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Comprehensive Guide to All Things Bureaucracy for TSxMIT undergraduates

Tuesday, June 4, 2024, 11:55 AM

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Disclaimer: This guide is based on my experience studying at MIT with a very specific background, personality, and goals. It is definitely not a legal advice, and I provide no warranty nor guarantees about the correctness or (ironically, despite the title) comprehensiveness of information provided here. Please do your own research and be responsible for your own life.

Table of Contents

1. How to use this document

This document is going to be quite an info dump. I’ve done my best to organize this in the most logical manner possible, but the onus is on you to read effectively, perhaps by skimming first, taking notes, etc.

I recommend doing a quick read-through of this document at least once, noting down the topics that seem relevant to you right now and setting reminders to come back to the others at specific points in the future.

2. Your visa: F-1 or J-1

When you first came to the US to study at Brewster and your boarding school, you’re likely on F-1 visa. F-1 visa is for most international students. It is about as you would expect: you should be a student, can do a little bit of internships here and there with approvals, no biggies. When you introduce yourself as an international student, people usually assume you’re on F-1, since that’s the only thing they know of.

When you are about to start college, OEADC will want you to change to J-1 visa. J-1 visa is similar to F-1 visa, but its purpose is different. It is meant for “exchange visitors” through sponsored programs, usually spearheaded by other nations, for example, the Royal Thai Scholarship program. The visa comes with a very important restriction that you must be aware of: the two-year residency requirement.

The two-year residency requirement (or “J-1 two-year rule” or whatever) states that once you are done with your studies, you cannot change to any other visas (except to continue studying or to just visit as a tourist) until you go back to your home country for at least two years total. This means no H-1B visa (work)! No K-1 visa (marriage) even if you find love here.

There is one exception: you can get a two-year residency requirement waiver. You can get this if you can get a letter of no objection from Thai government, saying “I don’t mind if this kid defects to the US. I have no objection.” Obviously, Thai government is only willing to issue such a letter if you are not indebted to them anymore (i.e. you stop the scholarship and pay back everything).

What are the implications?

  • Well, it means you either have to continue studying masters/PhD or go home.
  • It means you can’t work for long after graduating undergrad.
  • …which means you can’t easily pay off the scholarship if you want to.
  • Even if you are okay with going back to Thailand for two years, that doesn’t mean you will be able to easily find employment here again. Continuity in your career is important.

This means you should try to avoid being on J-1 visa if you can. Likely, you won’t be able to, though, so I’m going to assume you are on J-1 visa from now on.

If your family is rich, congrats, it’s not too hard to get pay off the debt. If your family is not, then you’ll have to make some money, but how?

One silver lining is that, as a student on F-1 and J-1 visa, you do have the opportunity to do internships in the US during your summers here. Those will give you some money and career experience. You will also have the opportunity to work for 1-3 years right after you graduate before all your visa benefits expire. This opportunity is called F-1 OPT or J-1 Post-completion AT, which will be explained soon.

You may not know for sure whether you want to stay in the US or go back to Thailand. Since you can’t know for sure, it only makes sense that you put yourself in the most flexible spot: gather knowledge about how all of this works, and plan accordingly! This document should help you with that.

Even if you do not plan to quit the scholarship, this document contains a lot of helpful information that will help with your legal stay here in the US. You should still read it.

3. Quitting the scholarship: Overview

There are three main components to successfully quitting the scholarship:

  1. Reduce your debt
  2. Make money
    1. Do internships
    2. Do full-time job after graduating (likely on F-1 OPT)
  3. Actually live in the US
    1. Have a full-time job (likely on H1-B or green card)
    2. Find love, whatever

4. Reducing your debt: MIT financial aid

Relevant NOW and every January–February.

Please, regardless of whether you plan to quit the scholarship or not, apply for MIT financial aid. If you do try to quit the scholarship, your debt will be so much lower because OEADC won’t be redundantly paying your tuition when MIT could’ve given that to you for free. We’re talking something like $80k a year. If you don’t quit the scholarship, you will still receive some extra stipend from MIT you can use to enjoy your life (food or whatever).

Financial aid deadline is usually in February, but you can apply even if it is past the deadline! They’ll just try to process as soon as possible (as long as it is possible).

You can apply even if you aren’t a freshman. You can apply even if you are a freshman. (If you could find a way to not be on J-1 visa, that would be amazing too. J-1 visa sucks.)

