If you've filed your taxes for the year, you may be wondering how soon your refund will be arriving—especially if you have big plans for it. In general, the Internal Revenue Service says that nine out of 10 taxpayers who file electronically can expect their refunds within 21 days. But what if that much time has elapsed and your refund is still missing in action? Here is what you need to know and do.

Key Takeaways

  • The Internal Revenue Services says that taxpayers who e-file can generally expect to receive their refunds within 21 days.
  • You can check on the status of your refund at the IRS' Where's My Refund? page.
  • Reasons you haven't received your refund can range from simple math errors on your return to identity theft and tax fraud. Or it might simply mean an unusually high processing volume at the IRS.

First, Check Your Refund Status Online

If you are wondering where your refund is, you can start by checking its status on the Internal Revenue Service's Where's My Refund? page.

To do that, the IRS says you will need:

  • Your Social Security Number or ITIN
  • Your filing status
  • Your exact refund amount

Click on the Check My Refund Status button, supply the required information, and you'll get results. Unfortunately, this tool does not provide much detail about why your money may be delayed. It may advise you to call the IRS, from which you should be able to learn more details.

However, the IRS says you should not call unless:

  • It has been 21 or more days since you e-filed, or
  • The Where's My Refund? online tool tells you to contact the IRS.

7 Reasons for a Late Tax Refund

Many things can hold up the processing and delivery of your tax refund. For example, it could be delayed if you filed your return too early or waited until the last minute. If you tried to file in January, for example, a last-minute change to the tax code could have triggered an error on your return that slowed down the processing. Similarly, waiting until the very last minute to get your return in can mean a longer wait for your refund if the IRS is clogged up with a larger than usual volume of returns.

Also, keep in mind that filing a paper return can slow things down. The fastest way to file—and to get your refund—is to do it electronically online.

Beyond those possibilities, here are some of the most common causes of delay.

1. Your tax return contains inaccurate information

Numerical errors or other mistakes on your tax return can slow the pace of your refund. When an error is detected, your return is earmarked for human review, meaning an IRS employee must comb through it to find the mistake. That can add days or weeks to the processing time.

2. Your return is incomplete

Having an incomplete return can also trigger an IRS review, which could mean a longer wait for your refund. If you filed a paper return, for example, and forgot to enter in a key piece of information like your Social Security number—or you failed to sign your tax forms—the IRS won't process your return until those items are checked off.

3. You’re a victim of tax fraud

One type of tax fraud involves someone using your personal information to file a fraudulent tax return and claim a refund in your name. For the 2019 tax-filing season, the IRS identified more than 58,000 fraudulent refund claims, with close to 14,000 of them tied to identity theft. If you think you’re a victim of tax-related identity theft, you can contact the IRS and the Federal Trade Commission to report it.

4. Your refund was sent to the wrong bank

Filing your return electronically is the fastest way to get your refund, especially if you’re using direct deposit. That assumes, however, that you plugged in the right numbers for your bank account. If you transposed a digit in the routing or account number, your money could be sent to someone else's account.

If your refund ends up in someone else's bank account, you'll have to work with the bank directly to get it back. The IRS says it can't—and won't—compel the bank to return your money to you.

5. You claimed certain tax credits

Tax credits reduce your tax liability on a dollar-for-dollar basis. Certain tax credits—including the Earned Income Credit and the Additional Child Tax Credit—often draw scrutiny from the IRS due to taxpayers claiming these credits fraudulently. If you claimed either credit, that could be the reason your refund hasn't arrived yet.

6. You amended your return

Amending a tax return can also create a delay. Though the IRS recently changed the rules to allow for electronic filing of certain years' amended returns (currently just 2019), if you're trying to amend an older return, you have to mail it. In that situation, it can take up to three weeks for it to show up in the IRS system, and another 16 weeks to be processed, meaning you may be waiting several months for your refund.

If you owe certain kinds of debts, your tax refund may have been taken, or "offset," by the IRS to pay them.

7. Your Refund has Been offset to pay a debt

If you owe certain debts—including unpaid child support, unpaid state taxes, or delinquent federal student loans—the IRS can offset your refund by the balance owed. If your refund is offset, you’ll receive a notice from the federal Bureau of the Fiscal Service advising you as to why your refund was taken and the agency to which the debt has been owed. You have the right to dispute the debt with the agency that received your refund.

COVID-19 Impact

In addition to the seven reasons listed above, one of the significant reasons for slower processing times during 2020 has been the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. In particular, if a taxpayer filed a paper return, the processing time may be slower due to limited staffing as a result of the pandemic.

As noted by the IRS: "The IRS is experiencing delays in processing paper tax returns due to limited staffing. This is causing refund delays. Taxpayers who have already filed a paper return should know that the IRS is processing paper returns in the order in which they are received."

The Bottom Line

Those are some of the most common reasons for a delayed refund. A refund could also be late if it’s lost in the mail. Having your refund stolen from your mailbox is another possibility. And a government shutdown, such as the one that took place in January 2019, could also result in a longer wait for your return to be processed and your refund sent. If the IRS' Where’s My Refund? tool isn’t offering any answers, you can turn to your local IRS office for help. The IRS may be able to trace your refund to find out what’s happened to it and issue a replacement if needed.