How to File Taxes as a College Student: A Complete Guide

by Jalen & Sarah Bromley

The US tax deadline for 2024 is 15 April, and nobody is immune from the need to file taxes — including students. The process for filing taxes as a full-time student work in broadly the same way as they do for other taxpayers, but there are a few quirks and rules to be aware of.

This guide covers everything you need to do to keep the IRS happy (while looking after your wallet). This includes how to file, deductions and tax credits, payment options, filing status, relevant forms, and penalties.

Should a full-time student file taxes?

Anyone who earns over the IRS threshold must file taxes. This includes both part-time and full-time students. 

The threshold that applies to you depends on your filing status and age (i.e., whether you’re aged under or over 65). 

The IRS recommends filing a tax return even if you don’t meet the threshold. You could be entitled to a refund if an employer has withheld taxes from your paycheck, and you may also be eligible for a refundable credit. However, If your parents are supporting you financially, you may not even need to file at all.

We’ll cover these points in more detail in the rest of the article.

Filing status

When doing your taxes, you must file as one of the following:

  • Single
  • Married filing separately
  • Married filing jointly 
  • Head of household 
  • Qualifying widow(er)

This is known as your filing status. 

“Single” for tax purposes means that you’re unmarried, and a “head of household” is an unmarried taxpayer with qualifying dependents. For instance, this is relevant for anyone who financially supports a child or younger sibling. 

Filing requirements 

Once you know your filing status, you can figure out the relevant threshold for filing taxes. 

For 2023, most full-time students will need to file a tax return if they earn above $13,850 since this is the threshold for single filers under 65. But in case you fit into one of the more unusual categories, we have a table below that shows the thresholds for all ages and filing statuses. 

Under 6565+
Married filing separately$5$5
Married filing jointly$27,700$30,700 
Head of household $20,800$22,650
Qualifying widow(er)$27,700$29,200

However, the requirements are a little different if you’re earning income from self-employment or unearned income. You must file a tax return for self-employment earnings above $400 and unearned income above $1,250 for 2023.

Examples of self-employment income include:

  • Freelancing
  • Selling homemade goods
  • Buying and selling items in a business-like manner
  • Gig economy work like Uber, Instacart, or Postmates
  • Renting out a room (for more than two weeks of the year)

While examples of unearned income include:

  • Inheritance money
  • Dividends or interest from investments
  • Gifts
  • Lottery money
  • Social security or welfare benefits
  • Property income

Decide whether to file as a dependent or independent

Even if you earn above the threshold outlined above, you may not need to file your taxes yourself if you are a dependent of someone else (such as your parent or guardian.

A dependent is somebody who relies on the taxpayer for financial support. This will save you from the hassle of filing your tax return, and can help the taxpayer reduce their tax bill. It’s a win-win!

A qualifying person must meet the following criteria

  • Be a qualifying relative (child, stepchild, sibling, or descendent of a sibling)
  • Be under the age of 19 or under the age of 24 and a full-time student (unless permanently and totally disabled)
  • Live with parents for more than half of the year
  • Doesn’t cover more than half of their own expenses (e.g., food, lodging, education)
  • Must not file a joint return

If a child doesn’t meet this criteria but has a gross income below $4,500 and the filing taxpayer provides more than half their support, it may still be possible to file.

How to file taxes a student

Overall, filing taxes as a student is very similar to filing taxes as any other taxpayer, with a few extra details thrown in. 

We’ll guide you through it step-by-step below.

Choose electronic or physical tax filing

One of the first decisions to make when filing taxes is whether to opt for an electronic or physical tax return. When filing online you will use the IRS’ E-File system, while physical filers will mail their tax return to the IRS.

Electronic filing is the best option for most people due to the following advantages:

  • Reduces the chance of errors
  • Faster to process
  • More secure due to the encrypted system
  • Can use your electronic device

1. File your taxes using the correct tax forms

In almost all cases, you will fill out a Form 1040, which is used for reporting income. In addition to standard employment, you use Form 1040 for income earned through self-employment or non-earned income, with both having dedicated sections.  

You’ll need to complete Schedule 1 if you made student loan payments over the tax year and Schedule 3 if you want to claim credits (covered later).

You may also need a state tax return form — check the website for your state to verify this.

If you come under the DACA bracket, you should use the same tax forms as other students, but you will need to use your individual taxpayer identification number (ITIN) instead of an SSN. If you don’t have an ITIN or it has expired, fill out a W-7 form.

International students fill out a Form 1042-S instead of a 1040. You should receive this from your employer or your college (if you receive stipends or travel grants). If you’re an international student earning nothing, you must still fill out a Form 8843 to declare this.

2. Report your income

To report your income, the first step is gathering together all your records. 

