Tax time can be stressful, especially if you aren’t sure if you’re getting a refund or not. But if yours is one of the 75 percent of returns that resulted in refunds of around $2,800 in 2017, you’re understandably eager to see that money in your account. If you’re anxiously refreshing your bank account to see if the money has been deposited yet, there may be an easier way to monitor things. The IRS has actually set up a tool to help taxpayers check the status of a refund on a daily basis. It can help, though, to understand how things work so that you’ll know what to expect.
TL;DR (Too Long; Didn't Read)
You can use the Where’s My Refund? tool on the IRS website to check the status of your IRS tax return.
Checking Your Federal Refund Status
At one time, if you wanted to know the status of your refund, you had to make a phone call to an already overworked team of IRS customer service representatives. Chances are, that wasn’t something you’d do every single day. To reduce taxpayer anxiety and make life easier for its representatives, the IRS set up Where’s My Refund?, a tool that allows taxpayers to check the status of their incoming money any time they want online.
To find the refund-checker, simply type “Where’s My Refund?” into a search box and click on the IRS.gov search result for it. It should be the first item in results. You won’t be able to check this until at least 24 hours have passed since you’ve filed your tax return if you submitted electronically. If you mailed your return, you won’t see anything until about four weeks after you put it in the mail. It’s also important to know that taxpayer statuses aren’t updated in real time. Generally, the IRS updates Where’s My Refund? every 24 hours, usually overnight. You can still pick up the phone and call if you don’t like what you’re seeing, but representatives won’t be able to speed up your return based on your phone call. You’ll also get better results by checking Where’s My Refund? than calling since representatives can only get an update 21 days after you e-file or six weeks after you mailed a paper return.
Knowing the Average Turnaround Time
According to the IRS, most refunds are issued within 21 days of a return being approved. But it’s important to note that there are factors that can affect turnaround times. You may have an error in your tax return, for instance, and when that happens it may merit a closer look, resulting in corrections made on the IRS’s end. However, if a processor can’t easily make the correction without coming back to you for information, those questions will be mailed to you and you’ll have to make the correction. This obviously will lengthen the 21-day turnaround.
Another thing that can affect your return processing time is if there has been an instance of fraud attached to your account. More taxpayers have been affected by this in recent years, as criminals attempt to submit returns using other people’s information. The more taxpayers are affected by this, the more time representatives have to spend processing returns overall. This means that even if your account wasn’t hit with identity theft, representatives may be overloaded, slowing things down slightly.
How E-File Return Processing Works
So much of the tax-filing process is automated now that most of the early work is done by software. Information is collected from employers and other entities, such as your banks and mortgage companies, and compared to what you submit using your Social Security number. Initially, the IRS is merely looking for basic information, such as whether the Social Security number is correct and there are no obvious red flags. However, once it goes past the “received” status, that means it has moved on to a deeper check, which is where your refund amount will be verified and they’ll ensure it meets compliance in other areas.
Once all your information has been approved, the representative will move it on to the refund processing phase, which is where you’ll be given a date when you can expect your funds if you chose direct deposit. If there are errors or issues, though, you may get silence on the other end as the IRS works to clear things up. This is where a letter may be forthcoming, and you’ll hear nothing during the time the letter is being created and mailed.
How Paper-Based Return Processing Works
In the earlier days of e-filing, the IRS released a video called the IRS Submission Processing Pipeline, in which the paper-based return processing timeline was detailed. If you’re still mailing your return, this video still holds true, although there are far fewer paper-based returns than there once were. Once the Postal Service delivers your return to the IRS, it is sorted by a machine, which looks for the ink seen on checks to separate the envelopes containing payments with those that don’t. Once sorted, your return makes its way to a human representative, who manually sorts the paperwork and prepares it for processing.
At that point, representatives manually key in the important information from your tax return. This understandably takes longer than if you had e-filed, which is why it takes four weeks to get an update on the status of your return if you go traditional. At this point, paper-based returns are similar to e-filed returns in that representatives check for errors and verify that the refund you’ve come up with is accurate. If there are no errors, it progresses to the refund stage and the clock on the 21-day refund processing countdown begins ticking.
Amended Tax Return Turnaround Time
In some cases, taxpayers realize after they’ve submitted their tax return that they made a mistake. The IRS directs them to file Form 1040X, which updates the information they filed initially. You have up to three years from filing the original tax return to file an amended return, or up to two years from the date you paid taxes on the original return. But if you’re due a refund on your amended return, you’re likely eager to know how long it will take to process it. The good news is the IRS also has a tool for checking your amended return. Search for Where’s My Amended Return? in your browser and you’ll get the page you need.