For incoming freshmen, MIT admission is need-blind. Financial aid does not affect your likelihood of getting into MIT.

Applying is not too hard. Just Google and follow instructions on how to fill CSS profile, et cetera.

MIT only looks at your parents’ tax forms in Thailand and reported assets in your financial aid application. Given Thailand’s living wage, it is very likely that MIT will give you full aid. (If you don’t have tax forms because you don’t make enough to even bother filing taxes, you’ll pretty much definitely get full aid.)

MIT does not care about Thai scholarship program! Don’t let people gaslight you into thinking free things don’t exist. (If anything, you’re the most likely person to gaslight yourself into thinking this.) You do not need to mention the scholarship in your finaid application.

Note that while MIT does not care about the Thai scholarship program, you have to talk between the two parties to know where the money is going to be paid from. This is especially important when you were paid by the Thai scholarship—you have to tell OEADC that you’ve gotten the finaid approved and that you want OEADC to stop paying.

5. Internship employment authorization

Relevant when you’ve accepted an internship offer.

I can’t tell you how to find a good internship, but I can brief you on what happens afterward, here.

Students on student visa need work authorization to be able to work internships during the summer.

Students on F-1 visa need CPT (Curricular Practical Training). This is a pain in the ass to get approved and requires multiple months of advance planning. I’m not going to talk about it. If you’re somehow on F-1, figure this out early.

Students on J-1 visa need AT (Academic Training), which is way easier. Here are the steps to acquire AT:

  1. Get an internship offer (duh!)
  2. The internship offer likely does not contain all the required information. Ask for a letter from your company. Explicitly tell them you need information for J-1 authorization (Information listed here.).
    • This step should take less than a week if your company is competent.
  3. Email your department (likely the offer letter and supplemental letter. Tell them you need support letter for J-1 AT authorization.
    • Give it a week or two.
  4. Finally, now you can request AT from the iMIT portal, then you’re good when they approve it and give you the letter.
    • Expect this to take up to 10 business days.

While it is possible to get all of this done in as little as two weeks, I recommend you do it at least a month in advance. (Start in March or April.) Your company will appreciate it. You can also just do all of this as soon as you get your offer to make your life easier.

6. Post-graduation employment authorization

You need to read this now to understand how this works and plan ahead.

6.1 Short term (right after graduation)

As mentioned in the beginning, your F-1 or J-1 visas come with benefits that allow you to work temporarily after you graduate.

On F-1 visa, the benefit is called Optional Practical Training (OPT). This allows you to work for a year. This is not a lot, but there is another benefit called OPT STEM Extension, which add about two more years. In total, you get three years “guaranteed” after graduation to make some big bucks. This is important if you want to quit the scholarship. The process to apply is quite a pain in the ass. See the section on general advice about keeping ALL your documents.

On J-1 visa, the benefit is called Post-Completion Academic Training. This allows you to work for maximum two years minus the time you’ve already spent on internships. Generally, this means you’ll have only about 1-1.5 years, so that’s a downside. The upside is that the application process is fairly simple—it’s the same as for internships on J-1 pre-completion AT.

Since F-1 OPT+STEM extension gives you more time than J-1 AT, a lot of Thai scholars find a way to change their visas back from J-1 to F-1. There are many ways to do this:

  • Do MEng. That gives you an extra year at MIT and an excuse to be on a new F-1 visa.
  • Do another 1-2-year masters program somewhere.
  • Just straight-up change as you start your senior year. OEADC doesn’t like this, but I know someone who did.

6.2 Long term (no obligation to Thailand government)

In the long term, once you don’t have the two year residency requirement, you’ll likely work on H1-B visa, i.e. “work visa,” fittingly enough. Your ultimate goal is to get to green card.

The key thing to know is that while the two-year rule prohibits you from getting an H1-B visa, you can still start the process for it. Your company should guide you through this when you start your work full-time on F-1 OPT or J-1 post-completion AT. The process involves a lottery, in which you get higher priority if you have a masters degree, hence that’s why doing an MEng is recommended.

7. How to request letter of no objection

I have no idea. I haven’t done it yet lol. This is only relevant after you graduate, tell OEADC that you’re done with the, and are ready to pay it off.

