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Taxes: Residency for Tax Purposes

Learn about how federal tax residency of foreign visitors is determined and how it affects withholding and tax returns.

There are separate federal tax rules for those who are nonresidents for tax purposes, and those who are citizens/ permanent residents/ residents for tax purposes. 

Residency for federal tax purposes is determined by the IRS Substantial Presence Test (SPT), which is explained in IRS Publication 519 "U.S. Tax Guide for Aliens (PDF). UC San Diego and the other 8 UC campuses use the Glacier Online Nonresident Alien Tax Compliance System ("Glacier") to apply the SPT to each foreign visitor. Glacier generates a Tax Summary Report when you complete your Glacier record. It will show residency for tax purposes as of the day it was printed, the residency status change date, and the residency status start date.

Residency for tax purposes affects

  1. Federal tax withholding for wage/ salary and fellowship payments.
  2. FICA withholding for those on F1 or J1 status. 
  3. How UCSD will report payments to you and to the IRS. Forms W-2 and 1042-S are common reporting forms. 
  4. Which federal tax return forms are applicable to you.

Residency for tax purposes does not affect

  1. Citizenship
  2. Work authorization
  3. Immigration status
  4. Withholding or reporting of California state tax. The residency status rules for the State of California are different from the federal rules. Because the State does not differentiate tax withholding for California residents and nonresidents, UCSD does not evaluate California residency. Determining residency status for state tax purposes is an individual responsibility. See FTB Publication 1031: Guidelines for Determining Residency Status.

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1. Understand how residency for federal tax purposes is determined

Residency for federal tax purposes is determined by the IRS Substantial Presence Test (SPT), which is explained in IRS Publication 519 "U.S. Tax Guide for Aliens. It considers immigration status, length of stay in the U.S., and previous visits. It can be complicated and counterintuitive, especially for those who have previous visits on other immigration statuses or J1s who have been in the U.S. for several years.

SPT: Generally, all of the countable days of presence in the U.S. in the current calendar year, 1/3 of the countable days present in the previous calendar year, and 1/6 of the countable days of presence in the calendar year before that are added together. If the total is 183 or more, you are considered a resident for tax purposes in the current year. This 3 year period is a moving window. In 2017, the window covers 2017, 2016, and 2015. In 2018, it will apply to years 2018, 2017, and 2016.

There are special rules that exempt those on F and J immigration status from counting days of presence. Generally, those on F or J student status are exempt from counting days for five calendar years in their lifetime. Those on J non-student status are exempt from counting days of presence in the current calendar year if they were not an exempt individual for any part of two of the previous 6 years. You are considered an "exempt individual" when your days of presence do not count toward the SPT. This does not mean you're exempt from tax! 

An individual will be considered a U.S. resident for tax purposes if he passes the green card test or the Substantial Presence Test (SPT). 

  • Green card test: Those with a permanent resident card (also called a green card) pass the test and are residents for tax purposes. Those with an employment authorization card (EAD) do not automatically pass the green card test.
  • Those who fail the green card test apply the SPT to determine residency for federal tax purposes. The test has 2 parts. 
    1. 31 days or more in the current calendar AND
    2. 183 countable days during the 3-year period* that includes 2016, 2015, and 2014, counting
      • All countable days of presence in the U.S. in 2016
      • 1/3 of the countable days of presence in 2015
      • 1/6 of the countable days of presence in 2014

Special rules for those on F or J status may make someone an "exempt individual," meaning that they are exempt from counting days of presence toward the SPT (not exempt from tax). Two simple* examples:

  1. A student on F or J student immigration status will be an exempt individual for five calendar years in their lifetime. So a J1 or F1 student who arrives in the U.S. for the first time on September 1, 2016 and stays through 2021 will be an exempt individual for five calendar years: 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, and 2020, and not exempt in 2021. In the first five calendar years, none of his days of presence in the U.S. in those years are counted toward the SPT. With zero countable days in 2016, he fails the first part of the SPT and is a nonresident for tax purposes because he has fewer than 31 days of presence in the current calendar year. In 2021, he will be a resident for tax purposes if he is in the U.S. 183 days or more. He will be a nonresident alien if he leaves before July 3, 2021.
  2. A J1 Research Scholar who arrives in the U.S. for the first time in 2016 will be an exempt individual in 2016 and 2017. In 2018, his days of presence count toward the SPT. If he is present for 183 days or more in 2018, he'll be a resident for tax purposes in 2018.

*The SPT can be complicated and counterintuitive for someone with visits on multiple immigration statuses, or someone who has been in the U.S. for several years and is now on a non-student J status.

2. Use Glacier to learn your tax residency status

Every foreign visitor receiving payment from UCSD is required to complete a record in the Glacier Online Nonresident Alien Tax Compliance System. Glacier gathers the information necessary to determine residency and applies the SPT. It also determines tax treaty and FICA eligibility. The Tax Summary Report generated by Glacier includes:

  • Residency status as of the day the report is generated
  • Residency status change date
  • Residency status start date
  • FICA eligibility status and start date

3. Understand how your tax residency status affects payments from UC San Diego and how you will file your tax returns

Nonresidents for tax purposes: 

  • Nonresidents are generally limited to claiming a marital status of single with one withholding allowance on Form W-4. Exceptions: Students from India and anyone from Canada, the Republic of Korea, or Mexico may claim addition withholding allowances for eligible spouse and dependent on Form W-4. Glacier will generate Form W-4
  • Wages paid to nonresidents on F1 & J1 status are not subject to FICA withholding (Glacier's FICA eligibility determination can be found near the bottom of the Tax Summary Report Glacier generates when you complete your Glacier record. All other statuses are subject to FICA withholding regardless of residency status for tax purposes.
  • Fellowship subject to 30% federal tax withholding unless on F1 or J1 status (14%). 
  • Only U.S.-sourced income taxable in the U.S.
  • Slightly higher federal tax withholding on wage payments.
  • Taxable wages will be reported on Form W-2.
  • Wages exempt from federal tax due to a tax treaty will be reported on Form 1042-S.
  • Fellowship payments from which federal tax was withheld will be reported on Form 1042-S. Fellowship payments exempt from federal tax withholding due to a tax treaty exemption claimed at the time of payment will be reported on a separate Form 1042-S. 
  • File nonresident federal income tax return forms and/or Form 8843 by April 15 of the following year: 1040NR, 1040NR-EZ, 1040NR-A. Glacier Tax Prep (GTP) will generate the required forms.
  • Must mail federal tax returns to IRS. Forms with NR in the title may not be filed electronically
  • May use the Glacier Tax Prep (GTP) system to complete their U.S. federal tax returns. It will generate the appropriate 1040NR form and instructions. Online tax return preparation services are not designed for nonresident aliens and may incorrectly calculate taxable income and tax due.

Residents for tax purposes:

  • File the same type of income tax return forms that citizens use. Forms will not have NR in the title.
  • May file tax returns electronically
  • May use tax return preparation systems designed for citizens, but cannot use Glacier Tax Prep (GTP) to complete U.S. federal tax returns
  • May claim whatever marital status and number of withholding allowances are appropriate on Form W-4.
  • Wages subject to FICA withholding unless student enrolled in 6 units or more at UC San Diego
  • Fellowship payments:
    • No tax withholding on fellowship payments (though they may be taxable)
    • Fellowship payments will not be reported on an official tax statements - no Forms W-2, 1042-S, or 1099
    • Quarterly tax payments to the US federal and California state tax authorities (IRS and FTB, respectively) may be required. 
    • Fellowship income may be taxable and may need to be reported on individual tax returns

4. How do I get more information?

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