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My refund status: Track a tax return with the IRS, when the money could arrive

You can check online to see if the IRS got your 2020 tax return and what the status of your refund could be, if you're getting one.

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We'll show you two ways to keep tabs on your tax return and refund with the IRS.

Sarah Tew/CNET

You know you can track the status of your third stimulus check for up to $1,400 per person in your household, and you may have even known you can track any letter in the mail. But did you also know you can track the status of your 2020 tax return and refund online with the IRS -- two ways? 

The clearest benefit is knowing when and if the IRS got your tax return and has begun to look it over. That goes double if you have a refund you're waiting to receive, and triple if that refund also includes missing stimulus check money that you claimed on your tax return with a Recovery Rebate Credit (yes, even nonfilers have to do this). There's also a benefit if you got some of your third stimulus check, but not all, and are expecting a "plus-up payment" for the rest you're owed.

Whether you already filed your tax return or you're waiting to file by the new May 17 tax deadline (here's the best tax software), you'll want to know how to keep tabs on your return and refund. We'll explain how to track, when to expect a refund and more. If you have kids, you'll want to know about child tax credit payments, including how much money you'll get. Here's what we know about a fourth stimulus check, who need to file an amended tax form and seven tax breaks for 2020. This story was recently updated. 

Track your 2020 tax refund now

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 your refund status. 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 long it could take your tax refund to arrive

The IRS says it issues most tax refunds within 21 days, but many people get their refunds much sooner. However, this year, the IRS is reportedly facing delays complicated by the fact that it had to send out third stimulus checks at the same time (here's more on stimulus checks and tax season 2020). However, now that most stimulus payments have been made, the IRS should be switching gears to processing tax returns.

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 child tax credit).

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

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. 

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Tax return status message meanings

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.)

Six reasons your tax refund hasn't come yet

The IRS has a list of reasons that could potentially be holding up your refund.

  • Your tax return has errors.
  • It's incomplete.
  • Your refund has been affected by identity theft or fraud.
  • You filed for the earned income tax credit or additional child tax credit.
  • Your return needs further review.
  • Your return includes Form 8379 (PDF), injured spouse allocation -- this could take 14 weeks to process.

The 'latest' date to get your tax refund passed. Should you contact 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 2020 taxes, here's how to claim missing stimulus money on your taxes and everything to know about the third stimulus check.