The day you file your tax return, the wait begins. If you’re due a refund, you watch your bank account eagerly, knowing any day you’ll have some extra spending money. But how long you actually have to wait depends on a variety of factors, including how you filed, whether you made any mistakes and the payment method you chose for your refund. Realizing this, there are things you can do from the start to get your money as early as possible.
Time for Processing Tax Returns
IRS processing is fairly quick, with most refunds issued within 21 days. If you’re among the 90 percent of taxpayers who file electronically, you’ll likely see the money in your account within those three weeks. However, if you file a paper-based taxed return, it can take up to six weeks.
How you choose to receive your money makes a difference, as well, since the IRS must cut a paper check and send it through the postal system. Add a few days to your refund receipt time if you choose the traditional option.
If you file a state income tax return, turnaround time can vary widely from one state to the next. In California, for instance, you can generally expect your refund within three weeks if you e-file or three months if you paper file. Virginia taxpayers have a longer wait when e-filing, though. If you file your Virginia tax return electronically, you can expect a four-week wait versus three weeks.
Read More: How to Check the Status of a State Income Tax Refund
Paper Return Processing
In its video, IRS Submission Processing Pipeline, the IRS walked taxpayers through the steps a paper-based return goes through once it arrives in a processing facility. Although machines sort incoming mail, extracting envelopes that contain a payment, employees must manually further sort the returns beyond that point. Tax preparers must then input the information from the return into the IRS system, checking every item and correcting any obvious errors.
If there are errors that can’t be easily corrected, processors must then request more information from the taxpayer before it can move to the next step. This will result in a delay since your return is put on hold until you respond to the request.
Electronic Return Processing
Electronic returns skip most of these steps, although processors still review the information and check for errors. If there are discrepancies that the processor can’t easily clear up, the same process applies. The IRS will contact you to clear the matter up.
Unfortunately, for security purposes, the IRS can’t just pick up the phone and call you or shoot you an email. You’ll get a letter in the mail, which means there will be a delay between the time the error is discovered and the time you’re offered the chance to clear it up. This letter should contain the information necessary to contact the IRS and answer the items in question.
Ensuring Your Return Was Received
When you send that tax return off, you may worry that it got lost somewhere between you and the processing facility. If you filed electronically, you’ll see a status in your e-file account telling you whether it has been accepted by the IRS. This can give you the peace of mind you need as you wait for your refund.
If you use a professional taxpayer, he’ll be able to verify it was received and accepted, since that’s the final screen on the software most services use. If you use a tax preparation service like TurboTax, you can check your status through their software and even follow the progress of your refund.
Using the IRS's Online Tool
But if you filed the old fashioned way, it can be a bit of a mystery. The Where’s My Refund? site provided by the IRS will take weeks to show that your refund is on the way. If the information isn’t there, chances are you won’t have much luck getting it by calling the IRS. If you plan to submit your tax return by mail, it’s usually best to file as early as possible in the tax season to avoid issues if your return gets lost.
Utilizing Certified Mail Via the Post Office
But the best way to have peace of mind if you’re mailing a paper-based return is to use Certified Mail. The extra expense will be well worth it if you can avoid sweating it out in April, when you still haven’t heard anything.
With Certified Mail, you’ll get a receipt showing when your tax return was delivered. Add Return Receipt on and you’ll even have a receipt showing who signed for it. If delivery was attempted and failed, you’ll know about it and be able to follow up with the IRS to find out what’s going on.
Checking Your Refund Status
Generally, the question most taxpayers really have is, “how long for a tax refund?” The IRS’s Where’s My Refund? site is the best resource for this. You can begin checking the site 24 hours after you’ve e-filed, although updates are generally only made once per day, usually overnight. You’ll need to provide your Social Security number, filing status and the exact amount of the refund you’re expecting.
If it’s been more than 21 days since you e-filed or six weeks or more since you sent your paper return and you still don’t have your refund, call the IRS. This is especially important if Where’s My Refund? still doesn’t register that your refund is in progress. It’s possible your return was lost in the mail or the processor sent a letter for clarification that you never received.
Special IRS Delays
How long for tax return to be processed can also be affected by special circumstances. In 2018, for instance, credits slowed things down. The IRS was not allowed to issue refunds for those claiming the earned income tax credit and the additional child tax credit until after Feb. 15. This meant those taxpayers could not expect to receive their refunds until Feb. 27, at the earliest.
In recent years, security has slowed refunds. A growing number of people have fallen victim to tax-related identity theft in recent years, leading the IRS to put preventive policies in place. This generally affects taxpayers applying for certain popular credits, such as the earned income tax credit. Those who change addresses or have a dramatic change in income may also face extra scrutiny.