This will likely involve the following:

  • Form W-2: Shows wages from employer (needed if you make $600 or more from an employer)
  • Form 1099-MISC: Shows non-wage miscellaneous income non-employee jobs
  • Form 1099-INT: Shows interest income
  • Form 1099: For other types of income (e.g., capital gains and government grants)
  • Form 1099-NEC or 1099-K: From self-employment 

Plus records of any other income you received, such as sources of self-employment income that didn’t provide you with a form or pay stubs from your college jobs.

Scholarships and grants aren’t generally classed as unearned income as long as you use them to pay for educational expenses (fees and expenses required for the course), you’re studying at an eligible education, and the amount doesn’t represent payment for services. 

On the other hand, your scholarship funds will be subject to taxation if you use them toward accommodation, utilities, and other non-qualified expenses. 

If you use a scholarship partly for qualified expenses and partly for other expenses — or receive a scholarship partly for your services (e.g., teaching) and partially toward expenses — only the relevant portion will be subject to tax.

3. Add deductions 

One silver lining of taxes is the chance to claim some exemptions and deductions.

To claim expenses, you’ll need:

  • Form 1098-T: Used to show tuition and fees
  • Form 1098-E: Used to show student loan interest
  • Receipts for business and education expenses 

Your college should send you (or your parents) a 1098-T form, while your loan servicer should send you a 1098-E form if you’re eligible.

As a student, you can claim the Tuition and Fees Deduction, which lets you exclude up to $4,000 of your tuition and eligible fees from your income. 

Meanwhile, you can deduct student loan interest paid toward a qualified student loan up to $2,500 or the amount you paid during the year (whichever is lower). The main eligibility criterion is that your modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) — income minus expenses — has to be below $85,000, or $170,000 for those filing as a married couple. 

There are also some standard deductions you may be able to claim, which aren’t specific to students. For instance, self-employed individuals can claim expenses like home office costs, while some people can claim for medical expenses, charitable contributions, or mortgage interest.

4. Claim tax credits

In addition to expenses, you may be able to claim some tax credits relevant to students. You will use the Form 8863 for these.

One is the American Opportunity Credit (AOTC), which allows students (or their parents) to claim up to $2,500 toward the cost of tuition, fees, and other education costs, such as textbooks.

The eligibility criteria are as follows:

  • Must be enrolled for at least one academic period in the tax year 
  • Must be enrolled at least part-time in a post-secondary undergraduate program
  • Must have completed first four years of post-secondary education 

Also, you can only claim the AOTC four times in total.

Another tax credit is the Lifetime Learning Credit, which lets you claim up to $2,000 toward qualified education expenses (QEEs). 

It has the following eligibility criteria:

  • Must be enrolled in a post-secondary eligible institution that can participate in student financial aid programs
  • Must use the credit for tuition fees or the cost of equipment required as part of a for-credit course.

There may also be credits and tax benefits specific to your state. For instance, you can deduct contributions up to $5,000 (or $10,000 for joint filers) to the New York State 529 college savings plan.

If you have children, you can claim a Child Tax Credit. To be eligible, the child must meet the following requirements:

  • Under the age of 17 (at the end of the year)
  • A child, stepchild, foster child, sibling, stepsibling, half-sibling, or descendent of one of these
  • Dependent on you for at least half of their financial support
  • Lives with you for at least half the year
  • A dependent on your tax return
  • Not filing a joint return with their spouse 

5. Pay your taxes

The final stage of your tax return is to pay your taxes. You don’t necessarily have to pay your taxes at the same time as you file (although this is recommended), but you do need to pay before the deadline.

However, you can ask for a payment plan if you don’t have the funds to cover your tax payment.

Here are the main ways to pay:

  • Paper check
  • The Electronic Federal Tax Payment System (EFTPS) 
  • Direct Pay 
  • Debit or credit card 
  • PayPal or a digital wallet 
  • Same-day wire transfer 

There may be processing fees involved if you choose to go with PayPal or a digital wallet. Generally, Direct Pay is the best option since it’s simple and easy, and you can cancel it up to two business days before the payment is scheduled.

However, the EFTPS is a good idea for paying quarterly taxes since it retains your details.

How tax refunds work

The best thing about filing taxes is the tax refund you may receive after. The average tax refund for the 2023 tax year was $2,903 — while the average student no doubt gets less, you certainly don’t want to miss out. 

If you’re applying for an AOTC and don’t need the full amount, you can receive some of the money back as a tax refund.

Once you submit your return, the IRS will calculate your eligibility for a refund.

Online vs paper filing

Online filers can access the Where’s My Refund tool from the IRS 24 hours after filing a return. It will tell you at what stage your refund is: Return received, refund approved, or refund sent. Once you reach the refund approved stage, you can see when you can expect the refund.

The IRS says online filers who sign up for a direct deposit receive their refund the fastest.

You can still apply for a refund and use the Where’s My Refund tool as a paper filer, but you must wait at least six months to use the tool.

Most tax refunds take place within 21 days, while state tax refunds take around ten weeks.

