If you are required to file a federal income tax return and for any reason want more time beyond the April filing deadline, you can get an extension just by asking for it. The request is made by filling out an Internal Revenue Service (IRS) extension form, known officially as Form 4868: Application for Automatic Extension of Time to File U.S. Individual Income Tax Return. 

Key Takeaways

  • Form 4868 gives taxpayers a six-month extension, for any reason, to file federal income tax returns.
  • In order to get an extension, you need to fill out the form no later than the original due date of the return.
  • Filing the IRS extension form doesn’t give you more time to pay your taxes if you owe them.
  • Once taxes are due, you’ll be on the hook for interest and penalties on unpaid taxes, which begin to accrue on the original—or extended—due date, even if you file for an extension.

Understanding Form 4868

Form 4868 gives you an automatic six-month extension to file your federal income tax return. The extension for federal income tax returns that are due on April 15 would give you until Oct. 15.

On March 17, 2021, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) announced that the federal income tax filing due date for all taxpayers for the 2020 tax year will be automatically extended from April 15, 2021, to May 17, 2021. This only applies to individual federal income returns and tax (including tax on self-employment income) payments otherwise due April 15, 2021, not state tax payments or deposits or payments of any other type of federal tax.

In addition, victims of the 2021 winter storms in Texas will have until June 15, 2021, to file their tax returns and make tax payments. This includes 2020 individual and business returns normally due on April 15, as well as various 2020 business returns due on March 15. (The extension for victims of the 2021 winter storms was announced on Feb. 22, 2021.

You may want an extension if you have not yet received all the necessary information to prepare your return—for example, if you haven't received a Schedule K-1 from a trust in which you are a beneficiary.

If you are self-employed, there is an added benefit to obtaining a filing extension. It gives you until the extended due date to set up and fund a simplified employee pension (SEP) retirement plan.

By obtaining the extension, you avoid any late-filing penalties as long as you do file by the extended due date. If you don't, you face a late filing penalty of 5% of the amount due for each month or part of the month your return is late. If your return is more than 60 days late, the minimum penalty is $330 or the balance due, whichever is smaller.

It's important to keep in mind that filing an extension does not generally mean you are off the hook for paying taxes due by the April deadline. You'll owe interest and potential penalties if you pay late, even if you file an IRS extension form.

Depending on your state, filing the federal form may also give you an automatic extension for state income tax purposes.

Who Can File Form 4868?

Taxpayers who want more time for any reason to file federal income tax returns can use Form 4868. You can file the form when you need an extension for a variety of returns in the 1040 series including:

  • Form 1040: U.S. Individual Tax Return
  • Form 1040-SR: U.S. Tax Return for Seniors
  • Form 1040-NR: U.S. Nonresident Alien Income Tax Return
  • Form 1040NR-EZ: U.S. Income Tax Return for Certain Nonresident Aliens With No Dependents
  • Form 1040-PR: Self-Employment Tax Return-Puerto Rico
  • Form 1040-SS: U.S. Self-Employment Tax Return

How to File Form 4868

A 4868 form is relatively straightforward to fill out. It is half a page and does not require any date or signature. You don't have to give a reason for requesting an extension. All you have to provide is:

  • Information about you: This is done in Part I: Identification. Include your name, address, Social Security Number and, if applicable, your spouse's Social Security number.
  • Information about your income taxes: This is done in Part II: Individual Income Tax. Provide a good faith estimate of what you think your final taxes will be. Subtract from this your total tax payments for the year from withholding and any estimated taxes. If your estimated tax liability for the year is greater than your total tax payments, you have a balance due.
Form 4868

If you show a balance due, you can make a payment as described below. You aren't required to make a payment as a condition of obtaining a filing extension.

For the extension to be effective, you must make your request no later than the original due date of the return. No filing extension can be granted after the April deadline. An IRS extension form can be submitted on paper to the address in the instructions for the form or filed electronically. 

All versions of Form 4868 are available on the IRS website.

If You Owe Taxes

Obtaining a filing extension does not give you more time to pay your taxes. Interest and penalties on unpaid taxes begin to accrue after 90 days, even if you obtain a filing extension until Oct. 15. Your payment is still due on the original due date, April 15.

If you submit a paper Form 4868 to the IRS, you can send in a payment of some or all of the balance due. The more you pay, the less your interest and penalties will be. Instructions on the form tell you where to send it, along with your payment.

If you file Form 4868 electronically but want to send a payment by mail, send a copy of the e-filed form along with your check. The form acts as your voucher in this case so your check will be credited properly to your tax account.

If you file your form electronically, you can also make an electronic payment via:

  • Direct Pay, which is a transfer from your bank account to the IRS with no fees.
  • Electronic Federal Tax Payment System (EFTPS), which is another free payment system. It requires registration.
  • Credit or debit card through an IRS-approved payment processor. This method entails a small convenience fee charged by the processor⁠—a flat fee for debit card transactions or a percentage of the taxes for credit card transactions.

The IRS also offers the option to pay by phone through EFTPS by calling 800-555-3453.

The IRS will also allow you to skip filling out a 4868 form entirely if you pay all or part of your estimated income tax due online or by phone using Direct Pay, EFTPS, or a credit or debit card and indicate that the payment is for an extension. It will provide confirmation of the extension if you take this route.

Special Considerations for U.S. Taxpayers Abroad

A two-month filing extension is automatically given to a U.S. citizen or resident who lives outside of the U.S. or Puerto Rico, or whose main place of work is outside the U.S. or Puerto Rico, or who is in the military or naval service on duty outside the U.S. or Puerto Rico. For the 2020 tax year, a return is not due until June 15, 2021, for these taxpayers. They do not have to request the two-month extension.

However, if these individuals want even more time, they must complete Form 4868 and check the box on Line 8 indicating they are "out of the country." By doing this, there is an additional four months to file without any late-filing penalty.

The two-month automatic extension does not apply to someone on vacation outside the U.S. Anyone anticipating being away on the filing deadline and who needs more time to file should submit Form 4868 before going away, or have a tax preparer submit the form.

Nonresidents filing Form 1040-NR or 1040NR-EZ who cannot file by the due date should also file Form 4868 to obtain a filing extension. However, the same two-month automatic extension applies if the person did not receive any wages subject to U.S. income tax withholding. These individuals must check the box on Line 9 of Form 4868 to indicate that this scenario applies.

The Bottom Line

If you can't file your federal income tax return on time, simply ask for a filing extension. If you don't, you'll face a late filing penalty. You may be able to escape penalties by showing reasonable cause, but why go through the bother? Fill out an IRS extension form before the filing deadline. And don't forget that if you owe taxes, they are still due by the April deadline.