How long it takes to get your tax refund

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More than 90 percent of tax refunds are issued by the IRS in less than 21 days, according to the IRS. However, the exact timing depends on a range of factors, and in some cases, the process may take longer.

If you’re owed a refund, you’re probably eager for it to arrive. Here’s what you need to know to predict how long you’ll wait for your refund.

How long will my tax refund take?

The IRS sends over 9 out of 10 refunds to taxpayers in less than three weeks.

Unfortunately, a 21-day delivery of your tax refund isn’t guaranteed. There are a number of factors — including the choices you make when you file — that could impact how long it takes for you to receive your tax refund.

You get to choose how you want to receive any refund the IRS owes you. Here are your options:

  • Direct deposit into your bank account.
  • Paper check sent through the mail.
  • Debit card holding the value of the refund.
  • Purchase up to $5,000 in U.S. Savings Bonds.
  • Split your refund among up to three financial accounts in your name, including an IRA.

The delivery option you choose for your tax refund will affect how quickly you receive your funds. According to the IRS, the fastest way to receive your refund is to combine the direct deposit method with an electronically filed tax return.

Tax refund process

Below is an estimated breakdown of how soon you might expect to receive your tax refund, based on filing and delivery choices.

Federal tax refund delivery time
Delivery type Delivery time (date filed – receipt of tax refund)
Source: IRS
E-file with direct deposit 1-3 weeks
Paper file with direct deposit 3 weeks
E-file with refund check in the mail 6-8 weeks
Paper file with refund check in the mail 6-8 weeks

Other factors that could affect the timing of your refund

Additional factors could slow down the processing of your tax refund, such as errors, incomplete returns or fraud.

Taxpayers who claim the earned income tax credit (EITC) or the additional child tax credit (ACTC) may see additional delays because of special rules that require the IRS to hold their refunds until Feb. 27. You should also expect to wait longer for your refund if the IRS determines that your tax return needs further review.

How to track the progress of your refund

The IRS has eliminated the guesswork of waiting for your tax refund by creating IRS2Go, an app that allows you to track the status of your return. You can also check the status of your refund with the “Where’s My Refund?” online portal.

Both tools provide personalized daily updates for taxpayers 24 hours after a return is e-filed or four weeks after the IRS has received a paper return. After inputting some basic information (i.e., your Social Security number or ITIN, filing status, and the exact amount of your refund), you can track your refund’s progress through three stages:

  1. Return received.
  2. Refund approved.
  3. Refund sent.

Once your refund reaches the third stage, you will need to wait for your financial institution to process a direct deposit or for a paper check to reach you through the mail.

What to do once your refund arrives

For many people, their IRS tax refund is the biggest check they receive all year, the IRS says. In anticipation of your windfall, it’s wise to have a plan for how you’re going to use your windfall. Deciding how to spend, save or invest the money in advance can help stop the shopping impulse from getting the best of you.

Your refund is yours to use how you see fit and can be used to help pay for day-to-day expenses or invested for long-term financial stability.

If you’re expecting a refund, put it to good use. Looking for inspiration? Bankrate offers five smart ways to invest your tax refund.