Tax Extension: How to Get More Time to File Your Tax Return

If you can't wrap up your federal tax return by the annual deadline, it's easy to buy yourself more time by filing a tax extension.

picture of a tax time stopwatch
(Image credit: Getty Images)

As "Tax Day" approaches each year, you might start to panic if you haven't filed your federal income tax return yet (the last day to file a 2021 federal income tax return was April 18, 2022, for most people – April 19 for residents of Maine (opens in new tab) and Massachusetts (opens in new tab)). But don't worry if you can't file your tax return before the deadline expires. It's easy to get a tax filing extension that pushes your filing deadline back six months. And you don't even need to have a good excuse or explain why you need more time. All you have to do is follow a few simple steps.

But there's a catch. An extension to file your tax return doesn't extend the time to pay any tax due. So, you must estimate the amount of tax you'll owe and send it to the IRS by the regular tax return filing deadline. Otherwise, the IRS will charge you interest on the unpaid balance (even if you had a good reason for not paying on time) and tack on additional penalties for filing and paying late. Don't get caught in that trap!

File Form 4868 or Pay Your Tax Electronically

There are two methods for requesting an automatic six-month tax return filing extension: File Form 4868 (opens in new tab) or make an electronic tax payment. Either way, you need to act by your tax return filing deadline.

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The most common way to get an extension is to file Form 4868. You can send the form to the IRS by mail or electronically. If you mail a paper version of the form, it must be postmarked by the regular due date of your return. You also have to use the U.S. Postal Service to mail the form if you're including a payment, since it must be delivered to a P.O. box (private delivery services can't deliver items to an IRS P.O. box). If you're not making a payment, you can use certain private delivery services. If you submit the form electronically, have a copy of your tax return for the previous year handy, because you'll be asked to provide information from that return to verify your identity (you can e-file the form on your own computer or have a tax professional do it for you). If you're filing the form yourself, consider using the IRS Free File or Free File Fillable Forms to prepare and e-file your tax return for free. Both are available on the IRS website (opens in new tab).

The other way to get a tax filing extension is to make an electronic tax payment by the due date for your federal tax return. All you have to do is pay all or part of your estimated income tax bill using the IRS Direct Pay service (payment directly from a bank account), the Electronic Federal Tax Payment System, a credit or debit card (processing fees may apply), or a digital wallet such a PayPal or Click to Pay. Make sure you note that the payment is for a tax extension and keep the confirmation number. Your best bet is to start on the IRS's "Pay Online (opens in new tab)" website to make an electronic federal tax payment. You don't have to file a separate Form 4868 when making an electronic payment and indicating it's for an extension – the IRS will automatically treat it as an extension request.

With either of these two methods, you won't receive any notice of approval from the IRS. But the IRS will let you know if your request for a filing extension is denied because it was too late.

When you eventually file your tax return (i.e., before the extended due date), you can subtract the extension payment from the tax due as shown on the return.

Taxpayers Living Abroad Have More Tax Extension Options

There are also several special rules that provide U.S. citizens living outside the country more time to file their federal income tax return. First, you're allowed an automatic two-month extension to file your return and pay your taxes if you're a U.S. citizen or resident alien and, on the regular due date of your return, you're (1) living out of the country and your main place of business or duty post is also outside the U.S. and Puerto Rico, or (2) serving in the military on duty outside the U.S. and Puerto Rico. (That typically pushes the deadline to June 15, or the next business day if June 15 falls on a Saturday, Sunday or holiday.) Filing Form 4868 isn't required to get this tax extension, but you need to attach a statement explaining which of the two situations described above applies when you eventually file your return. If you're married and filing a joint return, either you or your spouse can qualify for this extension. However, if you and your spouse file separate returns, this extension only applies only to the spouse who qualifies for it. (Caution: Even though taxpayers living abroad can get an extra two months to pay any tax due without incurring a penalty, interest still applies to payments received after your regular filing due date.)

Taxpayers living abroad who can't file their return before the two-month extension expires can still get an additional four months to file their return like everyone else. That will typically extend the filing due date to October 15 (or the next business day if October 15 falls on a weekend or holiday). You have to request this tax filing extension before the two-month extension is up by filing Form 4868. (Make sure you check the box on line 8 of the form.) This filing extension does not extend the time to pay your tax.

Taxpayers who are out of the country can also request an additional, discretionary two-month filing extension. This will push the filing deadline to December 15 (or the next business day if December 15 falls on a weekend or holiday). To get this extra tax extension, you must send the IRS a letter by the October 15 deadline explaining the reasons why you need the additional two months. Mail the letter to:

Department of the Treasury

Internal Revenue Service

Austin, TX 73301-0045

The IRS will let you know if the request is denied. If you don't hear back from them, you're good to go.

