Tax season is a time many Americans dread. There are forms to fill out, numbers to calculate and the possibility you could owe the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) money. However, three out of four Americans get a tax refund every year, giving them a good reason to deal with this extra work.
In 2020, the average tax refund was $3,064, and that big refund can help you in many ways, like paying off debt or contributing to your savings goals. But the wait for your tax refund can be agonizing, leaving you wondering, “When will I get my tax refund?”
Below, we cover the tax return filing process to help you better understand when you’ll get your refund and how to avoid delays.
When will I get my tax refund?
The IRS aims to issue tax refunds within 42 days, plus the time it takes to mail your refund check and your bank to process the direct deposit. If you file electronically, the IRS has a target refund issuing time of 21 days. However, there’s no guarantee you’ll get your refund within this period.
A variety of factors can shorten or lengthen your wait time, including how you file your taxes and how you choose to receive your refund.
Federal tax refund filing options
Before the IRS can issue your tax refund, it must process your tax returns. Let’s review the two ways to file your return — a paper return or e-file — and how long it takes the IRS to receive and process each method.
E-file tax refund processing time: Up to 21 days
Filing taxes electronically is the norm. More than 119 million of the nearly 134 million returns filed in the 2019 tax year were through e-file.
There are good reasons for using e-file to get your tax refund:
- Processing time typically within 21 days
- E-filing is free
- Safer transmission of personal information
Despite its benefits, e-filing isn’t for everyone. If you don’t have a computer and aren’t comfortable filing your taxes on a public computer, like at a library, you can’t e-file.
If you have a complex tax situation that requires sending statements and other supporting documents with your tax return, e-filing may also not be the best option for you.
Paper tax return processing time: Up to 49 days
Although its popularity has waned, a paper tax return may be your best bet. Generally, you’ll want to file a paper tax return if you have a complex tax situation that requires you to include statements and other documents with your return.
It can take up to 42 days for an IRS employee to enter the data from your paper return into a computer and process it. Factor in up to a week for the postal service to get your return to the IRS, and processing your paper return could take up to 49 days.
Because processing your paper return requires an IRS employee to manually enter your federal tax return into the system, other delays may arise. For example, limited IRS staffing due to the coronavirus pandemic created processing delays during the 2020 tax season.
Another issue with mailing your paper return is the risk that someone may intercept it and use your information to commit identity theft. This can damage your credit score and force you to freeze your credit while you dispute any account errors and negative information that can hurt your credit score.
Tax refund payment options
After processing your paper return or e-file, the IRS can issue your tax refund a few ways:
- Direct deposit into a bank account or retirement account
- Transfer to a U.S. Series I Savings Bond
You can divide your refund between two or more methods, as long as the total equals the exact refund amount.
For example, if you have a $1,500 tax refund coming, you can have $1,000 directly deposited to your bank account, $250 mailed as a paper check and $250 applied toward a Series I Savings Bond.
Here’s each refund delivery option and the time it takes to get your tax refund.
Tax refund by direct deposit: 1-5 days
Direct deposit is the fastest way to receive your tax refund. Once the IRS reviews and approves your tax returns, it sends the direct deposit to your bank. Most banks take 1-5 days to clear a direct deposit.
You can also opt to have the IRS deposit your refund across multiple accounts, including a checking account, savings account or an IRA.
With an e-file tax return, your direct deposit refund should be in the bank within 27 days of submitting your return.
With a paper return, it may take 54 days before you see the direct deposit in your bank.
If you enter incorrect banking information, there are few safeguards in place. The IRS offers three potential scenarios for incorrect direct deposit information:
- If you enter incorrect bank account information, and it doesn’t pass the IRS validation check, the IRS will send you a paper check.
- If you enter the incorrect bank account information, but it passes the IRS validation check, the IRS will submit the deposit to the bank. If the bank rejects the deposit, the IRS will issue a paper refund check.
- If you enter the wrong bank account information, and the bank accepts the direct deposit, you must work with the bank to get your refund.
Tax refund by mail: Up to a week
Receiving a check by mail is beneficial for some filers. For instance, if you don’t have a bank account, you may prefer a paper check you can cash. Also, if you’ve experienced problems with direct deposit in the past, you may want a paper check.
When you choose to have your refund check sent via mail, it may take an extra week for the postal service to deliver it.
If you mail a paper return to the IRS and opt for a refund check by mail, you may wait 56 days before you receive your refund check.
If you e-file your taxes and request a paper check, you can expect up to a 28-day wait from the day you filed to the day your check arrives.
A mailed check also has the risk of getting lost in the mail or stolen from your mailbox.
Tax refund by savings bond: Up to 4 weeks
The final option is to have the IRS submit your refund to the Treasury Department, which will then issue you a 30-year Series I Savings Bond for up to $5,000.
