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What is a Form W-2? What Do You Do if You Haven't Received One Yet?

The W-2 is the primary tax form for most working Americans. Here's what you need to know about it.

Three W-2 tax forms stacked on top of one another
Companies were required to send full-time employees W-2s by the end of January.
LPETTET/Getty Images

This story is part of Taxes 2023, CNET's coverage of the best tax software, tax tips and everything else you need to file your return and track your refund.

Form W-2 is the most common IRS tax form for most Americans. It's also one the most critical, showing your total employment income for the previous year, as well as the amount of taxes that were withheld.

Most full-time workers need to receive a W-2 from their employers before they can even start completing their return, and companies were required to issue them by Jan. 31, 2023.

But what happens if you didn't get yours?

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Read more: Best Tax Software for 2023

What is a W-2 form?

Form W-2, or "Wage and Tax Statement," is the official record of your wages and withheld taxes from the previous year.

The form can also include:

  • Tips and other forms of compensation
  • Contributions to a retirement plan, like a 401(k) 
  • Contributions to a health savings account
  • The cost of your health care benefits

Whether you do your taxes on paper, on your computer or phone or with a professional tax preparer, you'll need to use information from Form W-2 to complete your return.

What information is included in my W-2 form?

A screenshot of a W-2 form for 2022

Though it still appears on the W-2 form, Box 9 is no longer used by the IRS.

IRS/Screenshot by Peter Butler/CNET

Here's a quick breakdown of all of the boxes and data on the W-2:

Boxes A-F: The lettered boxes on the top and left side of the document contain identifying information for both you and your employer, including legal name, address, your Social Security number and the tax identification number of your employer. (The "control number" is just a unique ID for identifying your W-2 in your employer's system.)

Boxes 1 and 2: These two boxes have the most important information for most taxpayers -- your total wages, tips and other compensation, and the total federal income tax that was withheld for the year.

Boxes 3 through 6: These boxes show how much of your income is subject to Social Security and Medicare taxes, as well as how much taxes you paid for both.

Boxes 7 and 8: If you receive compensation by tips, these two boxes show how much tip income you reported, and how much your employer reported in tips paid to you. 

Box 9: Don't worry about the mysteriously grayed-out Box 9. It was formerly used for reporting advance payments for the Earned Income Credit. That tax perk ended in 2010, yet the box remains.

Boxes 10 and 11: Box 10 shows any dependent care benefits you may have received, while Box 11 contains any deferred compensation

Box 12: This box contains additional compensation or reductions to taxable income, and 28 possible items can be included here, each designated by a single or double-letter code. Some of these codes need to be included in your tax return, while others are only for your information.

Box 13: Three options here show income that's not subject to federal tax: employer-sponsored retirement plan (like a 401(k) account), third-party sick pay (such as private insurance), or money earned as a statutory employee.

Box 14: This box acts as a catch-all for your employer to report any additional tax information, such as tuition assistance or union dues. Employers can also include certain state and local taxes here. 

One common Box 14 entry is payment for state disability insurance, which can be deductible for some taxpayers.

Boxes 15 through 20: The boxes at the bottom of your W-2 form show your income and withholding data for the tax year as they relate to your state taxes. That section also includes your employer's state ID number.

When will I receive my Form W-2?

You should have received your Form W-2 by Jan. 31, 2023. That's when employers are required by law to send W-2s to all employees and the IRS. 

While many companies still send W-2 forms through the mail, many also make them available online. Your W-2 form might come from a third party that handles your company's payroll, such as ADP or Gusto.

What should I do if I didn't get my W-2?

Make sure your employer hasn't emailed you instructions on how to access your W-2 form online. According to IRS Publication 15A, employers can provide electronic versions of W-2 forms if employees opt in. (Be sure to check your spam and junk folders in case the email wound up there.)

If you weren't sent instructions, contact your human resources or payroll department to ask about the status of your W-2. You can also contact them if you lost a W-2 you were sent.

If your employer isn't helpful, you can contact the IRS directly at 800-829-1040. The agency will contact your employer and request your missing W-2 form for you.

The IRS recommends waiting until the end of February to see if your W-2 arrives before contacting them. You'll need to have some information ready to verify your identity:

  • Your legal name, address, Social Security number and phone number
  • Your employer's name, address and phone number
  • The dates you worked for the employer
  • Estimates of wages and income tax withheld. (You can find this on your last paycheck of the year.)

If you still don't receive or can't access your W-2 form by April 18, you can file your tax return by using Form 4852, a substitute for the W-2 that lets you estimate your income and withholding tax.  If you find out later that the information in your return is different from your W-2, you'll need to file an amended return.

You can also file Form 4868 and ask for a six-month filing extension that will give you more time to track down your W-2. If you don't think you owe any taxes, you don't have to pay anything. If you do owe taxes, you'll need to pay an estimated amount when you file your extension or risk a penalty later.

For more tax tips, learn about big tax changes in 2023 and important tax credits for homeowners.