current form instructions for the correct addresses. There is often a chart at the end of the instructions with the addresses of where to file depending on the state you are in, and whether you will include a check for payment.

Usual deadline for posting is April 15 for the previous calendar year's earnings (Jan 1 - Dec 31)

Filing tips

  • Make photocopies of your documents for your records
  • Be careful to complete the correct form
  • Sign and date all forms, and be sure to mail them before the stated deadline
  • If including payment, take a look at the IRS guidance on paying by check or money order. If you need information on how to write a check, refer to online guides.


Tax filing is a complicated process and many people in the US choose to hire an accountant or use a software program to complete their taxes. However, not all of these services take into account the particular circumstances of international students and scholars. If you would like to use a software program, Sprintax is a good resource. Their tax software is specifically designed for international students. You will need to fill in your information and answer some questions, and the software will determine what forms you need to file. The cost of this service is generally between $15-$75 dollars, depending on how many forms you are required to file.

Tax Treaties

The US has income tax treaties with many different countries.  Residents of these countries may be taxed at a reduced rate or be exempt from US income tax withholding on specific kinds of US-source income. Treaties vary among countries.  If the treaty does not cover a particular kind of income, or if there is no treaty between your country and the US, you must pay tax on the income in the same way and at the same rates shown in the instructions for Form 1040NR.

Taxable Income

Some kinds of income are taxed while others are not. For students and scholars who are considered nonresidents for tax purposes, interest income is not taxed if it comes from a US bank, a US savings and loan institution, a US credit union, or a US insurance company. Generally income from foreign sources is not taxed. Wages that appear on form W-2 are taxable. Scholarship or fellowship income that requires services (i.e. teaching assistant) will be treated as wages (like employment). Scholarships, fellowships, and grants may be partially taxed. For degree-seeking students, portions used for tuition, fees, books, supplies, and required equipment are not taxed; portions used for other expenses, like room, board, and travel, are taxable.

Social Security and Medicare

Nonresident students and scholars in F-1 and J-1 status, who are also considered nonresidents for tax purposes, should not have Social Security or Medicare taxes withheld from pay.  If these taxes have been withheld, contact your employer for reimbursement.  If you cannot get a refund from your employer, use Form 843 to request a refund from the IRS.

Individual Taxpayer Identification Number

If you are filing a tax return and are not eligible to apply for a Social Security number, you may obtain an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) .  A Social Security number or ITIN is necessary only if you are filing a tax return.  If you earned no US-source income and are only submitting form 8843, you do not need to apply for the Social Security number or ITIN.

Identity theft

Please be careful of fraudulent scams and internet "phishing" that use the IRS name or other tax-related references to gain access to your personal information in order to commit identity theft. The IRS does not send unsolicited emails or request personal information by email.  It also does not request PIN numbers, passwords, or similar secret access information to individuals' credit cards, banks, or other financial accounts.  You can learn more about scams on the IRS website and report phishing scams to the IRS.

State Income Tax

The State of Washington is one of only seven states without a state income tax. If you worked in another state during the tax year, you may need to file a tax return for that state in addition to your federal filing.  You will be able to find information on state income tax through that state’s department of revenue services.

Sales Tax

Sales tax is not included in the price of an item or service and will be added on at the time of payment. Sales tax is determined by the state, locality, and type of item or service purchased and therefore can vary greatly across the country.

Public Benefits

International students and scholars are reminded that acceptance of public benefits from federal, state, county, or local government agencies can be a violation of immigration status. It is critical that you consult with ISSS before accepting any sort of public assistance.