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Missing stimulus check: When you should worry, how to file a payment trace with the IRS

No third stimulus check yet, or even the first or second? Don't panic. Here's a timeline for when to follow up -- and how.

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If your stimulus check never arrived, you may need to request a payment trace with the IRS.

Sarah Tew/CNET

If your third stimulus check hasn't arrived yet through direct deposit or in the mail, it may be too soon to worry. (Here's how to track it.) But how long should you be patient before it's time to act? And what's the right way to hunt down a missing stimulus check? What if your first or second check never even arrived? 

These are valid concerns if you're qualified to receive stimulus money from any check, and its absenteeism could signal a problem with your check, especially if the IRS doesn't have your correct information on file, like a home address if you moved. If you received some of your $1,400 payment but not all the stimulus money you're owed, you may be due a "plus-up" payment, which you should receive without having to file an amended tax form.

We'll explain a couple ways to track your payment, either through a Recovery Rebate Credit (even if you don't usually file taxes) or an IRS payment trace. Plus, here's what we're hearing about a potential fourth stimulus check, all of the tax credits you could claim this year, what may happen with student loan forgiveness and the latest on the child tax credit (calculate your total). This story has been updated.

When is it time to worry about a missing stimulus check?

Third stimulus checks are still being sent, so we'd suggest holding out a little longer. If you didn't get your first or second check at all, though, it's time to act. In general, this chart shows when you can and should request an IRS payment trace, which is designed to hunt down a stimulus check the agency said it sent. More below on exactly how a payment trace works, how to get started and when to use it.

When to request an IRS payment trace

Method of payment Time passed since IRS says it sent your payment
Direct deposit 5 days
Check mailed to standard address 4 weeks
Check mailed to a forwarded address 6 weeks
Check mailed to a foreign address 9 weeks

This timeline was the same for the first and second checks as well. If your first or second stimulus checks are missing, you can no longer use the Get My Payment tool to track them down. Here's how to find the amount of your first two stimulus checks.

If the IRS tracker tool says your payment was sent, but you don't have it

The IRS continues to send out the third stimulus check to millions of people, so there's a good chance that if you haven't gotten yours yet, it's in the works. You can check the status of your third check. You need to plug in your Social Security number or Individual Taxpayer Identification Number, date of birth, street address and ZIP or postal code. 

The portal will show your payment status, if your money has been scheduled to send and the payment method (direct deposit or by mail) and date. You might also see a different message or an error. (Here's how to track your mailed check through the USPS.)

You'll need to request a payment trace if the Get My Payment portal shows your payment was issued, but you haven't received it within the time frames outlined in the chart above.

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If the IRS sent you a letter confirming a payment that never came

About 15 days after the IRS sends your third stimulus check (by either direct depositpaper check or EIP card), you should get a letter from the agency confirming your payment. 

If you received this letter -- also called Notice 1444, Your Economic Impact Payment -- but you never got your payment, you'll need to request a payment trace. Make sure you keep the letter -- you'll need the information to file your claim. (Here's what to do if you lost the IRS letter about your stimulus check.) The same is true for the first and second stimulus checks as well. 

How to request a payment trace and claim your missing stimulus money

To request a payment trace, call the IRS at 800-919-9835 or mail or fax a completed Form 3911, Taxpayer Statement Regarding Refund (PDF). Note: If you call the number, you'll have to listen through the recorded content before you can connect with an agent.

To complete Form 3911 for your third stimulus check, the IRS provides the following instructions: 

  1. Write "EIP3" on the top of the form (EIP stands for Economic Impact Payment.)
  2. Complete the form answering all refund questions as they relate to your payment.
  3. When completing item 7 under Section 1:
  • Check the box for "Individual" as the Type of return.
  • Enter "2021" as the Tax Period.
  • Do not write anything for the Date Filed.
  • Sign the form. If you're married and filing together, both spouses must sign the form.

You should not mail Form 3911 if you've already requested a trace by phone. And the IRS said you should not request a payment trace to determine if you were eligible to get a check or to confirm the amount you should have received

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How your payment trace claim is processed

The IRS will do the following to process your claim, according to its website: 

  • If you didn't cash the check, the IRS will issue a replacement. If you discover the original check among your belongings, you're expected to return it as soon as possible.
  • If you did cash the refund check, expect a claim package from the Bureau of the Fiscal Service, which will include a copy of the cashed check. Follow the included instructions. The bureau will review your claim and the signature on the canceled check before deciding whether it will issue a replacement. This is presumably to guard against stimulus check fraud.

How long do you have to wait for your stimulus money to arrive after a payment trace?

You should get a response from the IRS about six weeks after the agency receives your request for a payment trace, according to its website. But this could be delayed due to limited staffing. We've reached out to the IRS for more information.

For more on stimulus checks, here's what we know about a potential fourth stimulus check and what else is in the stimulus package that may help you financially.