Options for Filing a Tax Return

Each year, most Americans are required to file a federal income tax return. If you must file, you have two options:

  • Filing an electronic tax return (often called electronic filing or e-filing), or
  • Filing a paper return.

E-filing is generally considered safer, faster, and more convenient, but some people can’t e-file and must mail their tax returns to the IRS. Each year, you need to decide which filing method is right for you.

Find out if you need to file

Some people aren't required to file a tax return. To see whether you’re required to file a tax return, use the IRS.gov tool - "Do I need to File a Return?".

Paper or electronic?

Most taxpayers can file their tax returns electronically. If you can e-file, consider one of the Free File options. The IRS offers free access to tax preparation software to taxpayers who make less than a fixed amount, and free fillable forms to all taxpayers.

You are required to file a paper return if you are:

  • Claiming a dependent who was already claimed on another return;
  • Filing before or after the e-file season (generally January 15-October 15 each year);
  • Filing an amended return;
  • Filing a prior year tax return; or
  • Filing with certain IRS forms.

If you must file a paper return, consider sending it by certified mail, with a return receipt. This will be your proof of the date you mailed your return and when the IRS received it. You may also use certain private delivery services designated by the IRS. For mailing purposes, you can find IRS addresses in the What are my resources? section.

What if I can’t file on time?

If you can’t file by the due date of your tax return, you should request an extension of time to file. An extension of time to file does not extend the time to pay your tax. If you don’t pay your tax by the original due date of your return, you will owe interest and may owe penalties on the unpaid tax.

If you e-file

If you e-file, the IRS will notify you within 24 hours if your tax return was received and accepted or if it’s being rejected.

The IRS accepts most returns, but if it has a problem such as an incorrect Social Security number, the IRS will reject your return and tell you how to fix it. You can usually fix the problem and try to e-file again, but in some cases you’ll need to submit a paper return instead.

E-filed returns are processed faster than paper ones, and so refunds come more quickly– sometimes within ten days if you ask for a direct deposit or 21 days if you ask to have a check mailed to you.

The PATH Act made the following changes, which became effective for the 2016 filing season, to help prevent revenue loss due to identity theft and refund fraud related to fabricated wages and withholdings:

  • The IRS may not issue a credit or refund to a taxpayer before February 15th, if the taxpayer claims the Earned Income Tax Credit or Additional Child Tax Credit (ACTC) on their return.
  • This change only affects returns claiming EITC or ACTC that are filed before February 15.
  • The IRS will hold the entire refund, including any part of the refund that isn't associated with the EITC or ACTC.
  • Neither TAS, nor the IRS, can release any part of the refund before that date, even if you are experiencing a financial hardship.

If you owe taxes

If you owe taxes on your return, you can schedule the payment to be deducted from your bank account or mail a check to the IRS. To avoid any additional charges, schedule your payment to be deducted on any day up to the due date of the return, or mail your check in time to be received by that date. If you mail a check, you can expect the IRS to cash it within a week or two of receipt.

Include the following information on your payment to make sure you get credit on your account:

If you e-file, the e-file system will provide you a voucher to mail with your payment.

If you mail your return, send IRS Form 1040-V - Payment Voucher, when mailing your payment.

If you can’t pay, you have options for making payments over time.

Have a different tax issue?  Browse common issues and situations at Get Help.

Is your tax problem more complex?  If your issue is causing you financial hardship, you have tried repeatedly and are not receiving a response from the IRS, or you feel your taxpayer rights are being violated, consider contacting Taxpayer Advocate Service (TAS).

Do you feel that you need help from a tax professional but can’t afford one? You may be eligible for representation from an attorney, certified public accountant (CPA), or enrolled agent associated with a Low Income Taxpayer Clinic.

Last modified September 20, 2017