The Fastest Way to Get Your Tax Refund

File right away, do it electronically and sign up for direct deposit.

Waiting for your tax refund can be like looking at fresh doughnuts that bakeries display in big cases behind the register. They’re tantalizingly close, but you can’t just jump over the counter and grab one — you have to wait until the cashier hands it over. It’s a sticky blend of anticipation, impatience and frustration.

Although there isn’t much you can do to speed up a doughnut line, there’s a lot you can do to speed up your tax refund (which you can then spend on doughnuts, if you like).

1. File ASAP

File your tax return as soon as possible; you’ll get your money sooner, of course, but it might also lower the odds of criminals taking your refund. Tax refund theft typically starts when someone steals personal information, then uses it to file fake tax returns and pocket the refunds. Later, when real taxpayers try to file their returns, they get an error message from their tax software or a letter from the IRS saying they’ve already filed or requesting more information. The result: potentially a months long wait for that tax refund while the IRS sorts things out.

2. Avoid the mail

Don’t file a paper tax return; they can take six to eight weeks to process. File electronically instead, and the IRS likely will issue your refund within 21 days. There are several ways to “e-file” your federal return:

  • The IRS’ Free File service. If you have adjusted gross income below $69,000, the IRS can hook you up with brand-name tax-prep software to prepare and e-file your return.
  • The IRS’ Free File Fillable Forms service. If you make too much for Free File, this service lets you simply input your data onto your tax forms so you can e-file.
  • Via your tax software or tax pro. Good tax preparers and all of the big names in tax software let you file electronically. People with very simple returns might even be able to use free versions that these software providers offer.

Most states also offer free e-filing options for state returns. The Federation of Tax Administrators maintains a list of state filing options.

3. Skip the check for your tax refund

Speed up your refund by signing up for direct deposit when you file. That way, the money goes right into your bank account. Ask for a check, and you’re putting yourself at the mercy of the U.S. Postal Service.

With direct deposit, you can also spread your tax refund across as many as three accounts. Take advantage of this option by filing IRS Form 8888.

4. Keep track of your tax refund

Once you’ve filed your return, track your refund’s whereabouts with the IRS and your state. Though tracking your refund won’t actually make things move faster, it at least gives you a better idea of when to expect your money. If you e-filed your federal return, you usually can begin tracking your refund 24 hours after the IRS accepts your tax return. If you mailed your tax return, however, you’ll have to wait four weeks. You should be notified when the IRS receives your return, when it approves the return and when it sends your refund.

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