Trying to wrap your head around finances in the U.S. is something not even many Americans find easy. From taxes to paying for university, international students have an even more challenging time when it comes to figuring out the answers.
Fortunately, your university is there to help you with some of the big financial questions you might have. Here are just some of the questions worth asking.
• How do I get a Social Security number? Social Security numbers are assigned by the U.S. government and are often used for identification, landing a job and paying taxes. If you’re planning on spending a significant amount of your time in the States working, then getting one of these is essential depending on what kind of visa you have for your studies. The University of Washington has a good guide on the subject.
• Where can I work? Working while enrolled in a university is a great idea if you can manage your time wisely. You’ll not only earn some money, but it’s also an interesting cultural experience. Universities have a variety of jobs available, whether it’s working in the dining hall or helping fellow students via tech support.
Depending on your visa, you’re generally only allowed to work 20 hours per week so that your school work doesn’t suffer. But even 20 hours of work could be too much to juggle your studies, especially if you’re involved in extracurricular activities as well. If you find yourself pulling all-nighters or failing to maintain a healthy schedule for all your responsibilities, maybe working shouldn’t be a priority.
If you’re uncertain on what you’re allowed to do under the terms of your visa, your university will be able to help.
• How do I file my taxes? Filing taxes in the U.S. is a byzantine process that confuses residents and nonresidents alike. Just see how many pages there are on the IRS’ page about international students.
If you’re working, you’ll see money deducted from your paycheck to pay federal and state taxes. In spite of that, you’ll still likely need to file taxes for the previous year by the mid-April deadline. Even if you’re not technically working, some scholarships and fellowships aren’t tax-free and need to be included when you file your taxes.
There will be some resources on campus to help you through this complicated process. If you make less than $62,000, you can use the IRS’ tax software for free to do your taxes.
• What scholarships are available? Many universities have dozens of scholarship options. Beyond that, there are scholarships that you can apply for regardless of what school you go to. Scholarships are often based on country of origin, ethnic background, area of study and other factors, so you might find something you qualify for.
Universities typically publish all of their scholarships online, and that’s a good place to start looking. For more options, check sites like IEFA and CollegeScholarships.org. It takes effort, but the rewards are worth it.
• How do I open a bank account? Opening a bank account is, fortunately, one of the easier things to do when you’re an international student. Even if you’re only studying for a semester or two, a bank account can save you a lot of money, since you won’t be hit with expensive withdrawal fees from your bank back home.
Bring your passport, student ID, Form I-20 and – if you have one – your U.S. driver’s license to open an account. Ask around to see what bank is best for you, as some have less expensive international transfer fees or are more accustomed to foreign students.
• How do I pay my university? Every school has its own way of doing things, but expect to pay at the beginning of each semester for tuition, on-campus housing and other school fees. If you have a U.S. bank account, you can usually pay by check.
Some schools accept credit cards, but there’s often a fee placed on top of whatever you’re already paying. If the money is coming from abroad, many schools accept international wire transfers.
All of this varies from school to school, so be sure to check with your university’s financial office to see what works best.
When you come to the U.S. for your studies, you’ll have a full plate with classes and a new culture. That’s why it’s best to get these financial issues solved as quickly as possible in order to focus on what’s most important.