If you're expecting a federal tax refund this year, you could get your money back in as little as three weeks. Historically, the IRS has issued over 90% of refunds due in less than 21 days. But this year could be different. Because of COVID-related disruptions, the IRS entered this tax filing season with millions of unprocessed tax returns from previous years. That's going to slow them down and potentially delay your refund. Fortunately, there are a few things you can do to speed up the process and increase the odds of getting your tax refund quickly.
The first trick is to file your return as early as you can. The sooner you file your tax return, the sooner you'll get any tax refund due. That's because your return will be closer to the front of the line, rather than towards the back.
If you want to speed up the refund process even further, e-file your tax return. Paper returns slow things down considerably. There are a number of ways to file electronically. Of course, you can find a professional tax preparer to file an electronic return for you (most expensive route). Seniors, people earning $58,000 or less, disabled people, and taxpayers with limited English-language skills may also qualify for free tax assistance and e-filing through the IRS's Tax Counseling for the Elderly and Volunteer Income Tax Assistance programs. There are also several e-filing options for the "do it yourself" crowd, such as using a commercial tax software product (e.g., TurboTax) or forms/software on the IRS website. If your 2021 adjusted gross income is $73,000 or less, you can even file your federal return for free!
TIP: To file your tax return electronically, you'll have to sign and validate the return by entering your prior-year adjusted gross income (AGI) or your prior-year Self-Select personal identification number (opens in new tab). If the IRS hasn't processed your 2020 tax return yet, enter $0 for your prior-year AGI. If you used the IRS's Non-Filers tool last year to register for monthly child tax credit payments or a third stimulus check, enter $1 as your prior-year AGI.
Finally, make sure you select the direct deposit payment method for your refund. Just like paper returns, paper checks take much longer to process. It's also the fastest and most convenient payment option (no trip to the bank needed). Plus, there's always the chance that a paper check could get stolen or lost in the mail.
Tax Refund Delays Can Still Happen
Even if you file early, file electronically, and request direct deposit, it still takes more time for the IRS to process some tax returns. If that happens, your refund could be delayed. Process delays should be expected if your return:
- Includes errors;
- Is incomplete;
- Is affected by identity theft or fraud;
- Includes Form 8379 (opens in new tab), Injured Spouse Allocation (which could take up to 14 weeks to process); or
- Needs further review in general.
The IRS will contact you by mail if they need more information to process your return.
Also, by law, refunds for returns claiming the earned income tax credit or the additional child tax credit must be delayed. They can't be issued before mid-February. This applies to the entire refund, not just the portion associated with the credits. However, for 2022, the IRS said these refunds should start being paid by March 1 if direct deposit is chosen and there are no other issues with the tax return (some people may have received refunds a few days earlier).
If you're a non-resident alien filing Form 1040-NR who is requesting a refund of tax withheld from U.S. source income, you should allow up to 6 months from the original due date of the 1040-NR return or the date you filed the form, whichever is later, to receive any refund due.
Tracking Your Tax Refund
The IRS has a handy online tool that lets you track the status of your tax refund. It's called the "Where's My Refund" portal, and it will tell you if the IRS is processing your return, getting ready to send your refund, or has already sent you your money. The tool is updated daily.
The portal is located on the IRS website (opens in new tab). You'll need your Social Security number (or individual taxpayer identification number), the filing status used on your 2021 tax return, and the exact amount of your expected refund to access it.
Rocky was a Senior Tax Editor for Kiplinger from October 2018 to January 2023. He has 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.