Faculty & Departments

Tax Terms Clarified

This page provides a glossary of terms commonly used in US tax laws concerning international visitors, especially those present in F, J, M, and Q immigration statuses.






















Immigration Status (NOT 'visa status')

Avoid using the term 'visa status' when 'immigration status' is meant.

People who are required to do so make application for a “visa stamp” from the US Department of State at a US Consulate or Embassy OUTSIDE of the USA. This visa stamp is like a movie theatre ticket. It’s required to get in, but once inside the theatre, it’s irrelevant. Instead of being here “on a visa,” people are admitted by the US immigration service in a specific immigration “status.” There’s no such thing as “visa status” any more than there’s such a thing as “theatre movie.” People are NEVER present in the U.S. “on a (F, J, M, Q) visa.” Instead, they are “admitted in (F-1, J-1, M-1, Q-1) immigration status.”

Furthermore, admission to the theatre (USA) is not guaranteed just because someone has a valid ticket (visa stamp). Sometimes their behavior is suspicious or the validity of the ticket (visa) is questionable and they are refused admission. Sometimes, they have a ticket (visa) for the wrong show (e.g., F-2 visa stamp in the passport when their immigration status was changed to F-1) because of a previous application to change status. Most of the time, however, the immigration status in which a person is admitted is the same classification of the visa stamp in their passport. [Exceptions are Canadians who don’t require visas at any time and visa waiver honorarium recipients who also do not need a visa stamp].

Once someone is inside the USA (theatre), they can make application to immigration (the manager) for a change of immigration status (NOT a change of visa, because immigration does not issue visas – only the Department of State does that from OUTSIDE of the USA). The request for a change of immigration status from within the USA (theatre) can be likened to asking the manager of the theatre for permission to watch a movie different from the ticket under which you were admitted. If the manager says yes, then you can watch a different movie (you change activities in the USA: from F-2 to F-1, F-1 to H-1B, etc.)

Another negative result from abusing the term “visa” happens when persons are denied a benefit (like a driver’s license for a spouse), because their “visa” has expired. The visa has nothing to do with whether or not someone is in the USA legally – only their status does that. Unfortunately, post 911 more agencies are required to pay attention to immigration status without the benefit of accurate training and the correct use of terminology. This lack can result in unnecessary and potentially discriminatory actions, such as preventing an F-2 or J-2 mother from driving her children to school, doing grocery shopping, etc. until her husband becomes available.

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Nonresident Alien.'

For tax purposes a nonresident alien is a person who neither has a green card nor has passed the substantial presence test.

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Resident Alien.

For tax purposes a resident alien is a person who either has a green card or has passed the substantial presence test. However, the USCIS still considers such a person to be a nonresident alien for immigration status purposes.

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Substantial Presence Test (SPT).

For tax purposes, this is a calculation involving a count of days a person was physically present in the US. The calculation involves taking into account whether the person is considered an exempt individual for purposes of the test and also combining all the days of presence for the current tax year, plus some of the days of presence of each of the two years preceding the current tax year and then comparing that total to 183 days. If the total exceeds 182 days the person passes the test and is considered a resident alien. Otherwise the person is a nonresident alien for tax purposes.

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Form 8843.

Form 8843 is an information tax return required annually by the IRS of each nonresident alien visitor who entered the US with these visa types: F, J, M, Q. This form is the only form filed when a person has no monetary activity to report to the IRS.

Any nonresident alien taxpayer who has dependents not born in the United States and living with him or her during the tax year must file Form 8843 for each such dependent each year the above conditions are true.

For example, a tax payer has a wife, and three children, all living with him during the tax year. The youngest child was born in the United States. In this example, the tax payer must file 4 forms 8843: one for himself, one for his spouse, and one for each child not born in the US. He must do this each year that his wife and non-citizen children remain with him in the United States.

Form 8843 must also be included with the taxpayer's monetary tax return.

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Tax Return.

A tax return is a piece of paper with information on it that is prepared at the request of and delivered to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), the governmental agency that administers all matters connected with taxation. This requirement is based on US tax law.

The most common understanding of the term "tax return" is a report that provides financial information, usually showing money earned and taxes already collected, finally resulting in a tax amount to be refunded to the taxpayer or a tax amount that is owed to the US Treasury.

However, based on the broader definition of what a tax return is, there are reports that do not include any dollar amounts. Because the information is required by the IRS, the non-monetary information report is validly considered to be a tax return.

You need to be concerned about these forms because the US government gave you permission to enter the country based upon your agreement to confine your activities, while in the US, to the stated purpose for which you were granted non-immigrant status. The first and obvious such purpose is to study. An equally important responsibility is to observe all the laws that apply to your situation while in the US. US tax laws, administered by the IRS, require that each non-citizen, nonresident visitor file with the IRS each year a tax return of some kind.

The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) reviews visa renewal applications. One of its practices is to inquire whether the applicant has complied with US tax laws. Some visa applicants have been refused renewal until tax requirements have been satisfied. Also, when exiting the US at completion of studies, the USCIS has been known to refuse former students exit from the US until evidence of compliance with tax laws has been presented.

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