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I am an international student on F-1 visa for the past three years. I have maintained F-1 status throughout these years and F-1 is the only visa class I enter the US with in the past three years. I was told by my school's International House that I should file taxes. However, I am confused after reading IRS website.

According to IRS website description about Substantial Presence Test,

Do not count days for which you are an exempt individual. The term "exempt individual" does not refer to someone exempt from U.S. tax, but to anyone in the following categories:

  • ...
  • A student temporarily present in the United States under an "F," "J," "M," or "Q" visa, who substantially complies with the requirements of the visa
  • ...

The formula for number of days present in the US is the following:

You will be considered a U.S. resident for tax purposes if you meet the substantial presence test for the calendar year. To meet this test, you must be physically present in the United States on at least:

  1. 31 days during the current year, and

  2. 183 days during the 3-year period that includes the current year and the 2 years immediately before that, counting:

    • All the days you were present in the current year, and 1/3 of the days you were present in the first year before the current year, and
    • 1/6 of the days you were present in the second year before the current year.

If that is the case, then I would be present in the US for zero days for tax purposes and therefore exempt from filing taxes. I know this doesn't sound right, but what am I missing here? If it is true that I don't have to file taxes, how do I get back the tax withheld by my employers?

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then I would be present in the US for zero days for tax purposes and therefore exempt from filing taxes.

No. You will be considered non-resident for tax filing purposes (i.e.: file 1040-NR), but you still need to file taxes.

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