In this episode, Emily interviews Frank Alvillar, an immigration attorney at Alvillar Law in San Antonio, Texas, and Sheena Connell, a designated school official and the assistant director of International Student and Scholar Services at the University of the Incarnate Word. International students are sometimes in a very tough financial situation in graduate school, even if they are fully funded, and may desire to increase their incomes. But what kinds of additional income are allowed on an F-1 visa if a graduate student already receives a stipend? Frank and Sheena share their frameworks for thinking through what is and is not permissible. Emily asks them how these frameworks apply to specific income-generating activities such as self-employment, working remotely for an employer outside the US, investing, rental income, credit card rewards, and more. This episode is a must-listen for any prospective or current international graduate student!
Links Mentioned in this Episode
- Find Frank Alvillar on Twitter and Sheena Connell on LinkedIn
- American Immigration Lawyers Association
- Study in the States
- Quarterly Estimated Tax for Fellowship Recipients
- Related Episodes
- Personal Finance for PhDs: Resources for International Students
- Personal Finance for PhDs: Tax Resources
- Personal Finance for PhDs: Community
- Personal Finance for PhDs: Podcast Hub
- Personal Finance for PhDs: Subscribe to the mailing list
00:00 Sheena: I think there is a kind of an idea that that students can work around it. I think culturally, I find a lot of our students come from a lot more…there are a lot more countries that has a lot more ingenuity and that’s appreciated, of going outside the bounds of law, but in US immigration law, there’s just not a lot of wiggle room. And the, “I didn’t know excuse” doesn’t really work that well.
00:33 Emily: Welcome to the Personal Finance for PhDs podcast, a higher education in personal finance. I’m your host. Dr. Emily Roberts. This is season eight, episode 13, and today my guests are Frank Alvillar an immigration attorney at Alvillar Law in San Antonio, Texas, and Sheena Connell, a designated school official and the assistant director of international student and scholar services at the University of the Incarnate Word.
01:00 Emily: In this episode, we discuss what kinds of income generating activities are allowed and not allowed for funded graduate students on F1 visas. I have been asked variations on this question by international students in tough financial situations for many years and I finally found two experts who are able to give us a full answer. Frank and Sheena share their frameworks for thinking through what is and is not permissible. I asked them how these frameworks apply to specific income generating activities international students have proposed to me, such as self-employment working remotely for an employer outside the US, investing, rental real estate, credit card rewards, and more. This episode is a must listen for any prospective or current international graduate student in the US. Even if you’re not in a tight financial situation right now, things may be different down the line and it’s best to be prepared.
01:53 Emily: This podcast episode kicks off a season for my business of publishing in-depth content for graduate students, post-doc and PhD workers who are in the US on visas. The three big topic areas I plan to publish content in are this podcast episode on work options, an at your own pace workshop on taxes, and at least one video course on investing. That last course will be taught by Hui-chin Chen, who we heard from in season four, episode 17. If any of these subjects sounds interesting to you, please sign up for the Personal Finance for PhDs mailing list at pfforphds.com/international to learn when the new content becomes available, which I expect to be in the next six months. I’m really pleased to be able to serve this segment of the PhD population in more depth and I hope you’ll join me on this journey.
02:42 Emily: Now it’s time for the book giveaway contest. In March, 2021 I’m giving away one copy of, I Will Teach You to Be Rich by Ramit Sethi, which is the Personal Finance for PhDs Community book club selection for May, 2021. Everyone who enters the contest during March will have a chance to win a copy of this book. I Will Teach You to Be Rich has come up in two previous podcast episodes with Dr. Amanda in season five, episode 15 and Laura Frater in season eight, episode two. In both episodes, my interviewees is say that while they were initially turned off by the books title, it eventually inspired them to execute dramatic financial turnarounds. After listening through either one of those episodes, you will definitely want to read this book and participate in the book club. If you would like to enter the giveaway contest, please rate and review this podcast on Apple podcasts, take a screenshot of your review and email it to me firstname.lastname@example.org. I’ll choose a winner at the end of March, from all the entries. You can find full instructions pfforphds.com/podcast. Without further ado, here’s my interview with Frank Alvillar and Sheena Connell.
Would You Please Introduce Yourself Further?
03:59 Emily: This is a really special episode. I’m so glad that you all have joined today. I have with me Sheena Connell and Frank Alvillar. We are talking today about graduate students on F-1 visas and what their possible options are for adding to their incomes. Can they work? Can they not work? Can they get an income without working? These are the kinds of questions that we’re going to be asking today. I’m so glad to have these two experts with us. So Sheena, will you please tell us a little bit more about who you are, where you work and so forth?
04:30 Sheena: Yeah, sure. I’ve worked with international students for almost 15 years now. I’ve worked at public research institutions, at private schools, secondary schools, intensive English language programs — kind of the whole gambit of the F-1 world. I am currently serving as assistant director for international students scholar services at University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio, Texas. And I’m also the designated school official for their F-1 program and alternative responsible officer for the J-1 program. I’ve served as the co-chair for San Antonio Forum for International Educators. And currently, just started this position, serving on the national team for NAFSA, which is the Association of International Educators as the chair elect for international student and scholar services knowledge community, and we’re kind of responsible for cutting edge international advisor resources and trends. I’m not a tax expert. I’m not a Department of Labor expert but I am a certified trainer in F-1 and J-1 advising.
05:32 Emily: Thank you so much. We are so lucky to have you on today. And will you please explain what this role DSO is? Because I know this is going to come up more later and it was not one that I was familiar with.
05:41 Sheena: Yeah. We have this acronym, designated school official, that is a designation given by Department of Homeland Security to a person or a group of people at a university who control F-1 student records and then alternative responsible officer is the equivalent on the J-1 side.
06:01 Emily: Thank you so much, Sheena. And Frank, will you please introduce yourself?
06:04 Frank: My name is Francisco Alvillar, I go by Frank. I am an immigration attorney. I have been practicing since 2007. I’m board certified in immigration nationality law. I practice in every area of immigration law and that runs the gambit from processing visas at consulates, to defending people in deportation court, to simple green cards, simple citizenship cases, as well as federal litigation, which involves suing the US government.
06:37 Emily: We are so fortunate to have you as well. And Frank, you are the one who I initially reached out to about doing this interview because you have recently started a fabulous website. And will you please tell us more about that?
06:48 Frank: Sure. It’s immigrationcases.org. A friend of mine and myself, we found that a lot of our clients had what we referred to as pain points. Those were things that individuals didn’t necessarily need legal representation for, but they were pieces of information that they couldn’t get online, that we knew because we had been through the process with our clients. Things from delays in cases, to general processes, to just little nuance things, delays in receiving receipts, what to do when you have a court case. What we’ve done is trying to find those pain points and create pages for each and every single one and that’s how we got connected because one of the pain points for F-1 international students is knowing what their options are to work because it’s expensive to go to school here in the US. We found a lot of people calling our offices asking for options where they didn’t necessarily need representation, but they just wanted to be informed before they made a mistake and jeopardized their immigration status.