The benefit of a savings bond is it earns interest for 30 years — the current rate is 1.06% for all bonds issued from May 2020 through October 2020. You can have the bond made out to yourself or a beneficiary.
If the Treasury Department issues you a paper bond via mail, it could take up to three weeks to issue and another week for it to arrive in the mail. There’s also the risk of it getting lost or stolen in the mail.
If you mail your return to the IRS and opt for a savings bond, you may wait up to 77 days from the day you sent your return before you receive your bond.
With an e-file, you should receive your savings bond within 49 days of submitting your return.
There are also strict terms that may make a savings bond less attractive, including:
- You must wait one year before cashing out the bond
- You forfeit the last three months of interest if you cash out before five years
- Your interest earnings are taxable
- You stop earning interest from the bond after 30 years
How can I speed up my tax refund?
While the tax return processing times are set, there are actions you can take to get your tax return faster.
File your tax return early
Many people put off filing their taxes until the last minute. This rush of tax returns around the filing deadline can clog up the postal service and overwhelm IRS resources, potentially causing delays. You can avoid these delays by getting your tax return to the IRS as early as possible.
The other benefit of filing early is it helps prevent tax return fraud, which can cause months-long delays in processing your tax return.
For example, if someone gets ahold of your personal information, they can file a tax return in your name in an attempt to claim your return. If you file your taxes after the fraudulent return, you may get an error saying you already filed. You could then spend months trying to fight the fraudulent return.
If you file early, you’re more likely to get your legitimate return before a thief can submit a fraudulent one.
Ask for an expedited tax return
If you face financial hardship, such as the inability to buy necessary medicine or pay your mortgage, you can contact the IRS to request expedited processing. You must explain the hardship and provide proof to receive this assistance.
You may also request an expedited return when there’s a temporary processing backlog, such as during the COVID-19 pandemic.
What can delay my tax refund?
There are countless reasons your tax refund may get delayed, but common causes for delay include:
- Claiming certain tax credits: If you claim the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) or the Additional Child Tax Credit (ACTC), the IRS won’t release your tax refund check until after February 15.
- Tax return garnishment: If you owe federal or state tax bills, past child support, unearned unemployment compensation or money to other federal government agencies, the IRS may hold your tax refund check while it determines how much to take from the check to cover these unpaid expenses.
- Potential errors: If the IRS finds mathematical or other errors, it’ll send you a letter requesting you address the errors and will hold your tax refund until you do so.
- Suspected fraud: If the IRS suspects identity theft, it’ll delay your refund and send a document requesting you to verify your identity. The IRS won’t release your tax refund check until you complete this verification.
- Tax credit challenge: If you claim a tax credit (EITC, ACTC, American Opportunity Tax Credit, etc.), and the IRS screening system determines you’re not eligible, your refund may be delayed. The IRS will request additional information to determine if you qualify.
- Missing past tax returns: If the IRS spots a missing past tax return, it can delay your tax refund until you complete the previous returns.
How can I check my tax refund status?
When waiting on your income tax refund check, it’s easy to lose track of how long it’s been since you e-filed or mailed it in. It can also be nerve-racking not knowing if the IRS received your tax return and what stage it’s in. There are two tools you can use to keep track of your tax return status.
Use the Where’s My Refund tool
Where’s My Refund is an online tool available through any internet browser. To use it, visit the Where’s My Refund website, enter your Social Security number, tax filing status and exact refund amount. Click “submit” to get the latest status on your refund.
The IRS updates this system once every 24 hours, so there’s no need to check multiple times per day.
Use the IRS2Go mobile app
IRS2Go is the IRS’ mobile app that allows you to make a tax payment, get tax help and check the status of your refund.
To check your refund status, download the app via Google Play, the Apple App Store or Amazon, register for an account and click “Refund Status.” The app will prompt you to enter your Social Security number, filing status and refund amount, then it’ll show the latest update on your tax refund check.
As with Where’s My Refund, the IRS2Go mobile app’s refund status checker is updated once every 24 hours.
Keep tabs on your tax refund like a pro
When you have big plans for your tax refund, waiting for that refund check to arrive may seem like an eternity. However, the IRS strives to process and issue refunds within 21 days for an e-filed return or 42 days for a mailed paper return.
Still, there’s no guarantee you’ll see your return in this timeframe. You may experience delays for a variety of reasons, including:
- Errors on your return
- Reduced IRS staffing
- A backlog of tax returns around the tax deadline
- Mailing delays
If you’re curious about your refund status and when you can expect it, monitor it using the online Where’s My Refund tool or the IRS2Go mobile app. With these tools, you’ll know if your refund is delayed or if it’s been issued and on its way to your mailbox or bank account.