One thing to keep in mind is that the process of obtaining the letter can take up to a year! This means, if you care about continuity in staying in the US, you actually don’t have that much time to make money to pay off the debt.

8. Remember: Keep ALL your documents

You know you will request either or both of the following at the end of your undergraduate/MEng years:

  • F-1 Post-completion OPT (likely if you’re trying to make money and/or quit the scholarship)
  • Letter of no objection for J-1 two year residency requirement waiver (if you want to quit the scholarship)

These processes require all revisions of your immigration documents, meaning all I-20s, DS-2019s, employment authorization letters, and whatnot you received from your boarding school(s) and MIT. Keep them. Scan them. Organize. (Okay, maybe the boarding school ones don’t matter that much? I don’t know.)

Best practice: Have a folder (physical and digital) for storing all primary (i.e. not derived/downloadable), official documents. Organize by year. Keep your immigration documents, contracts, mailed tax forms, etc.

9. Miscellaneous stuff

You should read this section as soon as you have time. It will help set the stage for the rest of your MIT career so you know what will be relevant when.

9.1 Get your SSN

Life in the US is so much easier when you have SSN. It is the de facto ID for everything official in the US (even if it shouldn’t be), e.g. accessing banking applications, filing tax returns. You should get an SSN as soon as possible.

As a pre-requisite, you need to be employed by some entity, e.g. your internship company, or MIT. The easiest way to get employed is to sign up for your dorm desk job. The second easiest way is to do a UROP or be an LA/a TA for a class.

The process to apply for SSN is quite simple. You need a proof of employment (e.g. an offer letter) for the application. I don’t remember how to get this for MIT employment but it should be fairly easy. Another thing is that you will need to travel to the local SSN office to fill out the forms, let them ID you, get it finalized, and whatnot, similarly to how you get your visa.

Check ISO website for more details.

9.2 Get a phone number

Try to have a consistent phone number that you are willing to put into official forms and your resume as the main way of contacting you. Just get a cheap Mint Mobile plan or something.

On a related note, get a somewhat socially acceptable personal email address that you will use regularly from now on. It makes more sense for you to put your personal email address on your resume and most forms, because unlike your MIT email address, your personal email address doesn’t expire (I hope).

9.3 Passport renewal

Note the expiration date of your passport. You should plan ahead for when to renew your passport since it is your most important form of identification as an international student.

You can renew your passport while you are in Thailand, which is likely going to be easier and less costly. If you want to do in the US, the process is as follows:

  1. Book a slot on the Royal Thai Consulate website.
    • Available slots can vary wildly depending on time of the year. You might be able to get a slot for the next day or the next month, so book early!
    • The link above is for NYC consulate but there are other consulates as well. Use one that works best for you.
  2. Prepare your documents.
    • If you’re 20 years or above, you essentially need only your old passport and up-to-date national ID. Otherwise, the documents are more complicated. The booking page tells you what documents you need.
  3. Prepare some extra stuff.
    • The consulate wants $55 in cash for 10-year passport.
    • If you plan to have your passport shipped to you, you will also need to buy a USPS Priority Mail Express Flat Rate Envelope with the corresponding stamp. It’s about $30. You can get it at the Stud basement or at USPS in central.
  4. Go to the consulate (in-person) to get your passport made.
    • Allocate 2-3 hours for waiting, taking photos, filling out forms, etc.
  5. Go back home and wait for your passport.
    • Expect about a month. For reference, I went on March 28 and got the passport on April 21.

Since you have to go to the consulate in New York, you might want to combine this trip with an existing one. In my case, I went during my spring break NY trip.

9.4 Finance recommendations

9.4.1 Get a credit card

As harmful as credit cards can be, they are amazing if you use them responsibly. In fact, they are essential to living well in the US: When you look for housing, say, in the summer for your internship, landlords will want to check your credit score!

Make sure you pay all your credit card statements in full to avoid interest payment. Set up autopay. Make sure you have enough money in your checking account.

For beginners, opt for credit cards with good cashback deals. Discover Student Card is a good starter. CapitalOne SavorOne is another good one for food delivery junkies. You could also stick to credit cards from your existing banks (like Citizens), but that’s not a requirement. You’ll find that credit and debit/banking are fairly separate from each other. Regardless, do your own research before signing up for any card.

Once you’re more advanced, maybe look into travel cards like CapitalOne Venture X. Chase also has some pretty good ones as well. Point systems are trickier to use, but if you’re willing to spend a lot of time looking into how to optimize, they might be worth. (You can also use your time on something else, though.)

