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How to File Taxes as an Immigrant

Editorial Note: The content of this article is based on the author’s opinions and recommendations alone. It has not been previewed, commissioned or otherwise endorsed by any of our network partners.

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Two recurring themes have dominated the news cycle over the past few years: immigration and taxes. While these may seem like entirely separate issues at first glance, immigrants do pay federal income taxes — and face a variety of unique challenges in the process, including dealing with language barriers and learning to file for the first time.

To help make filing your taxes as an immigrant a little easier, here’s an overview of who needs to file, how to file for the first time and where you can turn for help.

Who files taxes?

Citizens aren’t the only ones who pay taxes in the U.S. Immigrants who are authorized to work in this country are required to pay the same federal and state income taxes that citizens do, and undocumented immigrants pay billions of dollars in taxes each year — often for public benefit programs that they are unable to use.

Filing requirements depend on whether you are considered a nonresident alien or a resident alien.

Resident aliens

A resident alien must meet one of two tests:

  • Green card test. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services issued you an alien registration card, also known as a “green card,” which allows you to permanently live in the U.S. as an immigrant.
  • Substantial presence test. You must be physically present in the U.S. for at least:
    • 31 days during the current year, and
    • 183 days during the three-year period that includes the current year and the two years immediately before that. (You can read more about how days of presence are determined here.)

Resident aliens follow the same filing requirements as U.S. citizens.

Nonresident aliens

If you are not a U.S. citizen and don’t meet either of the tests to be considered a resident alien, you are considered a nonresident alien.

As a nonresident alien, you must file a tax return if you own a business in the U.S. or have U.S. income and did not have enough tax withheld by your employer. You may also want to file an income tax return to receive a refund of tax withheld.

What’s a W-4?

If you work in the U.S., your employer should ask you to complete Form W-4, which is used to determine the correct amount of tax to withhold from your pay.

Form W-4 includes worksheets to help you determine how many “allowances” you should claim. Each allowance reduces the amount held from your paycheck. You get one allowance for yourself, one for your spouse, and one for each dependent you claim on your tax return.

You can complete a new Form W-4 at any time, and it’s a good idea to submit a new one to your employer anytime your tax situation changes, such as if you get married or divorced or have a new baby. Adjusting your withholding can help prevent having too much or too little tax withheld.

Rather than relying on the worksheets included with Form W-4, you may want to use the IRS’s Withholding Calculator.

How to pay U.S. taxes

In some countries, the government withholds tax from your paycheck, and that’s the end of your tax filing requirements. In the U.S., it’s more complicated. Here’s an overview of what you’ll need to file a tax return.

SSN or ITIN

To pay taxes in the U.S., you will either need a Social Security number (SSN) or an individual taxpayer identification number (ITIN).

Noncitizens authorized to work in the U.S. by the Department of Homeland Security can apply for a Social Security number in their home country before coming to the U.S. or by visiting a Social Security office in person. You will need to complete Form SS-5, Application for a Social Security Card, and provide documentation to prove your identity, work-authorized immigration status and age. You can learn more about the acceptable documentation here.

If you are not eligible for an SSN, you can apply for an ITIN by filling out Form W-7, Application for IRS Individual Taxpayer Identification Number and submitting it to the IRS along with documentation proving your identity and foreign status. The Instructions for Form W-7 include a list of acceptable documents and instructions for submitting your application.

Which tax forms to file

The tax forms you’ll use to file your tax return depend on whether you are a resident alien or a nonresident alien.

Resident aliens use the same tax form as citizens: Form 1040, U.S. Individual Income Tax Return. Generally, Form 1040 is due on April 15 of the following year. However, if you are living and working outside of the U.S. on April 15, you are given an automatic extension to June 15. You can request a longer extension, until Oct. 15, by filing Form 4868, Application for Automatic Extension of Time to File U.S. Individual Income Tax Return.

Nonresident aliens file using Form 1040-NR, U.S. Nonresident Alien Income Tax Return. Form 1040-NR is also due on April 15 of the following year, but taxpayers who are not living and working in the U.S. on that date have until June 15 to file. You can request an extension to October 15 by submitting Form 4868 by the due date of your return.

