When to Expect Your Tax Refund

Various factors can affect the timing

So you've filed your taxes and know you're going to get a refund from Uncle Sam. Waiting for that refund can be a little nerve-wracking, especially if you're expecting a nice, large amount and already have plans as to where that money will go. But when will it arrive?

Though it’s impossible to predict the exact day your tax refund will arrive, there are some factors that can influence your timeline. This article explains some of these factors along with suggestions of how to use that money once you get it.

Key Takeaways

  • A tax refund is a reimbursement for any excess tax you pay during the year.
  • You are also eligible for a tax refund if you claim a refundable income tax credit (such as the earned income tax credit) if it is greater than the amount you owe.
  • The timeline for a refund by check is six to eight weeks if you submit a paper return and three weeks if you submit it electronically.
  • You can receive your refund earlier if you file electronically and request direct deposit, which the IRS prefers.
  • The IRS has a tool called Where's My Refund? to allow taxpayers to track the status of their refunds.

What Is a Tax Refund?

A tax refund is a reimbursement for any excess tax you pay during the year. When you start working for a company, you are required to fill out a Form W-4. The information you provide determines how much your employer withholds to cover federal income taxes. Withholding too much of your salary results in a tax refund. If you come up short, you will owe taxes.

While most workers prepay their federal income taxes through their paychecks, others do so by filing quarterly estimated taxes. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) provides a schedule for estimated tax payments, which are divided into quarterly due dates:

  • April 15 for the payment period of January 1 to March 31
  • June 15 for the payment period of April 1 to May 31
  • September 15 for the payment period of June 1 to August 31
  • January 15 for the payment period of September 1 to December 31

You may also receive a tax refund if you claim a refundable tax credit, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). Most federal income tax credits are non-refundable and only reduce the amount you owe in taxes. However, if you claim a refundable tax credit that is greater than the amount you owe, you will receive the difference as a tax refund.

If you are a independent contract worker, you are considered both an employee and an employer. As such, you must pay your own taxes on a quarterly basis rather than completing a Form W-4.

How to File and Receive Your Refund

Taxpayers can choose how they submit their tax returns and how they want to receive their refund. Those who file paper tax returns and send them to the IRS by mail can generally expect to receive their refunds within six to eight weeks. Refunds for electronically filed returns are generally sent out three weeks later.

Keep in mind that the IRS encourages taxpayers to file their returns electronically and elect to receive their refunds via direct deposit. By doing so, you will likely get your refund faster than someone who submits a return by mail and requests a paper check. You will also minimize the risk of a fraudulent tax filing in your name, complicating and delaying your own true and accurate return.

In some cases, you may receive your refund as a paper check even if you requested a direct deposit. According to the IRS, this could happen if:

  • You request that the refund be deposited electronically into an account owned by someone other than you or your spouse.
  • Your bank rejects the transaction.
  • You request that more than three electronic refunds be deposited into a single bank account.

Factors That Can Affect Timing

Your tax refund may be delayed for several reasons, including if your return is incomplete, includes errors, was affected by fraud or identity theft, or requires further review. There are also specific items that can hold up your refund. For example, tax returns that include Form 8379: Injured Spouse Allocation may take up to 14 weeks to process.

If you claim certain tax credits, the earliest you will receive your tax refund is the first week of March. Under the Protecting Americans from Tax Hikes (PATH) Act, the IRS is prohibited from issuing refunds before mid-February for taxpayers who claim the EITC or the Additional Child Tax Credit (ACTC).

Factors That Affect Tax Refund Timing

Investopedia / Ellen Lindner

Tracking Your Tax Refund

The IRS's Where’s My Refund? provides the status of your return if you haven’t received it. You can access your refund information with the tool within one day of filing electronically or about a month after you send your return by mail.

The tool is updated daily and can be found on IRS.gov or the IRS2Go app. You must provide your Social Security number (SSN) or individual taxpayer identification number (ITIN), your tax filing status, and the exact amount of your refund.

