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This article was fact-checked by our editors and Christina Taylor, MBA, senior manager of tax operations for Credit Karma Tax®. It has been updated for the 2020 tax year.
Uncle Sam expects you to pay your taxes on time every year. But if the federal government owes you a refund, you’d probably like to get it sooner rather than later.
Once you’ve filed your federal income tax return and know you’re expecting a refund, you can track it through the “Where’s My Refund” tool from the IRS.
But before you log in to check on your money, there are some things to know about federal refunds, including how long it can take to get one, what might slow yours down — and why the amount you ultimately get can differ from what you expected.
- How can I track a federal tax refund?
- When will I get my refund?
- How can I get my refund faster?
- Why is my refund amount different?
- When should I call about my refund?
- How do I track a state refund?
How can I track a federal tax refund?
Once you’ve filed your federal income tax return, you can use the Where’s My Refund tool on the IRS website to track any refund you may be owed. If you e-filed, you can start checking as soon as 24 hours after the IRS accepts your e-filed return. If you mailed in your return, you should wait at least four weeks before checking.
To use the tool, you’ll need to provide your Social Security number or individual taxpayer identification number, the filing status you used on your federal return and the exact refund amount on your e-filed return.
The tool should tell you …
- When the IRS acknowledges receiving your return
- When it has approved your refund
- An expected refund date
- When the money’s on its way
When will I get my refund?
If you e-filed your return, you can normally expect your refund about 21 days after filing. If you mailed a paper return, it can take six weeks or more for the IRS to issue a refund.
Keep in mind that some circumstances can delay a refund. If you filed early in the season and claimed the earned income tax credit or additional child tax credit on your return, the IRS may hold your refund, since federal law doesn’t allow the IRS to issue those refunds before mid-February.
It’s also possible for a refund to be delayed if the IRS needs to give a return more attention. A return can take longer to process for multiple reasons, like missing information or the presence of errors.
What is a tax credit and how do I get one?
A tax credit is a type of tax break that directly reduces the amount of tax you owe. Every credit has rules for who can claim it and how much they can get for the credit.
How can I get my refund faster?
Filing a complete, error-free return can make it easier for the IRS to process any refund you’re owed in a timely manner. If the IRS needs additional information or to communicate with you about a mistake on your return, your refund could be delayed. Also, e-filed returns tend to get faster refunds than paper returns mailed to the IRS. So if you want your refund as soon as possible, e-filing an accurate return is probably the way to go.
Whether you mail or e-file, the IRS also recommends choosing to have your refund directly deposited into your bank account, rather than requesting a paper refund check. The IRS calls direct deposit “the safest, fastest way to receive your refund.”
Why is my refund amount different?
Sometimes the refund amount you receive is different than what you expected. This can happen for multiple reasons, including …
- You have overdue debt. Under the Treasury Offset Program, the federal Bureau of Fiscal Services can take some (or even all) of your refund to cover unpaid federal income tax, state income tax, student loan, unemployment-related, child or spousal support, or other federal non-tax debt.
- The IRS makes changes to your return. For example, if the IRS has to correct a simple math error or an amount you entered incorrectly on your return, it’s possible your refund amount could change too. The IRS will send you a notice explaining the reason for the changes on your return.
When should I call about my refund?
If it’s been less than 21 days since you e-filed your return (or six weeks if you mailed a paper return), calling the IRS probably isn’t going to help you get your refund any faster.
But if it’s been longer, or if the “Where’s My Refund” tool tells you to contact the IRS, it may be time to call the IRS about your refund.
How do I track a state refund?
Every state with a state-level individual income tax allows taxpayers to track a state refund through an online portal by inputting some basic tax information. Check out the map below to learn more about your state refund.
Of course, not everyone who files a federal tax return will be due a refund. But if you’re expecting one, it’s possible to check the status of your refund through the “Where’s My Refund” website. The site has a lot of information about tax refunds and a tool to help you find out when you might get yours.
Typically, the IRS issues refunds within 21 days of accepting your e-filed return. But e-filing a complete, error-free and on-time return, and choosing to have your refund directly deposited, could help you receive your refund as quickly as possible.
Relevant sources: IRS: Where’s My Refund? | IRS: What to Expect for Refunds This Year | IRS Tax Tip 2001-48: Refunds — How Long Should They Take? | IRS: Refund Timing for Earned Income Tax Credit and Additional Child Tax Credit Filers | IRS: Tax Season Refund Frequently Asked Questions | IRS: Credits and Deductions for Individuals | Taxpayer Advocate Service: Incorrect Tax Return
Christina Taylor is senior manager of tax operations for Credit Karma Tax®. She has more than a dozen years of experience in tax, accounting and business operations. Christina founded her own accounting consultancy and managed it for more than six years. She co-developed an online DIY tax-preparation product, serving as chief operating officer for seven years. She is the current treasurer of the National Association of Computerized Tax Processors and holds a bachelor’s in business administration/accounting from Baker College and an MBA from Meredith College. You can find her on LinkedIn.