08:01 Emily: Yeah, I think that’s going to be the case for a lot of people listening to this episode. I was just googling F-1 work options as I do every few months, because I had not really found a satisfying article until I did this a month or two ago, and found your website ranked on the first page of Google. Really, really wonderful article and I immediately reached out and proposed this podcast episode. That’s kind of the background for this.
08:25 Emily: I know that, Frank, you had a disclaimer you had to say upfront and also just kind of explaining the different perspectives that you and Sheena come from. Let’s talk through that.
08:34 Frank: As a primary disclaimer, the information that we provide should not be construed as any type of legal or direct advice for your case. You may hear something that sounds extremely similar to your situation, but don’t take it for granted that you could have things or aspects of your situation that could make the outcome markedly different than what we’re describing here. It’s always important to get that information for your specific situation and to not rely necessarily on just what the descriptions we’re giving here. That’s number one.
09:11 Frank: Number two is that we’re going to be talking about this from two perspectives. One is the legal perspective, what the law says. We’re able to give you a description of what the regulations tell you you can and can’t do. But I think that the more important thing, which is perspective, number two is the practical application, because one of the things that you have to realize is that it’s people who are applying the law and immigration law is complicated because it’s so voluminous and you can’t expect every single immigration official to know every single regulation. It’s important to understand that the way these things are applied aren’t necessarily just based on what the regulation says. It’s based on the individuals. You want your case to make sense to individuals within the framework of the law, but you should never rely strictly on this is what the law says, and then you almost argue with an immigration official that they’re wrong. You never want to be in that situation. Think practically when we’re giving you this advice, because that’s the way — or not advice, but practically what we’re giving you this information, because that’s really, what’s most important here.
10:25 Emily: Okay. Thank you for providing that perspective, but I guess I’m still a little bit confused. Let’s say we go through the course of this episode and we’ve identified something that according to law would be a perfectly fine income generating activity for an F-1 visa student. Does that mean because this practical application other lens that they shouldn’t pursue an activity that does seem to be in accordance with the law?
10:50 Frank: Not necessarily. I think that what I would tell them to use is the Frankie five second rule. And the Frankie five second rule is that if an immigration officer can’t understand what you’re doing within five seconds, it’s probably a bad idea because anytime they’re confused or it’s unclear the activities that you engaged in, they’re going to err on the side that you did something wrong. As an example would be, let’s say, and we’ll talk about this later, but credit card rewards shows up as income on your tax returns. If they were to ask you to see your tax returns, it would look like you worked here in the US from some individual’s perspectives. You would need to be able to, let’s say, as a practical matter show, those credit card rewards statements, show the amounts, maybe even make a spreadsheet, showing that they add up to the amount that’s declared on your taxes. It’s not that you don’t want to do it. It’s just that you want to make sure that it’s clear what you’re doing. And like I said, I even use this with my clients — the five second rule, and it’s not for when the food falls on the floor, it’s for when an immigration officer gets confused, you never want to be in that situation.
Work that is Permissible with an F-1 Visa
12:01 Emily: Okay. I think that’s a super helpful rule of thumb, so thank you so much for clarifying that. I want to go over here the perspective that I’m trying to ask these questions from, which is the one that you know, I was not an international student myself, but I speak with international students on a very regular basis through the podcast, through the speaking engagements that I do through people who email me, and I hear quite often about the financial pressure that international graduate students are under because in all too many universities in the US graduate students are underpaid. International students lack the pressure release valves that some domestic students have, like being able to take out student loans without like a guarantor in the US. Maybe right away when they arrive in the US they don’t have credit scores yet, so they don’t even have the option of like consumer debt immediately. And then there’s of course the work issue, which we’re going to be talking about in much more detail.
12:53 Emily: When I hear from international students, sometimes they are in very, very dire financial straits. Some have dependents here in the US that they aren’t able to support properly, and they are looking for any kind of solution, any kind of way out of this rock and hard place that they’re in. A lot of times I get these questions about, well, what kind of income generating activities are permissible? I’m using that term very carefully, because I’m not necessarily talking about work, and we’ll try to distinguish between these two things later. That’s kind of the perspective that I’m coming from, that I’m asking these questions from. Let’s start off with what kind of work is definitely, definitely allowed on F1 visa. Like it is what they’re doing that they are in the US to be doing. What kind of work is definitely, definitely allowed?
13:36 Sheena: I would start, I guess, to preface all of that is that the F-1 visa is a student visa, so the primary purpose is to study and work is not really at the forefront, unfortunately. I also think that the US in general kind of underestimates the cost of education when students are coming. F-1 students are supposed to prove a certain amount of money to survive in the US before they’re even allowed to enter, but I think that schools could do a better job on estimating what the real cost is. Talking to students before you arrive is probably pretty helpful on that.
14:14 Sheena: As far as what’s allowed on campus, of course is naturally allowed. Now on campus can come into quite a different few forms. For graduate students, research assistant fellowship, teaching, and whole gambit. And those can be different things, hourly pay tuition, waivers, stipends, more combination. I would say anything that takes place on your institution and is paid by your institution, definitely allowed, unless it’s under federal work study or sensitive fields with specific grants that wouldn’t allow non-citizens to work there. There’s also on pick campus employment, commercial, or contracted businesses that provide direct student services. That would be your bookstore or sometimes your student cafeteria if it it’s run by a different company. What would not be is probably construction. So let’s say that there’s a company that’s contracted to do construction on campus, that definitely wouldn’t be allowed because it’s not providing that direct student services.
15:13 Sheena: Off campus, this is a tricky one, which a lot of students don’t know about, but the off-campus/on-campus employment or educational affiliate sites. You’ll see this with a lot of the researchers where maybe they’re not actually on the campus, but they’re at a place that’s contractually, I guess put together by funded research projects. They’re not on campus, but they’re at a lab somewhere, something similar to that. The practical training world — hopefully all of our F1 listeners know about CPT and OPT, so I won’t go into that too much.
15:47 Sheena: And then there’s the rare kind of off-campus authorization. And all of those require that you apply with your international advisors with the form I-765 for employment authorization document, for severe economic hardship. And that we’ve seen has been very difficult over the last few years to get approved. Usually these are unforeseen circumstances, well beyond the student’s control. That could mean like a death of a family member, or there’s a war going at home, major surgery, or the currency plummeting for some reason, which at this time it’s kind of worldwide, so I don’t know the trends right now of economic hardship, how that’s going to look in the post COVID world, but it’s worth a try, I would say if, if you feel like you’re in that situation. However, you’ll usually have to be in your program for one year before you can apply for those, because again, as an F-1 student, you had to prove that you had enough money to come here to begin with.
16:47 Sheena: And then the employment with international organizations. That’s any organization under the IO Immunities Act, meaning like International Monetary Fund or World Bank, that’s also a type of work authorization you can get to work for those companies. So those are the allowable work worlds that we see most often.
