Awards and Benefits

Foreign nationals awarded Smithsonian appointments to come to the United States for research or study are usually eligible to apply for a visa as an exchange visitor (category J-1). Even if it would otherwise be possible for a Smithsonian appointee to enter the U.S. without this type of visa, it is the most appropriate category for research visits. The proper visa status also has important consequences for the taxation of awards to nonU.S. citizens (see Tax Information).

To determine the type of visa that is appropriate for the purpose of your particular visit, please contact the administrative staff of the division in which you will be working at SAO. Arrangements will be made with SAO’s Department of Human Resources to provide you with appropriate visa authorization and further instruction. Again, there are possible tax implications for individuals entering the United States in a category other than a J-1 visa as tax status is dependent upon the provisions of the tax treaty in place between the United States and the visitor’s country of permanent residence.

For more information, check the following resources.

Smithsonian Office of International Relations

Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory Visa Information Page

United States Department of State

Harvard International Office Immigration Information

Award Letters

Each appointee will receive a copy of an award agreement from the Smithsonian Institution’s Office of Fellowships, outlining the terms of the appointment and the stipend to be offered. A copy should be signed and dated and returned to the Fellowship Program Office (Room B-218) at the Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge by the Fellow or Division Administrator. The other copy should be retained for future reference or tax purposes.

Any changes or updates to an appointment will trigger the issuance of an amended award letter by the Office of Fellowships in Washington, DC. If an appointment is for more than 1 year, an annual renewal letter will be sent with the updated terms and conditions of the fellowship award. For each occurrence, a letter will be issued and a copy must be returned to the Fellowship Program Office (B-218) at the Center for Astrophysics on 60 Garden Street.

Tenure Dates

To change the beginning or end dates of your appointment, contact your Smithsonian Advisor (or Supervisor) for approval first, and then submit a request (by email) to your Division Administrator. It is particularly helpful to include an explanation from your Advisor in this request as well. Your request and your Advisor’s rationale/approval for this extension will be forwarded to the SI Director of Fellowships in Washington, D.C. for approval. If the request is approved, a letter confirming the new dates will be issued to you.

Stipend Payment

A Social Security Number (SSN) or an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN), as well as a local (residence) address, are required before the distribution of stipend payments. Note that if a SSN or ITIN have not been obtained, it is important to inform your Division Administrator of the date of your application; otherwise, stipend payments may be delayed (see Social Security Number vs. ITIN).

The amounts and disbursement schedules of stipends and/or allowances are specified in individual award agreements. Please be advised that all payments received from your award are considered to be taxable income (see Tax Information).

Most Smithsonian Fellows and visiting students/scholars on appointments of 3 months or more receive stipend payments monthly. Lump sum payments are reserved for those with appointments of 1 month or less or for those seeking reimbursement for medical or relocation expenses.

PLEASE NOTE: Because Fellows are not employees of the Smithsonian, stipends are not disbursed through a payroll system. Therefore, there is no set “payday” for your award payments. Please refer to your award agreement/letter for your projected payment schedule.

Payment Methods

BY ELECTRONIC FUNDS TRANSFER (EFT): If you elect direct deposit of your stipend to a designated financial institution/bank, it will be submitted based on the Office of the Comptroller’s schedule for EFT payments. Remember, there is no set “payday” for these payments. It takes 48 hours (2 business days) for these payments to be transferred and credited to your account. Therefore, do not assume that because your previous payment was direct deposited on a certain date that the next payment will be made on that date. In addition, you will not receive a statement when a deposit has been made, so you should confirm that the funds are available in your account before writing a check. If you need to change your bank routing information during your appointment, please notify your Administrator at least 1 month in advance of your next payment to ensure that the change is processed in time.

BY MAIL: If you do not elect to enroll in Electronic Funds Transfer (EFT) but, instead, wish to receive your payments mailed as checks to your local (residence) address (or any other address), please make this request in writing or via email to your Division Administrator. Make sure that the address submitted is complete and correct (i.e., apartment number, zip code, etc.) and remember that additional time is necessary for payments to go through the U.S. postal service.

To change the address for your payments, inform your Division Administrator of this change in writing or via email as soon as possible to ensure payments are mailed correctly and reach the new address promptly.

IN PERSON: If you would like to pick up your stipend checks in person--even though we try to discourage this method--you may do so. Please call Janis Panttila (617-495-7324) to make sure that a payment is waiting for you before going to the office. Most often, payments are not available until after 3:00 pm. When you do pick up a check, please bring some form of identification.


Travel allowance, if offered, is intended to assist with relocation from your place of residence to the Smithsonian. The allowance will be issued in a lump sum after receipts are provided by you to your Division Administrator. Note reimbursements are disbursed four to six weeks after your request is received. Your flight cost and other expenses directly related to relocation—i.e., personal objects involved in the actual move―will be considered. For any questions about what will or will not be covered, check with your Division Administrator. (This assistance is not a requirement for every award granted, so if it was not offered and you wish reimbursement for these expenses, consult your Advisor and Division Administrator.) Note: SAO Predoctoral Fellows are granted reimbursement of a one-way flight ticket either to or from the Center for Astrophysics ONLY.

Once a travel allowance has been received, no further accounting will be required but awardees should keep receipts for tax purposes. Please be advised that these funds are considered to be taxable along with all other income received from the award (see Tax Information).

Medical Evacuation and Repatriation Program (Required)

All J-1 exchange visitors and J-2 family members must be covered by medical insurance, including coverage for medical evacuation and repatriation of remains. According to regulations, J-1 students and accompanying family members in J-2 status may be terminated from the Exchange Visitor Program for failure to maintain insurance coverage.

