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The IRS has started accepting 2021 tax returns. Here's what to know before you file

Tax season 2022 is officially underway. Check out these important deadlines and tips.

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Constantine Johnny/Getty

After significantly postponing deadlines for the past two years because of the pandemic, the IRS set April 18, 2022, as the deadline for most taxpayers to submit a federal tax return. Tax season 2022 officially started on Jan. 24, the date Americans could begin filing their returns. 

For many, their returns will be more complex because of job or residency changes, stimulus paymentschild tax creditsunemployment insurance claims or other COVID-driven factors.

"The pandemic continues to create challenges, but the IRS reminds people there are important steps they can take to help ensure their tax return and refund don't face processing delays," IRS Commissioner Chuck Rettig said in a statement.

Here are important dates for the 2022 tax season -- including when state taxes are due, the deadline for an extension and when you can expect a refund -- plus tips for a smooth and speedy filing experience. 

For more, learn about tax deductions you don't want to miss, the tax best software for 2022 and how you might qualify to file with the IRS for free.

What's the deadline for filing your 2021 tax return with the IRS?

The deadline for filing federal taxes for most taxpayers is Monday, April 18, 2022. That's because April 15 is recognized as a holiday, Emancipation Day, in Washington, DC.

"By law, Washington, D.C., holidays impact tax deadlines for everyone in the same way federal holidays do," according to a statement from the IRS.

Taxpayers in Maine and Massachusetts, however, have until April 19, because of the observance of Patriots' Day in those states. 

The IRS expects more than 160 million individual tax returns this year, with the vast majority coming before the April deadline. 

What about state taxes?

Of the 41 states that collect income tax, most are adhering to the April 18 deadline, though there are some exceptions.

The deadline to file 2021 state income taxes in Delaware and Iowa, for example, is April 30, 2022. In Virginia, the due date is May 1 and in Louisiana, it's May 15.

Check with your state department of revenue for the most current information and deadlines.  

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Your state may have a different tax deadline than the IRS does.

Sarah Tew/CNET

What if I file for an extension?  

Taxpayers requesting an extension will have until Oct. 17, 2022, to file their 2021 tax return. 

Be aware that filing an extension doesn't push back the deadline for when you need to pay the IRS: You still need to pay an estimate of what you owe by April 18 (or April 19, depending on where you live) to avoid late penalties. An extension just gives you more time to complete your tax return.

When's the earliest I can file my 2021 taxes?

The IRS began accepting and processing 2021 tax returns on Jan. 24, 2022. That's far earlier than last year's Feb. 12 start date.

IRS Free File, a partnership between the IRS and leading tax-software companies, launched on Jan. 14: The program allows taxpayers who made $72,000 or less in 2021 to file electronically for free, using software provided by participating providers.   

File your 2021 return even if you're awaiting processing of a previous tax return

You don't need to wait for your 2020 tax return to be fully processed to file a 2021 return.

According to the IRS, as of Dec. 3, 2021, nearly 169 million 2020 tax returns were processed -- including all paper and electronic individual returns received prior to April 2021 that included a refund and did not have errors or need additional review.

"The IRS continues to reduce the inventory of prior-year individual tax returns that have not been fully processed," Rettig said. 

When can I expect my refund?

If you file electronically and choose direct deposit, the IRS says you can expect it within 21 days, assuming there are no problems with your return.

By law, the agency cannot issue refunds involving the earned income tax credit or additional child tax credit before mid-February, in order to help prevent fraudulent refunds from being issued. But individuals who are eligible for those credits can still begin filing on Jan 24.

Should I file early?

If you have all your paperwork in order, and you're getting a refund, then it makes sense to file as soon as possible, Joe Burhmann, senior financial planning consultant at eMoney Advisor, told CNET.  "From a planning perspective, the IRS likes that."

If you owe money, though, you might want to wait a bit.

"It gives you a bit more time to hold onto your money," Burhmann said. "And it gives you time to figure out how to pay -- whether that means getting a loan, putting it on credit cards or something else."

But even if you're not filing immediately, you should prepare your taxes as soon as possible. "Knowledge is always a good thing to have," Burhmann said. "Make sure you've gotten your 1099 and know what you're going to be dealing with."

What happens if I miss the tax deadline?