The turnaround time for amended returns is slowed down by the fact that paper is the only option there, as well, so you’ll have to wait for a check to arrive in the mail. The IRS estimates an amended return to take up to three weeks after you put it in the mail to show up in the system. Processing can take as long as 16 weeks after that, so be prepared to be patient.
Slowdowns Due to Tax Credits and Injured Spouse Relief
There are other factors that can slow your refund down, and those vary from one year to the next. One slowdown came in 2018 with the earned income tax credit and the additional child tax credit. The IRS was given a directive not to issue refunds for any of those credits before mid-February, which meant the earliest those taxpayers would have seen a refund was in late February.
Taxpayers who file an injured spouse relief allocation request will also see a slowdown in receiving an IRS refund. This request applies when a married person finds that a refund is being taken because of a spouse’s tax debt. The form protects the innocent spouse from having to give up her refund. Unfortunately, if you fill out this form, your refund will require a little extra processing time. The IRS cautions that an injured spouse relief allocation could take up to 14 weeks to process.
State Tax Returns
Of course, in most states, taxpayers are concerned about more than just a federal tax return. In the vast majority of states, residents must pay state taxes on the money they earn each year, and at the end of the year, they file state taxes along with federal taxes. But if you’re due a state tax refund because you overpaid during the year, you’ll be monitoring the status of that return, as well. This refund is completely separate from the one you’re expecting from the IRS, so checking its status will be separate.
Each state has its own tool for checking the status of your income tax return. You can usually search for the name of your state and the words “where is my tax refund?” and the status checker will appear prominently in search results. You’ll likely need to enter identifying information to check, including your Social Security number and the amount of a refund you’re expecting. This is set up to protect your privacy. Turnaround time varies by state, but generally, you can expect a refund within 21 days if you file electronically and use direct deposit. Paper returns can take up to three months in California, for example, but only seven to 12 days if you file electronically and accept payment by direct deposit.
Faster Turnaround Options
If you’re in a serious hurry, several services offer loans that will put the money in your hands today. Basically, you’re getting a cash advance on your funds. H&R Block’s Tax Refund Advance is a zero-interest loan available at the start of tax season each year. There is no charge to participate, although you will need to qualify to be eligible. Jackson Hewitt, found in Walmart stores across the country, also offers a no-fee refund advance loan.
You must file your taxes through these services to qualify for their loan, which will be a downside if you planned to do your taxes on your own since you’ll owe a fee. However, you’ll have the benefit of a professional looking over your taxes and finding areas where you can save. In the end, you may find that using these services actually saves you money. You may price around and find that a local tax preparer charges lower fees, though, making it not worth it.
The Fastest Way to Get a Tax Refund
The best time to speed up your refund is before you’ve filed since this is when you have the most control. Once it’s in the IRS’s hands, you can only wait until they’re finished. There are things you can do to get your refund in your hands as soon as possible, starting with filing as early in the season as possible. Your employer is supposed to send your Form W-2 by the end of January, but businesses have the option of sending them earlier. If you have all the forms you need in hand at the end of January – including your mortgage and bank account interest statements – you can file your taxes then. However, you’ll likely find early to mid-February is the earliest you can hope for due to form delays.
In addition to filing early, you can also speed up your refund by filing electronically. Whether you use a tax preparer, tax preparation software or do things yourself, make sure you e-file to keep things moving forward. Either use a reliable professional or double- and triple-check your work before submitting to avoid delays due to simple errors. Finally, when asked how you would like to receive payment for your refund, choose to have it direct deposited to make sure it comes to you as quickly as possible.
- US News & World Report: How to Get the Biggest Tax Refund This Year
- IRS: Where's My Refund?
- IRS: 2017 Tax Season Refund Frequently Asked Questions
- Saving to Invest: WMR and IRS2Go Status Differences – Return Received, Accepted or Under Review and Refund Approved versus Refund Sent
- IRS Videos: IRS Submission Processing Pipeline
- IRS: Topic Number 308 - Amended Returns
- IRS: Where's My Amended Return?
- Bankrate: Is a state with no income tax better or worse?
- Clark: Where’s my money? How to check the status of your federal and state tax refunds
- H&R Block Tax Refund Advance
- Jackson Hewitt: Tax Return Anticipation Loan
- Time: When Will I Get My W-2?