17:05 Emily: Okay, let me ask a follow-up around that, because the situation that I see most often is PhD students who are funded, like you said, through assistantships or potentially through fellowships, which in the case of fellowship technically wouldn’t be work, it’s kind of like a scholarship award sort of thing. But anyway, with assistantships, what I typically see is that the appointment is limited to 20 hours per week. And so I’m just thinking of a person who is thinking, “Okay, oh, wow, Sheena you just listed all these options for different places I could work on campus, but I already have a 20 hour week assistantship.” Is it possible to add on to a job that you already have that already is a halftime employment deal?
17:45 Sheena: I think that’s going to range per institution. Graduate students do have a little leeway at some institutions about the 20 hour work week, if it’s CPT and a research assistantship combined. Now that’s not all institution. Some institutions interpret it very strictly and say, nope, 20 hours is 20 hours. Others consider it if it’s CPT, if it’s part of your coursework, it shouldn’t be counted against the 20 hours. Now, I would say USCIS has been very strict about tallying up those numbers over the past three years that we’ve seen. We didn’t see that under the previous administration. I don’t know if we’re going to see it under this administration, Frank might be able to talk more to that, but you do have to realize that your institution’s interpretation, if it’s more lenient, you’re still at some point taking a risk if you’re going more than 20 hours. And that’s from my point of view, I’m a very conservative advisor on these types of things. But you also have to remember during spring break, you have a little bit more leeway during winter break, and then also during summer break, you can go more than that 20 hours without a lot of issue. Now, finding the job, that’s an additional pain point, as Frank was saying.
19:07 Emily: Okay, Frank, do you have anything that you want to add onto this point about the straightforwardly allowable activities?
19:13 Frank: Yeah. I think that what Sheena touched on and I think more generally from the 30,000 foot view is these DSO’s are quasi-immigration attorneys and one of the things that a lot of F-1 students don’t realize, and perhaps it’s different with PhDs because I deal more with undergrads than graduate students, but that the institutions are reliant on immigration giving them permission to accept these F-1 students and it’s a big deal to these institutions. They’re required by regulation, by law to report violations to make sure that they’re doing everything properly. One of the things that’s very important is to really go and speak to the DSO and that you understand that there are perhaps options that are institution specific. Because again, the institution is the one who has to report back to CIS. In other words, the institution going to okay, it, and then CIS is going to okay it, or immigration is going to okay it, so it’s important that you go have that conversation.
20:14 Frank: And you shouldn’t be having that conversation right before you’re in economic dire straits. You should be having it the minute that you arrive at a university. If I need to work, if something happens, what are my options? Can we talk to people? Can we figure something out? Just in case so you have it in your back pocket, because the big takeaway is that these decisions, and this is what I described it to Sheena before podcast and I think she agrees with the metaphor is that these students come and they’re in the immigration system or the US is a dark room and all they have flashlight. And so you need to light that room up as much as you can. And it starts first and foremost with the conversations with the DSO, because it’s a mutually beneficial relationship. They get to accept you as students and recruit from around the world, and you get an education from them. That’s going to be the first starting point for you, and it should happen before you need it.
21:24 Emily: Yeah. Thank you so much for saying that. I think just to pick up on a point that you made earlier Sheena. If you have spoken with other graduate students, let’s say, especially, you would be valuable as other graduate students from your same home country, and they’re telling you, “Ooh, it’s really tight on the stipend.” You know you have to have that conversation with the DSO right away. What are my options here? And not to wait, like you said, Frank, until you really get into trouble before having the conversation. Now, if students are telling you, “Oh, no, that’s no problem. Don’t worry about it.” Well, maybe you can skip out on that for the moment because you’re not really anticipating having any difficulties with the stipend.
22:02 Sheena: I would also add that DSOs, we care a lot, sometimes to a fault, but if we see a student struggling and they’ve come up to us and said, “Hey, I’m really having a hard time.” We might not have an immediate solution, but we might have a scholarship that comes in later this semester. We might have an additional grant that we find out about. And if we have those students in our mind, we know this kid’s not doing great, the student might need help — we keep that in the back of our mind, I would say the majority of DSOs that I work with.
22:32 Emily: Great, great tip. Thank you.
Consequences of Violating the Work Restrictions of an F-1 Visa
22:34 Emily: Okay, so we talked about what is like straightforwardly permissible on an F-1 visa. Before we get into like maybe more borderline or creative solutions, what is the potential consequence of violating this work aspect of your visa?
22:50 Sheena: As Frank mentioned, we definitely have a legal obligation as advisors to report violations. If we don’t report it, not only are we jeopardizing that student we’re jeopardizing every F-1 student, our ability to host it, our institution’s reputation, everything. So working beyond F-1 regulations or working within regular F-1 regulations, but without prior approval, those are the big violations I would say most DSOs see. Those have severe consequences.
22:23 Sheena: Number one, automatic termination of your F-1 status. Your SEVIS record is no longer valid, your I-20 is no longer valid, your I-94 loses validity because it’s tied to your I-20. Your visa is essentially canceled. Frank can go more into the weeds of what happens once that happens. We actually are automatically immediately notifying DHS. DHS, or Department of Homeland Security, they have access to SEVIS. We’ve worked with ICE officials that come in and educate our students about the negative consequences, and they’ll say, once that file hits my desk, it’s kind of game over, particularly for work violations. Those are the most serious violations of your F-1 visa. There’s a lot of forgiveness, I think in F-1 violations. You can apply for reinstatement, but work, that’s not one of those violations that you can apply for reinstatement.
24:20 Emily: Okay. Thank you. I was just thinking the same thing as you said, game over. What do you say, Frank?
24:25 Frank: Yeah, I think that the big thing is that anytime somebody is trying to get over, visit the US or come to the US, they’ll ask about a visitor visa first, and then I recommend, if they need to study, to find a program here, a short term program, and the reason why is that I say that the consulate officer is a lot more willing to give you an F-1 visa or a student visa because they know that that school will report you when you don’t do what you’re supposed to. To pick up on what Sheena said and talk about ICE, which is immigration and customs enforcement, which is the police arm of immigration, they have, and they will, and I’m sure continue to show up at people’s door when their SEVIS record is terminated. It doesn’t happen a hundred percent of the time. I can’t give you a percentage of what it is, but you’re playing with fire when you commit a violation. And when they come to visit you, it doesn’t necessarily indicate an arrest. They’ll normally give you, what’s called a notice to appear, which is how they initiate deportation proceedings against you. That’s one consequence.
25:33 Emily: The second one is simpler and straightforward is that if you fall out of status here and you have to go back to your home country and try to reapply. You can’t do what Sheena said, a reinstatement. They just don’t treat violators, they don’t give them a lot of latitude. What I mean by that is the immigration system, when we’re talking about everything other than a green card, is designed for you to come for a specific purpose for a specific time. They are giving you this visa with that in mind. When you violate that, you essentially lose the trust of the consulate officer or the consulate. When that happens, it’s very, very difficult to get that back. How do you prove that you’re not going to do something in the future after you’ve done it. You can’t prove a negative Just having that stain on your record, which in a lot of cases can be really unfair, why you have it, but that goes back to the, you have to talk to your DSO and be fully informed because as Sheena said, the consequences can be fairly, fairly high for mistakes that you intended to make or didn’t intend to make.
