How can I get a copy of my tax return?

Asian-American college student, sitting on campus lawn, reviewing student loan paperwork and wondering how to get a copy of a tax return for his application. Asian-American college student, sitting on campus lawn, reviewing student loan paperwork and wondering how to get a copy of a tax return for his application. Image:

In a Nutshell

When you need proof of your income and other tax-related information, you can get either a tax transcript or a copy of a past tax return. A tax transcript is free. Copies of past tax returns, on the other hand, may cost you. Here’s how to get them.

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Keeping tabs on your old tax returns may not be your top concern in life — until a situation comes up when you need them.

For example, if you apply for a mortgage or student loan, you typically have to disclose your income — but lenders won’t always just take your word for how much you earn. That’s where your official tax records come in. They can serve as proof of your income when applying not only for loans but for things like rental housing, government benefits or other kinds of financial aid.

If you don’t have a copy of your tax return on hand when you need it, no problem! You can use a few different methods to get your past tax information.

The first big question: Do you need a full copy of your tax return, or can you get by with a transcript?


Tax transcripts vs. tax returns

The IRS supplies taxpayers with past tax information in two different formats: tax transcripts or copies of past tax returns.

What is a tax transcript?

A tax transcript is basically a printout summary of the major data on your tax return, including a particularly important one: adjusted gross income, or AGI.

The IRS doesn’t charge for tax transcripts, and you can get one online immediately (or within five to 10 business days, if it’s mailed). You’ll need to register online with the IRS before you can access the Get Transcript online tool.

In most cases, when you need tax return info you can use a tax transcript. Ask whoever needs your tax information whether a tax transcript will be OK or if a copy of the return is required.

Copies of tax returns

A copy of your tax return is exactly that — a duplicate of the return you mailed or e-filed with the IRS. For a fee, the IRS can provide up to six years back, plus the current year’s tax return, if you’ve already filed yours. You’ll need to fill out and mail Form 4506 to the IRS to request a copy of a tax return.

You might need a copy of your old tax return, rather than a tax transcript, if more-detailed information from prior tax returns (like the specific W-2s you filed) is required — or if older tax information is needed.

How to get a copy of your tax transcript

There are three ways to get a copy of your tax transcript.

The easiest way is to use the IRS’s online transcript portal, Get Transcript. To use this service to access your transcripts online, you’ll need to provide your Social Security number, filing status from your most recent return, date of birth and the mailing address from your most recent tax return. You’ll also need a few other things: an email account, a mobile phone with your name on the account, and an account number from an eligible account to verify your identity.

You can also fill out and mail in a copy of Form 4506-T or use the Get Transcript by Mail option through the Get Transcript portal. But if you make your request that way, you should be prepared to wait 30 days to receive your copy. Finally, if you’re a phone person, you can also get a copy of your transcript by calling the IRS at 1-800-908-9946. Phone orders typically take five to 10 business days.

One thing to note: The IRS is now issuing transcripts that block out portions of your Social Security number, telephone number, last name and address. That’s why you’ll have to provide an account number (such as a loan number) to verify your identity so they can use it to match up with your file. By limiting the amount of personal information on the transcript, the IRS hopes to help reduce the risk of identity theft.

How to get a copy of your tax return

If you do need a copy of your tax return, you have a few options.

  • You can ask your tax preparer (if you used one) to send it to you.
  • If you used an online tax preparation and filing service to e-file your return, you may also be able to access a copy of your tax return directly through the program for the years you filed through the software. For example, if you e-filed with Credit Karma Tax® in prior years, you can get your prior-year returns for free after accessing this year’s free tax product. Other online filing services may also allow you to access past returns you filed with them. But be aware they may limit the number of years you can access or charge a fee to allow you to access and download past years’ returns.
  • Finally, you can always request a copy directly from the IRS. You can’t request a past year’s return over the phone or online, so you’ll need to fill out Form 4506 and mail it in. It’ll also cost you $50 per copy, per tax year for which you’re requesting a return copy, and it could take 75 days for the IRS to process your request.

Bottom line

Big life changes like buying a house, going to college or moving into new digs often require proof of income.

If you’ve forgotten to store a copy of your tax return, or if you’ve lost it, first find out if you can use a tax transcript — this can be easier to get, and it’s free. If that won’t do, there are ways to get a copy of your old tax return. But doing so may take some time and money.