Arriving In The USA
If you bring more than $10,000 in cash or other 'financial instruments' through the US border, you must declare this to the customs officer when you enter the country. There is no limit to the amount of cash you can bring into the country, and no penalty or fee for bringing more than $10,000, but if you do not declare it then the money can be confiscated and you can be charged with a crime.
If you are traveling with a group of people, or as a family, and together you are bringing more than $10,000 into the USA, the same rule applies.
You can find more information on the rules about bringing and declaring cash here.
Having a US bank account is highly recommended, and can be necessary for paying tuition fees or receiving scholarships, stipends, or paychecks. Opening a bank account can be confusing, and banks may try to get you to sign up for more than you need at first, so it is good to be familiar with the types of accounts available:
Checking: an account that you can use to receive money, withdraw cash, and make payments with a debit card.
A checking account is the only type of account you need when you are starting out.
Savings: An account where you can keep extra money and where it will grow slowly over time.
If you are likely to have extra money sitting in your checking account, you can consider opening a savings account.
Credit: An account with a credit card that you can use for general spending, but the credit card bill must be paid regularly from a checking account.
Maintaining a credit account requires discipline. Account holders must monitor their spending and pay their credit card bills regularly. You should never spend more on a credit card than you can afford to pay back.
However, paying credit card bills on time is an excellent way to build a credit score, which helps if you want to rent a house, buy a car, or get a loan. Credit cards often come with 'rewards' too, like air miles or cash back. For these reasons, opening a credit account can be a good idea when you are more settled into life in the USA.
Some banks and credit card companies require customers to have a Social Security Number, which you will only be eligible for if you get a paying job in the USA.
Opening An Account
Although many banks advertise the option to open an account online, international students and scholars usually need to make an appointment to do this in-person. This is because the bank will need to verify
your immigration documents before opening an account in your name.
When you go to open your account, you usually need to bring:
I-20 form (for F-1 or M-1 visa-holders) or DS-2019 (for J-1 visa-holders)
Some banks may want to see additional documentation, so if you make an appointment over the phone it is a good idea to ask exactly what is needed.
Banks in Philadelphia
When choosing a bank, there are a few things to consider, including availability of ATMs and whether there are monthly account fees. Several banks offer checking accounts for students, many of which have no monthly fees. You can find a list of banks that offer student accounts here.
If you are likely to make regular ATM cash withdrawals, bear in mind that you will be charged a fee for withdrawals from an ATM not operated by your bank. The following banks have the most ATMs across Philadelphia:
Your international advisor may also have specific recommendations for banking based on branch locations or the proximity of ATMs to campus.
International Money Transfers
After you have opened a bank account in the USA, you might need to transfer money from your home country to your new account. Traditional bank transfers can be very expensive due to fees for the transfer and conversion of currencies, but there are services you can use that can reduce this cost significantly, especially if you will transfer money regularly.
The following companies offer international transfers that avoid many of the fees that you might be charged for traditional bank-to-bank transfers.
Scams targeting international students are common, and criminals successfully steal thousands of dollars from individual students every year.
With some awareness you can protect yourself if you become a target.
One particularly successful scam targets students over the phone. The scammers claim to be calling from a US government agency (e.g. IRS, ICE, the police), and claim that you have violated immigration regulations. They may have personal information about you or your family that they use to make the call seem legitimate. They will insist that the only way to avoid arrest/deportation is to pay money immediately, and will demand payment in a way that is not easily traceable.
It is important to know that no US government agency will ever call you on the phone and demand payment for anything. If you are targeted by this scam, hang up the phone and do not engage with the caller. You should notify your school's international student office and public safety office. These offices can help you report the issue to the police, which is recommended.
You can read more about scams targeting international students here.
Everyone in the USA in F, M, or J visa status must send documentation to the IRS (Internal Revenue Service) for tax purposes if you were in the country for any part of the previous year. This is true even if you did not earn any money. The period to submit tax documents for the previous
year is between January 1st and April 15th, a time that Americans refer to as "Tax Season".
Note: Some colleges and universities provide guidance and resources to assist with the process of filing taxes, so you should check with your international advisor before trying to tackle this independently.
Forms and Documents
The type of documentation you submit depends on your situation:
If you have been in the USA less than five years and did not get paid by a US employer in the previous calendar year, you and any dependent children/spouse should only file the form 8843. This is not considered a tax return, but is still required.
If you have been in the USA less than five years and earned money in 2022, you should file a "non-resident" tax return (1040 NR). You should also file a form 8843.
If you have been in the USA more than 5 years, you might be considered a resident for tax purposes (see the substantial presence test). This changes how you file a tax return if you earned money in the previous year (see below). Residents for tax purposes should not file a form 8843.
If you were employed during the previous year, you will receive a W-2 form from your employer(s), one copy of which you will need to send to the IRS as part of your tax return.
Filing your Tax Return
If you are a non-resident for tax purposes and need to file a tax return, you can use a service like Sprintax to complete your tax return. Be aware that not all tax preparation services can help nonresidents file their taxes, so if you find a different company, make sure they know you have a nonimmigrant visa status.
If you have been in the USA long enough to be a resident for tax purposes, you can use one of the following free tax preparation services:
The information in this section is for reference purposes only, and we advise consulting a specialist or a legal expert (in addition to your international advisor) if you have specific questions about your situation.