Use your tax refund wisely

If you’re likely to receive a hefty tax refund, consider using it wisely rather than treating it as unexpected “fun money.”

It’s a great chance to pay off any debt you may have or to build or boost your emergency fund.

Support for filing taxes

If you’ve never had to file taxes before, this might seem like a daunting prospect. But the good news is that there’s plenty of help available. 

You may be able to get help from IRS-certified volunteers through the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program (VITA) if you meet specific criteria:

  • Earning $64,000 or less
  • Having a disability 
  • Needing language support
  • Being aged 60 years or older

Those who earn less than $73,000 can also use the Free File service through an IRS partner. Otherwise, you can use H&R Block or TaxAct for free to guide you through the tax filing process. The latter caters specifically to dependents and current students.

In some cases, your college may offer a free financial education course or help with student taxes.

The cost of missing the deadline

As a student, there’s no doubt you’re familiar with deadlines. But deadlines for filing taxes come with something that academic deadlines don’t: A penalty.

As mentioned already, the deadline for 2024 is 15 April, and you’ll want to ensure you don’t miss it.


The IRS charges a failure-to-file penalty on people who don’t file their taxes by the deadline. This penalty amounts to 5% of your unpaid tax for each month, or the part of a month when the tax return is late. 

The penalty will continue each month until it maxes out at 25% of unpaid tax in total after five months. 

To make matters worse, the IRS also charges interest on penalties, which may vary depending on your circumstances.

If you can show reasonable cause for why you couldn’t pay your tax, the IRS may remove some of the penalty. However, it’s far easier to file your taxes (or apply for an extension if necessary).

There is also a penalty for filing your taxes but not making a payment. This penalty is 0.5% for each month the payment is late, or 1% ten days after receiving a final notice from the government. As with failure-to-file penalties, the penalty maxes out at 25% of the amount due, and they also accrue interest.

How to ensure you don’t miss your deadline

To maximize your chances of meeting the deadline, don’t just leave it to the night before — or even the week before. You may find that you’re missing a form or records you need to obtain, or have a few queries you need guidance with. 

You’re especially likely to encounter obstacles if you’re filing your taxes for the first time or if your circumstances have changed since the last time you filed. 

So, the earlier, the better. 

However, if there’s no way for you to avoid missing the deadline, rather than doing nothing, it’s better to request an extension by filing a Form 4868. Applying for a deadline won’t change when you have to pay your taxes, but you can also apply for a payment plan to help you manage the payments. 

An extension will give you until mid-October to pay your taxes. 

Don’t forget about state taxes

The analysis above has focused on federal taxes. However, you may also need to file federal taxes, depending on your state.

If you worked in two states over the year (such as if you attended college in a different state from the one you worked in), you may need to file part-year tax returns for both states.

You can find guidance if you check the state tax website for the relevant states. There may be different rules for who pays state taxes, with separate forms for residents, nonresidents, and part-year residents.


Have a question we didn’t answer above. Below are some further FAQs.

How does the IRS determine a full-time student?

The IRS defines full-time students as those who spend five months or more during the calendar year enrolled as a full-time student at an institution with regular teaching staff, a course of study, and a regularly enrolled student body. Students undertaking on-farm training courses by schools, state, countries, or local government agencies are also eligible for full-time student status.

Can I file taxes if I am a student but didn’t work?

There’s no minimum income requirement to file a tax return, even if you earned nothing. You could still be entitled to a refund if you had earnings withheld in the tax year or if you qualify for tax credits. Some students also like to apply for a refund to practice filing taxes for the future, and international students are required to submit a tax return even if they earn nothing. 

Can parents claim their children as dependents if they make over $4,000?

Yes. There are two categories of dependents: Qualifying dependents and qualifying children. The gross income threshold of $4,700 doesn’t apply to qualifying children.

Can I claim myself as a dependent for taxes?

No. You can only be a dependent if somebody else adds you as a dependent on their tax return (and if you meet the necessary criteria). 

How much money can a student make without paying taxes?

This depends on your exact circumstances, such as your filing status and the type of income you earn, but the threshold for a taxpayer filing as a single person in 2023 is $13,850.

Do students get money back on taxes?

Many students are eligible for the Lifetime Learning Credit or American Opportunity Credit. Students can also apply the same deductions as other taxpayers, including business expenses for the self-employed and childcare credits for parents.

Time to get filing

As you can see, taxes for full-time students can vary dramatically depending on your exact circumstances, with some students passing by as dependents while others grapple with multiple forms due to receiving various income sources. But whatever your situation is, there’s one thing you can count on: The importance of treating your taxes seriously and making sure you file your return before the deadline.

For more tips on helping you navigate financial life as a student, make sure you stay in the loop with Frugal Student. We cover various topics, from budgeting to meal prep, and you can subscribe to our newsletter to make sure that you stay in the loop.

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