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Tax refund: Why is it taking so long? How to track your IRS money online

If you've filed your 2020 income tax return but not received your refund yet, here are ways to track the status of your refund money.

- 05:27

Did you file your taxes before the May 17 deadline, but still not see your refund money? 

Sarah Tew/CNET

Tax Day is less than a week away -- on May 17 this year -- and if you've filed your 2020 tax return and are waiting for your refund to arrive, you can use the IRS tracker tools to get an update on the status of your money. There are a variety of reasons why your refund may be delayed, however, such as if you filed a paper tax return by mail or if the IRS is doing extra calculations because you're eligible for a Recovery Rebate Credit.

With the two trackers, you can see if your tax return was received, if the IRS is processing it or when your refund was deposited into your account or mailed out. This tax season, the IRS is taking a bit more time to process paper returns, and there might be other delays holding up your refund. We'll walk you through exactly how to track down your refund. (If you have yet to file your taxes, you'll want to file your tax return before the deadline or request an extension from the IRS.)

These IRS tools are also helpful if you claimed a missing stimulus payment as a Recovery Rebate Credit on your 2020 tax return. If you think your third stimulus check is missing, the IRS has an app you can use to track the status of your payment. Here's more information about whether you might need to file an amended tax form, if you're eligible for other COVID-related credits and benefits, and if you may see a fourth stimulus payment this year. If you have children, here's how to calculate how much money you might get through child tax credits. If you received unemployment in 2020, you could get extra money with your refund if you qualify for a tax break. Also, here's how to see if the IRS has a tax refund you need to claim. This story is updated frequently. 

What is taking the IRS so long to process my tax return?

Because of the pandemic, the IRS ran at limited capacity last year, which put a strain on its ability to process tax returns and send out stimulus checks. The IRS is now open again and processing mail, tax returns, payments, refunds and correspondence, the agency said, but the pandemic continues to cause delays in some of services.

The IRS said it is issuing most refunds in less than 21 days right now but some are taking longer, including for mailed paper tax returns. The IRS said it is also taking longer than 21 days to issue refunds for some 2020 tax returns that require review, such as determining Recovery Rebate Credit amounts for the first and second stimulus checks or figuring earned income tax credit and additional child tax credit amounts.

How do I track my income tax refund money?

To track the status of your tax refund, you need several things on hand: Your Social Security number or Individual Taxpayer Identification Number, your filing status -- single, married or head of household -- and your refund amount in whole dollars, which you can find 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 SSN or ITIN, your filing status and your exact refund amount, then press Submit. 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.

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

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How long is it going to take to get your tax refund? 

The IRS usually issues tax refunds within 21 days, and many people get their refunds much sooner. However, this year, with the IRS facing complications, some taxpayers are expected to face longer wait times to receive their payments. 

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.)

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 submitted 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 if you filed or plan to file electronically.

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
March 1 March 8 March 22
April 1 April 8 April 22
April 15 April 22 May 6
May 17 (last day to file) May 24 June 7
Oct. 15 (last day with extension) Oct. 22 Nov. 5

Is it possible your tax refund is held up?

The IRS has a list of reasons your refund could potentially be delayed.

  • 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.

Will the IRS answer questions by phone? 

While you can technically call the IRS to check your status, the agency's live phone assistance is extremely limited right now, 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.

What these messages mean when checking your refund status

Both the IRS tools (online and mobile app) 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 on file if you moved.)