By Mark Morris 
For many students there are probably few more off-putting or intimidating chores than the prospect of preparing and lodging an income tax return with the Australian Taxation Office (the ATO).
However, where the income tax deducted from a student’s part-time job exceeds the total income tax payable for the tax year the only way in which a student can generally obtain a refund of the overpaid income tax is by lodging an income tax return.
Of course other students will be legally required to lodge a return and pay tax where insufficient income tax been retained from their salary, or where they derive other categories of assessable income in respect of which they have not paid enough income tax.
So how do students navigate their way around the complex and seemingly impenetrable world of Australian tax?
Well here are a few tips to guide you on your way in working out whether you need to lodge an Australian income tax return for the year ended 30 June 2016, and how to prepare a return should you need to file one with the ATO.
Are you an Australian tax resident?
The first step is to work out if you are an Australian resident for Australian income tax purposes.
If you were born in Australia and continue to live here, you will be regarded as an Australian resident for income tax purposes as this is the country in which you reside.
However, it is important for international students to recognise that being a resident for Australian tax purposes is quite different to being a permanent resident for Australian immigration purposes, and that they may sometimes unknowingly be an Australian tax resident.
Very broadly, an international student may be regarded as residing in Australia if they are here for such a period of time that their behavior reflects a degree of continuity, routine or habit that is consistent with residing in Australia.
Whilst it is a question of fact in each case as a broad rule of thumb the ATO takes the view that living in Australia for six months is a period of time which is generally consistent with a person residing here for tax purposes.
For example, in one of the ATO’s binding public taxation rulings it held that an overseas student who came to Australia to attend a pre-arranged 4-year university course was an Australian resident even though he left after 6 months to return to his home country following a family illness as his living and working arrangements whilst in Australia were consistent with someone whose pattern of behavior was that they resided in Australia.
Accordingly, if you are unsure whether you are an Australian resident for income tax purposes you should contact the ATO or a registered tax agent to obtain more clarity as to whether or not you are an Australian resident in working out your tax rights and obligations.
What happens if you are an Australian tax resident?
Assuming you are regarded as an Australian resident for tax purposes what are some of the key tax implications you need to consider.
On the plus side you will be entitled to a tax free threshold which will mean that you do not pay any income tax for the year ended 30 June 2016 if your total taxable income was $18,200 or less.
Accordingly, if you worked part time and derived salary income from which income tax was deducted by your employer you will be able to obtain a tax refund of any Pay As You Go (PAYG) tax retained from your salary income if your total taxable income was $18,200 or less.
In practice, most individual resident taxpayers will also usually be entitled to a tax credit being the low income tax offset which means that no tax will typically be payable if that person’s taxable income is below $20,542. However, the amount of this this tax offset reduces tax payable but is not in itself refundable.
On the negative side you will be subject to tax on all your assessable income for the year ended 30 June 2016 regardless of where it was sourced. For example, an overseas student would need to include both their Australian salary income and any interest income earned in a bank account held in their home country.
In addition, Australian residents are subject to a 2% Medicare levy but only where their taxable income exceeds certain thresholds.
By contrast a non-resident is only taxable on assessable income which has an Australian source being generally locally derived investment income. However, such income will be subject to tax at a rate of 32.5% for any taxable income derived up to $80,000 as there is no tax-free threshold for non-resident individuals.
What do I need if I want to lodge a return for the 2016 year?
Most students who have been employed would have already been issued a tax file number which is a prerequisite for every individual lodging an income tax return.
If for some reason you are lodging a return but do not have a tax file number you will need to apply for one from the ATO either directly or by using a registered tax agent.
You should then collate all the records and information you will need to prepare you income tax return including, amongst others, any payment summary, bank interest statements, dividend slips, invoices and receipts.
Assuming you have a tax file number you may consider preparing and lodging your income tax return on-line using the ATO’s myTax product if your tax affairs are reasonably simple. Further details on myTax can be found, here.
Otherwise it may be prudent to contact a registered tax agent to ensure you identify all your entitlements and to ensure that your income tax return is correctly prepared.
Regardless of how you lodge your return you will need to disclose full bank account details when preparing your income tax return if you expect to receive a tax refund.
What types of income need to be included in your return?
As discussed, as an Australian resident you will be taxed on all of your assessable income wherever it is derived.
Some of the more common types of assessable income include the following:
- Salary and wages (whether as a full-time, part-time or casual employee);
- Allowances and bonuses (where received during the 2016 income year);
- Tips and gratuities (such as those received working in hospitality jobs);
- Fees received is an independent contractor under a contract for service;
- Any business income derived during the year (not being income derived from carrying on a hobby);
- Australian government payments and allowances including, amongst others, Newstart allowance, youth allowance, AuStudy payments and certain other educational and training allowances;
- Interest income;
- Dividend income (including the amount of any franking credit tax offset for any franking credit attached to a dividend paid by an Australian resident company);
- Any distributions received as a beneficiary from a family trust or as a partner in a partnership; and
- Capital gains arising from the disposal of certain CGT assets (which is a highly complex area requiring specialist expertise).
The total of such assessable income may be reduced by eligible deductions which may take the form of work-related deductions, self-education expenses in certain circumstances and personal deductions.
