It can be tough to tamp down your impatience while you’re waiting on an income tax refund—especially if you have plans for the money.
The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) knows this, which is why the agency helps taxpayers who are anxiously wondering, “Where is my tax refund?” track their status on the IRS website or through the IRS2GO app .
You can begin checking your refund’s progress within 24 hours after the IRS receives your e-filed return or four weeks after mailing a paper return. And, if everything goes smoothly, you can use the “Where’s My Refund?” tracking tool daily to watch your tax return progress through three stages: Return Received, Refund Approved, and Refund Sent. Or the tool may provide a more specific explanation of what the IRS is doing with your return.
Common Tax Refund Delays
The IRS cautions visitors to its website not to expect their refund by a certain date. Though most taxpayers typically receive their refund within three weeks, and in even less time if they e-file and choose direct deposit, there are several reasons why a payment might be delayed. Some snags are inevitable, even when there isn’t a pandemic-related backlog of paper returns for IRS staffers to wade through, as there was in 2020.
Here are some issues that could cause a holdup:
Filing a Paper Return
Under normal circumstances, the IRS says, it can take six to eight weeks to process a paper Form 1040. Unlike returns that are filed electronically, paper returns must be manually entered into the IRS system. This is why the handling of those returns slowed considerably in 2020, as the IRS limited staffing due to concerns about COVID-19. If in-person staffing continues to be a problem at IRS locations in 2021, there’s a possibility the processing of paper returns could be delayed again.
Tax returns are opened in the order they’re received, so if your refund is taking longer than expected, the date you sent your return could be a factor, as well. The delivery option you choose for your refund also can affect how quickly you receive your funds.
According to the IRS, the fastest way to receive your refund is to combine the direct deposit method with an electronically filed tax return. But taxpayers who prefer a paper return also may be able to speed things up a bit by choosing direct deposit for their refund instead of a paper check.
Providing Incorrect or Incomplete Information
Did you or your spouse forget to sign your return, or did you type in the wrong Social Security number? Returns with missing information or errors can cause extra work for the IRS, which could hold up a refund. And the IRS is strengthening its screening process to help fight identity theft, so even the smallest mistake—such as using a different name than what’s on your Social Security card—could slow things down. If the information you provide is wrong or something is missing, you can expect the IRS to contact you for additional documentation or to correct the error.
Claiming Certain Tax Credits
If you’re claiming the additional child tax credit or the earned income tax credit, the IRS won’t issue your refund before mid-February. A federal law that took effect in 2017 gives the IRS extra time to review those returns, check employers and other information, and detect any possible fraud.
Filing an Amended Return
You may have to amend your return if you find you made an error or there’s a change that affects your filing status, income, deductions, credits, or tax liability—and that could delay your refund by several weeks. According to the IRS, it can take up to 16 weeks to process an amended return—even if it was filed electronically.
If it’s been at least three weeks since you sent an amended return, you can check your return and refund status daily with the IRS’s Where’s My Amended Return tracking tool.
Falling Victim to Tax Fraud
A missing refund could be a sign that someone used your personal information to file a fraudulent tax return in your name. If you suspect you may be the victim of tax fraud, the IRS lists several recommendations for what to do next on its Taxpayer Guide to Identity Theft web page, and the agency advises potential victims to report their concerns to the Federal Trade Commission .
Owing Money Elsewhere
Congress has authorized the Bureau of the Fiscal Service (the agency that issues taxpayer refunds) to reduce refund amounts to offset certain types of debt owed to the government, such as unpaid child support, or student loans. The BFS will generally notify you if your refund is being reduced through its Treasury Offset Program, and you can dispute the payment with the agency that received it. And if there’s any money left after the offset, you’ll receive it by direct deposit or in a check, depending on what you requested on your tax return.
Your Return Never Made It
If you e-filed with third-party tax software or the IRS’s Free File system, you likely received confirmation that your return was received and accepted. If you don’t remember getting a confirmation notice, or if you’re concerned because you haven’t heard anything since then, you can check your status with the agency’s Where’s My Refund? tool.
If you still aren’t sure your return ever made it, you also can try calling the IRS at 1-800-829-1040; but be prepared—wait times might be especially long due to COVID-19. However, you may be able to get the information you need by using the automated phone system.
Finally, you could try creating an account with the IRS to view your tax records.
Your Refund Went AWOL
If the IRS’s Where’s My Refund? tool says your refund check was mailed, but 28 days or more have passed and you haven’t seen it, you can file a claim online to receive a replacement. (Where’s My Refund? will show you how.)
Even if you opted for direct deposit, it still could take a few days for the money to show up in your account. But if you think your refund has gone missing, you may want to call your bank about tracking the deposit, then move on to contacting your tax preparer or the IRS for help.
The IRS won’t accept responsibility if it sent a refund but you or your tax preparer wrote the wrong account number on your return. If the IRS notices an error, or if your bank rejects the deposit and returns the money to the IRS, the IRS still may end up sending you a check (instead of using a direct deposit). But if you entered an account or routing number that belongs to someone else and the financial institution accepted the deposit, you’ll probably have to work with a bank representative to recover the money. The IRS cannot compel the bank to return the refund.
Don’t Give Up!
To use the Where’s My Refund? tracking tool, all you need is your Social Security number or Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN), your filing status (single, married filing jointly, etc.), and the exact dollar amount of your expected refund.
You may not get all the information you wanted about your refund, but it’s a start. If you can’t get satisfaction there, your local IRS office may be able to help.
Better Luck Next Time?
If you’re hoping to get your next refund faster, here are a few steps that might help:
File Electronically and Choose Direct Deposit
The IRS says refunds will generally be received by taxpayers sooner if they have e-filed and selected direct deposit. Even if you prefer mailing in a paper return, you can choose to have your refund deposited into your account.
If you don’t have a bank account, you may consider opening a high yield bank account online, like SoFi Checking and Savings®. With SoFi Checking and Savings, you’ll have easy access to your money with a large ATM network and your refund won’t be eaten up by fees while you decide how best to use it. (If you set up direct deposit now, you can enjoy SoFi’s benefits right away.)
Sweat the Details
Pay attention to every detail as you prepare your taxes. Don’t let a little mistake cause a long delay.
File as Early as Possible
By filing as soon as possible during tax season, you’ll be able to position your return at the front of the line for processing. And by starting early, you’ll give yourself plenty of time to research any tax filing strategies that might apply to you, your business, and your family.
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