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How to File Your Tax Return for Free and Get Your Refund Faster

Where to get no-cost help preparing and filing your 1040 for 2021

On a blue background of processing symbols,  a finger points to an arrow labelled 'Taxes' facing  right; another finger points left to an arrow labelled 'Refunds'.

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If you’re getting a federal income tax refund this year, you should have two objectives: File soon, and file free.

The IRS began processing tax returns on Jan. 24, so there’s no time to waste. The average refund issued in 2021 (for the 2020 tax year) was $2,775, or nearly three weeks’ wages for a typical worker. And while some tax returns are complex and require an accountant, you can often get free help with your return, and file it for free, too. Why wait for money you’ve earned, and why pay to get that money if you don’t have to?

File soon

Aside from getting you a plump check, filing early is a good idea because the IRS is facing enormous challenges in processing tax returns. The agency’s workforce is about 20 percent lower than it was in 2010, and many of its computer systems are decades old. The COVID-19 pandemic was simply one more challenge for the IRS.

Erin Collins, head of the Office of the Taxpayer Advocate, noted the agency’s woes in her report to Congress in 2021. “Calendar year 2021 was surely the most challenging year taxpayers and tax professionals have ever experienced,” she said, noting long processing and refund delays, difficulty reaching the IRS by phone, and correspondence that went unprocessed for many months.

COVID-19 is still with us, and the IRS still suffers from many of the problems it faced in 2021. Nevertheless, the IRS issued about 128 million refunds last year, and the agency says that most people will get their refunds this year within 21 days if they file electronically and choose to receive their refund via direct deposit to a bank.

The one catch: You must file your return correctly to get a refund. You need to have all relevant year-end statements, such as W-2 forms for wages, as well as IRS letters showing either advance Child Tax Credit or Economic Impact payments. “Because of the long wait times right now for amended returns, you don’t want to be in the situation where an important year-end statement arrives the day after you file,” says IRS spokesperson Eric Smith.


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File free

You can still fill out paper tax forms and send them to the IRS. You’ll get your refund faster, however, if you file electronically. The IRS has partnered with eight software companies that will let you file your return online for free. To use the online free file program, single filers should have an adjusted gross income of $73,000 or less. (AGI is your total income minus adjustments such as alimony payments, contributions to health savings accounts and student loan interest.) Some free filing sites have lower maximum AGI requirements.

Some of the free file programs are available only in certain states; some offer free state income tax filing as well. You don’t need to file a state tax return to get a free federal tax return.

You have to start the process at the IRS website; if you go directly to the company’s site, you won’t get the free benefits offered through the IRS. You’ll then have to create an account via ID.me, an independent company that will give you a six-digit personal identification number (PIN). You’ll need a copy of last year’s tax return to help prove your identity. You’ll get a new PIN each year.

The IRS also provides free fillable forms for people whose AGI prevents them from using the free file sites. You won’t get any help filling out your forms, and the fillable forms make only basic calculations. You can print out your tax forms before you file them electronically.  

Get free help

Be sure to have all the necessary paperwork when you ask for help from any of the programs below. If you want in-person help, you must comply with local health regulations.

The IRS’ Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program offers free tax assistance to people who make $58,000 or less, have disabilities, or have a limited ability to speak English. Its Tax Counseling for the Elderly program is aimed at those 60 and older and specializes in issues related to pensions and retirement. Both programs have locations across the country. You can also get help at an IRS Taxpayer Assistance Center. 

MilTax funded by the Department of Defense, offers free tax help and filing software to active-duty service members, National Guard and reserves, recently separated service members, military families and survivors. 

AARP Foundation’s Tax-Aide provides free tax help, both online and in person, by appointment. The program is staffed by trained volunteers. It’s open to anyone with an emphasis on people over 50 or with low-to-moderate income. Tax-Aide has locations nationwide.

John Waggoner covers all things financial for AARP, from budgeting and taxes to retirement planning and Social Security. Previously he was a reporter for Kiplinger's Personal Finance and  USA Today and has written books on investing and the 2008 financial crisis. Waggoner's  USA Today investing column ran in dozens of newspapers for 25 years.