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When Will I Get My Tax Refund?

By Dan Caplinger – Mar 7, 2016 at 10:01AM

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You won't get a firm answer from the IRS, but you can still get a sense depending on how and when you file.

Image source: IRS.

Most taxpayers have gotten all the tax forms they need in order to file their returns, and many look to file as soon as possible in order to get their refund back more quickly. The question that just about everyone wants answered is how fast they can expect to see their refund money, and, unfortunately, the IRS is hesitant to provide a firm date in advance. However, there are some general guidelines that you can look at to get an estimate of when you'll get your tax refund.

The general rule
The first thing that the IRS says about refunds is that it issues most of them within 21 calendar days of when you file your return. That success rate relies heavily on the fact that so many people have moved to filing their returns electronically, which cuts down dramatically on the transit and processing times involved.

It's easy to get a sense of just how much a paper filing can delay your refund by looking at the instructions for the IRS online Where's My Refund tool. Those who use electronic filing are permitted to use this tool within 24 hours of filing. Paper filers, by contrast, have to wait four full weeks before they can even start checking on refund status.

There are several reasons why paper filings take so much extra time. First, mailing time to the IRS obviously takes longer than the nearly instantaneous transmission time for an electronic return. Second, once the IRS receives a paper filing, it has to do special processing to get the information the return contains into a format that it can evaluate by computer. An electronic return already has the information in the necessary format, easing the process further.

Getting your money faster
The other way that you can have influence on how quickly you get your tax refund is in choosing how you get your money back. As with filing, there's an electronic option and a paper option. Once again, the electronic option tends to be faster.

Direct deposit results in extremely fast turnaround times. Once your refund is approved, the deposit can happen within a day or two. By contrast, a refund check requires special preparation and printing of the check, packaging of the mailing, and then the mail time from the IRS to your address.

The Where's My Refund tool
Once it's available to you, the Where's My Refund tool can be quite valuable. The tool will give you the current status of your return, saying whether the return has been received, whether the refund has been approved, and whether the IRS has sent the refund. Once it gets to a certain point in the process, the tool will give you a timeline on when to expect the refund.

What if you don't get your refund on time?
The IRS won't even start researching your refund status until 21 days have passed since your electronic filing was received or six weeks since you mailed your paper return. Sometimes, the Where's My Refund app will have you contact the IRS sooner, in which case you can ignore that timeline.

In general, though, refunds have gotten a lot quicker than in the past. By filing electronically and choosing direct deposit, you'll get your refund as quickly as possible.

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