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Where's my tax refund?

Key takeaways

  • The IRS says it issues more than 90% of tax refunds filed electronically in fewer than 21 days after accepting a return. Paper returns may take longer.
  • You can check the status of your refund online or on the IRS mobile app. Don't call the IRS about your refund unless it's been at least 3 weeks since you filed electronically or 6 weeks by paper, or if the the IRS directs you to call.
  • State and local tax refunds tend to follow similar timelines to the IRS, but it depends on where you live.

If you're one of the millions of Americans expecting money back from the IRS, you probably want it as soon as possible. How long it takes to see your refund, though, depends on how you prepare and send in your tax return.

Here's a rough idea of when you may receive your tax refund and how to avoid speed bumps that can slow down the process.

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When will I get my tax refund?

The IRS estimates it issues 9 out of 10 refunds within 21 days of accepting a return, though it's possible it may need to review your return for longer. The way you submit your return can make a big difference in how quickly the IRS processes it and schedules your tax refund.

If you file electronically, either through DIY tax software or a tax preparer, the IRS receives your return right away. On the other hand, if you send in a paper return—consider sending by certified mail—an IRS agent needs to process it. This can take 6 months or longer, which delays your refund.

The way you choose to receive your refund also matters. Direct deposit is the fastest method because once your IRS refund is approved, the money just shows up in the account of your choosing, whether that's a bank account, online payment service account, retirement account, 529 account, or taxable brokerage account. The IRS allows you to split your refund between up to 3 accounts, and no more than 3 refunds can be direct deposited into the same account.

Or you can receive a paper check for your refund, though this tends to take longer than direct deposit—and introduces the risk the check gets lost in the mail. In that case you have to initiate a refund trace, which can stretch out your refund timeline even more.

If you don't want to wait for a paper check and don't have an account with a routing number, major tax preparers and other companies may be able to issue you a prepaid debit card. (If your prepaid debit card has a routing/account number, share it with the IRS.) Some tax preparers also offer refund advances, which are short-term loans repaid with your refund if you use their tax-prep services. Carefully review interest rates, fees, and terms before you go this route.

The bottom line: The fastest way to get your refund is to both file electronically and choose direct deposit, says the IRS.

Why might my tax refund be delayed?

Tax refund delays typically happen because of a mistake or missing information on a tax return. The IRS won't send your refund until after they've contacted you to fix the error. Some common mistakes that delay refunds include:

  • You misspelled your name or entered your Social Security number (SSN) incorrectly, so your return doesn't match government records.
  • You didn't include all information, like the SSN for a dependent or a copy of a 1099 tax form when filing a paper return.
  • You made a math error while calculating your taxes.
  • You didn't include the correct direct deposit information, in which case the IRS would mail you a paper check instead.
  • You forgot to sign your tax return.

These errors are more likely when you prepare a paper return yourself. Tax software or a professional tax preparer could catch these mistakes before you file.

Another possible reason for a delay: filing early. It seems counterintuitive, but early birds do not always get the quickest refund. The IRS could still change the tax code after tax season has begun, or a tax document you didn't realize was necessary for filing may not have arrived before you file—and if you file without that information, you'll need to file an amended return.

On the flip side, if you wait until the last minute to file, your refund could take longer because of all the returns coming in, especially if you file by mail. And the longer you wait, the longer a potential scammer has to steal your identity and file a fraudulent return under your name, which would delay your tax refund as you and the IRS sort out the problem.

How to check the progress of your tax refund

The IRS lets you check the status of your refund on its Where's My Refund? page or its mobile app. You will need to enter your Social Security number or taxpayer ID number, filing status, and exact refund amount on your return. The online tool, which is updated every 24 hours, usually overnight, will then show you the status of your refund in different stages:

  1. The return has been received.
  2. The refund has been approved.
  3. The refund has been sent.

Once your refund is approved, the IRS tool will estimate when you'll receive the money. You can check to see when you'll get your refund within 24 hours of e-filing your return for the most recent tax year or 3 to 4 days for previous years' returns. If you filed on paper, the IRS says to check 4 weeks after submitting your return.

You can also call to check the status of this tax year's refund, though expect wait times during tax season. The IRS suggests calling if it's been at least 3 weeks since you filed electronically or 6 weeks by paper or if the tool directs you to call.

You can't use the Where's My Refund? tool for tracking the status of an amended return. You'd need to consult the Where's My Amended Return? tool instead. The IRS says it's taking them more than 20 weeks to process these returns.

Where's my state and local tax refund?

If you are entitled to a state and/or local tax refund, how long this takes will depend on your state tax office, some of which have online tax refund tracking tools similar to the IRS Where's My Refund? tool. Check your state or local tax agency's website for more information.

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