What type of work-related deductions can you claim?
You may be entitled to claim a deduction for expenses directly incurred in the course of gaining or producing your assessable income. However, you will not be able to claim an outright deduction which is capital in nature although you may be able depreciate certain capital assets like a computer over time for tax purposes. In addition, you will not be entitled to claim a deduction for expenditure which is private in nature such as the cost of conventional clothing (e.g. suits) purchased for work purposes.
Some of the more common types of deductions you may be able to claim are as follows:
- Work-related subscription and union fees;
- Protective clothing and certain work uniforms (including compulsory work uniforms required by your employer);
- Home office expenses (where you are required to work at home after hours and have a separate room allocated in your home study for that purpose);
- Employment related telephone mobile and internet costs; and
- Travel expenses between worksites (but excluding travel between home and work)).
You may also be entitled to claim a deduction for the cost of tools of trade, briefcases and calculators costing less than $300 to the extent to which you use it for work-related purposes.
However, you will only generally be able to claim any work related expenses costing $300 or more if you have retained all the relevant invoices and receipts.
When are self-education costs allowable?
Broadly, self-education expenses are only deductible to the extent that the course of study undertaken will either maintain or improve your skills in your current occupation.
Accordingly, you will not be entitled to claim the costs of your course if you’ve not yet embarked on a particular career. Nor will you be able to claim such costs if you have decided to change careers and have incurred such expenses in studying a new area of expertise.
However, you will be able to claim a deduction for self-education expenses where the study or training you are undertaking is likely to enhance your chances of promotion or increase your income earning capacity in your existing occupation.
Further details as to when self-education expenses are allowable or not are set out in Taxation Ruling TR98/9 which can be downloaded, here.
Eligible self-education costs include, amongst others, course fees, textbooks, stationary, travel costs and the depreciation of items such as laptops, tablets and printers. However, it is necessary to add back $250 of any self-education expenses as being non-allowable.
Finally, any Higher Education Loan Program (HELP) repayments are non-deductible.
What other personal deductions may be allowable?
Donations of $2 dollars or more to a deductible gift recipient (e.g. a charity like the Red Cross) will be allowable provided you have kept copies of receipts for any gifts made.
You can also claim a deduction for any fee paid to a registered tax agent during the year ended 30 June 2016 for the cost of managing your tax affairs. However, any amount paid to a registered tax agent to assist you in in preparing your 2016 income tax return will only be deductible in the year ended 30 June 2017.
What tax offsets can you claim?
Whilst tax deductions may reduce assessable income tax offsets are directly applied as a credit to reduce tax payable.
Certain tax offsets may also result in a refund to the extent that the tax credit exceeds tax payable.
The most common tax offsets that a student may claim include the beneficiary tax offset, the franking credit tax offset and the small business tax offset.
A beneficiary tax offset may be available where a student receives a newstart allowance, youth allowance, Austudy payments and certain other Commonwealth education or training programs.
The calculation of this offset can be complex but this offset may not only reduce tax payable on the amount of Government benefits received but also assessable income received from other sources.
Further details on the beneficiary tax offset can be found, here.
A resident company may pass on a tax credit for tax it has paid to shareholders when it pays such shareholders a franked dividend. Such a tax credit can be claimed as a franking credit tax offset which may also result in a tax refund where the franking credit exceeds tax payable.
Finally, where a student is also carrying on a business that individual may be entitled to the small business income tax offset for the year ended 30 June 2016 being 5% of the income tax payable on the portion of an individual’s taxable income that is ‘total net small business income’. An individual is only able to claim one small business tax offset for an income year irrespective of the number of sources of small business income derived by that individual and the maximum amount of the offset is capped to $1,000 per year. The application of this offset is also quite complex and specialist advice should be sought if you intend to claim it.
What are some of the potential traps to watch out for?
There are special rules to discourage adults from splitting income with their children (i.e. minors) aged under 18 at the end of the year unless that minor is engaged in a full-time occupation, receives a carer allowance, disability support pension or double orphan pension or a person who is disabled or a beneficiary under a special disability trust.
Where the minor is subject to these special rules, penalty tax rates apply to such children receiving dividends, interest, rent, royalties or a family trust distribution.
Where such income is between $417 and $1,307 tax will be paid on the excess of income over $416 at a rate of 68% whilst any amount of such income in excess of $1,307 will be subject to tax at a rate of 47%.
Where do I go for help?
If you believe that you required to lodge an income tax return or that you may wish to lodge a return in order to obtain your tax refund, you may wish to either contact the ATO or look at their website for more details on the ATO’s website.
Should you want to get independent tax advice then try to locate an accountant who has the tax expertise to makes sure you lodge a correct income tax return but make sure that the accountant is also a registered tax agent who has been legally authorised to provide such services.
And if you are entitled to a tax refund go get it!
 La Trobe University has used reasonable care and skill in compiling the content of this general commentary. However, it should not be relied upon as advice in any circumstances, and no warranty is provided by either the University or the author concerning the accuracy and completeness of these materials. Accordingly, they disclaim all and any liability to any person in respect of reliance on any of the matters raised in these materials, and professional advice should be sought from an appropriately qualified registered tax agent where required.
 Refer to Example 8 of Taxation Ruling TR98/17.