Life in the U.S.


Adjusting to life in the U.S. and Huntsville, Alabama is exciting but also challenging. There are many wonderful experiences to be enjoyed however, It is not uncommon to feel overwhelmed in a new environment. It takes time to adjust to a new culture while being far away from family and friends. The International Student and Scholar Office is here to help you enjoy and learn from your international expereince.

The U.S. is considered a legalistic country. Our nation has many rules and regulations that its people are expected to obey. As a temporary student or worker you will be expected to comply with rules and laws from various sources including immigration. There are federal laws, state laws, and university policies intertwined with immigration and other governmental agency regulations. The living in the U.S. website provides basic information to help you settle into the culture and lifestyle of the U.S. 

This page provides more information about applying for a Social Security Number, filing taxes, health insurance and medical care and getting an Alabama Driver’s License.


The Social Security Administration, a government agency, is responsible for issuing a Social Security Number (SSN) to U.S. Citizens, Permanent Residents, and others who are legally employed in the U.S. Only people who are eligible to work in the U.S. will be eligible to apply for a SSN since the purpose of a SSN is to track wages and payments made to the Social Security System. The SSN will be required by the UAHuntsville payroll department for all employees.

New employees should take their offer letter from Human Resources along with their passport, I-94 card and I-797 notice (H1B) or DS-2019 (J-1) to the Social Security Administration located at 4970 Research Drive, Huntsville AL to apply for the SSN number. Generally the number will take between 2-4 weeks to be processed and for the SSN card to arrive. Once the number is issued you must bring the card to the payroll office and to your hiring department so they may update important departmental forms/data.

The SSN has also become a standard ID number to track an individual’s credit history in the U.S. Please be aware that businesses will often ask you for your SSN prior to opening an account. By law NO person is required to provide their SSN to initiate a business contract but not providing a number will make it more difficult for the business to assess your risk because they will have no access to your contractual/credit history. Many U.S. Citizens, in fear of identity theft, are now refusing to provide their SSN to businesses except in very limited circumstances. Should you have problems with a business and want more information about how you can navigate in the U.S. without using your SSN please speak with the Scholar Advisor by email or by calling 256.824.6078.


All individuals who drive in the U.S. must have a valid Alabama state license or international license. J Exchange Visitors are eligible to use a valid license from your home state or country and are NOT required to have an Alabama driver’s license. H1B and TN sponsored employees are allowed 30 days to continue to use a valid driver’s license from another state or country prior to obtaining an Alabama driver’s license. A link to the Alabama Department of Public Safety website and the steps to apply for an Alabama Driver’s License are listed below.

The Driver's License Test Center is located at 1115-A Church Street, Huntsville, AL 35801. You will need to bring:

  1. Passport
  2. DS-2019, I-797 notice of approval for H1B
  3. H1B and TN employees should also bring a copy of the UAH employment offer letter
  4. I-94 card
  5. Social Security card or Social Security non-eligibility letter (in the case of dependents)
  6. 2nd picture ID; UAHuntsville Charger Card (employee ID card)

All applicants must pay $5 for the test and $23 for the ID card to be issued. Cash only! More information can be located on the Alabama Department of Public Safety Drivers License Division websiite.


The U.S. government Internal Revenue Service (IRS) requires individuals to pay Federal and State taxes if they are employed in the U.S. or if they receive other types of taxable income such as; unqualified scholarship, investment earnings, interest earned on certain savings accounts, etc.

The IRS has different tax laws and forms for resident tax payers and non-resident tax payers. F students, J students and scholars, and some other limited visitors to the U.S. are considered non-resident taxpayers for a set period of time. Being a non-resident means that you may be eligible to claim tax treaty benefits and any other non-resident provisions. An IRS calculation (substantial presence test) based on the number of years present in the U.S. determines if a student is a non-resident or resident for tax purposes.

The tax rate an individual pays is dependent on many things. The University must have an I-9 employment eligibility form and W-4 statement for each university employee. The W-4 form helps the UAHuntsville payroll department estimate the tax burden before any payment is made to an employee. Taxes are deducted each pay period throughout the year. At the end of the tax year, individuals who have earned taxable income must file the appropriate tax forms to reconcile the amount of taxes they paid throughout the year with the amount that the IRS determines should have been withheld. Each time a F student obtains new on-campus employment, changes the end date listed on the I-20, starts working with OPT permission, or obtains a new visa status, a new I-9 employment eligibility form must be updated with the hiring department.

Your Responsibility
All students in F and J status must file an 8843 form with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) for each tax year they are present in the U.S. in a non-resident tax status. The 8843 form must be sent to the IRS by the June 15 th deadline for each F1/J1 and F2/J2 dependent in the U.S. The U.S. tax year starts on January 1 st and ends December 31 st each year. That means that a student present any time during the tax year must file an 8843 form.

In addition, any F or J student and other foreign national who is employed while in the U.S. or receives other taxable income is required to file tax paperwork in order to report all income and taxes paid to both the Federal and State governments. The deadline for filing taxes is April 15. The ISSO will offer information, resources and general tax guidance in February, March and early April for non-resident taxpayers. It is essential that F and J students and scholars complete the proper tax paperwork specific to non-resident taxpayers. F and J students and scholars should take advantage of the free tax assistance offered by the UAHuntsville VITA site each year. Volunteers are trained to provide assistance to students who must file non-resident tax forms.

