What happens if I have HECS-HELP debt while working overseas?

By Polly Fleeting ·

We hate to be the bearer of bad news, but, ex uni students can no longer scurry overseas and escape the worry of making their student loan payments as they once could. In the past two years the rules around paying back HECS-HELP debt from overseas have changed. The Australian Government has tightened its reigns and has now made it compulsory to pay off HECS-HELP even when working abroad.  

If you’re an expat or planning to be one, it’s vital that you are equipped with as much knowledge about income requirements if you have HECS-HELP debt, your obligations to the tax office before and while you’re away, and the process on how to pay your debts - like using an International Money Transfer.

Key info you must know about HECS-HELP debt and living overseas

  • Annual salary threshold decrease: at the beginning of this financial year (18/19) the threshold for making repayments on HECS-HELP dropped to $51,957 AUD - this includes income both from Australia and abroad.
  • You must report income for trips longer than 183 days: tell the Australian Tax Office (ATO) of all your earnings when abroad over 6 months, even if you don’t work for the entire time.  
  • Heavy fines for ignoring HECS-HELP repayments: there are significant penalties of up to $3,600 for travellers who don’t pay back study debt while overseas.  

You’ll need an active myGov account

Having a myGov account when your overseas is essential when you are paying off a HECS-HELP loan from outside of Australia. It not only connects you directly to the ATO but also puts other government services like Centrelink, Medicare and My Health Record in one convenient place so you can access them while you’re abroad.

If you intend to change from an Australian to a foreign mobile phone number, the ATO recommends that you deactivate the security code feature connected with your account. This way you will be able to log in from abroad without having to retrieve a code from your old number - alternatively if you are holding on to your Aussie sim it may be worth keeping this feature for extra security.

But don’t worry if you haven’t got an account and you are already abroad, because you can still create a myGov account online as long as you provide all your relevant details, like your Australian Tax File Number.

Tell the tax office that you are moving overseas

Nowadays, student debt follows working travellers wherever they go, so in the same way you would tell your bank before you travel, you must now contact the tax office if you are planning to leave Australia for more than 183 days and have a HECS-HELP debt. This is more than just a quick heads-up message however - you must complete an overseas travel notification either online or through a registered tax agent.

You will be required to provide: 

  • a copy of your current Australian passport
  • your travel plan details like your expected country of residence
  • your departure/return dates.

Also keep in mind that if you notify the ATO of your departure online, you must update all your relevant details both on myGov and directly on the ATO website.

So if you are currently working overseas with HECS-HELP debt and have not yet told the ATO, contact them immediately.

Declaring your worldwide income

Whether you’ve just landed an exciting new full-time role in London for the next two years or are just looking to pick up casual jobs, you still have an obligation to stay in contact with the Australian tax office if you have an outstanding HECS-HELP debt no matter how much you make while you’re overseas.

‘Worldwide income’ is a combination of any Australian income and any foreign sourced income you receive while you reside outside of the country.

Earn under $12,989 - File a non-lodgement advice

In the instance where you earn less than 25% of the minimum repayment threshold, which is $12,989 AUD for the 2018-19 financial year, you are required to submit a non-lodgement advice with the ATO. This means simply logging in to myGov and following the prompts - essentially what you are doing is letting the tax office know that you will not be lodging a tax return in the current financial year.

Earn between $12,989 and $51,957 - Report income but don’t make repayments

For expats that make more than $12,989, it’s compulsory to report worldwide income to the ATO before 31 October of the following Australian financial year. While you are required to file a report on your overseas income, if you make less than $51,957 AUD you are still below the repayment threshold, so no overseas levy will be raised.

Income over $51,957 - Compulsory repayments kick in

If you do earn over the repayment threshold you will have to start paying your HECS-HELP loan in the form of compulsory repayments or an overseas levy.

All compulsory HECS-HELP payments from overseas are made through your tax return which can be lodged from July through myGov. In this case, once your worldwide income has been assessed, the ATO will notify you on the amount you are required to pay, which is then processed through your tax return.

Be aware that if you don’t lodge your tax return or make your compulsory HECS-HELP payments you can face heavy fines up to $3,600.

Making repayments from overseas

If you are required to pay the overseas levy or you decide to make voluntary repayments on your HECS-HELP loan you have a few different options but bear in mind that the ATO will only accept payments in Australian dollars.

According to Richard Freestone of international money transfer provider OrbitRemit, one of the biggest traps that expats fall into is doing a standard bank transfer from overseas.

“If you’ve got to make compulsory repayments you’ll want to make sure that you get the best exchange rate at the lowest cost possible,” he said.   

“With a standard bank to bank transfer not only are you at the mercy of the bank’s exchange rates but you usually have to pay bank fees at both ends of the transfer as well which means less of your actual funds go towards paying back your debt.”

With a specialist international money transfer provider, you can set up an account, choose the currency, date of transfer and set up repayments in AUD to either go direct to the ATO account with your payment reference or your Australian bank account. 

To compare exchange rates being offered by IMT providers and banks check out Mozo’s International Money Transfer Calculator.

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