When international students are accepted for admission, they receive lots of information about financial aid, housing, degree requirements and other things. However, no information about how the U.S. tax system works is provided. For students who receive a scholarship or an assistantship, this could make a difference in how they plan their finances in the U.S.
Suraj Upadhaya, a Ph.D. student from Nepal studying at the Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources, said he couldn’t recall receiving information on taxes in his offer letter.
“We get an offer from the university saying ‘You’re accepted, and here’s your offer’ … but there’s no breakdown,” Upadhaya said. “When we come here, then there is state tax, federal tax … and so many different taxes. At the end of the day, we [think] ‘OK, I wish was aware [of] this tax system or I was aware [of] all these taxes that I have to pay.’”
Upadhaya said the process of filing taxes in the U.S. as an international student can be confusing because he comes from a country with a different system.
“We have to file as a nonresident, and then we don’t know about all those terms and terminology. It’s my sixth year [in the U.S.] but still I get confused,” Upadhaya said.
Because international students come from different countries with different regulations, Upadhaya believes more specific resources are needed.
“There are resources for tax filing but not … enough resources to answer our international student questions,” Upadhaya said. “Different countries have different treaties [with the U.S.], but the person [helping with taxes] is not familiar with those treaties with our country. That makes it even more complicated.”
Katja Sonkeng, a Ph.D. student from Germany studying sports management and policy in the department of kinesiology, said the process of tax filing is not always easy, whether she’s going through it in the U.S. or her home country.
“[Tax filing] in general has always been annoying to me,” Sonkeng said. “But it really doesn’t make a difference if it’s here or in Germany. The only difference is the additional layer of being international.”
Sonkeng said she uses a service called the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program to help her during tax filing. The program, which offers free tax return assistance to individuals with low to moderate income, people with disabilities and limited English-speaking taxpayers, established a partnership among the IRS, Georgia United Credit Union and UGA this year.
“I went through the regular VITA program because since I’ve been [in the U.S.] for six years now, I’m now considered a resident alien,” Sonkeng said. “Actually, I’m not eligible anymore to use the [International Student Life] service for international students.”
Justin Jeffery, the director of ISL at UGA, said ISL does not provide information about the tax system to admitted international students prior to their arrival at UGA.
“Due to the sheer volume of information being sent to incoming international students at that time, we assume that it would be additional ‘noise’ and most likely not utilized,” Jeffery said in an email. “We have, in the past, covered taxes in the orientation program but found quickly that students didn’t retain that information as they were overloaded with other more pertinent information at that time.”
Jeffery said ISL is open to reconsider providing tax information if it’s identified as a need by international students.
During tax season, which runs Jan.1-April 15 each year, ISL helps international students file their taxes through its International Tax Assistance Program. Through ITAP, volunteers help international students file their federal and state taxes.
Christopher Gray, a UGA student in the master of accountancy program at Terry College, has experience helping international students as an ITAP volunteer.
“It is, from what I’ve experienced, very difficult for people that don’t understand the tax system. It can be pretty complicated,” Gray said. “[Tax filing] should be easy for people to do, but they make it hard for people to do.”
To make the best out of their tax filing experience, Gray advises international students to prepare early on and make sure they have all necessary documents on hand.
“Sometimes first year tax payers, they don’t know when the deadlines are, so they’ll try to schedule in right at the end,” Gray said. “And then, if that is combined with them not having the documents … it can be a little bit of a squeeze to be able to fit everything and then finish within time.”
Dana Carney, a master’s student in financial planning at UGA and another ITAP volunteer, said one of the main struggles of international students when filing their taxes is making sense of the terminology.
“A lot of [the support] is just explaining these terms that are not commonly used and understanding what different things mean,” Carney said. “It’s definitely something that I think a lot of people and international students have to adjust to. I think a lot of it is just tax language barrier.”
Carney also highlighted how many people may not be aware of how complicated filing taxes can be for international students.
“What’s really interesting to me is that international students have to file taxes, even if they have no income, and that’s something that U.S. citizens aren’t used to,” Carney said.
Carney, who volunteered three years for ITAP, had some general advice for international students about filing their taxes.
“Don’t be afraid to ask for help. [Tax filing] is super overwhelming, it’s super confusing. And I think the ITAP program really helps with that,” Carney said. “Because even though we’re not doing it for them, we’re there to support them in a technical way but also in a moral and emotional way of ‘Yes, this is hard, but we’re here to help you through it.’”