The Fastest Way to Get Your Tax Refund

Income Taxes, Personal Taxes, Taxes
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If you’re expecting a tax refund, you probably want to get your hands on that money as quickly as you can. The average refund for the 2016 tax filing season was $2,857.

You’ll typically get the fastest refund by filing your taxes online. Some online tax preparers let you do your taxes even before the IRS is open for business; they stockpile returns in anticipation of the date when processing begins.

You can e-file your taxes several ways:

  • For free, using one of the IRS’ Free File partners, which are brand-name tax preparation services available to those with incomes below $64,000.
  • For free, using the IRS’  Free File Fillable Forms. There are no income limitations, but there is no real guidance, either.
  • For free, using free online tax software. All of big names in tax software provide free guidance and e-filing for the simplest returns.
  • For a fee, using a commercial online service or downloadable tax software. People who have more complex returns, such as freelance income, a small business or some types of tax credits and deductions, are more likely to require the expertise of a paid tax-preparation service.

Most states also offer free filing options for your state returns. The Federation of Tax Administrators maintains a list of state filing options.

The IRS began processing 2016 returns on Jan. 23, 2017. Returns are due by April 18, 2017. Tax filing deadlines for 2017 were pushed out because April 15 falls on a Saturday and the following Monday is a holiday in Washington, D.C. That means Tuesday, April 18, is the last date to submit your return or request an extension to file.

Here’s what you can do to make the filing process go as smoothly as possible.

E-file and direct deposit for fast refunds

Before you can file your taxes, you’ll need to have your W-2 forms in hand. By law, employers have until Jan. 31, 2017, to send your 2016 W-2, but many make their W-2 forms available electronically earlier than you can expect them via mail.

Online tax preparers typically let you import electronic W-2 forms directly into their systems.

Once you have the needed documents, the IRS says you’ll get the fastest refund by filing electronically (e-filing) and requesting direct deposit. That way, your refund will go directly from the U.S. Treasury into your checking or savings account. Old-school paper returns typically are processed more slowly, with refunds appearing in six to eight weeks.

Once you’ve filed your return, you can track its progress with the Where’s My Refund? tool from the IRS or through the online tax preparer you chose. If you e-file, you can begin tracking 24 hours after your tax return is accepted. If you mail it in, you’ll have to wait four weeks.

If you file electronically, you should be notified when the IRS receives your return, when it approves the return and when it sends your refund.

With direct deposit, you can distribute your tax refund among as many as three checking or savings accounts and up to three U.S. financial institutions. You can request this split refund option by filing IRS Form 8888, Allocation of Refund (Including Savings Bond Purchases).

Software fees and your refund

If free online tax software doesn’t meet your needs but you don’t want to pay out of pocket for a more full-featured version before you file, some providers may offer the option of taking your refund on a prepaid Visa or MasterCard, after deducting their fees, or as a deposit to your bank account, again deducting their fees.

Updated Feb. 17, 2017.