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U.S. Income Tax Basics

Most international visitors living in the United States are required to file annual income tax returns. U.S. tax law is very complex. Here is a brief summary of what you need to know.

U.S. taxes are pay-as-you-go.  

This means you need to pay most of your tax during the year.

You pay as you receive income, rather than paying at the end of the year. The tax year is a normal calendar year—from January 1 to December 31.  

In most cases, taxes are withheld from your income throughout the year. Cornell University and other employers are required to take money out of your paycheck for taxes and send it to the tax collection agency. By end of March, Cornell reports wages, scholarships, and tax withheld during the previous year and sends you a statement. 

The federal tax agency is called the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). In addition, each U.S. state, including New York, has its own tax agency and regulations. 

Each Cornellian’s tax situation is unique. 

Your situation depends on the amount of time you’ve spent in the United States, the visa statuses you’ve held, the type of income you receive, and your nationality. Find out if your country has a tax treaty with the United States.

The deadline for filing your tax returns this year is April 15, 2024, for both federal and New York State taxes.

You pay taxes on U.S. income earned in the previous calendar year.

Your tax return is a form you fill out that accounts for the difference between taxes already withheld and tax you still owe. Sometimes you get a refund, and other years you may owe the government money. If you’re a nonresident for federal tax purposes, you need to file a nonresident tax return. Learn more about how to file your nonresident tax return with Sprintax, Cornell’s free tax software for internationals.

You’ll hear from us during tax season. 

The Office of Global Learning sends out tax information each spring during tax season. We’ll remind you by email about tax requirements and forms. 

How do I know if I need to file a U.S. federal tax return? 

If you received any U.S. income—wages, a fellowship for living expenses, or a travel grant, for example—you will need to file some U.S. tax forms. Our Sprintax software will select which forms you need to file based on how you answer several initial questions.  

If you did not receive any income in the United States during the tax year, you do not need to file a tax return, but you’re obligated to send one form to the IRS. Sprintax will help you file the required form 8843. 

What kinds of income are taxable? 

  • Scholarships, fellowships, or grants from a U.S. source that exceed the amount of tuition and mandatory fees 
  • Wages from any U.S. job, on-campus or off-campus, including a teaching or research assistantship 
  • Consulting fees for work done in the United States 
  • Dividends or capital gains from U.S. mutual funds, stocks, or bonds 
  • Any other income—such as rent or copyright earnings—from U.S. sources, except for interest earned on a U.S. savings account or certificate of deposit 

Do I have to pay Social Security and Medicare taxes? 

Many nonresident students, scholars, and researchers do not have to contribute to Social Security and Medicare during their first five years in the United States. Find out if you qualify for this exemption.  

If you are exempt, you can show the IRS webpage to your employer and ask for a refund, or you can wait until you file your taxes. You’ll receive a refund from the IRS.

If you work on campus or receive other payments, be sure to submit a Foreign National Questionnaire to get tax treaty benefits applied to your earnings.