The tool identifies the stage at which our refund sits at the time you check. Depending on the circumstances, the IRS may show your status as:

  • Return Received
  • Refund Approved
  • Refund Sent
  • Another explanation of what is happening

When you see that your tax refund is approved, it will likely be a few more days until it shows up as “sent.” From this point, it should take about five days for your refund to arrive electronically or several weeks to arrive by mail. You should only contact the IRS directly about the status of your tax refund if it’s been at least three weeks since you filed your return electronically or you were instructed to contact the IRS when using the Where’s My Refund? tool.

There are other unique factors that may hold up your tax refund. For instance, some taxpayers may experience delays during times of economic distress or other circumstances, as was the case during the 2020 economic crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Best Ways to Spend Your Tax Refund

If you’re expecting a tax refund, you’ll want to spend it wisely. Here are some ways to put the money to good use.

  • Pay down your credit cards. Carrying a balance on credit cards can hurt your credit score and may prevent you from qualifying for a mortgage or other loan. Paying off your debt early can help improve your credit score and save you money on interest.
  • Save for an emergency. Experts recommend having three to six months’ worth of savings held in an emergency fund. That way you’ll be covered in the event of a job loss or other unexpected financial hardship.
  • Save for retirement. In 2022, individuals could contribute up to $6,000 to a traditional or Roth individual retirement account (IRA). In 2023, this limit is increased to $6,500 per individual. In addition, taxpayers who are age 50 or older may contribute an additional $1,000. Both accounts offer tax benefits to help grow your savings. 
  • Save for college. Consider putting money away in a 529 college savings plan if you have children or grandchildren. Your investment grows tax-deferred and withdrawals used to pay for college are tax-free. Each dollar you save will reduce the amount the child has to borrow in student loans.

When Are My Taxes Due in 2023?

Tax day in 2023 in the United States for most individuals is April 18, 2023. Though you can always file earlier, this is the deadline for submitting your return without being subject to a late filing penalty.

How Early Can I Get My Tax Refund?

Each year, towards the beginning of January, the IRS announces the official start date of the federal income tax season. This announcement communicates the official date in which the IRS will begin accepting tax returns. Upon filing a tax return on this date (usually mid-January), many taxpayers may see their refund as early as February.

Is It Safe to Have My Tax Refund Electronically Deposited?

Yes, the quickest and possibly safest way to get your tax refund is to opt-in to receive an electronic deposit. Paper checks may be lost, stolen, or incorrectly addressed. In addition, the IRS will know immediately if your electronic payment can not be processed; in this case, they often and likely attempt to award your refund using a different method.

The Bottom Line

To ensure a quick turnaround with your tax refund, file electronically and request direct deposit. Mailing your tax return the old-fashioned way can result in unnecessary, inconvenient, and substantial delays. The sooner you can get your refund, the sooner you can start investing that money.

Correction—Dec. 9, 2021: A previous version of this article misstated that you are only eligible for a tax refund if you claim non-refundable credits. Non-refundable tax credits can only reduce and minimize your tax liability. They cannot generate a refund or be used to increase the amount you will receive.

Article Sources
Investopedia requires writers to use primary sources to support their work. These include white papers, government data, original reporting, and interviews with industry experts. We also reference original research from other reputable publishers where appropriate. You can learn more about the standards we follow in producing accurate, unbiased content in our editorial policy.
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  2. Internal Revenue Service. "Where's My Refund?"

  3. Internal Revenue Service. “Employee’s Withholding Certificate 2021.”

  4. Internal Revenue Service. "When to Pay Estimated Tax."

  5. Internal Revenue Service. "Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC)."

  6. Internal Revenue Service. “Estimated Taxes."

  7. Internal Revenue Service. "Understanding Employee vs. Contractor Designation."

  8. Internal Revenue Service. "Tax Season Refund Frequently Asked Questions."

  9. Internal Revenue Service. "IRS Operations During COVID-19: Mission-Critical Functions Continue."

  10. Internal Revenue Service. "Retirement Topics - 401(k) and Profit-Sharing Plan Contribution Limits."

  11. Internal Revenue Service. "Retirement Topics - IRA Contribution Limits."

  12. U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. "An Introduction to 529 Plans: How Does Investing in a 529 Plan Affect Federal and State Income Taxes?"

  13. Internal Revenue Service. "Publication 509."

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