Study Abroad as an F1 Student Visa Holder

Chen Yu
May 3, 2018

Disclaimer: This is by no means an extensive or official guide on immigration regulations for F1 student visa holders in the US who choose to study abroad outside of the U.S. As an international student with no permanent home in the U.S and no family members to help, I’m writing this article merely to share my experience. For official legal advice, please contact the international tax office and/or office of international students at your institution.

Filing Federal Tax Return

I’m spending an entire academic year abroad as an international degree seeking student in the U.S. Regardless of the income, one always needs to file the federal tax return. What I’ve learned from the process is definitely to stay proactive by emailing and calling the International Tax Office, especially considering that international shipping can take a really long time. It’s helped me a ton. Now that I’ve finished the entire process, I’m writing out this guide to help future international students.

Since I’m a Chinese citizen, there is a tax treaty between China and the U.S. I do not pay tax if my income is less than $5000 a year. However, I need to mail some documents to the International Tax Office every year to renew my treaty; otherwise, tax might be withheld. I received an email requiring me to renew the tax treaty while I was studying abroad in Prague in the fall of 2017. I prepared all the documents, went to Ceska Posta (the Czech post office), and mailed everything to the International Tax Office about one month before the deadline. I emailed the Tax Office about one week before the deadline and asked if they received my documents. They said no. I became really worried, and went to the Czech post office with my tracking number. However, they told me they knew that the package was sent out; when the package would be delivered to New Orleans was unknown, and there was no way to find out. I got really upset because if you can’t track it, why give a “tracking” number?

I talked to the CIEE staff in Prague, and they told me Ceska Posta cannot track international packages but DHL can. I emailed and called the tax office and informed them about the delay. Though my package was received few days past the deadline, it was accepted with no problem.

Lessons learned:

  1. In Prague, DO NOT USE CESKA POSTA for international shipping!
  2. Don’t automatically go to the local post office; consult the center staff on various delivery services in the host country.
  3. Calling and maintaining proactive communication with the international tax office goes a long way.

When I’m in Morocco this spring semester, I need to file the actual federal tax return. Every year I forget how I’ve done it the year before. I asked around the students in my program-a lot of them have their parents do it for them. One student told me that the employers will send me the W2 form. I got very stressed because I haven’t received anything while abroad-Tulane’s mail services hold all the documents for me since I don’t have a permanent address in the U.S.

I called the Tax Office again and it turned out that I can access all the forms online. It took me less than an hour to prepare everything. And a friend of another IES Abroad student was visiting Morocco over the spring break, so he brought my tax return documents back and mailed them for me from inside the U.S, which won’t take as long as international shipping.

Your I-20 Travel Signature

When entering the U.S, international students, in addition to presenting their valid student visa, also needs to present their I-20, a document indicating their field of study, personal information, funding sources, travel signature (if any), etc. One needs to have a travel signature in order to return to the U.S, and it is normally valid for one year.

In September, 2017, I went to the Office of International Students & Scholars at my school to renew my travel signature, thinking that its one-year validity could allow me to reenter after one year abroad. However, I was told that more than one semester of absence from the US invalidates my travel signature, and that I need to get a new I-20 in my spring semester, which was not communicated to me beforehand.

Getting the new I-20 is a hassle. I was told that I needed to give the staff my FedEx account number so I could receive my I-20 and pay on my end. I tried to register for an account in Morocco, only to find that FedEx is operated by another company. I asked my sister in China to get an account for me and emailed FedEx about how to pay for the package. They emailed me back, saying that personal accounts don’t support the payment-on-arrival service and that I needed to get a business account.

Long story short, I did everything that was required, and finally got my I-20 in late April.


Being a first-generation college student, my parents cannot give me legal/tax advice. This is not the first time of me being on my own. My senior year of high school, I applied for financial aid and had to fill out the CSS profile. I sat down with my dad, with my very limited financial literacy, and struggled to explain to my dad what each item means.

I feel like working with immigrants/refugees seems to have become the “sexy” thing to do. However, I do want to challenge U.S study abroad students to ask themselves, how can you really know more about the life of immigrants/refugees when you study abroad with a privileged American passport, stay in U.S-bubble study centers, and have the study abroad program take care of all your immigration paperwork?


Chen Yu

<p>Speaking fluent Mandarin Chinese, English, and conversational Czech, Yu Chen is currently looking to perfect his French during his upcoming semester abroad in Rabat. Passionate about revealing social and structural inequalities around the world through film and media, Yu Chen is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Gender &amp; Sexuality Studies and Digital Media Production.</p><p>Previously, Yu Chen has studied environmental issues in Okinawa, conducted research on social practice art in Puerto Rico, exchanged at the Film &amp; TV School of Academy of Performing Arts in Prague, and tasted 44-year-old homemade Serbian Rakija in Belgrade.</p>

2018 Spring
Home University:
Tulane University of Louisiana
Fuzhou, Fujian, China
Gender Studies
Media/Media Studies
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