26:46 Emily: Yeah. Thank you for that. And I think, just to put a really fine point on it, if you lose your visa, I’m guessing you’re going to be kicked out of your program. I’m sure it’s going to vary by program and there’s been a lot of leniency during 2020 for people working remotely and still being in their programs, even if they’re in another country or whatever. But I would imagine that you’re going to be terminated from your program if you lose your visa for most cases.
27:09 Sheena: That’s going to depend on the institution, but I would say you’ll definitely lose your assistantship. You’ll definitely lose the ability to work on campus specifically. If your entire education is based on campus funding by an assistantship or something like that, that will no longer be an option.
27:30 Emily: Yeah. Gotcha.
27:31 Frank: Yeah. One of the things just to follow up on that is the non-immigrant visa system works based on this idea of continuity since their last entry. Violations break that continuity and so going from step to step, getting the permission or going from the student to an OPT, I taught an immigration law class and I would always talk to students or teach them this way, that when you’re talking about a change of status, you can’t go from nothing to something. If you have no status because you made a mistake or because there was a violation, then you have to do as Sheena said, a reinstatement, but you do jeopardize the ability to be able to move on in the system because it breaks that continuity.
28:14 Emily: Got it. Thank you.
Work That Is Not Allowed on an F-1 Visa
28:16 Emily: Okay, so we talked about what is straightforwardly allowed now let’s talk about what is definitely not allowed. We know for sure that these are not going to be permitted. Sheenna, this is just the negative of what we talked about earlier, but let’s go over it again. What can you not do?
28:31 Sheena: I would reiterate anything outside of the description that I had for the different work authorizations. And then anything without prior approval. I would say, this is the biggest issue.There are some things you can actually do, but if you’re not asking and getting permission or figuring out a creative way to make it work for you, either with your DSO or an immigration attorney, then you can’t do it or you shouldn’t be doing it. I would say employment not authorized by your international office, of course, is not allowed. And then we would also go so far as to saying working or any thing that generates active income. And there’s a bright line rule, which most DSOs will subscribe to. And you’ll talk to an attorney, they might have a different perspective. But for us is if you’re doing any work on us, soil for anyone or any company located anywhere on earth, you are violating your immigration status. That’s, if you are doing that work on us soil, then you are violating your immigration status. And that’s, even if you’re working in the USA online for foreign company, you’re paid in your foreign bank account, you’re paid in foreign currency, that’s still in most DSOs definition is a violation of your immigration status.
29:52 Emily: Okay. What you said there was so insightful, and I’m so glad that this came out early on in the interview, because I have been asked this question of, “okay, I get that I can’t have a second job off campus. I can’t be a W-2 employee for some American employer.” People understand that, but I have had multiple people say to me, “Oh, well, I work for such and such a foreign employer. Not a problem, right?” And I’m like, “I don’t know.” That’s why I got you guys on here. So you’re saying that your definition, your bright line is you’re in the U S you’re doing active work, doesn’t matter where the money is, who the employer is, you’re in the US you’re doing the active work — that’s not allowed. Am I hearing that correctly?
30:34 Sheena: That is probably 99.999% of DSOs interpretation because we’re beholden not just to the US government, not just to our students, but also to our institution. We’re not jeopardizing any student just for, oh, maybe there’s a little wiggle room. That’s where you go and talk to an immigration attorney and they might have a different perspective.
30:55 Emily: Okay Frank, let’s hear your perspective.
30:56 Frank: This is where the whole idea of what the law says and the practical application. I would, as the late great RBG would say, I respectfully dissent. I think that you can probably think of a situation that wouldn’t be too crazy of a hypothetical where let’s say somebody working in a foreign online, but the companies outside the US, they’ve hired them because they have work authorization in the country of origin. They’re getting paid in that bank account, whatever the case may be. I think the law probably…You’re not taking any job away from any US worker.
31:44 Frank: That said you just had a conversation with a DSO who said that there’s a problem with that. So despite what I’m telling you the law says, from a practical standpoint, you can see where this can be an issue with your institution, and that’s going to be the first stop that you make. Those are going to be the first conversations you’re going to have, because if a DSO has that perspective, the perspective that Sheena described, and they get wind of you working, they could terminate your status. Again it different. What the law says, the argument you can make, you can make that argument all day long to your DSO, but they’re worried about their status possibly to be terminated where they can’t, for a willful violation, where they wouldn’t be able to accept F-1 students anymore. When you do that, you have to realize I’m asking permission from somebody who their perspective is going to be wholly different from mine. Again, my legal perspective, I don’t think that’s unauthorized employment, but in terms of the practical application, I think a DSO would disagree, like Sheena said.
32:53 Frank: I also think that it’s likely that immigration would disagree with me. If we’re working by Frankie’s five second rule, and I can explain why I’m working in my home, in the US while I’m on an F-1, if it doesn’t make sense within five seconds, you probably don’t want to get into that legal chess match or more of a checkers match with a CBP officer or USCIS by mail or somebody else, trying to argue that, well, that’s not what the law says. That that should be, that’s only your point of last resort. I think that you’re probably going to get pinged with it, even if I disagree that that is actually unauthorized employment. My opinion only matters so much. It’s how they apply the law.
33;38 Emily: Okay. I’m so glad that we got right away to an example of this difference between the theory and the practical applications.
What if No One Finds Out About my Unauthorized Employment on an F-1 Visa?
33:46 Emily: I’m going to ask a question that I hope probably no international student would actually ask you Sheena, which is what if you never find out? What if my DSO never finds out about this online work that I’m doing for someone else? And how likely also is it that immigration would find out? I feel like we’re treading into dangerous territory here, but yeah. What if you never found out?
34:07 Sheena: We actually have whole sessions about this. I love this conversation. So that’s risk you’re going to have to take. And I would say, I am not paid by Department of Homeland Security to go knock on your door and see if you have all this nice stuff that you bought with this job that was off-campus. My job is not to hunt you down. My job is if something comes in front of me and I have evidence, I have to take action. B,ut I would also say just because I don’t catch you or I don’t know doesn’t mean you’re not going to get burned later on in line. We saw this a lot in this last administration, because the way the agencies were implementing some of the rules that had been standing for years, were all of a sudden more strict or more intense, or they scrutinized applications harder. What looked like a normal case maybe five years ago, over the last three years, they were either denied or they were asked for more information. You don’t know what you’re risking in the future. Especially for a lot of our students, they do plan to work in the United States. Some of them may plan to immigrate on down the line. And just because I’m not finding out doesn’t mean they’re not shooting themselves in the foot years from now. Frank, you probably have a lot more content for that one.