Reporting income earned outside the US

Many resident aliens and nonresident aliens continue to receive income from outside of the U.S. even after they begin working in the country. Resident aliens are required to report income from all sources within and outside of the U.S. on their tax returns, whether they are living in the U.S. or abroad.

However, you may qualify to exclude a portion of your foreign earnings from your taxable income — the amount you can exclude changes each year. You can determine your eligibility and the exclusion amount using Form 2555, Foreign Earned Income. You can also use the IRS’s Interactive Tax Assistant Tool to help determine whether the income you earned in a foreign country can be excluded.

What to do if you’re undocumented?

According to the Pew Research Center, there were roughly 10.5 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S in 2017, and 7.6 million of them are a part of the U.S. workforce.

Whether undocumented immigrants work legally under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) protections or work illegally with falsified or nonexistent documentation, they are required to pay taxes on any income earned in the U.S.

Many undocumented immigrants face barriers to complying with U.S. tax laws due to language barriers, difficulty understanding complex tax laws or fears that the IRS will pass their information along to immigration enforcement.

Later, this article will cover resources where immigrants can find help with tax filing. As for immigration enforcement fears, you generally do not have to fear that the IRS will share your application for an ITIN or tax information with immigration enforcement officials. The IRS is not allowed to release taxpayer information to other government agencies, except for providing information to the Treasury Department for tax compliance investigations or under a court order related to a non-tax criminal investigation.

Benefits of paying taxes

Filing a tax return and paying taxes to the U.S. does not entitle nonresident aliens or undocumented workers to claim Social Security benefits, but there are other benefits to filing tax returns. According to the National Immigration Law Center, paying taxes:

  • Demonstrates compliance with federal tax laws
  • Gives immigrants who want to legalize their immigration status and become a citizen an opportunity to prove they have “good moral character”
  • Document work history and physical presence in the U.S.
  • Claim certain tax benefits, such as the Child Tax Credit
  • Claim insurance premium tax credits for children who are U.S. citizens

Where to find help

The IRS’s Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program helps taxpayers who cannot afford traditional tax preparation service, need translation assistance or need help applying for an ITIN. The IRS trains and certifies volunteers to provide free basic tax return assistance to individuals.

You can locate a VITA site by visiting http://irs.treasury.gov/freetaxprep/ and entering your ZIP code. Before visiting a VITA site, you may want to review Publication 3676-B (available in English and Spanish) to verify the services provided by VITA and check out the IRS’s What to Bring page to ensure you have all of the required documents and information volunteers will need to help prepare your return and apply for an ITIN, if necessary.

If you prefer to handle tax filing on your own, check out our recommendations for tax filing software.

The bottom line

Working through the forms required to apply for an ITIN and prepare a tax return can be daunting, but seeking help and overcoming the barriers to complying with U.S. tax law is important. If you plan to seek citizenship down the road or someday appear in front of an immigration judge, the fact that you’ve dutifully filed income tax returns while you lived and worked in the country can help make a stronger case for you to remain in the country.

Advertiser Disclosure: The products that appear on this site may be from companies from which MagnifyMoney receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where products appear on this site (including, for example, the order in which they appear). MagnifyMoney does not include all financial institutions or all products offered available in the marketplace.

Janet Berry-Johnson
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Janet Berry-Johnson is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Janet here

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How to Save on Back-to-School Shopping

Editorial Note: The content of this article is based on the author’s opinions and recommendations alone. It has not been previewed, commissioned or otherwise endorsed by any of our network partners.

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Parents often revel in the calm and quiet that comes when kids head back to school, but they aren’t likely to enjoy the excess spending that also accompanies the back-to-school season. According to the National Retail Federation, parents will set a record in 2019, spending an average of $696.70 per household on children in elementary school through high school.

 

“It was interesting to see the across-the-board increases in spending levels,” said Mark Mathews, vice president for research development and industry analysis with the NRF. “Elevated levels of consumer sentiment, healthy household balance sheets, low inflation and recent wage gains all seem to be contributing to a confident consumer who is willing to spend money on back-to-school supplies.”

If you’re planning a trip to the store before classes start, there are a few ways to curb the spending and save some bucks.

Plan ahead

No parent should set foot out the door for back-to-school shopping without first taking stock of what they already have. Plenty of old supplies from previous years might still be usable, especially arts and crafts items like crayons, pencils and pens, as well as more expensive things like backpacks, lunch boxes and calculators.