This is designed to protect against criminals filing for a tax refund using your Social Security number, but for some, this means it takes a few extra weeks to see that extra money in their bank account.
Other Causes of Delay
The IRS isn’t the only factor in how quickly you get your tax return. If you’re relying on the postal system, for instance, Mother Nature could play a role. If a rough winter storm rolls through and affects the postal carriers responsible for getting your return or refund check from Point A to Point B, you could suffer a delay.
Federal holidays can also slow things down. Although the IRS keeps staff working hard around the clock during tax season, the Postal Service doesn’t follow the same rules. Anything going through the mail will be slowed down for Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Washington’s birthday.
Banks also follow a set schedule during tax season. This means if you’ve asked for direct deposit, you’ll only have a chance of seeing your refund on a business day. The good news is you may see it in “pending" status a day or two before it actually deposits, but it’s important to be aware of bank operating hours. Banks also honor federal holidays, so you’ll likely skip those days as a possibility, as well. If you see your status as “issued” in Where’s My Refund? but there’s no check in your account, it could be something related to bank operating hours.
Read More: When Does the IRS Direct Deposit Your Refund?
Speeding Up the Process
There are some things you can do to speed up the process, starting with when you file. The earlier you file in the tax season, the earlier you’ll see your refund. This may seem obvious, but it goes beyond just the basic timeline of it all.
As April 15 approaches, processing centers get busier, making it more likely your return will end up as part of a backlog. If you’re filing in early February, when returns are slowly drifting in, you may catch some luck and beat the three-week turnaround time by a few days. Unfortunately, many taxpayers find themselves waiting for tax forms – since employers have until Jan. 31 to put them in the mail, you could find yourself delayed for that reason alone.
Another thing you can do to push things along is to do everything electronically. Not only will this help you get your money a few weeks earlier, but it will also make it easier to track your refund each step of the way. Choosing direct deposit instead of a mailed, paper check can also make a big difference.
Considering Benefits of Filing Electronically
But there’s another reason to file electronically: it makes it less likely you’ll make a mistake that will slow things down. In fact, according to the IRS, paper returns are 20 percent more likely to contain an error than those filed electronically. This is partly because many of those filing electronically now use software, which handles the calculations for you. It not only makes it less likely you’ll make a basic mathematical error, but it also reduces the risk that you’ll miss an important tax law change or accidentally transpose a couple of numbers.
Avoiding Time-Consuming Errors
Nobody’s perfect, but when it comes to tax season, even the smallest error can cost you time. If it’s a simple math calculation, you likely won’t have anything to worry about, but the easier you can make things for IRS processors, the better off you’ll be. The same goes for your state tax returns since you’ll probably want that refund check as quickly as possible, too.
The best way to avoid errors is to choose a recommended tax preparer. These professionals invest in training ahead of tax season to make sure they know all the latest tax laws. They can not only help you prevent errors, but they can often identify deductions and tax credits you might not have found on your own.
If you prefer the DIY approach, there are plenty of software options on the market to make things easier. If you have a simple tax return, you can probably use the IRS’s free e-file service. You can also file simple returns for free through Jackson Hewitt and H&R Block, among others.
As things get more complicated or if you just want a more thorough solution, go through reviews and find tax preparation software that meets your usability and functionality needs. These software programs ask you easy-to-understand questions, walking you through the process of completing your tax return with minimal frustration.
- IRS.gov: Six Reasons 90 Percent of the People Will E-File Their Tax Returns
- Kiplinger: How Long It Takes to Get Your Tax Refund
- IRS.gov: IRS Submission Processing Pipeline
- IRS.gov: How Does the IRS Contact Taxpayers?
- Efile.com: Checking Your Tax Return and Tax Refund Status
- TurboTax: How to Check Your Tax Refund Status
- IRS.gov: Where's My Refund?
- USPS.com: Mail Your Tax Return with USPS
- Forbes: IRS Confirms That Previously Delayed Tax Refunds Should Be Arriving Soon
- USA Today: Paper calculations: 20% of Americans are making this tax filing mistake
- Jackson Hewitt: File your Simple Federal Return Online for FREE
- H&R Block: Free Tax Filing with H&R Block
- State of California Franchise Tax Board: Where’s My Refund?
- Virginia Tax: Where's My Refund?
Stephanie Faris has written about finance for entrepreneurs and marketing firms since 2013. She spent nearly a year as a ghostwriter for a credit card processing service and has ghostwritten about finance for numerous marketing firms and entrepreneurs. Her work has appeared on The Motley Fool, MoneyGeek, Ecommerce Insiders, GoBankingRates, and ThriveBy30.