35:30 Frank: I think that one of the things that the past administration implemented was that the forms changed. The net that before had the holes that were a little bit bigger, the holes shrunk. The information that could get you in trouble that was slipping through that net, it was getting caught. I think that that’s where you see that the officials and the rules and the forms are catching up with the understanding of what people are doing. What people would say, “I did this and I didn’t get caught, or they didn’t ask about it, so I didn’t get in trouble,” that’s no longer 100% true. We see that a lot, not just with F-1 students, but just in general, because as Sheena said, an example would be your reported income on your 1040, on your tax returns. Let’s say in the future that you have to prove that you maintain status since your last entry. CIS could look closer at that if you have a green card application. As I mentioned before, if you break the continuity, there could be huge consequences. Let’s say as an example, you were present in the US for five years and you messed up in year three, and then you applied in year five for your green card and they say, you have to prove that since your last entry, you maintain status, well, that status would have been broken when you may have committed that violation in year three. And they can catch it, let’s say on the application for a green card, but maybe they didn’t catch it on the application for the student visa. As Sheena said, just because you can do it or get away with it, and I put that in air quotes, doesn’t mean that there won’t be consequences down the road.
37:27 Emily: Emily here for a brief interlude. Taxes are weirdly, unexpectedly difficult for funded grad students and fellowship recipients at any level of PhD training. Your university might send you strange tax forms or no tax forms at all. They might not withhold your income tax from your paychecks, even though you owe it. It’s a mess. I’ve created a ton of free resources to assist you with understanding and preparing your 2020 tax return, which are available pfforphds.com/tax. I hope you’ll check them out to ease much of the stress of tax season. If you want to go deeper with the, or have a question for me. Please join one of my tax workshops, which you can find links to from pfforphds.com/tax. It would be my pleasure to help you save time and potentially money this tax season. So don’t hesitate to reach out. Now back to our interview.
Creative Solutions for Working with and F-1 Visa
38:33 Emily: Okay. So we’ve talked about, what’s definitely straightforwardly allowed, what is not allowed in each of your opinions. Getting in between those two, how do we thread the needle? What are some activities that may be permissible to generate income and Sheen I think you used a really key word before, which was active income. So now let’s think about like passive income. Is that such a thing? What are each of your perspectives on that question? Like if it’s not work, not active work, what kinds of ways can an F-1 student generate income that would not be raising any flags?
Active vs. Passive Income
39:06 Sheena: I think understanding income, understanding what employment means, understanding what working means, and understanding tax law, I think to some degree. I put that disclaimer up front, I am not a tax expert, but there are tax experts out there specifically for non-residents, which is a majority of the students that we work with. Remember that your intent is to study, that’s what the visa is for, and anything that’s passive, shouldn’t be a lot. Anything that’s passive can bring you under, but it’s worth, I think it’s $5,000, something around there, again, not a tax expert, could bring you under more scrutiny. If you’re making money in your sleep because you’re investing and all you’re doing is investing like four hours a week, not an exorbitant amount of money of time, then I, as a DSO, we don’t see any problem with that. If you want to invest, that’s great.
40:09 Sheena: But the problem is, again, like Francisco was saying, is that at some point it’s going to get noticed. And so for us passive income, isn’t that big of a deal. I would never probably know about the passive income you’re making, but you do have to arm yourself as a student and know your own boundaries or understanding tax law, understanding immigration law more than what a DSO would do, because again, your immigration status is your immigration status. We’re there to help you, we’re there to bring you along, but if you’re doing something outside of the normal DSO realm…I’ve worked a lot in this because we get a lot of these questions, but if you’re working outside of that, you need to hire somebody, in my opinion, or at least take advantage of as many free resources as possible to understand what’s really going on it when it comes to passive income.
41:04 Sheena: I think there is a kind of an idea that students can work around it. I think culturally, I find a lot of our students come from a lot more…there are a lot more countries that have a lot more ingenuity and that’s appreciated, of going outside the bounds of law, but in US immigration law, there’s just not a lot of wiggle room. And the, “I didn’t know, excuse doesn’t really work that well,” so making sure that you are becoming that mini-immigration or that mini-tax expert before you go into any of these passive income realms is really important.
41:41 Emily: Okay, Frank, I want to get your answer to this in just a moment, but especially because Sheena, you mentioned if you’re not doing that much of it, and I’m wondering if you meant time or money or both, like the income is above a certain threshold or the number of hours is above a certain threshold, but before I throw it over to you, Frank, for to get your answer, what are some other examples, Sheena, of passive income types of activities that you’ve seen that you think are permissible if they fall within this “not too much” definition that we’re trying to get to. For instance, you mentioned investing, what about being a landlord? Is that passive rental income?
42:18 Sheena: It’s going to depend on how much work you do, and again, this is my advice as a DSO, working with students in a framework that they can understand, or that I can explain, would be, if you’re doing something more than 500 hours a week (a year), it’s no longer a hobby. It’s no longer just for fun. You’re doing something that’s taking a significant amount of time. I believe that there’s actually a rule that we let our immigration attorneys explain in our workshops.
42:59 Emily: Let’s go over to Frank, then to get the definition here of what is passive.
43:04 Frank: Yeah. I think that we’re looking at what Sheena was referring to is that when the Department of Labor defines, if it’s less than 500 hours a year, then it’s considered a hobby. But passive income, I think that for simple terms is as Sheena put, it is money that you’re making while you’re asleep. You’re not getting your hands dirty doing anything. You mentioned rental properties to me, that would be fine. And I’ll tell you why in the context of F-1 by giving an example of other visas, which is for example, there are a lot of Mexican nationals. We live on the border here in Texas, and a lot of them own properties and a lot of them have somebody who manage it, and collect rent and they have income and they’re not considered to be violating their non-immigrant visa status.
43:56 Frank: I think that rental properties are probably okay, but again, I’m going to defer to, or hark back to the Frankie five-second rule, which is if somebody asks you, can you explain that income? And I mean, show a statement that says this is purely, you know, I have a management company who collects rent, here’s a letter from them that amount of collection minus the expenses is what’s reported, so I don’t really do anything. I just invested in real estate, but I’m here to study. That’s all I’m here to do. And so if you’re able to explain that within five seconds and it makes sense to the officer, then I think that you’re going to be okay.
44:34 Frank: Again, it’s the practical versus the legal. You have to realize that when you come, let’s say for example to the border that I mentioned, if you’re coming from an international flight, you have CBP officers who have been sitting there all day. You’ve been on a flight all day and they’re seeing people over and over and over again, it’s a heavy to make them sit there and listen to you meander through an explanation. So just be prepared with documentation to show that you’re really not actively getting your hands dirty to do something. You always want to err on the side of caution. So rental property probably just higher, there’s tons in every city of people who will manage the rental properties for you. You don’t have to do anything. That’s a perfect example of where you say, well, I have a rental property, but I don’t touch it. It’s a management company that handles everything. I think that would be a great example, but I think that what you need to do is you need to think in practical terms to be able to explain it to somebody who has no idea, who is you meeting you for the first time and be able to do it in a simple and straightforward way so that they’re comfortable that you’re not taking a job from a US worker.
