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When Will I Receive My Tax Refund?

By Aaron Salls
February 8, 2021

If you’ve filed your tax returns early for the year, waiting patiently for a refund can be quite a frustrating process, especially if you have big plans for it. In fact, one of the most commonly asked questions by early tax filers is “When will I receive my tax refund?” It’s vital to keep in mind that there may be a few delays at the tax office, and chances are your refund is on its way. 

In years past, you could file your returns online, however, it was always difficult to predict when you’d receive a check in the mail. First you had to mail in your return, then you waited for someone to manually input and crunch the numbers before the Treasury mailed you a check. Today, computers scan all your information. According to the IRS, out of every 10 taxpayers who file their returns electronically, 9 can expect their refunds within 21 days. But what if it’s been more than 3 weeks now and you still haven’t received your refund? Here’s everything you need to know.

IRS Refund Schedule

How soon you’re likely to receive your refund is determined in part by an IRS schedule. This schedule varies depending on when you file, how you file, and what credits you claim. The quickest option is to e-file your return and receive your refund via direct deposit between 7-21 days. It may, however, take your bank a few more days to make the funds available to you. If you e-file your return but prefer to receive your refund as a check, you may have to wait for up to a month.

Paper returns generally take longer to get taxpayers reimbursed. Filing a paper return and receiving a direct deposit refund can take up to 3 weeks. A paper return – paper check combination takes the longest, at 2 months or more. Unless you don’t have a problem waiting, you may want to consider e-filing, or at least opt for a direct deposit refund. It’s important to keep in mind that these timelines are guidelines. As you’ll see in the next section, a few things could delay your tax refund.

What’s Taking So Long?

What if the expected time for you to receive your return as per the IRS schedule has elapsed and your refund is still missing in action? The reason for your late refund could be as simple as a slight math or entry error in your return or that the IRS system is clogged up with unusually high processing volumes. Apart from minor snags like these, here are some of the most common causes of delay.

Inaccurate or Incomplete Information

If your tax return is incomplete or has mathematical errors, you may have to wait longer to get your refund. For example, if you filed a paper return and forgot to put your signature at the end of the form, your return would have to be reviewed by a human. The IRS won’t process your return until the missing or inaccurate information is checked off, which inevitably takes longer.

Incorrect Banking Details

As we mentioned before, e-filing your return and requesting a direct deposit refund is the quickest way to get a hold of your money. That assertion, however, assumes that you entered the correct banking details when you filed your return. If you so much as swapped or entered one incorrect digit on your routing or account number, your refund may be on its way to someone else’s account. In such cases, you’d have to contact the bank to get your money back, as the IRS won’t compel the bank to do so.

You May Be a Tax Fraud Victim

It’s one thing entering incorrect banking details on your tax return, but it’s a different ball game when fraudsters do it for you. Using your personal information, someone can file a fake tax return and claim your refund. For the 2019 tax-filing season, close to 60,000 Americans were victims of tax fraud. A quarter of them had had their identities stolen. If you suspect that you may be a tax fraud victim, you can contact the IRS.

Your Refund Has Covered Unpaid Debts

The IRS may sometimes use your tax refund to offset debts such as unpaid student loans, state taxes, or child support. In such cases, the federal Bureau of the Fiscal Service will notify you why your refund was withheld and which debt they offset. Of course, you have the right to dispute the debt with whichever agency seized your refund.

How to Check Your Tax Refund Status

If you’re not looking to sit around wondering where your tax refund is, you can visit the IRS’s “Where’s My Refund?” page and check on the status of your refund. The IRS2Go app is another effective tool for checking your return’s status. If you e-file your return, the status should be available within 24 hours. For paper returns, you can typically check the status of your return in about 4 weeks.

To check your refund status, you only need to enter your filing status, your Social Security number, and the exact amount you expect to receive and click the “Check My Refund Status” button. This tool, however, doesn’t provide information on why your refund has been delayed. If more than 21 days have passed since you filed or the tool tells you to, you can call the IRS and get more details.

The Bottom Line

How soon you’ll receive your tax refund depends on how and when you filed your return. The IRS pays out refunds based on a schedule that prioritizes e-filed returns and direct deposit refunds. If you used both these options, you should receive your refund within 21 days. Paper returns and check refunds can take more than 2 months. Having said that, there are several reasons why your refund could be delayed.  You can use the “Where’s My Refund?” tool on the IRS website to check your refund status. If the “Where’s My Refund?” tool advises you to, or if more than 21 days have passed since you filed, you can call the IRS to get an update.  

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