International Grad Student Tax Tips - Adjustments to Income

This page is part of a larger article on how foreign students can save on their taxes.

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The text below does not constitute tax advice or recommendation, and does not replace professional consulting. The details were collected according to the author's best of knowledge. The author holds no responsibility and cannot be held accountable for any implications resulting from actions taken based on this text. Use the information at your own risk. It is always advisable to seek professional tax, legal and financial advice regarding tax issues.

Scholarship and fellowship grants

Scholarships and fellowships are generally tax exempt only if they are used to pay for tuition, fees and other "Qualified education expenses". Any extra amounts, including ones used to pay for living expenses, are treated the same as other types of wage. In many cases, however, a tax treaty treats this types of income differently, allowing for a lower tax rate on scholarships and fellowships. The condition is typically that these amounts of money were given to a student without any condition for work or other services in exchange.

This means that a student should prefer to receive his income as a scholarship and not as regular compensation for work.

As an example, if your school pays you a stipend of $20,000 a year in two parts: $10,000 as a scholarship and $10,000 in return for being a teaching assistant, you might want to ask them to split the income differently, if possible, and to pay you a smaller percentage as salary, as long as the rules allow it.

The treatment of Scholarship and Fellowship income is described in Publication 970 and in Publication 519.

Qualified Higher Education expenses

Studying for a graduate degree entails many expenses related to your studies. Such expenses may include textbooks, software licenses, office supplies, materials and tools and other course related expenses.

If those expenses are required from all course participants, you can deduct them from your scholarship income.

Full details of what can and cannot be deducted appear in Publication 970.


Many graduate students turn into parents or have other dependents while they study. You may be eligible for different tax credits and deductions for your dependents.

Many of the details can be found in the instructions for form 1040NR.

Moving Expenses

As a foreign student, you probably had some significant moving expenses which may include airfare or other travel expenses, shipping costs and lodging costs.

All of these expenses are fully deductible on the year you had moved, and can yield significant tax savings.

Calculating the amount of expenses to deduct is done using IRS Form 3903, which also includes short explanations.

The full details of what can and cannot be deducted appear in IRS Pub. 521.

Student Loan expenses

If you took a student loan, or paid for a dependent's student loan, you can typically deduct the interest paid and other expenses related to the loan. More details and a worksheet used to calculate the allowed deduction can be found in the instructions for form 1040NR.

Invest in an IRA for retirement

Graduate students typically don't think about saving for retirement, as they are just beginning their careers. This is a dear mistake - the early you start saving for retirement, the easier it will be for you to reach substantial amounts at an older age because of a compounded interest effect.

The government would like people to save for retirement, and incentivizes them to do so in the form of a tax benefit for people who put aside money every year in an IRA - an Individual Retirement Account. Putting money into an IRA means that you cannot access the money until a very late age. Many graduate students cannot afford to use the small income they get for such long term savings. If you can afford to save, however, it might be worth your while.

Several types of IRA accounts exist; the primary ones are referred to as a Traditional IRA and a Roth IRA.

Amounts of up to $5000 per year (for a single in 2009) can be put into a traditional IRA, and be deducted from your income. These amounts will later be taxed when you retire and take money out of the IRA account.

A Roth IRA, on the contrary, is an account where the money you put in today is not taxed when it is withdrawn at retirement. You cannot, however, deduct the investment from your current income.

Several rules guide how much money you can contribute every year and into which type of account. The general decision rule says that if you expect your retirement income to be higher than your income today, than you should opt for a Roth IRA. If your expected retirement income is lower than your income today, go for a traditional IRA.

The difference is when taxes are calculated - you would like to pay taxes when your income is lower and the tax rate on the income is also lower.

Saving for retirement and the optimal way of doing so is a big issue, and typically requires professional advice.

Domestic production activities

If you held a business in the US, or were a partly owner of a business that paid employees to produce real estate, software, film or perform engineering tasks in the US, you might be able to deduct additional amounts on those paid in your tax return.

Such a deduction might be relevant to architects, engineers and software developers who employ other people as part of a project.

Form 8903 is used to report such activities, and its details appear in the form 8903 instruction pages.

Additional write-in adjustments

Form 1040NR allows for additional deductions called "write-in" deductions which are just calculated into the total amount of deductions.

The list of such possible deductions and the method for reporting them on your tax return appear in the instructions for form 1040NR.

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