45:47 Emily: Okay, I’m going to throw another idea at you Frank. So Sheena mentioned investing earlier, but also you just said, the 500 hour per year guideline — what about, what I might call day trading or active investing? How about that? How does that play?
46:03 Frank: Right. I think that I looked up what the common definition of day trading is, and it’s making four more trades a week. And I think, again, we’re getting to the practical application of this because as Sheena mentioned, a couple of times during this podcast, the administrations can strictly enforce rules. Also, people coming from different countries, and I think the way where enforcement is different. I think she mentioned flexibility or the approach is different, but I think ultimately how laws are enforced really, really matters. And for us in the US, the president or the executive branch has the exclusive authority to enforce immigration laws.
46:43 Frank: Related to that, if you have an administration that’s tightening the screws, then you probably don’t even want to be called a day trader. We have yet to see how the Biden administration is going to do it, but let’s work on the assumption that they’re going to be a little more laxed about this. I think that the approach should be that if you’re trading in a way to support yourself, that it’s almost a necessity, you’re doing it in that type of volume where you can pay your rent, your groceries, you pay all your bills with day trading, even if you don’t need to, but you’re making enough money to do all that, it’s probably not going to be okay. Say that you are buying stocks, four or less a week. You’re trading, just something dropped and you’re doing the investment, then I think that that’s probably okay.
47:33 Frank: Being able to explain it, these trading platforms will issue a form 1099 that’s fairly detailed, and as long as that matches your taxes and you say I invested when the market dropped. I don’t need it to support myself and I’m doing it in a volume that’s very low frequency, here’s the statement, you’ll probably be okay. But again, that’s my perspective. You’re going to have to ask, or you should ask your DSO and be prepared to explain it. But in terms of day trading, I think that unless you’re doing it in this high volume every day, trying to move and really just make enough money to pay for every expense here, school included, living expenses, I think that you probably okay, if you don’t do it in that type of volume.
Credit Card Rewards
48:27 Emily: I have another scenario for you, which is one you’ve already mentioned, I think at least once in the interview, which has credit card rewards, which to me seems one of the more accessible forms of generating a side income is that also considered making money while you sleep? And is it easy enough to explain to an immigration officer?
48:44 Sheena: I would chime in about documentation. So of course we’re concerned about documentation and so tax documentation, what that looks like, is what you’re going to have to pay attention to. Then also realize we’re working with the IRS, we’re working with the Department of Labor, we’re working with Department of Homeland Security. All of these are factoring into what the reality of the situation is and factoring into how they’re enforcing it at that specific time.
49:14 Frank: Yeah, that was one of the things that we talked about before the podcast, is that not only different departments, but different sub-agencies within the Department of Homeland Security, their perspectives can be different. The Department of State, when they’re processing your visa, abroad could be different than USCIS. I’ve seen it, where something is okay here and then all of a sudden it’s not okay abroad. It comes as a shock to the client because they were asking how can one sub-agency say yes, and the other one say no, and that’s why it is important to have that documentation.
49:51 Frank: You asked about credit card rewards, so let’s take just a hard example. Let’s say you made $1,000 or $2,000 in credit card rewards, which means that you’re using your credit card quite a bit, but that’s money, that’s considered income. But I think that if you’re able to know that if anybody asks you, you could have that spreadsheet, you could have those statements, you can show the totals and show that you’re not working. You’re simply getting rewarded for using American Express, Visa or MasterCard. I think you’re going to be okay, because again, the practical application of laws, you have to remember that you’re dealing with a human being, so a human being will understand if you can show them that you didn’t go and apply for a job anywhere. You’re not actively doing anything. I’m sure that almost every credit card offers some sort of reward points at this moment. Those are things that an immigration officer can understand, as long as you can show them that that’s what’s reflected in your tax forms or that’s what’s reflected in whatever official document you have to present them.
51:01 Sheena: Yeah. And we actually found a pretty good article about it talking that some rewards, if it’s per dollar you spend, it’s more like a rebate, whereas if you’re actually opening an account and that’s the incentive, then that can be considered more like income.
51:16 Emily: Oh, interesting.
51:17 Sheena: And that’s what might get you the 1099 miscellaneous.
51:20 Emily: Okay. So kind of a difference between ongoing credit card rewards and credit card churning, which is opening new accounts for the sign up bonuses. Interesting. I will have to look into that distinction further.
51:30 Emily: I think we’ve probably already covered this, but I just want to throw out one last scenario, which is essentially self-employment. Again, maybe sort of not taking work maybe from an American, but how does self-employment fall into this whole framework?
51:47 Sheena: For what’s already allowable, OPT definitely go for it. It’s encouraged. It’s one of the seven allowable types of employment, as long as it’s directly related to your degree programs so it’s giving you practical experience in your, in your program.
52:04 Emily: I’m wondering how common or how practical of a solution that is for again, the people who I serve are generally PhDs, so they’re in a PhD program and that’s supposed to be taking up pretty much all of their energy, and maybe they’re only allowed a little bit of time for themselves or hobbies or whatever on the side. When I was thinking about self-employment or starting a business, again, a lot of students don’t have a lot of capital either. I’m thinking more about tutoring, freelancing, like wr,iting, like editing these kinds of services that I think would be a little bit more analogous to having a job rather than owning a business where you could outsource the work. Does that make sense? I would think that those kinds of activities would probably fall under, no, this looks too much like work.
52:46 Sheena: Yeah. If you register your company, if you obtain the license, those kind of aren’t operating the business. I think planning the business, especially depending on your major could be okay. I think who’s doing the services. Who’s controlling the money. If you’re involved in any of that process, it’s not a good thing. Using the institutional address. So if it’s part of your program, we have a lot of MBA students, if it’s using your program and it’s part of CPT, or if it’s part of, I guess, pre completion OPT is the more common, then you could possibly try that one. I think it comes down to how dirty your hands get, as far as how much are you in. I will tell you, your DSO will rarely have an exact perfect answer for this. They’re going to tell you to talk to an attorney so they can help you set it up because if you’re really interested in doing that, you’re going to have to invest some money to do it properly. It’s not just, “Oh, here are the five points and you’re fine.” It is about the documentation. It’s making sure that if all those agencies, look at it, they’re going not going to determine that you’re working.
54:03 Frank: Yeah. Self-employment is going to be the same as just having somebody hire you, if you’re just working, but only working for yourself. If it looks like that, if you could do the same thing that you’re doing for yourself for an employer, then I would tell you, even me who tries to navigate along the lines of edges of immigration law, I would say you can’t do that because they’re going to accuse you of working here or violating your status. I think what you have to remember is, as Sheena said, your F-1 is given to you to study, and so if it’s not obvious that you can do it CPT, OPT, on-campus employment, economic hardship, then you really have to understand the decisions you make sometimes will toe the line and you need to mitigate the possibility of being accused of violating your status. And the only way to do that is conversations with your DSO, conversations with an immigration attorney. A lot of attorneys offer free consultations. Even if you have to spend $100 to $200 to speak to an attorney, I know that you’re doing it because it’s already a difficult situation, but just come armed with some questions and that $200, if it saves your status, I think will be well worth it.