Students who have been authorized by immigration to work off-campus (CPT or OPT) and are non-residents for tax purposes are not required to pay Social Security and Medicare taxes. Often off-campus employers will deduct these taxes from a student’s paycheck unknowingly. Students can obtain guidance from the ISSO about filing an IRS form 8316 & 843 to recover SS/FICA taxes that were withheld incorrectly.


When an F or J student enrolls in classes each semester, a fee is assessed to cover the cost of insurance for that semester. Students are required to pay for this fee with their tuition. F or J students who have insurance questions or would like to apply for a waiver visit the Student Health Center for more information or visit the Forms/Resources webpage for the current academic year policy summary.

Why should you have health insurance?

Medical care in the US is very expensive. Although in many countries the government bears the expense of health care for its citizens or visitors, people in the United States are responsible for these costs themselves. To stay in the hospital for one day in the US may cost more than $2,500 and a routine pregnancy could cost anywhere from $8,000-15,000. Most international students would be financially ruined if they had to pay for such expenses. Americans rely on health insurance to get access to better and more timely health care and to protect themselves against the enormous costs of health care in this country— you should do the same!! Without health insurance, many doctors would even refuse to treat you unless it was a life-threatening emergency. It also is a violation of immigration law for F1, F2, J1 and J2 students and dependents to accept public assistance, even for medical care. Maintaining health insurance helps you avoid worrying about unexpected medical costs while in the United States.

How insurance works in the U.S.?

When you purchase health insurance, the premium you pay is combined with the premiums of others to form a pool of money. That money is then used to pay the medical bills of those participants who need health care. Your coverage remains valid only if you continue to pay your premium. Once you purchase insurance, the company will send you an insurance identification card. Keep this with you at all times and use it as your proof of insurance when you seek medical treatment. To receive payment from the insurance company, file a claim form to report the expenses. The insurance company evaluates the claim and makes the appropriate payment for coverage under the policy. Sometimes the insurance company will pay the doctor or hospital directly and other times the company reimburses the policy holder after they have paid the bill.

How to use your insurance?

Make sure to present your insurance ID card as proof of insurance each time you visit a doctor. With most insurance plans, after you receive treatment the doctor or hospital files a claim with the insurance company for you. This form is reviewed by the insurance company and if the treatment is covered they will make payments to the hospital or doctor. The company will notify you of their decision on the claim. The doctor or hospital will send you a bill for the remaining expenses. Most insurance companies do not cover 100% of treatments, so you will be responsible to pay what the insurance company will not. Make sure you fill out all forms from the doctor or insurance company carefully and completely. If you disagree with the decision of the company about payment of a claim, you have the right to file an appeal. Your insurance company can explain the appeal process.

Dependent Insurance
Health insurance for your family is just as important as is it for you. It is required that F1 or J1 students who have dependents with them in the U.S. have sufficient financial resources to cover the insurance costs. Dependents of J1 students are required and dependents of F1 students are encouraged to purchase insurance through the UAH designated plan. You may refer to this website or call 1.800.237.0903 to get more information on UAHuntsville’s designated insurance plan.


Purchasing Insurance Outside of UAHuntsville
If you choose not to purchase insurance through UAHuntsville, there are many available health insurance plans in the U.S. and picking the right one is an important decision. Look at the features of a few plans to decide which one is best for you. Here are a few points to consider when picking a health insurance policy :

  • Reliability/experience of the company
  • Deductible amount-look at the amount for the deductible and note whether it is paid annually or each time you have an illness or injury.
  • Co-payment-find out whether this is a fixed amount or if it changes depending on the treatment.
  • Specific limits-some policies state limits on the amount they will pay for a particular service. Make sure the limits are not too low for a serious illness.
  • Exclusions or Pre-existing conditions-Some policies exclude coverage for certain conditions. Make sure the exclusions and think about the likelihood that you will need treatment for something listed as an exclusion

PPO-means preferred provider organization. With a PPO plan, the insurance company will generally pay a high percentage of the cost if you choose one of their preferred providers (a doctor who is "in network"). HMO-means health maintenance organization. With an HMO you are required to seek care first from a selected physician (the primary care provider) before you can go to any other doctors or health facilitiy.


Claim: A written request for payment by the insurance company of medical expenses that are covered under an insurance policy.

Co-payment: After the deductible is paid, this is the portion of a covered expense that must be paid by the insured individual. For example, you might have to pay a $20 co-payment each time you see a doctor.

Deductible: The portion of a medical bill that must be paid by the insured person before the insurance covers expenses. Low deductibles and co-pays decrease an individuals out-of pocket expenses. If the deductible is $100, then you pay the first $100 of covered medical costs before the insurance will pay.

Exclusion: Any condition or expense excluded from coverage under the terms of the insurance policy, therefore no payment will be made. If you have received an exclusion notice you always have the right to appeal the decision of the insurance company.

Insurance Premium: The amount of money you have to pay to get coverage with an insurance company for a given period of time. Preexisting condition: A medical condition that existed before an insurance policy was purchased.

Reasonable and Customary: Insurance companies will only cover costs they consider to be reasonable and customary. Which is defined as the fee or expense that is the smallest of: (a) the actual charge; (b) the charge usually made for a covered service by the provider who furnishes it; (c) the negotiated rate, if any; and (d) the prevailing charge made for a covered service in the geographic area by those of similar professional standing.