Tax deadlines have a way of creeping up on you, so filing for a tax extension might be something you need to do. The new filing deadline for your 2020 individual income tax return is Monday, May 17, 2021. You have until that date to file and pay your federal taxes without any penalty.

As well, due to the winter storms that hit Texas in February 2021, the IRS has shifted the deadline for individual and business tax filings for residents of the state—including tax payments—from April 15, 2021, to June 15, 2021.

Filing an extension for your tax filing deadline does not also extend your payment deadline; taxes are due on the official tax due date–May 17, 2021, for 2020 individual taxes.

If you need more time to prepare your return—whether you are busy with school, travel, a family emergency, or are simply disorganized—you can request a six-month filing extension by submitting the proper form to the U.S. Internal Revenue Service (IRS).

Of course, there’s also a deadline for that, but the good news is that getting an extension is easier than you might think. Here’s what you need to know, from dates and forms to special rules.

Key Takeaways

  • Filing for a tax extension can be done either electronically or by using a paper form.
  • Tax extensions are generally six months in length (it will be a little shorter in the 2020 tax year).
  • For 2020 taxes, you can extend from May 17 to Friday, Oct. 15, 2021.
  • Any overage you pay will be refunded to you once you file your tax return.

Filing for a Tax Extension: Form 4868

If you need an extension of time to file your 2020 individual income tax return in 2021, you must file Form 4868, Application for Automatic Extension of Time to File U.S. Individual Income Tax Return. Normally, the deadline would be April 15 for most taxpayers, as it is required to be filed by the original due date of the return. But for the 2020 tax year, the deadline for filing individual tax returns was extended to May 17, 2021. In 2020, the 2019 tax return filing deadline was extended to July 15 due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Requesting an extension is free and relatively simple, and it can be done either electronically or on paper. Either way, you will fill out identification information (your name, address, Social Security number, and your spouse’s Social Security number) and your individual income tax information (estimate of total tax liability for the year in question, total payments you’ve already made, the balance due, and the amount you are paying). There are also check boxes to indicate if you either are a U.S. citizen or resident who is out of the country or if you file Form 1040NR or 1040NR-EZ.

Like other tax forms, Form 4868 is available on the IRS website. Visit the Forms, Instructions & Publications section for a list of frequently downloaded forms and publications, including Form 4868.

Filing electronically

IRS e-file is the IRS’s electronic filing program, which allows you to send tax forms, including Form 4868, directly to IRS computers. You can get an automatic extension to file your tax return by filing Form 4868 electronically through IRS e-file on your own (from your personal computer, using free or commercial tax software) or with the help of a tax professional who uses e-file. You will receive an electronic acknowledgment you can keep with your tax records.

If your adjusted gross income (AGI) for 2020 was $72,000 or less, you can use brand-name software at no cost from Free File—a free service that provides taxpayers with federal tax preparation and e-file options. This is a partnership between the IRS and commercial tax-software companies. If your income is above the $72,000 threshold, you can use the IRS’s own Fillable Forms tool. There are also some tax-software companies that offer free filing under certain conditions.


The highest amount of adjusted gross income that qualifies you to use Free File to file your taxes electronically at no cost to you.

Filing by mail 

As an alternative to filing electronically, you can file a paper Form 4868. You can download the form from the IRS website or request to have a paper form mailed to you (for free) by filling out an order form on the IRS website. Alternatively, you can call the IRS at (800) 829-3676 to order a form.

Note: If you are a fiscal year (not calendar year) taxpayer, you’ll have to file a paper Form 4868.

More Time to File, Not More Time to Pay (Usually)

It’s important to remember that the Form 4868 extension gives you more time to file, not more time to pay. You will still have to pay your taxes by that year's original due date of the return (May 17, 2021, for 2020 individual taxes), even if the IRS grants an extension to file later than that.

If you think you may owe tax when it comes time to file your return, you should estimate how much you will owe and subtract any taxes that you have already paid (for example, through tax withholding on your paycheck). If your estimate is on the high side and you end up overpaying, you will be able to get a refund when you eventually file your return. That will also avoid the potential for penalties and interest to accumulate if you underestimate your taxes due.

You can pay part or all of your estimated income tax online using a debit or credit card or through an electronic funds transfer using Direct Pay, the Electronic Federal Tax Payment System. Even if you file electronically, you can mail a check or money order to make your tax payment. Make the check or money order payable to “United States Treasury” and include a completed Form 4868 to use as a voucher. You do not need to file a paper Form 4868 if you submitted one electronically and are not mailing a payment.

An extension on your federal tax return does not apply to your state tax return; you must apply to your state separately for that, and the rules vary among the states.

State Extensions

Each state has its own requirements for tax extensions. While some states offer automatic six-month extensions to all taxpayers (Alabama, California, and Wisconsin, for example), others require you to fill out a specific form on or before your return’s original due date.   Some states do not impose a state income tax, so you would file neither a return nor an extension request in those states.

You can use commercial tax preparation software (see below) to generate the correct, state-specific form, or you can find the form on your state tax authority’s website. As with your federal tax return, the state extension serves only to give you more time to file your return, not to pay your taxes. If you can, calculate what you might owe and submit a payment to avoid penalties and interest.

Special Rules

The IRS has two special circumstances under which you can extend the tax payment deadline.

Out of the country

You will be allowed an automatic two-month extension to file your return and pay any federal income tax due—without requesting an extension—if you are a U.S. citizen or resident alien and on the regular due date of your return you are:

  • Living outside the U.S. and Puerto Rico and your main place of business or post of duty is outside the U.S. and Puerto Rico, or
  • On duty outside the U.S. and Puerto Rico for military or naval service.

For your 2020 return, that means you may have until June 15, 2021, to file your tax return (check to see whether the May 17th extension has any affect on this June deadline). You must attach a statement to your return that explains the situation that qualified you for the extension. Additionally, interest will accumulate on any taxes not paid by the original due date, if you owe at the time of filing.

Combat zone

The deadline for filing tax returns and paying taxes is automatically extended if:

  • You serve in the Armed Forces in a combat zone or have qualifying service outside of a combat zone, or
  • You serve in the Armed Forces on deployment outside the U.S. away from your permanent duty station while participating in a contingency operation.

The extension is 180 days past the later of:

  • The last day you are in a combat zone or serving in a contingency operation, or
  • The last day of any continuous qualified hospitalization for a service injury from a combat zone or contingency operation.

The Bottom Line

Having extra time to gather, review, prepare, and submit your tax return can ease stress and allow you to be more thorough on your return. Requesting an extension is fairly simple, and you do not need to explain to the IRS why you want one. As most requests are automatically granted, the IRS will contact you only if your request is denied. You can file your tax return any time before the extension expires and you do not need to attach a copy of Form 4868 to the return. Just remember to pay any federal tax you owe by May 17, 2021, and check with your state about its regulations for state income tax returns.