How long can it take to get a tax refund?

If you’re waiting for a tax refund, you may be counting the days until it arrives. But you might not have to wait for long—especially if you submit your tax return electronically. 

This guide breaks down the tax refund process and how long taxpayers typically have to wait for their federal refund.

Key takeaways

  • Taxpayers typically receive a refund if their tax payment is greater than the amount they owe.
  • The IRS says most e-filers, people who file federal taxes electronically, typically receive a refund within 21 days.
  • Mailing a paper return, including certain claims on a return or submitting an incomplete tax return are some of the things that can delay a refund.

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What is a tax refund?

According to the IRS, “Taxpayers receive a refund when their total tax payments are greater than the total tax.” That means you may receive a refund from the government if your tax payments or withholdings exceed the total amount you owe.

And if you claim a refundable tax credit—like the Child Tax Credit or Earned Income Tax Credit—on your tax return, you may get a larger refund or owe less in taxes.

When will you get your tax refund?

Generally, the IRS will begin processing your refund after it receives your tax return. So the method you use to file your return can impact how quickly you get your refund.

There are usually two ways to file your tax return: online or by mail. And filing online can significantly shorten the time it takes to get your refund. In fact, the IRS says it issues more than 90% of federal tax refunds to online filers in less than 21 days. But if you mail a paper return to the IRS, your refund could take four weeks or longer to process.

State income tax refunds

The process might be different if you’re required to file state and local taxes where you live. To learn more about the timing of refunds, you can check with your tax agencies where you file or talk to a tax professional.

Factors that may delay tax refunds

Still haven’t received your tax refund? The IRS says there are a few reasons why your refund may be delayed. These could include: 

  • Filing your tax return through the mail: Mailing a paper tax return to the IRS means you may have to wait four weeks or longer for it to be processed. 
  • Submitting a tax return with missing or incorrect information: Missing information or having errors could result in delays, especially if you have to submit an amended return. In that case, the IRS may not process your return or issue a refund for 20 weeks or more.
  • Additional reviews: The IRS notes that some income tax returns need further review for various reasons. And additional reviews could mean you have to wait longer for your refund.

How to check your IRS tax refund status

You can usually check your federal tax refund status online using the Where’s My Refund? tool on the IRS’s website. But you’ll need to enter some information before you can view your refund status, including your:

Once you provide the above information, the tool should display your refund status, which will be marked as either Return Received, Refund Approved or Refund Sent.

If your refund has been delayed for another reason, the portal may provide an explanation as well. It might also prompt you to call the IRS for more information on your tax refund status.

The IRS updates the tool daily. And you may be able to view your refund status as early as 24 hours after the IRS has received your return—or four weeks after mailing your paper return.

How to get a tax refund faster

You may not be able to directly impact how fast you receive your tax refund. But there are steps you can take to ensure the IRS can process your refund as quickly as possible.

1. File your tax return on time

You might be able to file for an extension on your tax return. But delaying your tax deadline may also delay your tax refund. With that in mind, filing your tax return on or before Tax Day can help you get your refund sooner.

2. Opt to e-file

The IRS says that filing your tax return online is the safest and most accurate way to file—and the fastest way to get a refund. The IRS issues more than 90% of refunds to online filers in less than 21 days. Other circumstances could still delay your refund. But filing online may be the best option if you hope to receive your refund faster.

3. Choose direct deposit

According to the IRS, direct deposit is the fastest way to receive your refund. When you sign up for direct deposit, the IRS will automatically transfer your refund to your bank account or a prepaid debit card instead of mailing a paper check. 

You can also ask the IRS to split your refund between up to three accounts, like a 401(k) or IRA, emergency fund or health savings account

4. Track your refund status

You can keep tabs on your refund status by using the IRS’s Where’s My Refund? tool. If your refund has been delayed and the tool recommends you contact the IRS, you can call or visit your local IRS office for more information. Contacting the IRS may not fast-track your refund, but a representative may be able to determine why it’s been held up.

Tax refund FAQ

Still have questions about when you’ll receive your tax refund? The following information can help:

According to the IRS, filing your tax return electronically and setting up direct deposit is the fastest way to get your refund. If you’re not sure how to file online or whether it’s a good idea for you, a tax professional may be able to help.

After the IRS receives your tax return, the Where’s My Refund? tool should update your status to Return Received. And that means the next step is for the IRS to review your return.

The IRS says the review process typically takes a few days. And the tool may give you an explanation of where your return is in the process. If your information is correct, the IRS doesn’t need additional details and you qualify for a refund, your refund status on the Where’s My Refund? tool may be updated to Refund Approved.

If you filed electronically, the IRS says it could take a few days to review your tax return and process your refund. If you mailed a paper return, it could take four weeks or longer to process it. But other factors can delay the process as well, like missing or incorrect information.

If you qualify for a refund and haven’t received it within the normal processing schedule, check the Where’s My Refund? tool for additional details. Or you may be able to contact an IRS agent for additional help.

The IRS says there could be a few reasons why your tax refund was less than expected, for instance: 

  • Part of your refund may have been used to pay past-due federal or state taxes, child or spousal support debts, or nontax debts like student loans.
  • The IRS may have made changes or corrections to your tax return.

If any changes are made to your tax return, the IRS says you’ll receive a notice and more information about the changes. And the Where’s My Refund? tool could also provide you with an updated amount and an explanation of the changes.

Tax refunds in a nutshell

Understanding the refund process can help you know what to expect as you file your taxes and wait to receive your refund.

And if you’re looking to make the most of your refund, learn more about the smartest ways to spend your tax refund this year.

If you don’t want to wait for your tax refund, you might consider whether a credit card fits into your financial plans. Having a credit card could provide flexibility. And if you use it responsibly by doing things like paying your statement on time each month, you could also build credit. If that sounds appealing, consider comparing credit cards from Capital One.

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