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Filing Requirements - International Individual Taxpayers

International Tax Gap Series

Most U.S. citizens and residents voluntarily file and pay their U.S. taxes. Whether it is because they want to pay their fair share to support our country or because they fear getting caught, our voluntary compliance system of taxation works well in the United States.

But what about U.S. citizens and residents who live and work abroad? What about the nonresidents who come to the U.S. to work, invest or trade? And what about the foreign corporations who do business in the United States? Are they also voluntarily filing and paying their U.S. taxes?

As globalization continues to grow, international non-compliance is a significant area of concern and focus for the Internal Revenue Service. The ease of utilizing complex international structures and cross border transactions results in constantly evolving compliance issues.  To address these challenges, the IRS has developed a Servicewide Approach to International Tax Administration to improve voluntary compliance with the international tax provisions and to reduce the tax gap.

Who Must File US Tax Returns?

U.S. citizens and U.S. residents are taxed on their worldwide income. This applies whether a person lives inside or outside the United States. Foreign income  must be reported on a  U.S. tax return whether or not the person receives a Form W-2, Wage and Tax Statement, a Form 1099 (information return) or the foreign equivalent of those forms.  Foreign source income includes but is not limited to earned and unearned income, such as wages and tips, interest, dividends, capital gains, pensions, rents, and royalties.

Nonresident aliens are generally subject to U.S. income tax only on their U.S. source income.   They are subject to two different tax rates, one for effectively connected income, and one for fixed or determinable, annual, or periodic (FDAP) income.  Effectively connected income (ECI) is earned in the U.S. from the operation of a business in the U.S. or is personal service income earned in the U.S.  (such as wages or self-employment income).  It is taxed for a nonresident at the same graduated rates as for a U.S. person.  FDAP income is passive income such as interest, dividends, rents or royalties.  This type of income is taxed at a flat 30% rate, unless a tax treaty specifies a lower rate.  

Generally, a foreign corporation must file a U.S. tax return if it is engaged in a trade or business in the United States, whether or not it had income from that trade or business. It must also file if it had income, gains, or losses treated as if they were effectively connected with a U.S. trade or business, and if it had income from any U.S. source (even if its income is tax exempt under an income tax treaty or code section).

What Should You Do If You Have Not Filed Your Tax Returns? 

Taxpayers should file all tax returns that are due, regardless of whether or not full payment can be made with the return. Depending on an individual’s circumstances, a taxpayer filing late may qualify for a payment plan. All payment plans require continued compliance with all filing and payment responsibilities after the plan is approved. 

For taxpayers living abroad and/or with offshore accounts, refer to the Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Program Frequently Asked Questions and Answers 2014 for more details on a program for taxpayers who come forward voluntarily and report their previously undisclosed foreign accounts and assets.

Taxpayers who continue to not file a required return and fail to respond to IRS requests for a return may be considered for a variety of enforcement actions.  Continued non-compliance by flagrant or repeat nonfilers could result in additional penalties and/or criminal prosecution.  A taxpayer’s timely voluntary disclosure of a substantial unreported tax liability has long been an important factor in deciding whether the taxpayer’s case should ultimately be referred for criminal prosecution.  

References and Links

International Customer Service:  267-941-1000 (Not a toll-free number)

International Taxpayers

Publication 54, Tax Guide for US Citizens and Residents

Publication 519, US Tax Guide for Aliens

Publication 901, US Tax Treaties.


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The International Tax Gap Series

Page Last Reviewed or Updated: 25-Nov-2015