If you are owed a refund, there is no penalty for filing federal taxes late, though this may be different for your state taxes. Still, it's best to e-file or postmark your individual tax return as early as possible. 

If you owe the IRS, penalties and interest start to accrue on any remaining unpaid taxes after the filing deadline. The late-filing penalty is 5% of the taxes due for each month your return is behind, with fees increasing to up to 25% of your due balance after 60 days have passed. You may also incur a late-payment penalty, which is 0.5% of the taxes due for each month your return is late, with penalties increasing to up to 25% of your unpaid tax, depending on how long you take to file. 

Another caveat: If you're serving in the military -- in a combat zone or a contingency operation in support of the armed forces -- you may be granted additional time to file, according to the IRS. 

You might want to think more seriously about working with a tax preparer this year

The pandemic and its impact on our lives have made taxes more complicated for many. "You might have gone freelance or moved and now owe taxes in multiple states," Burhmann said.

In 2021, 26 states and Washington, DC, changed their tax codes, either increasing or changing income taxes. So there are changes not just on the federal but state level, Burhmann said.

Many taxpayers qualify for access to free assistance through the IRS Free File program and at Volunteer Income Tax Assistance and Tax Counseling for the Elderly locations across the country.

File electronically and opt for direct deposit for your refund

The IRS is encouraging taxpayers and tax professionals to file electronically once they have all the information they need to complete an accurate return. That will avoid delays in the processing and issuing of refunds and child tax credit and recovery rebate credits, the agency said.

"Going online ensures you get the full amount of credit and refunds you're due," Burhmann told CNET.

Using direct deposit is the fastest way to get any refund or credits due to you, according to Rettig of the IRS. Individuals can use a bank account, prepaid debit card or mobile app and will need to provide routing and account numbers. 

You can open an account at an FDIC-Insured bank or through the National Credit Union Locator Tool.

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Experts agree direct deposit is the fastest way to get your refund from the IRS.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Don't think of your refund as 'found money'

"This isn't something you want to use to, like, splurge on a big vacation with," said Buhrmann. "Consider building up that emergency fund or paying down consumer debt, setting aside for retirement or your kids' college tuition. If you need a reminder about what a crisis can look like, think back to March 2020."

For more on filing a 2021 tax return, learn how to set up an account on the IRS website and how to file on your phone. And here's if you have to declare Venmo payments from friends

How do I check the status of my refund?

The IRS website features a handy web-based tool that lets you check the status of your refund (electronic or paper). There's also a mobile app, IRS2Go.

You can usually access your refund status about 24 hours after e-filing or four weeks after mailing in a return. To check your status, you'll need to provide your Social Security number or ITIN, filing status and the exact amount of your refund. If your status is "received," the IRS has your return and is processing it. "Approved" means your refund is on its way.

I have questions about my taxes. Can I call the IRS?

While you can call the IRS, the agency recommends turning to online resources and its online form instead. Last year, the agency received 145 million calls between Jan. 1 and May 17 -- more than four times the volume of an average year. 

"Our phone volumes continue to remain at record-setting levels," IRS Commissioner Chuck Rettig said in a Jan. 10 press briefing. "We urge people to check IRS.gov and establish an online account to help them access information more quickly. We have invested in developing new online capacities to make this a quick and easy way for taxpayers to get the information they need."

That said, if you do need to reach out to the IRS, you can call one of its dedicated regional phone lines, operating Monday through Friday, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. (local time). Individuals can call 800-829-1040 and businesses can call 800-829-4933. 

And there's always the Interactive Tax Assistant, an automated online tool that provides answers to a number of tax law questions, including whether a type of income is taxable or if you qualify for certain credits and deductions.

If you have a question for the IRS specifically related to stimulus checks and your taxes, the IRS recommends that you check IRS.gov and the Get My Payment application. (We have more information on how to contact the IRS for missing stimulus check-related questions here.)

Where else can I get help with my taxes?

You can find helpful and affordable assistance by choosing a provider from CNET's roundup of the best tax software for 2022 or by talking to a qualified tax professional. 

The IRS does offer additional free tax help, too. The Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program is designed to offer guidance to people who make less than $54,000 per year, have disabilities or limited facility with English. And the Tax Counseling for the Elderly program specializes in tax issues that affect people who are 60 or older. 

The IRS' International Taxpayer Service Call Center remains available at 267-941-1000, Monday through Friday, 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. ET.

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