One of the biggest motivations to get your taxes filed on time is to get your tax refund as quickly as possible. Yet once you file your return, it can seem like forever before your hard-earned refund money hits your account or you get that IRS check in the mail.

Even though tax season is firmly behind us, and it's been at least a couple of weeks since everyone who didn't get an extension got their tax returns in, there are millions of people who still haven't gotten their tax refunds yet. If you're one of them, you might wonder what the holdup is. Unfortunately, the lag time between when you file and when you get your refund can be a lot longer than you'd like.

Tax refund check on top of a 1040 tax form.

Image source: Getty Images.

What to expect from the IRS

The Internal Revenue Service is proud of its record of getting refunds out quickly and efficiently. For several years, the service has claimed that it gets 90% of refunds out to taxpayers within 21 days of when they file their returns. So if you're reading this article just a couple of weeks after the April 17 filing deadline, then it's possible that all you'll need to do is wait a few more days before you'll see your refund.

However, that estimate assumes that you'll use electronic filing to get your return to the tax man and that you've asked to have your refund deposited directly into your account. Any method of filing or getting your refund that involves paper can take a lot longer.

For instance, if you file your return by mail, you have to add in several potential sources of delay:

  • It can take several days just for your return to arrive at the IRS.
  • If something goes wrong with the mail -- for instance, if you used insufficient postage -- then your return can get sent back to you unfiled.
  • Once the IRS gets your return, processing of paper returns is a lot more complicated than electronic filings and can take additional time.
  • If there are simple errors in your return of the sort that electronic filing would generally have caught, you'll see further delays in order to remedy the situation.

The best sign of how big a problem filing by mail can be in getting your refund quickly comes from the instructions to the IRS's primary tool in telling taxpayers when to expect their checks. The Where's My Refund site lets you check your refund status just 24 hours after filing an electronic return, but you have to wait four weeks on a paper return just to get basic refund information -- let alone get the actual check.

The check is in the mail

On the other end of the process, once your return has been filed and the amount of your refund determined, you then will face the challenge of how quickly you'll get paid. If you elect not to have your refund directly deposited to a bank account, there can be delays associated with processing a paper check. The IRS has to submit batch requests to have the physical checks actually prepared; then those checks need to be put in the mail. From there, delivery is by regular first-class mail, so delays of several days to a week or more aren't out of the question.

It's always smart to check the Where's My Refund tool to see what information the IRS will give you. If it's been a really long time since you filed and you still haven't gotten a refund check, there's always a chance that it was misplaced or stolen in transit. That's another good way in which electronic filing and direct deposit have advantages over paper filing and refund-check delivery.

Don't panic -- but stay alert

Not having your tax refund when you want it can be a major annoyance, but don't panic. In most cases, the IRS just needs more time than you want to give it in order to get your refund processed. You should generally save serious inquiries about where your refund is for situations in which the delay becomes unreasonably long, even by the IRS's own suggested standards.