55:31 Emily: Yeah. Thank you so much for mentioning that as the next step, when you’re thinking about is this kind of activity okay or not. Those two resources — speak to a DSO, speak to an immigration attorney — I’m glad you threw out that number because yeah, $100-$200 is a significant amount of money, but it’s not $1,000 it’s not $10,000. I’m glad to get that sort of order of magnitude.
Additional Workarounds, Advice, and Resources
55:51 Emily: Are there any other workarounds that we have not already brought up? Because we’ve already brought up the economic hardship, which there’s different trends in that, may not be as viable as before. Sheena, you brought up CPT, OPT, maybe there’s some creative solution there. And also both of you mentioned changing visa types just away from the F-1. Any other workarounds that we haven’t mentioned so far?
56:15 Sheena: I would push for scholarships. We have a pretty extensive workshop on how to apply for scholarships. There’s so much money out there that actually doesn’t get used and I think a lot of students, especially if they’re on a full ride or like a full tuition waiver, they’re not necessarily thinking of how else can I get a scholarship or grant. There are outside ways I think to get a little bit of extra money without even touching the work world. And I think on top of that with COVID and with everything going on right now, a lot of institutions do have emergency funds. So if it really is a matter of, “Hey, I may not be able to afford rent this month” or “Hey, I, I need groceries,” I think reaching out to your institution, they are aware that students are struggling right now, particularly now, so having that conversation again with your DSO or with your financial aid office, or even your campus ministry. There’s a lot of different resources on campus that are meant to help to support students. If you find that you’re, you’re kind of on that cusp, then that’s what I would recommend.
57:23 Sheena: I also want to put a plugin for stay away from Instagram. I’ve had this question billions of times I feel like. The product placement, being a brand ambassador, getting a few things, even only fans — all of those, that free merch, a lot of times it’s not free merch. Those product placements, a lot of times if they’re mailing you something, they’re going to 1099 you later on. Just be very, very wary if you’re messing around with any of those social media platforms. Those companies that are trying to get people to be influencers, they do not care how they’re taxing you. They will burn you hard if you’re not paying attention and asking questions before you accept something free.
58:09 Emily: Okay. I’m so glad you brought that up as like a potential other, the influencer model for gaining what is normally called passive income, but there’s certainly a lot of work as well that goes into that. Are you saying it’s more of a problem on the tax front or more of a problem on the hours you spend doing it front?
58:26 Sheena: Our interpretation is on the tax front. You may be getting four bathing suits for free or something, or I don’t know, whatever anybody gets these days. But it may not actually be free. They may actually send you tax documents or their HR may be considering it, that you’re an employee or that you’re a contract worker, when in actuality you just thought you were getting free stuff for posting something. I think you really have to, again, not to make everyone go and hire an attorney, but I think in this realm, in the F-1 world, you cannot be too safe when it comes to planning ahead and doing your research before you jump into something. I think some of the students that I’ve seen gotten in trouble, haven’t asked ahead of time. They haven’t done their research. Or they trusted a friend’s advice who was very well-meaning but may have been from a different country or completely different circumstances, or maybe didn’t have as much to risk or to lose as they do.
59:31 Emily: Okay. Thank you. And Frank final workarounds, or just final other examples and thoughts?
59:36 Frank: Congress just passed a $1.9 trillion package. A lot of that money is going to local governments. The local governments don’t necessarily always make a distinction between the status of the individual. They just want to help the local economy. They’ll do a hold evictions in abeyance rent programs, local programs, and if they don’t make a distinction between it and you don’t have to do anything to obtain the money, then it’s probably okay. I would say, as Sheena mentioned, but just generally speaking, why work if you can get the money for free?
1:00:14 Emily: Yeah. I’m glad we got around to those solutions that are even outside the scope of really our conversation today.
01:00:19 Emily: Okay, so someone listening may be left with more questions than they had at the beginning of the podcast. This is just an introduction to the material. Where would each of you recommend that people go next? Obviously we’ve already talked about talk with your own DSO at your own institution. How does one find an immigration attorney, Frank? Where do people go next?
01:00:39 Frank: Right. So in finding an immigration attorney, my recommendation is to go to aila.org. That stands for American Immigration Lawyers Association. They are the largest immigration lawyer institution in the country. They have over 3000 attorneys or 2,500 members, rather. That is anyone who’s a serious immigration attorney will be a member. You can do that. That’s number one. Each state bar will have board certification lists or people who have to take exams, take classes, practice immigration law, and they’ve been certified by their state bar association. You can look for that particular to your state, wherever you are, but it’s also important to keep in mind that immigration is federal, so you can actually look at any state for a board certified immigration attorney. I would say those two would be two places. You can go to our website, immigrationcases.org. You can follow me on Twitter @alvillarlawpc, and you can post something and I’ll try to give you some general advice and see if I can answer the question. But I think that if you’re going to schedule something with an immigration attorney, aila.org, or looking for a board certified immigration attorney through the state bar website, or the state board of legal specialization would be a great place to start.
01:02:08 Emily: Yes. Thank you. And Sheena, do you have any recommendations for further resources?
01:02:11 Sheena: Yeah, so Study In The States, that’s Department of Homeland Security website. They do have a lot of nitty gritty stuff about your immigration status that your DSO is probably telling you, but just to double-check them, you’re more than welcome to. I would be very wary of forums. De COPT I think is one of the more reputable ones, but they do get some stuff wrong. Quora is absolutely terrible. Yahoo answers, absolutely terrible. Don’t trust your immigration life to that. I think avvo.com, I think it’s where attorneys answer questions, that’s pretty decent. When it comes to investment, I didn’t mention this resource, but our campus uses Sprint Tax. They actually came out with a great blog about investment income for F-1 students and how to file those on taxes. I would definitely work on that one. And immigrationcases.org, Francisco’s website actually has really great content.
01:03:10 Frank: I would also, Sheena mentioned this earlier, but go to your DSO and ask them to reach out to local attorneys or even attorneys from out of town who can do video presentations. That’s an easy marketing tool for attorneys, so a lot of them will jump at it and it can be really helpful to have that perspective because it’s a group setting where maybe there are questions that you haven’t thought of, that one of your classmates can bring up. Reaching out to your DSO to see if they can bring in an attorney or have an attorney present at your college or university.
01:03:43 Emily: Yeah. That’s a wonderful idea.
01:03:44 Sheena: There are great attorneys, as well as Francisco that lots of campuses can reach out to that are more than willing to give their time to talk about all of these topics for free to a group of students.
