How Long Does it Take to Process Tax Returns?

by Gail Sessoms ; Updated July 27, 2017
Processing time starts with electronic transmittal or mailing.

The length of time it takes the Internal Revenue Service to process a return, send a refund or apply a payment depends on several conditions, including the filing and refund delivery methods. The IRS, according to statistics on its website, processed more than 145 million individual returns in 2013. The agency provides information about general processing times and tracking methods for taxpayers concerned about their return or refund slogging along in that massive influx of paper and electronic data.

Filing Methods

Taxpayers may mail paper returns to the IRS at regional addresses listed on return forms. However, the IRS recommends electronic, or e-filing, as the best filing method for reducing the processing time for returns and refunds. E-filed returns are transmitted immediately to the IRS. A mailed tax return can take a few weeks to reach the agency. Taxpayers can e-file with purchased software or through tax preparation companies that are IRS-authorized e-filers, including those that provide free e-filing for eligible taxpayers.

Tracking Returns

The IRS provides methods for checking the status of your return within the normal processing time -- 21 days for e-filed returns and four weeks for mailed returns. Check the status on the IRS website using the “Where’s My Refund” link or use the “IRS2Go” mobile application. Tracking systems update every 24 hours. You also may call the IRS Refund Hotline at 800-829-1954 for automated information 24 hours a day. Check the status of an e-filed tax return within 24 hours of the filing. Wait four weeks to check the status of a mailed paper return.

Processing Returns

The IRS issues most tax refunds in fewer than 21 days, according to the agency’s website. Electronic transfer of funds, such as direct deposit, is the fastest way to receive a refund. Track your return and refund through three processing stages using “Where’s My Refund.” When you see the status “return received” your return is being processed. After the IRS processes your return, the tracking system gives you a personalized refund date. The next status, “refund approved,” means your refund is being processed. “Refund sent” means your refund is on the way.

Payments to the IRS

Taxpayers who owe money to the IRS may pay by check or money order or choose an electronic option, which transmits funds more quickly. The IRS accepts payments made with debit and credit cards. E-filers can set up electronic funds withdrawal or a wire transfer payment directly from bank accounts. Taxpayers enrolled in the Electronic Federal Tax Payment System may submit IRS payments through that system. Contact the IRS about installment payment plans. Visit the IRS website's Filing Your Taxes page for payment information and links.

Processing Issues

The IRS contacts taxpayers if more information is needed. However, you may contact the agency at 800-829-1040 to request research if four weeks have passed since mailing the return or 21 days since e-filing. Delays occur when returns are incomplete or contain errors. Issues of fraud and identify theft can delay processing. The “Where’s My Refund” system does not track amended returns.

About the Author

Gail Sessoms, a grant writer and nonprofit consultant, writes about nonprofit, small business and personal finance issues. She volunteers as a court-appointed child advocate, has a background in social services and writes about issues important to families. Sessoms holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in liberal studies.

Photo Credits

  • seewhatmitchsee/iStock/Getty Images