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New Taxpayers: Basic Info

Authored By: Northwest Justice Project LSC Funded
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If you are new to the United States and/or you are just starting your first job, read this to learn about taxes, what they are used for, and how to pay them. #0906EN


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Should I read this?

Yes, if at least one of these is true:

  • You are new to the United States

  • You are just starting your first job

What are taxes?

The United States Constitution gives the U.S. government the power to tax. The government "taxes" individuals and businesses when it collects money from them.

What does the government use taxes for?

It uses tax money to fund goods and services that are free to the public, such as:

  • Public education (schools)

  • Roads

  • Our national defense (military)

  • Police forces (cops)

  • Social Service programs

The government agency that collects taxes is the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).

I have earned income. How do I pay taxes?

The U.S. uses a "pay as you go" tax system. When you work for an employer, the employer withholds (holds back) the tax from your earnings and pays it to the IRS for you.

When you start a new job, the employer should have you fill out a form called a W-4. This form asks questions such as whether you

  • are single or married

  • have dependent children

  • have more than one job

This info helps the employer figure out how much tax to withhold from your wages.

What other information does my employer need on my W-4?

You must use your correct social security number (SSN) or Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) on your W-4. No two numbers are the same. These numbers are how the IRS keeps track of taxpayers and how they know you paid your taxes. You must give your employer the right SSN or ITIN so the taxes they pay for you are paid under your number.

What if I have my own trade or business?

The law considers you self-employed. You must make your own tax payments to the IRS quarterly (four times a year). Use the IRS' 1040-ES form.

What is an income tax return?

The U.S. uses a "voluntary compliance" system for paying taxes. You are responsible for filling out your own income tax return every year.

You may have already paid (some) taxes throughout the year, through your employer or by making quarterly estimated tax payments. You still may have to file a federal Income Tax Return form. It is due by April 15 of each year.

What is a tax break?

You may be able to lower how much tax you must pay with a tax break. These include:

  • Deductions – these limit the amount of your income that the government can tax

  • Exemptions –the government cannot tax any income that is exempt (excused)

  • Credits – these are reductions in the amount of tax

Do I have to file a tax return?

Probably. In 2019, for most people, if you were single, under age 65 and had gross income of more than $12,200, the law says you had to file.

Will I get a refund?


If you paid too much tax during the year, or you are eligible for tax credits such as the Earned Income Credit or Child Tax Credit, you can only get the refund by filing a return.

Read Tax Tips for more about the Earned Income Tax Credit.

Would it help my immigration status to file a tax return?

Maybe. It would

  • Show you are obeying the law

  • Prove your work, presence, and family status in the U.S.

Can I get help filing a tax return?

Yes. Read Tax Tips for more about where to get help.

This publication was adapted from information provided by Legal Services of North Dakota.

This publication provides general information concerning your rights and responsibilities. It is not intended as a substitute for specific legal advice.
© 2020 Northwest Justice Project — 1-888-201-1014.

(Permission for copying and distribution granted to the Alliance for Equal Justice and to individuals for non-commercial use only.)

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Last Review and Update: Jan 07, 2020