How Long Does it Take to Get Tax Refund?

Are you eligible for a tax refund? If so, you may be curious as to how long it will take to get. Although the IRS attempts to issue most refunds in 21 days or fewer, there are a number of factors that may affect exactly when your refund will be issued.

Once you read this guide, you’ll have a good idea of how long your tax refund may take, how to track the status of your refund, and how to receive it as quickly as possible. You’ll also learn how to spend your tax refund wisely and learn whether you should adjust your withholding so you don’t receive a tax refund in the future.

This guide contains the following sections:

  • Where’s My Tax Refund?
  • Will My Refund be Faster if I File Electronically or by Mail?
  • How Do I Track the Status of My Return?
  • How Does My Refund Payment Method Affect the Timing of My Refund?
  • What Other Factors Can Affect the Timing of My Refund?
  • What Should I Do With My Refund?

Where’s My Tax Refund?

As of Feb. 21, 2020, the IRS had issued more than 37.4 million refunds. While the average tax refund was $3,125, your income, W-4, W-2, and income tax refund status will determine the exact amount you receive. But if you paid more in taxes than you owe, you will be eligible for a refund once you file your tax return.

This year, the IRS has pushed back the filing deadline for tax returns from April 15 to July 15. So if you haven’t filed your taxes yet, there’s still time to do so and collect your refund. According to the IRS website, most refunds are issued in less than 21 days.

However, this isn’t a hard-and-fast timeline. There are a variety of factors that may expedite or prolong your tax refund. These factors include the way you file your taxes, the payment method you choose, and whether or not there are any issues with your return.

To speed up your tax refund, file as soon as you can, e-file your return instead of filing a paper copy, enroll in direct deposit, and keep track of the status of your refund so you have a good idea of when to expect your money.

To reduce the risk that your refund is delayed, make sure your Social Security number and other personal information are correct, choose only one filing status, pay any back taxes that you may owe, and double-check all of your calculations to make sure they’re accurate.

If you’re owed a state tax refund as well, you can expect to receive it within 30 days if you file electronically. If you file a paper return, you may have to wait up to 12 weeks for your refund. Visit your state’s department of revenue website or consult your state tax agency to learn the status of your state tax refund.

Once you do get your tax refund, you’re free to spend it however you please. You can put it toward debt, retirement, a home remodel, vacation, or anything else that’s important to you and your family.

Will My Refund be Faster if I File Electronically or by Mail?

If you’d like your tax refund as soon as possible, file your taxes electronically. Michael Kinsman, CPA, says the IRS processes electronic returns within a day or two, so you can expect to get your refund within three weeks. By contrast, your refund will take six to eight weeks if you file a paper return because it has to be entered into the IRS’ computer system.

Keep in mind that the coronavirus pandemic has caused staffing shortages across the federal government, including the IRS. This has prompted the agency to focus on other things like stimulus payments. As a result, expect to wait even longer than usual for your tax return and refund to be processed.

How Do I Track the Status of My Return?

The IRS has created a Where’s My Refund tool that you can use to check the status of your refund. The status is available within 24 hours of the IRS receiving your electronically filed tax return or four weeks after you mail your paper return. The Where’s My Refund tool is updated once a day.

Scott Berger, CPA and principal at Kaufman Rossin, explains that to use the tool, enter your Social
Security number, filing status (single, married, head of household, etc.), and your exact refund amount. The tool will then give you one of three updates: Return Received, Refund Approved, or Refund Sent.

If you don’t want to use Where’s My Refund, you can call the IRS at 1-800-829-1954 and get a refund status update over the phone. You may have to wait a bit to speak to a representative. To expedite the process, have your Social Security number or employer identification number on hand.

You can also go to the Apple App Store, Google Play, or Amazon to download the IRS mobile
app, IRS2Go. Just like the Where’s My Refund tool, the app will allow you to check your refund status within 24 hours of the IRS receiving your e-filed return or four weeks after you send in your mailed return.

