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Your Step-by-Step Guide to Completing the 2020 Census

What you need to know to finish your questionnaire on time

Census form

Michael Ventura / Alamy Stock Photo

En español | More than 143 million households nationwide are getting their invitations to fill out their questionnaire for the 2020 census, kicking off a process that will shape how the federal government spends and operates over the next 10 years.

The U.S. Constitution requires the government to do a complete count of all residents in the nation and where they live once every decade. The resulting numbers are used to determine how many members each state gets in the U.S. House of Representatives. The data also determine how more than $675 billion in federal funds are spent each year, on everything from schools and roads to Medicare Part B benefits.

It's vital that everyone, especially older adults, completes the census forms for his or her household. Here's your step-by-step guide to what to expect.

Step 1. You get your census invite in the mail.

That form will ask most households (112 million) to complete the process either online or by telephone. According to the Census Bureau, it should take only about 10 minutes to complete your forms after you go to my2020census.gov and enter the 12-digit identification code that is included on your mailed invitation.

In areas where people may not have reliable access to high-speed internet connections, the invitation to complete the census will include a paper version of the questionnaire. You can fill out that form and mail it back to the Census Bureau.

All invitations will include a page with a short phrase in English and 12 other languages explaining how people can complete the process in their language. In communities where Spanish is common, residents will receive both Spanish and English versions of the invite. “We are giving residents the tools they need to be counted and encouraging them to shape their futures,” said Steven Dillingham, director of the Census Bureau.

Step 2. The bureau sends a follow-up mail.

If you don't complete your forms online or by phone promptly, the agency will send you several reminders through the postal service. If you haven't responded to those requests my mid-April, it will send you a paper questionnaire to fill out and send back (if you didn't get that form as your original invitation).

On July 27, the Census Bureau announced that the agency will start sending reminder emails to households in communities where the overall response rate is below 50 percent. The email messages will come from the 2020census@subscriptions.census.gov account and will invite people who haven’t yet completed their surveys to do so online at 2020census.gov. Some people who already have submitted their census forms may still get one of these emails, which they won’t need to respond to.

To improve the response rate to the 2020 Census, the bureau also is considering sending text messages to areas that have low response rates. The agency recently started sending text messages to individuals and small businesses for two separate surveys it is conducting about the effect of the coronavirus pandemic.

Step 3. Census workers go door-to-door.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Census Bureau in March temporarily suspended visits from workers who go door-to-door to help people fill out the survey if they haven’t completed the form already. The agency does expect to resume that process later this year. The agency also has extended the deadline for collecting responses to September 30. If someone comes to your door, be sure to check that the person has a valid Census Bureau ID, which will have the official's name, photograph, a Department of Commerce watermark and an expiration date. The worker also should have a copy of the invitation you were mailed about the 2020 census.

Step 4. The results are delivered.

The Census Bureau has said it will ask Congress to allow the agency to postpone its report on the final results of the count until April 30, 2021. The bureau previously was scheduled to present those results on December 31, 2020. The U.S. Constitution requires the nation to complete a full count of the population every 10 years, so pushing the final report into 2021 will require Congressional approval.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated with the September 30, 2020, deadline to complete all census surveys.

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