International Student & Scholar Services



Many international students – even those in the country for a relatively short period of time – choose to open a bank account in the US for convenience and to save money on ATM fees and transaction charges.  A checking account normally comes with a debit card for withdrawing cash and allows you to write checks, while savings accounts accrue some interest, but are usually not as easy to access.  Normally, you can open a basic checking account with a minimal amount of money, but it is important to ask about annual fees and any penalties for going below an account minimum.  In order to open a bank account, you will need to bring:

  • Your Western card
  • Your passport
  • Your DS-2019, I-20, or H1B approval notice
  • Proof of a local address (usually a bill or rental agreement – ISSS can also provide a letter confirming your address)

You may be asked for a Social Security Number.  A Social Security Number is not required to open a bank account.  If you do not have a Social Security Number, just explain that to the bank and they will ask you to fill in an additional form, the W-8BEN.

There are many banks with branches in Bellingham.  Bank of America and Whatcom Educational Credit Union (WECU) have ATMs in the Viking Union.  Keep in mind that using an ATM that doesn’t belong to your bank may incur charges from both your bank and the other bank. One way to avoid this is by asking for cash back when you make purchases using your debit card at supermarkets.

If you are unfamiliar with the process of writing a check, take a look at this helpful guide produced by College of the Atlantic:

Steps on how to write a check.


Income Tax

In the US, the tax year runs from January 1 – December 31, with tax returns due on April 15 of the following year.  All international students and scholars will need to file documentation with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), even if they did not have any US income. Please see the Tax Resources page for more details.

Sales Tax

Sales tax is not included in the price of an item or service and will be added on at the time of payment. Sales tax is determined by the state, locality, and type of item or service purchased and therefore can vary greatly across the country.


Unauthorized employment is a serious violation of immigration status and can result in termination of your record.  It is important to understand what constitutes employment and what sort of employment your particular immigration status allows.

Employment is any activity for which you receive compensation. Compensation does not only refer to receiving money. For example, baby-sitting or housekeeping in exchange for room and board would be considered compensation for services and therefore unauthorized off-campus employment.

Self-employment (for example, offering personal services, making and selling products, or otherwise engaging in income-producing activity in the US) is generally prohibited.

Income from investments, interest on bank accounts, and similar funds do not constitute employment because there is no direct service/compensation relationship. Similarly, income from foreign employers does not necessarily constitute employment in the US if that money is paid abroad.

For more information on employment for international students, please see the Employment page.

Public Benefits

International students and scholars are reminded that acceptance of public benefits from federal, state, county, or local government agencies can be a violation of immigration status. It is critical that you consult with ISSS before accepting any sort of public assistance.