01:03:59 Emily: Yeah, I think that’s an awesome next step to help, not only you, the listener, but the other people on your campus. Well, this has been just an incredible interview. Thank you both so much for your time. This has been really enlightening for me. I know it has for many of the listeners. I hope it helps be well, see solutions, avoid pitfalls, and yeah. Thank you so much for joining me.
01:04:17 Sheena: Thank you, yes.
01:04:17 Frank: Thanks for having us.
Listener Q&A: Estimated Tax Payments
01:04:26 Emily: Now onto the listener question and answer segment. Today’s question was asked in advance of a live webinar I gave recently for a university client so it is anonymous.
01:04:36 Emily: Here is the question: “I heard that there is a penalty for not having income tax taken automatically from fellowship paychecks. Is there any way for me to withhold some of my pay to cover taxes and avoid the penalty?”
01:04:50 Emily: Thank you anonymous for this question. It is excellent and you are exactly right. The IRS does expect to receive tax payments throughout the calendar year. And when you’re an employee that’s typically taken care of by your employer through income tax withholding. However, when you’re not an employee, like if you’re on fellowship, most universities do not offer income tax withholding as a benefit. Yet the IRS still expects those payments.
01:05:18 Emily: So what’s the best way to go about getting those payments to the IRS? So, first of all, you should check if your university offers this benefit to non-employees, to fellowship or training grant recipients. While rare, some universities do such as Duke and Johns Hopkins. This most commonly happens when fellowship paychecks are processed through payroll rather than through financial aid. So if your university does process your paychecks through payroll, you can inquire if you’re able to submit a W-4 and have them withhold income tax on your behalf. Now, like I said, that solution is simple, but it’s not that common.
01:05:56 Emily: Next consideration after that is whether you or your spouse has any W-2 income that continues throughout the entire calendar year. So for example, some graduate students have a combination of W2 income, or employee income and fellowship income, or some other kind of award on top of that. If you have that kind of combination income throughout the whole year, all you have to do is submit an updated form W-4 to payroll and request that they withhold more than they had been before out of your W-2 income. How exactly you calculate, how much more they should withhold, we’ll get back to in a moment. This strategy also works well. If you have a spouse who has W2 income, because what the IRS cares about is whether your entire household sent sufficient tax payments into the IRS throughout the year, not whether you did as an individual. So likewise, your spouse could submit an updated form W-4, that indicates a slightly higher withholding rate.
01:06:56 Emily: Now, how do you calculate what you should put on a W-4? And also what do you do if those options are not available to you? Well, really the main way that graduate students and post-docs get their income tax into the IRS if they’re on fellowship and they’re at university doesn’t offer this kind of benefit is through the estimated tax system. The estimated tax system exists to collect income tax payments throughout the year from individuals who don’t have employers withholding income tax for them, such as fellowship recipients, but also such as self-employed people or people who have passive income.
01:07:31 Emily: What you need to do is pull up form 1040-ES go to page eight, which is the estimated tax worksheet, and fill out that worksheet for your income for the entire calendar year. Basically you are going to do kind of a high level draft of your tax return in this one-page form. When you get down to the end of the form, it will tell you, this is how much income tax you can expect to owe this year and whether or not that rises to the level that the IRS requires you to make estimated tax payments.
01:08:05 Emily: My kind of rule of thumb is if you’re on fellowship and you have no W-2 withholding or anything like that, if you’re on fellowship for an entire calendar year and you’re a grad student, or post-doc, it’s pretty likely that you’re going to be required to make quarterly estimated tax payments, but the worksheet will tell you for sure. If you have fellowship income for only part of the year, like you switched funding sources mid year, then a little bit more borderline, you definitely need to fill out the worksheet to see whether or not it would be required of you.
01:08:31 Emily: If quarterly estimated tax is required of you after you fill the worksheet, it will tell you what the amount of your payment should be up to four times per year. So you can manually go right before the due dates and make those payments. They’re in mid-April, mid-June, mid-September, and mid-January. Or near the beginning of the year, you can set up automated payments for all four of those payments throughout the year, if you know, it’s going to be consistent. Form 1040-ES will give you various payment options, but personally, I think the easiest one is just to go to irs.gov/payments.
01:09:03 Emily: Now, if the worksheet tells you that you’re not required to make quarterly estimated tax payments what’s going to happen is you’re going to make the full tax payment that you owe when you file your tax return in the next year. So you do need to be prepared because you may owe quite a large lump sum at that time. The best practice for preparing to make these payments, whether once per quarter or once per year is to set aside the money that you expect to pay in tax from each one of the paychecks that you receive. I recommend using a separate, dedicated savings account.
01:09:34 Emily: Now, what if you’re looking at the estimated tax worksheet, and you’re really not clear about how to fill it out — looks pretty complicated to you, you’re not sure how to answer all the questions, you don’t know how it applies to your specific unique fellowship situation. I have a resource for you go to pfforphds.com/qetax. That page will tell you about an asynchronous workshop that I created. It’s a bunch of videos, a spreadsheet, and an opportunity to attend a live Q and A call. And I’ve included in the videos answers to a lot of the common questions I receive about fellowship income and quarterly estimate tax, such as how to handle things when you switch on or off a fellowship during the course of the year. So that resource is there for you, if you need it.
01:10:20 Emily: By the way, the last part of the question about the penalty, if you are required to pay your income tax quarterly and you do not do so, yes, the IRS might assess a penalty to you. It’s not necessarily anything to freak out about. It’s probably going to be on the order of dozens of dollars, not hundreds of dollars, but still, I think it’s best to avoid that. If you’re required to pay quarterly estimated tax, just go ahead and make those payments, even though it’s a little bit of a pain. Better to do that than to be hit with a fine, in my opinion. All right. Thank you again to anonymous for that question. If you would like to submit a question to be answered in a future episode, please go to pfforphds.com/podcast and follow the instructions you find there. I love answering questions, so please submit yours.
01:11:04 Emily: Listeners, thank you for joining me for this episode. PFforPhDs.com/podcast is the hub for the Personal Finance for PhDs podcast. On that page are links to all the episodes show notes, which include full transcripts and videos of the interviews. There is also a form to volunteer to be interviewed on the podcast and instructions for entering the book giveaway contest, and submitting a question for the Q&A segment. I’d love for you to check it out and get more involved. If you’ve been enjoying the podcast, here are four ways you can help it grow. One, subscribe to the podcast and rate and review it on Apple podcasts, Stitcher, or whatever platform you use. If you leave a review, be sure to send it to me. Two, share an episode you found particularly valuable on social media, with an email list serve, or as a link from your website. Three, recommend me as a speaker to your university or association. My seminars cover the personal finance topics PhDs are most interested in, like investing, debt, repayment and taxes. Four, subscribe to my mailing list at pfforphds.com/subscribe through that list. You’ll keep up with all the new content and special opportunities for Personal Finance for PhDs. See you in the next episode! And remember, you don’t have to have a PhD to succeed with personal finance, but it helps. Music is Stages of Awakening by Poddington Bear from the Free Music Archive and is shared under CC by NC podcast, editing and show notes creation by Lourdes Bobbio.