IRS tax refund and 2020 return: How to track where they are now

Tax refund proving elusive? There may be a reason for that. We’ll show you two ways to try to hunt it down.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The status of your 2020 tax return may be more important this year than ever. It’s certainly more confusing. For example, the IRS may owe you a plus-up payment if it processes your 2020 taxes and finds you didn’t get as much money in this round of stimulus checks as you should (calculate your stimulus total). In addition, any missing stimulus money left from the first two checks will arrive bundled with your tax refund.

And since stimulus check delivery is the IRS’ priority, there could be a delay in processing 2020 tax returns, calculating plus-up payments and sending your tax refund. Even if you don’t get a refund, we’ll show you how to use the IRS tax refund tracker to see if your tax return has been processed. Note that the new Tax Day deadline of May 17. Also, if you paid taxes on unemployment benefits, the IRS will start refunding that money to eligible recipients in May.

We’ve listed some potential dates in the chart below for how long it could take to get your refund typically. We suggest filing your tax return online if you still need to submit it — the IRS recommends you avoid sending in a paper return this year. We also recommend setting up direct deposit to get your refund quicker. Here’s what we know so far about a potential fourth stimulus check, how you can get more money with a 2021 child tax credit, who needs to file an amended tax form, and seven tax breaks for 2020. This story is updated frequently. 

Two quick ways to track your 2020 tax refund status

You need several things on hand to track the status of your tax refund: your Social Security number or Individual Taxpayer Identification Number, your filing status — for example, single, married or head of household — and your exact refund amount in whole dollars, which can be found on your tax return. Also, make sure it’s been at least 24 hours before you try tracking your refund.

Using the IRS tool Where’s My Refund, enter your Social Security number or ITIN, your filing status and your exact refund amount, then press Send. If you entered your information correctly, you’ll be taken to a page that shows the status of your refund. If not, you may be asked to verify your personal tax data and try again. If all the information looks correct, you’ll need to enter the date you filed your taxes, along with whether you filed electronically or on paper.

There’s also a mobile app, called IRS2Go, that checks your tax refund status. The IRS updates the data in this tool overnight each day, so if you don’t see a status change after 24 hours or more, check back the next day.

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How to see your tax return status

Both the IRS tools (online and mobile) will show you one of three messages to explain your tax return status.

  • Received: The IRS now has your tax return and is working to process it.
  • Approved: The IRS has processed your return and confirmed the amount of your refund, if you’re owed one.
  • Sent: Your refund is now on its way to your bank via direct deposit or as a paper check to your mailbox. (Here’s how to change your address if you moved.)

When will your tax refund arrive? Here are some potential dates below

The IRS says it issues most tax refunds within 21 days, but many people typically get their refunds much sooner. However, this year, the IRS is reportedly facing delays complicated by the fact that it’s sending out the stimulus checks now (here’s more on stimulus checks and tax season 2020.) If there are any errors, it might take the agency longer to process and issue your tax refund. The same goes for people who filed a claim for an earned income tax credit or the child tax credit (here’s who qualifies for the CTC.) 

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The date you get your tax refund also depends on how you filed your return. For example, with refunds going into your bank account via direct deposit, it could take an additional five days for your bank to post it to your account. This means if it took the IRS the full 21 days to issue your check and your bank five days to post it, you may be waiting a total of 26 days to get your money. 

If you submit your tax return by mail, the IRS says it could take six to eight weeks for your tax refund to arrive. That’s where tracking your refund comes in handy. Here are some possible dates when you could receive your refund, depending on when you filed. 

When your tax refund could arrive, if no additional delay

If you file or filed on this date This is the soonest This is the latest
Mar 1 Mar 8 Mar 22
Apr 1 Apr 8 Apr 22
Apr 15 Apr 22 May 6
May 17 (last day to file) May 24 Jun 7
Oct 15 (last day with extension) Oct 22 Nov 5

It’s past the ‘latest’ date to get your tax refund. Should you call the IRS? 

While you can technically call the IRS to check your status, the agency’s live phone assistance is extremely limited at this time, so you may wait on hold for a while to speak to a representative. Also, the IRS says you should only call if it’s been 21 or more days since you filed your taxes online or if the Where’s My Refund tool tells you to contact the IRS.

For more information about your taxes, here’s when the 2021 deadline is to file your tax returnhow to claim missing stimulus money on your taxes and everything to know about the third stimulus check.