The app will allow you to make tax payments securely, find a Volunteer Income Tax Assistance or Tax Counseling for the Elderly location near you to get tax help, and access a variety of tax tips on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

How Does My Refund Payment Method Affect the Timing of My Refund?

If you choose direct deposit for your payment method, you’ll get your IRS refund at least one week faster than someone who opts for a paper check. This is because the IRS won’t have to prepare your check and can deposit the funds into your bank account electronically.

In addition to faster payment, direct deposit is usually a safer way to collect your refund. It’s far easier for someone to steal a check from your mailbox than an electronic deposit that goes directly to your bank. With direct deposit, the IRS uses the same secure electronic transfer system it uses to deposit Social Security and Veterans Affairs benefits into millions of bank accounts.

Direct deposit also gives you the freedom to split your refund into various accounts. For example, it can allow you to distribute half of your refund to your checking account and the other half to an education or retirement account.

If you go with direct deposit, double-check the routing number and your account information. If you’re e-filing a joint return with your spouse, be particularly mindful of the account information.

“Although the IRS will make the deposit into your account, your spouse’s account or a joint account, some states and/or financial institutions will only deposit a joint refund into a joint bank account,” says Kimberly Dula, CPA and partner at Friedman LLP in Philadelphia.

What Other Factors Can Affect the Timing of My Refund?

Even though the IRS issues most refunds in fewer than 21 days, there’s a possibility your refund could take longer. “If your return is incomplete, contains errors, or is affected by identity theft or fraud, you’ll have to wait a while for your federal tax refund,” says Echo Huang, CPA and president at Echo Wealth Management.

It’s also important to note that the IRS can’t issue a refund before mid-February if you’ve claimed the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) or Additional Child Tax Credit. The EITC is a refundable tax credit designed for low- to moderate-income taxpayers. Your income and the number of children you have will determine the amount you may be eligible for. For the 2020 tax year, the earned income credit ranges from $538 to $6,660. The Additional Child Tax Credit is a refundable portion of the Child Tax Credit for families with children who owe the IRS less than their qualified Child Tax Credit amount. If you’re eligible, you can get a tax credit of up to $1,400 per qualifying child.

In addition, your refund may be delayed if you owe $150 or more in child support payments. The child support agency will send your case to the Federal Tax Refund Offset Program, which collects any overdue child support payments from tax refunds of parents who must pay child support.

If there’s a problem with your return and the IRS can’t process your refund, it will contact you by mail. You won’t get your refund until you’ve resolved the issue and resubmitted your return. In Kinsman’s experience, an incorrect Social Security number or filing your return when someone has claimed you as a dependent will add 6 to 14 weeks to the time before you get your refund.

To prevent refund delays, Dula suggests you do the following before you file your return:

  • If you received a PIN from the IRS, include this number on your return to reduce the chance of identity theft.
  • If you have a new dependent, make sure the Social Security number you reported is correct.
  • If you moved during the year, include your new address and complete Form 8822, Change of Address.

What Should I Do With My Refund?

It may be tempting to spend your tax refund on a new car or dream vacation. However, Kenesha Coleman, a CPA at ColemanTax, suggests you do the opposite and use the money to make money. To do so, contribute to a retirement account, flexible spending account, health care spending account, 529 college plan, or any other type of account that will grow over time.

If you’re good at saving money, Michael D. Katz, CPA, recommends adjusting your withholding so you don’t get a refund; paying too much income tax during the year is equivalent to giving the government an interest-free loan. Keep your money in an interest-bearing savings account instead. “Adjusting your withholding so that you arrive at a break-even point instead of getting a refund maximizes your take- home pay,” Katz says.

If you’d like to adjust your withholding so that you pay about what you owe, check out Publication 505, Tax Withholding and Estimated Tax for some guidance. A CPA or other tax professional can help you as well.

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Scott Berger, CPA, is a Entrepreneurial Services Principal at Kaufman Rossin, one of the Top 100 CPA and advisory firms in the U.S.