Specifically, as part of the U.S. State Department J visa regulations, all J-1 and J-2 (spouses and children) visa holders will be required to have insurance that covers the following:

  • $50,000 coverage per accident or illness, deductible not to exceed $500, coverage for pre-existing conditions, payment of at least 75% of the costs of medical care;
  • Expenses associated with the medical evacuation of the exchange visitor to his or her home country in the amount of $10,000; and
  • Repatriation of remains in the amount of $7,500.

As your sponsor, SAO has arranged to make a program available that complies with the USIA regulations. This program is offered through International SOS Assistance, Incorporated. For more information, look under “Visitor U.S.A. Membership For Foreign Students and Scholars staying in the U.S.” The SOS Foreign Exchange Visitors Assistance Program fully complies with USIA regulations for evacuation and repatriation services at the following limits:

Emergency Evacuation: $50,000 maximum
Medically Supervised Repatriation: $20,000 maximum
Repatriation of Mortal Remains: $20,000 maximum

The group fees for this insurance are listed below. The annual fees apply regardless of the length of time you are at SAO during that year. There are no provisions for refunds or transfers under this program.

Member only: $68.00
Member and family: $130.00 to $200.00

Note: This plan must be renewed annually; however, Fellows are given the option of purchasing it in 2- or 3-year increments. For details, contact International SOS Assistance, Incorporated directly at the number provided on their web site.

An application form may be found here.

In order to enroll in this program, please send (or deliver) an application and check made out to SOS International to:

Christine Crowley
Fellowship Program Coordinator
P210, MS 67
60 Garden Street
Cambridge, MA 02138 USA

Note: If you are interested in travel insurance while attending an international conference outside the United States, you will need to sign up for additional coverage. For this information, see Global Traveler Membership for Personal and Business Travel. The program outlined above only covers you for events within the United States.

Medical Insurance

General Information

Recipients of research appointments of 12 months or longer are eligible for insurance under group health plan options offered through the Smithsonian. You also may obtain this insurance for eligible dependents: your spouse and, effective January 1, 2006, dependents up to age 23 regardless of student status. You may enroll yourself and your dependents without medical examination by completing an enrollment form within the first 14 days of the beginning of your appointment.

Your coverage becomes effective on the first day of your start date or the following month, depending on the beginning of your tenure and the date on your enrollment form. Insurance coverage terminates at the end of your appointment and you are not eligible for continuation of coverage after your Smithsonian appointment ends. Other details of the insurance plans will be provided by your Division Administrator or by Christine Crowley in the Fellowship Program Office.

In some cases, the Smithsonian contributes the full or half the cost of health insurance for research appointments (see your award letter for details). Otherwise, if you choose to enroll, the total cost of monthly premiums is deducted from your stipend payments. Researchers are urged to take advantage of this insurance or otherwise provide themselves with adequate medical coverage. Please be advised that the amount contributed by the Smithsonian toward insurance coverage is considered to be taxable income (see Tax Information).

Health Insurance Options:

SAO Group Choice

Harvard Pilgrim Health Care (HPHC) - HMO (Health Maintenance Organization)
Harvard Pilgrim Health Care or (888) 333-4742

The Harvard Pilgrim HMO is one of the simplest options you can choose for your health care needs. You choose a primary care provider (PCP) to deliver and arrange for your medical care. If you need specialty care, you will need a referral from you PCP. More than 28,000 doctors and clinicians as well as 135 hospitals accept Harvard Pilgrim. You're covered for routine, preventive, specialty and emergency care. There is little or no paperwork involved once you join. When you're traveling, your coverage travels with you.

To learn more about Harvard Pilgrim Health Care in general, visit Harvard Pilgrim Health Care.

The chart below describes the current plan costs for the 2014 plan year.

2014 Harvard Pilgrim Health Care (HPHC) HMO Rates
Category Monthly Yearly
Individual $358.84 $4,306.08
Family $965.28 $11,583.36

Other private insurance programs such as HTH Worldwide that provide emergency-type coverage for illness for short- or long-term durations will be reimbursed if a copy of an enrollment form and proof of purchase are provided. Note that reimbursement will be provided up to or less than the cost of our group plan. In other words, SAO will reimburse the actual cost or up to the amount of $358.84 per month for an individual plan and $965.28 per month for a family plan.

Dental Insurance; Retirement/IRA/401K Plans; and Paternity/Maternity Leave

These benefits are not offered through the Smithsonian Fellowship Office. However, other options for dental coverage are available but would require direct payment.

Vacation/Sick Days

Because of the limited period of tenure associated with a research appointment, up to 3 weeks of leave for vacation and up to 3 weeks for illness are considered reasonable in a 12-month appointment period. Any unused leave may not be carried over into the next leave year. Further, fellowship recipients are not compensated for any balance of unused annual or sick leave upon completion of their award.

Awardees are expected to be in residence at the Institution unless they have been granted a leave of absence from their Smithsonian Advisor and have notified Christine Crowley in the Fellowship Program Office.

Reports Due

Annual progress reports of 1 to 2 pages in length are required for Fellows with appointments exceeding 1 year in duration. These reports should briefly summarize accomplishments over the course of the last year and what is proposed for the next.

A 2- to 3-page final report is required from each visiting researcher summarizing his/her activities at the Smithsonian. These reports must be submitted through the Division Administrator to the Fellowship Program Office. NOTE: If you are an SAO Predoctoral Fellow, check with your division administrator as a report might not be required particularly if you presented a report recently to your Predoctoral Research Review Committee (PRRC).


Paula Teixeira