And there's more! If you're outside the U.S., you can also request a tax filing extension beyond October 15 if you need time to meet certain tests to qualify for an exclusion or deduction for foreign earned income or housing. This extension will generally be for 30 days beyond the date that you reasonably expect to qualify for the exclusion or deduction. To request this tax extension, file Form 2350 (opens in new tab) with the IRS by the due date for filing your return. Generally, if both your tax home and your abode are outside the U.S. and Puerto Rico on the regular due date of your return, the due date for filing your return for purposes of this extension is June 15 (or the next business day if June 15 falls on a holiday or weekend). If you're granted this tax filing extension, you can't also get the discretionary two-month additional extension mentioned above.

Tax Extensions for People Serving in a Combat Zone

The deadline for filing your tax return and paying your tax is automatically extended if you serve in a combat zone or contingency operation. There's a two-step process for figuring the length of this type of tax extension. First, your deadline is extended for 180 days after (1) the last day you're in a combat zone, have qualifying service outside of the combat zone, or serve in a contingency operation; or (2) the last day of any continuous hospitalization for an injury from service in the combat zone or contingency operation, or while performing qualifying service outside of the combat zone. Use whichever of these two dates is the latest.

Second, your deadline also is extended beyond 180 days by the number of days you had left to take action with the IRS when you entered the combat zone. For example, you have roughly 3½ months each year (e.g., January 1 to April 15) to file your tax return. Any days left in this period when you entered the combat zone (or the entire 3½ months if you entered it before the beginning of the year) are added to the 180 days.

Spouses of military personnel who served in a combat zone or contingency operation are generally entitled to this extension, too. However, the extension doesn't apply to a spouse for any tax year beginning more than two years after the area in question ceases to be a combat zone or an operation ceases to be a contingency operation. It also doesn't apply to a spouse for any period the service member is hospitalized in the U.S. for injuries incurred in a combat zone or contingency operation.

This tax extension isn't just for military personnel, either. It can be claimed by merchant marines on ships under the Department of Defense's control, Red Cross personnel, war correspondents and civilians supporting the military.

Residents of Maine and Massachusetts Sometimes Get More Time to File

While it isn't exactly a "tax extension," people who live in Maine (opens in new tab) or Massachusetts (opens in new tab) sometimes have more time to file their federal income tax return – as was the case in 2022. The IRS can't set a tax due date on a holiday (including a state holiday). Patriot's Day is a state holiday in Maine and Massachusetts commemorating Revolutionary War battles that is celebrated each year on the third Monday in April. If Patriot's Day falls on the regular due date for filing your federal income tax return, then residents of Maine and Massachusetts get an extra day to file their federal return. For instance, the deadline for filing a 2021 federal return was April 18, 2022, for most people. But the deadline for residents of Maine and Massachusetts was on April 19, 2022. They also had until April 19 to request an automatic six-month tax return filing extension (put they still had to pay any taxes owed by April 19).

Victims of Natural Disasters Might Have More Time to File, Too

Victims of certain natural disasters might also get more time to file their federal tax return and pay any federal tax owed (again, it's not a tax extension in the normal sense). If that's the case, they can also wait until their new tax return filing deadline to request a six-month filing extension. This type of tax relief is typically authorized by the IRS after a disaster declaration is issued by the Federal Emergency Management Agency for a natural disaster.

For 2021 federal tax returns, the deadline for filing a return or requesting a tax extension has been pushed back to May 16, 2022 for victims of the (1) severe storms and tornadoes in Arkansas, Illinois, Kentucky and Tennessee that began on December 10, 2021; and (2) wildfires and straight-line winds in Colorado that began on December 30, 2021.

Those deadlines have been shifted to June 15, 2022, for victims of the severe storms, flooding and landslides in Puerto Rico that began on February 4, 2022.

State Tax Return Extensions

Your state may have different rules and due dates for extending state income tax returns. Some states have deadlines each year that come after the federal tax return filing due date. So, be sure to check with your state's tax agency (opens in new tab) to see how tax return filing and payment extensions work where you live.

Should You Request a Filing Extension?

Just because you can easily get a tax return filing extension, that doesn't necessarily mean you ought to. You might be better off just biting the bullet and getting your tax return done before your filing deadline. On the other hand, having more time could improve your bottom line. For example, if it allows you more time to realize that you qualify for a valuable tax break. To help you decide if it's better for you to request an extension or file your return now, see Pros and Cons of Getting a Tax Extension.

Rocky Mengle
Senior Tax Editor, Kiplinger.com

Rocky is a Senior Tax Editor for Kiplinger with more than 20 years of experience covering federal and state tax developments. Before coming to Kiplinger, he worked for Wolters Kluwer Tax & Accounting and Kleinrock Publishing, where he provided breaking news and guidance for CPAs, tax attorneys, and other tax professionals. He has also been quoted as an expert by USA Today, Forbes, U.S. News & World Report, Reuters, Accounting Today, and other media outlets. Rocky has a law degree from the University of Connecticut and a B.A. in History from Salisbury University.