9.4.2 High-yield savings account

It does not make sense for you to park your money at Citizens just because it is the first bank you were taught to use at Brewster. Citizens’s interest rate is obscenely low; we’re talking sub-1% here, or 0.1%. This applies to other big banks like Bank of America, Chase, and whatnot as well.

Instead, I recommend you put your money into a decently popular and reliable bank that will help you multiply your money. I recommend Capital One. They have a really nice application/website (unlike many other banks), and you can build an entire ecosystem with them:

  • 360 Performance Savings account: for your savings.
  • 360 Checking: for debit, checks, etc.
  • Credit cards, e.g. SavorOne, Venture X.

For people planning to do MEng: A few months before requesting F-1 visa, you want to make sure you have a bank statement that demonstrates sufficient funding.

Please note that some banks do not accept internationals/non-residents. While it is possible to sign up for them anyway and pretend you are resident, it might complicate tax returns. You might also not like to use it as proof of funding for serious stuff like F-1 application.

9.4.3 Investment

Technically, investing when you know you will have to use the money in a few years is a bad idea. Do your own research. Figure out your own risk tolerance.

Common wisdom suggests that it’s best to just stick to buying the market rather than buying individual stocks. What this means is you buy exchange-traded funds (ETFs) based on market indices, like VTI, VXUS, VT, VOO, SPY, etc. (VTI should be good enough, really.) This allows your money to grow or shrink with the market instead of fluctuating wildly based on individual companies’ performance (on which you have to speculate). Markets tend to always go up over sliding window periods of 3+ years.

I recommend just using Robinhood. It’s just the easiest.

By the way, Robinhood can act as your high-yield savings account. With Robinhood Gold, its cash reserve interest can be way above top-tier banks can provide. (You probably can’t use it for funding documentation, though.)

9.5 Do your tax returns

Relevant in March of each year.

All your tax forms (from MIT and companies) should have arrived by February. When you are sure you have received everything, just go ahead and start filing your tax returns. The earlier the better, so you can get your money back as soon as possible. The filing deadline is usually April 15.

MIT gives you a code to use Sprintax Returns to prepare your federal taxes for free. You’ll have to pay for state taxes, though. Alternatively, if you’re a nerd, you can prepare all the tax returns by yourself without relying on those software. I heard it actually isn’t that bad. (I would rather use my time to do something else, though.)

Once you have all the forms prepared and print out, you’ll have to ship them. USPS at Stud basement is your friend. I usually use USPS Priority Mail (not express) Flat Rate Envelopes, which cost about $10 each, one for each relevant state plus one for federal.

Note that once you hit 5 years in the US, you become a resident alien (rather than non-resident) for tax purposes. Sprintax will probably not be valid for you anymore, but at least you get perks like being able to actually e-file your taxes instead of mailing physically.

9.6 Waiving OEADC tuition and insurance

If you are on MIT financial aid, don’t forget to submit two forms some time before July:

  • A form to waive OEADC’s insurance
    • MIT already has insurance included as part of your finaid package, so OEADC’s is redundant and wasteful.
  • Special purpose form to waive OEADC’s tuition payment
    • Send it at the same time as the insurance form.
    • Of course, this only applies if MIT is paying your tuition.

9.7 New visa application (when you’re ready)

This is only relevant to students who are about to change visa, e.g. graduating seniors in EECS department who are going to start MEng next Fall.

By June, you should be ready to submit a request for I-20 so you can get your F-1 visa for MEng. If not, you still have a little bit of time to get your ducks in a row. You already know the drill. Notable things include:

  • Get a letter from EECS
    • This states your TA/RAship funding and acceptance into the program.
    • Since TA/RAship funding is for a semester only, you’ll still need extra funding document.
  • Get a bank statement
    • This, in combination with EECS funding, should have enough money to demonstrate that you have a full year of funding to get an F-1 visa.
    • If your money is all over the place, make sure to consolidate them and give them a month or two to show up on the bank statement.
  • Get a 2x2 inch visa photo
    • CVS photos is a scam. Photo quality sucks. Try to see if you can find elsewhere.

10. More stuff?

If you can think of anything else that’s worth mentioning, please contribute by telling me about it or writing it up. I can reference or include it in this post.