Crossing a few items off your list is a good first step when it comes to saving, but learning how to budget is also important. It’s tempting to run down the back-to-school aisle and grab every colorful notebook and snazzy pencil case in sight, but it doesn’t make a lot of financial sense. Create a realistic budget based on the items you actually need, and try your best to stick to it. If possible, do most of your shopping online, since it’s easier to keep a running tally of how much you’re spending as you shop.

Be smart about sales

Although you’re bound to run into many back-to-school sales this time of year, you don’t need to buy 12 notebooks just because they’re cheaper right now. In fact, you shouldn’t assume the sales price is the best price at all, said consumer savings expert Andrea Woroch. Instead, always comparison shop.

“Run a quick Google search online or on your phone to see if another store is selling the same or a similar item for less,” she said. “Most big box stores will price match, so you won’t even have to drive to another store to get the better deal.” For example, Target, Staples and Walmart all have price matching policies.

Clip coupons and shop discount stores

Coupons have definitely made a digital comeback, with countless apps and websites dedicated to listing all your options in one place. “Spending a few minutes looking for coupons can help you get a better discount,” Woroch said. “Use apps like CouponSherpa, for instance. Or, use the Honey browser tool, which automatically searches and applies relevant coupons to your online order.”

Many stores also offer discounts to valued customers who sign up for their rewards program, like Walgreens and CVS, while craft stores like Michaels regularly offer discounts. Don’t knock purchasing basics like paper and writing supplies from the Dollar Tree, either — you might be surprised by what you find, and those types of items are often the same quality wherever you buy them.

Tax advantage of tax-free holidays

On select dates throughout the year, different states offer state sales tax holidays, or days where you can purchase items without having to pay sales tax on them. You can find a full list of the 2019 state sales tax holidays here, but some upcoming ones include:

  • August 18-24: Connecticut, clothing and footwear
  • August 17-18: Massachusetts, specific items costing less than $2,500 per item

Split bulk purchases

You can usually save money by buying certain items — like construction paper, pens, pencils and folders — in bulk, but you can save even more by splitting those bulk items with other families. Not only is this a great way to share savings, Woroch said, but you can earn rewards faster by charging everything on your card and then having the families pay you back.

Redeem your rewards

If you have a cash back credit card, now’s the time to use it. “Most credit cards give you the best redemption value when you opt for statement credit or have the cash rewards deposited into your bank,” Woroch said. “You can set this money aside for back-to-school shopping.”

Alternatively, Woroch suggested checking to see if your particular card allows you to redeem points for gift cards to retailers where you plan to shop.

Use discounted gift cards

Besides redeeming credit card points for retailer gift cards, you can also scour the web for cheap gift cards online. Planning a trip to Target? Scan websites like Raise, Cardpool and CardCash first. These sites buy and sell unused gift cards at a discount, meaning you can save on purchases you were planning to make anyway.

Consider having your kids contribute

Depending on your child’s age, back-to-school shopping might be the perfect time to start having them contribute to their own goods, especially if they earn an allowance or have a job. Talking to your kids about money at a young age — whether about budgeting, saving or spending — will help them develop solid money habits that will pay off in the future.

Parents already seem to be catching on to this idea. “It was surprising to see how much of their own money kids are contributing towards the back-to-school bills,” Mathews said. “Teens and pre-teens will be spending $63 of their own money, which works out to $1.5 billion overall. This is significantly higher than the levels we saw a decade ago.”

Although the news about increased spending on back-to-school supplies may be alarming, these days there are more ways than ever to save. A little ingenuity, resourcefulness and research can go a long way.

Advertiser Disclosure: The products that appear on this site may be from companies from which MagnifyMoney receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where products appear on this site (including, for example, the order in which they appear). MagnifyMoney does not include all financial institutions or all products offered available in the marketplace.

Cheryl Lock
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Cheryl Lock is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Cheryl at [email protected]

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Survey: Most Americans Have Raided Their Retirement Savings

Editorial Note: The content of this article is based on the author’s opinions and recommendations alone. It has not been previewed, commissioned or otherwise endorsed by any of our network partners.

