Even before the year is over, millions of taxpayers wait anxiously for their tax refund checks from the IRS. There used to be firm schedules that tax bureaucrats used to give guidance to taxpayers about when they could expect refunds, but things have changed enough that the IRS stopped issuing that type of schedule.

Instead, the tax agency offers guidance on how long it typically takes it to process returns and get refunds sent to taxpayers. With that in mind, here you'll find some estimates on when you can expect your refund in 2018.

Tax forms on top of a spread-out pile of large-denomination U.S. money.

Image source: Getty Images.

Why the IRS doesn't want you to rely on tax refund schedules

First and foremost, the IRS is upfront in warning taxpayers about the timing of tax refunds. In November, the agency said that it "cautions taxpayers from relying on misleading refund charts on the internet that project tax refund dates. Any speculation about refund dates in 2018 is premature. In addition, these refund charts can overlook that many different factors affect the timing of tax refunds."

That said, the IRS once again repeated that it issues more than 90% of refunds to taxpayers within 21 days or less. It's of course possible that your return could require additional review and therefore take longer. But as long as you understand the caveats, then referring to charts like the one below can be helpful just to understand what impact the calendar has on timing.

What an estimated 2018 tax refund schedule might look like

Any schedule you find will have assumptions, but many sources won't tell you what they are. Here are the assumptions that this tax refund schedule uses to come up with the dates indicated:

  • It assumes that filing season will start on Jan. 29. That would be later than in previous years, and again, the IRS has gone to great lengths that it hasn't yet announced the official filing season start date. Until Congress decides whether to extend certain expiring tax provisions, the IRS might need to wait to say when the start of tax season will be.
  • It assumes that refund issuance will take 15 days if you use electronic filing to file your return. That number is arbitrary, but it's both shorter than the 21-day claim the IRS makes for most of its refunds and longer than the 10 days that estimates have used in previous years.
  • It assumes that paper returns will take four weeks to get to the IRS and get processed.
  • It assumes that if you request a paper refund check, it will take 10 days to get to you by mail.

With those assumptions in mind, here's an anticipated 2018 tax refund schedule.

Date You File

Refund Date If E-File + Direct Deposit

Refund Date If E-File + Mail Refund

Refund Date If Paper-File + Direct Deposit

Refund Date If Paper-File + Mail Refund

Jan. 29

Feb. 13

Feb. 23

March 13

March 23

Feb. 15

March 2

March 12

March 30

April 9

March 1

March 16

March 26

April 13

April 23

March 15

March 30

April 9

April 27

May 7

April 1

April 16

April 26

May 14

May 24

April 17

May 2

May 12

May 30

June 9

Data source: author, based on assumptions. Warning: The IRS has not authorized this schedule and specifically says that similar tables can be misleading. Each taxpayer's experience may differ.

The best way to get information on when your refund will get to you is to use the IRS Where's My Refund online tool. Those who use electronic filing can check in after 24 hours to see when they might expect a refund, while those who file paper returns must wait four weeks after mailing to get information on their refund.

As the chart shows, there are some things you can do to speed up your refund. E-filing your return is the fastest method, and it can also result in fewer math errors and other needless holdups than paper returns. If you request direct deposit, then your money gets sent to you electronically, which is much faster than dealing with a paper refund check in the mail.

Things to keep in mind

To be absolutely clear, the schedule above is a guideline, and the IRS won't necessarily follow it. You could get your refund before or after what the schedule suggests.

In particular, don't make any financial plans based on getting refund on any particular day. It's just too likely that unforeseen circumstances related to your specific return will result in additional delays, and then you could find yourself in even bigger financial trouble because of plans you made.

Finally, bear in mind that certain rules could delay your refund. Last year, laws took effect that forced those who claimed certain tax credits to wait for refunds until at least mid-February. That resulted in a few extra weeks' worth of delays.

Getting a tax refund can be an important source of income for many taxpayers. If you're one of them, the chart above can give you at least a general idea of when your refund might come in.

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