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Where is my tax refund?

Last updated on February 8, 2020

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ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.

by Kristen Doerer for ProPublica

So, you 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:

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

When can I check on my refund?

If you e-filed: You can check 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 won’t be 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. If you haven’t received your refund after more than six weeks, the IRS recommends that you get in touch.

What is the tax refund schedule?

The IRS refuses to guarantee the day that you’ll get your refund. It also depends on how you file and whether or not you get your return via direct deposit or check. For most people 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 different statuses you might get:

  1. Your return has been received.
  2. Your refund has been approved.
  3. Your refund has been sent.

Why am I not getting my refund?

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

  • 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 if that’s the case.)
  • 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 are popular recently here and here.

Can I get my tax refund early?

Short answer: no.

No one — 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 give you access to money sooner, either by refund anticipation checks (RAC) or a refund anticipation loan (RAL).

What’s the difference between refund anticipation loans and refund anticipation checks?

  • “Refund anticipation 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, even for paying your bills or withdrawing cash. 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 also may 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. “Last year we saw a move back towards interest-bearing refund anticipation loans, and this year we are seeing interest rates go up,” said Chi Chi Wu, staff attorney at the National Consumer Law Center, in an annual issue brief. “With the PATH Act still delaying refunds to those who most need it, the larger loan amounts available for interest-bearing RALs will cost vulnerable taxpayers even more.”
  • In the event that 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 for 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 a RAL or a 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, 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 systematicallyundermined 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.

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