Where's My Tax Refund?

Find out what the holdup might be.

Dan Caplinger
Dan Caplinger
Apr 27, 2019 at 6:47AM
Investment Planning

Many taxpayers work hard to file their taxes as soon as possible to get their tax refund more quickly. That's smart, because the sooner you file, the sooner the IRS will get your hard-earned money back to you.

With April 15 in the rearview mirror, anyone who filed their taxes on time rather than getting an extension has had at least a couple weeks to ponder when they'll get their refund checks. If you're one of the millions of people who haven't yet gotten money back from the IRS, the waiting might seem interminable. However, there's a lot that goes into when you'll get your refund, and depending on several factors, your wait could go on for quite a while.

Tax refund check on top of a 1040 form.

Image source: Getty Images.

How the IRS gets refunds to you

For the most part, the IRS does a good job of getting refunds back to taxpayers in a timely manner. Over the past several years, the tax agency has said that it aims at getting 90% of refunds out to taxpayers within 21 days of their filing their returns. That gives last-day filers a good shot at having their money back by May 6, and those who managed to get their returns finished a bit early should see their refunds that much sooner.

The one caveat, though, is that the IRS bases its quick-refund projections on the assumption that you've filed your return electronically. You might remember seeing numerous encouragements in IRS documents for you to e-file your return, boasting the faster processing times and quicker refunds available to those who file electronically. Moreover, the fastest refunds are available to those who designed a bank account to have the money directly deposited.

By contrast, consider all the potential delays involved with conventional filing methods. It can take a week or longer just for your return to get to the IRS. Processing of paper returns takes longer once they get to the IRS, and with more frequent errors, the odds are higher that a paper return will require additional review. Once processing occurs, it takes additional time for the IRS to cut a paper check, and there'll also be lag time in getting that refund mailed out to you.

Just how long can the delay be?

The IRS doesn't explicitly say how much longer it'll take to deal with paper returns and refund checks. However, there are some hints you can find in some of the documentation the tax service provides.

For instance, the IRS provides a tool that lets you see the current status of your return and whether your refund is on its way. However, you're not even supposed to use the Where's My Refund tool on the IRS website until four full weeks after you've filed a paper return. That gives you a sense of how long the IRS expects to take dealing with a paper return before it's ready to issue a refund. Compare that to the fact that you're allowed to check your refund status a mere 24 hours after electronically filing your tax return, and you can see how big a preference there is for the more modern filing method.

No matter how you filed your return, using the Where's My Refund tool to see what if any information the IRS has is generally a smart move. With increasing incidence of tax fraud that includes theft of refund checks or tax filings, coordinating with the IRS to make sure that you're both on the same page is smart so that you can detect any possible problems as quickly as possible.


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Patience is a virtue

It's hard to deal with waiting for your tax refund, but most of the time, all it takes is a bit more patience to give the IRS the time it needs to process your return and get your money back to you. Only in special circumstances in which a suspiciously long period of time has passed will it make sense to contact the IRS directly to follow up on where your refund is.