E-filing your own taxes: What you need to know

Young African-American man, lying on sofa, e-filing his taxes on a tablet.Image: Young African-American man, lying on sofa, e-filing his taxes on a tablet.

In a Nutshell

Most federal income tax returns are e-filed. E-filing is a fast, accurate and easy (or as easy as taxes can ever be) way to file your federal income tax return. Here’s what you should know if you’re considering e-filing your own taxes.
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This article was fact-checked by our editors and reviewed by Jennifer Samuel, senior product specialist for Credit Karma.

Doing your taxes may never be fun, but e-filing your own taxes can at least make the process faster and more accurate.

The IRS began allowing taxpayers to electronically file (e-file) returns in 1986. That year, just five tax preparers e-filed a mere 25,000 returns. By 2016, more than 80% of tax returns were being e-filed.

E-filing can be a secure and safe way to submit your federal income tax return to the IRS, because it is transmitted directly to the agency’s computer systems. Taxpayers can file online using a number of authorized online providers.

Benefits of e-filing your own taxes

Pretty much everyone can file taxes electronically, including individuals, businesses and self-employed taxpayers. In fact, the IRS says e-filing is now the norm.

Advantages of e-filing include:

  • Speed and accuracy.
  • The IRS processes e-filed returns more quickly and with fewer errors.
  • In many situations, if you do make a simple, easy-to-correct math error or other mistake, the IRS will immediately send your return back to you, so you can correct the errors and refile promptly.
  • You get proof of receipt, typically within 24 hours of submitting your return.
  • If you’re owed a refund, you could get it faster since it takes the IRS less time to process electronically filed returns. The quickest way to get your refund is to have it directly deposited into a U.S. financial account.
  • Depending on the filing software or service you choose, e-filing your own taxes could be completely free.

Although e-filing can be safe and secure, there is always a risk when transmitting information online.

“The biggest threat is identity theft,” says Anthony Maniscalco, vice president of 1-2-3 Payroll and HR Services in Holtsville, New York. “But people should check credit reports on a regular basis to make sure they know what’s on it.” Signs of identity theft can show up on your credit.

What tax e-file software should you use?

Most tax return preparers are required to e-file their clients’ returns. Rather than pay someone else to prepare and filing your taxes, you have many options for e-filing your own taxes, including:

Free options

If your adjusted gross income  is $66,000 or less, you may be able to use the IRS’ own Free File Software to e-file. If your AGI exceeds $66,000, you can use Free File Fillable Forms from the IRS.

This program is essentially an electronic version of paper forms. However, once the program closes for the year in October, your information will be erased from the IRS server and you won’t be able to access your account or print your return. Plus, the service doesn’t assist you in completing the forms, and you can’t use it to file state returns.

Semi-free or paid options

You can also find other tax filing services that will help you e-file your own taxes. Some offer basic tax preparation for free. Fees may kick in depending on factors like the complexity of your return, special forms or schedules you need, or if you have one or more state income tax returns to file.

What do you need to e-file?

To make using e-filing software as easy as possible, prepare some documents beforehand. Having necessary documents ready can make it easier to answer the questions the software might ask. Be prepared to sign your return using the Self-Select PIN or your prior-year Adjusted Gross Income.

To use most e-file software, including the IRS’ own program, you will need your Social Security number, email address, a copy of last year’s tax return, and documents on your income and deductions you will claim. That includes:

  • W-2 forms showing wages from your employers.
  • 1099 forms that show interest paid to you, any refund, credit or offset of state and local taxes, self-employment income, or dividends and distributions from retirement and other plans.
  • 1095A form of the Health Insurance Marketplace Statement (if that applies to you).

Bottom line

E-filing your own taxes can be safe, fast and accurate. However, you still must do your homework to decide which e-filing method is best for your situation. While the IRS authorizes e-filers, including software programs, it doesn’t endorse any.

Whether you choose to e-file for free from your mobile device, or pay a tax professional to prepare and e-file your return for you, e-filing may help you feel more confident about your return’s accuracy. And, you may be able to get a refund (if you’re entitled to one) faster than if you file a paper return.

Jennifer Samuel, senior tax product specialist for Credit Karma, has more than a decade of experience in the tax preparation industry, including work as a tax analyst and tax preparation professional. She holds a bachelor’s degree in accounting from Saint Leo University. You can find her on LinkedIn.