If you are required to file a federal income tax return (Form 1040, 1040A​ or 1040EZ​) and for any reason want more time beyond the April filing deadline, you can get additional time just by asking for it. The request is made on Form 4868, Application for Automatic Extension of Time to File U.S. Individual Income Tax Return

Overview of the Form

Form 4868 gives you an automatic six-month extension of time to file your federal income tax return. (Depending on your state, filing the federal form may also give you an automatic extension for state income tax purposes.) Thus, for 2017 federal income tax returns that are due on April 17, 2018 (the usual April 15 deadline has been extended because of a legal holiday), the six-month extension gives you until October 15, 2018. By obtaining the extension, you avoid any late-filing penalties as long as you do file by the extended due date.

You don’t have to give a reason for requesting an extension. You may want one if you have not yet received all the necessary information to prepare your return (e.g., you haven’t received a Schedule K-1 from a trust in which you are a beneficiary). If you are self-employed, obtaining a filing extension gives you until the extended due date to set up and fund a SEP retirement plan. (For more on SEPs, see Business Owners: How to Set Up a SEP IRA.)

The form is half a page and does not require any date or signature. 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.

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. The form can be submitted on paper (to the address in the instructions for the form) or filed electronically. (Left it too late? You may be interested in reading You Missed the Tax Return Deadline: Now What?

Paying the Balance Due

Obtaining a filing extension does not give you more time to pay your taxes. Interest and penalties on unpaid taxes begin to accrue on the original due date, even if you obtain a filing extension.

If you send 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:

Special Rule for Taxpayers Out of the Country

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. Thus, the 2017 return is not due until June 15, 2018. Such individuals do not have to request this two-month extension.

However, if these individuals want even more time, they must complete Form 4868 and check the box on line 7 of Form 4868 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-return 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 (check the box on line 9 of Form 4868 to indicate that this condition 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 face a 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 $135 or the balance due, whichever is smaller. You may be able to escape penalties by showing reasonable cause, but why go through this bother? Ask for the extension before the filing deadline.