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Where is my tax refund?

By Kristen Doerer and Karim Doumar, ProPublica

This story was originally published by ProPublica.

So, you’ve figured out your deductions or credits, calculated how much you owed in taxes, and successfully filed your return (for free, hopefully). If you’re sitting around wondering where your money is, you’re not alone. Lucky for you, the IRS offers several ways to track your tax return.

How do I track my tax return?

Once you have filed, there are three options for tracking your refund:

What information do I need to track my tax return?

To track your tax return, there are three things you need:

  • Your Social Security number or Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN).
  • Your filing status: single filer, married filing jointly, married filing separately or head of household. Find out what these mean here.
  • Your exact refund amount.

When can I check on my refund?

If you e-filed: You can check on your refund after 24 hours. The IRS recommends getting in touch if you haven’t received your tax refund after 21 days.

If you filed by mail: You usually aren’t able to check your status for four weeks if you mailed in your taxes, but you may have already received your refund by that time. The IRS is warning of weeks long delays in 2021 for mailed-in taxes. If you mailed in your taxes and are waiting for your refund, the IRS advises you to not file a second time and not call them.

What is the tax refund schedule?

The IRS refuses to guarantee a day by which you’ll get your refund. Timing also depends on how you file and whether you get your return via direct deposit or check. For most people who file electronically though, the IRS issues refunds around 21 days after filing.

What are the tax return statuses?

When you check on your return, there are three statuses you might get:

  • Your return has been received.
  • Your refund has been approved.
  • Your refund has been sent.

Why am I not getting my refund?

There are a number of reasons why your refund may be held up. There might be a delay if:

  • You filed by snail mail. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the IRS has a severe paperwork backlog.
  • Your return includes any errors or is incomplete.
  • You’ve been the victim of identity theft or fraud.
  • You’ve been audited. (Here’s some information about how your audit might work.)
  • You filed for the earned income tax credit or the additional child tax credit. By law, the IRS cannot issue your refund before mid-February.
  • You owe back taxes, state taxes, student loans or child support. In some cases, the IRS will put your refund toward the money you owe. You will receive a letter from the IRS explaining if your refund was used to pay another debt you owe.
  • You’ve been the victim of a scam. Read more about the types of scams that have been popular recently.

Can I get my tax refund early?

Short answer: no.

No one — not the IRS, a bank or anyone else — can give you immediate access to your tax refund. That said, some tax-preparation companies do offer options to effectively give you access to money sooner, either through refund anticipation checks or a refund advance loan.

“Refund advance loans,” or RALs, are loans secured by and repaid directly from your tax refund. This money is not your actual tax refund. Sometimes, the money will be deposited on a prepaid card that comes with additional fees. These days, there are two types of RALs.

“No Fee” or “Advance” RALs are often called a “refund advance” that claims to have “no fees.” However, in order to apply for and receive the loan, you have to use the company’s tax-prep service, which may have significant costs. This can route eligible people away from free alternatives with no guarantee that a loan of any amount will be approved by the bank. There may also be hidden fees for these loans.

Interest-bearing RALs are a new option where lenders offer much larger RALs on the condition that you waive the alternatively available “no-fee” RAL. These RALs impose interest on the full amount of the loan and in some cases charge origination fees.

“Tax preparers and lenders are again offering interest-bearing RALs in the ongoing quest to skim as much of taxpayers’ refunds as possible,” the National Consumer Law Center wrote in an annual issue brief. “Taxpayers seeking the no risk, ‘no-fee’ RALs of years past could instead end up with interest-bearing loans instead or no loan at all.”

If a refund anticipation loan is not approved, you will likely still owe the tax-prep costs, which may be taken out of your refund when it is eventually paid. This deduction will be made using a product called a “refund anticipation check,” RAC or “refund transfer,” which can come with fees.

A refund anticipation check, or RAC, lets you put off paying for the tax-preparation service you use to file your taxes. Typically, you’ll agree to pay an additional fee to have the cost of tax preparation deducted from your refund amount. Once the IRS issues your refund, the preparer deducts this fee and the cost of preparing your taxes and then gives the rest of the money to you. Keep in mind that if you don’t have the money to use a paid tax service, you may be able to file completely for free without worrying about any of these fees.

It’s not always clearly explained, but both of these options usually involve a temporary bank account being set up in your name, which is how the preparer takes out their portion of your refund. A ProPublica analysis of IRS data found that in 2018, around 14% of tax filers either got an RAL or an RAC.

Before agreeing to use a tax-preparation service in exchange for an advance, read the terms carefully and make sure you understand the total cost to you.

About this guide:

ProPublica has reported extensively about taxes, the IRS Free File program and the IRS. Specifically, we’ve covered the ways in which the for-profit tax preparation industry — companies like Intuit (TurboTax), H&R Block and Tax Slayer — has lobbied for the Free File program, then systematically undermined it with evasive search tactics and confusing design. These companies also work to fill search engine results with tax “guides” that sometimes route users to paid products. This guide is not personalized tax advice, and you should speak to a tax professional about your specific tax situation.