Successfully saving for retirement requires dedication and self-restraint, but more than half the country admits to robbing their future selves in order to satisfy today’s spending needs, according to a new survey by MagnifyMoney. While the economic pressures bearing down on workers today make their actions understandable, the hard truth is that many Americans are turning an already-difficult task that much harder by tapping into their retirement savings early.

Key Findings

  • Approximately 52% of respondents admit to tapping their retirement savings account early for a purpose other than retiring: 23% have done so to pay off debt, 17% for a down payment on a home, 11% for college tuition, 9% for medical expenses, and 3% for some other reason.
  • About 29% say there are some scenarios where it is a good idea to withdraw money early from a retirement savings account.
  • Around 60% of respondents do not know exactly how much they have saved for retirement. Just 40% know the exact amount, while 45% have a rough idea, and 15% have no clue.
  • Almost 25% are unhappy with their retirement savings. 47% are happy with the amount saved, and about 28% are neither happy nor unhappy.
  • Finally, 27% have never thought about how much money they’ll need in retirement.

Why are Americans tapping their retirement savings early?

The two main reasons respondents cited for withdrawing money from their retirement savings are as American as apple pie: home ownership and personal debt. According to the survey, 23% of those making an early withdrawal did so to help pay down non-medical debt, while 17% needed the money for a down payment on a home.

Although the housing market appears to be cooling off compared to just a few years ago, a down payment on a home still requires a significant chunk of change — experts recommend a down payment equaling 20% of the total mortgage to optimize your mortgage payments.

Personal debt, from credit cards to student loans, remains a fixture of everyday economic reality for millions of Americans. In other words, the stressors that cause workers to raid their retirement funds don’t look like they will decrease appreciably in the foreseeable future.

Which Americans are withdrawing money the most?

Breaking down the demographics, older savers are less likely to withdraw money from their retirement fund than younger savers. 54% of millennial savers say they’ve taken an early withdrawal from a retirement savings account, compared with 50% of Gen Xers and 43% of baby boomers. This stands to reason considering that many millennials have now entered the stage of life where they are getting mortgages, starting families and taking on bigger financial obligations while also being decades away from the traditional retirement age. Millennials are also more likely to say that raiding your retirement fund is justified under certain circumstances, as seen in the chart below:

Just one of many bad retirement savings habits

Tapping into retirement funds — whether an employer-sponsored 401(k) or a traditional IRA — before the appropriate age almost always comes with a financial penalty in the form of additional taxes and fees. What is more, you’re diminishing the principle that fuels the compound interest you need to meet your retirement savings goals.

Unfortunately the survey reveals early withdrawals are just one of the many bad habits Americans engage in when it comes to retirement savings. This list of less-than-ideal practices includes:

  • 35% of Americans are not currently saving for retirement. Of those who are, 37% started saving at age 30 or above, and 12% started saving when they were older than 40.
  • 60% of Americans do not know exactly how much they have saved for retirement. Just 40% know the exact amount, while 45% have a rough idea and 15% have no clue.
  • Nearly 1 in 5 Americans don’t contribute enough to their employer-sponsored retirement account to get the maximum company match. Maximizing a company match is one of  your best ways to maximize your retirement savings. Among those with an employer-sponsored retirement savings plan, just 17% of respondents contribute 10% or more of their take-home pay. Almost 5% contribute nothing at all, and nearly 6% are unclear about how much they contribute.

  • Approximately 42% of respondents have made the mistake of withdrawing their entire balance from an employer-sponsored retirement plan when changing jobs without rolling it over – and nearly 15% have done so more than once. A little more than 47% of millennials admit to this faux pas.

The most damning finding of all is that 27% of those surveyed have never thought about how much they’ll need in retirement. And while “ignorance is bliss” may hold true when it comes to some things in life, this expression should not apply to your retirement plans.

Methodology

MagnifyMoney by LendingTree commissioned Qualtrics to conduct an online survey of 1,029 Americans, with the sample base proportioned to represent the general population. The survey was fielded June 24-27, 2019.

Generations are defined as:

  • Millennials are ages 22-37
  • Generation Xers are ages 38-53
  • Baby boomers are ages 54-72

Advertiser Disclosure: The products that appear on this site may be from companies from which MagnifyMoney receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where products appear on this site (including, for example, the order in which they appear). MagnifyMoney does not include all financial institutions or all products offered available in the marketplace.

James Ellis
James Ellis |

James Ellis is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email James here