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When will a third stimulus check go out? Here are the two potential timelines so far

The IRS can send stimulus checks out quickly once approved. But first, lawmakers must agree on a package that includes a third check. Here's the latest.

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How a third payment could be proposed could also affect when it happens.

Sarah Tew/CNET

It's been almost a year since the outbreak of the pandemic, and many in the US are still struggling with its impact: about 900,000 Americans filed for unemployment last week. To help rebuild the economy, President Joe Biden is urging Congress to pass his $1.9 trillion relief proposal, which contains a third stimulus check for up to $1,400. But his plan and what Congress actually agrees to pass could end up looking very different. Some lawmakers have already come forward saying they want to make the stimulus checks more targeted. "I'm open to negotiate those things," Biden said Monday.

At this point, there are two possible ways a third stimulus check could be approved. The first would be as part of Biden's sweeping bill, or another large proposal. The second would be as a smaller, "skinny" bill that includes just the third stimulus check and money for COVID-19 vaccine distribution. Lawmakers are reportedly considering both options this week, as the Senate prepares for the impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump, which is scheduled to start Feb. 9.

The IRS may also take a different path to distributing a third payment, depending on when a bill is passed. For example, it could potentially arrive as a rebate that's folded into tax season, or as another standalone payment, similar to the first two checks. We've also got tips for things you can do now to get the next stimulus check faster. (And if you think you're still missing all or some of your first two payments, here's how you'll need to contact the IRS.) This story was recently updated.

What might be included in a 'skinny' bill for stimulus checks and vaccines?

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi last week said the House would be ready next week to take up Biden's proposal, but didn't confirm whether it would be big or small. There have been suggestions that House Democrats could first put forth a targeted, "skinny" bill on the table for stimulus checks and coronavirus vaccine distribution, followed by a broader stimulus package with other measures. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said Monday he aims to get a COVID-19 bill passed by mid-March.

A smaller bill might face less opposition in an evenly divided Senate and let the IRS start sending out the next checks quicker. However, pressure to pass those measures could make a much larger package easier for opponents to swallow.

While Democrats rejected the idea of a standalone bill during negotiations for December's package, there's certainly precedent for a standalone bill of some sort in the House. The chamber passed the CASH Act on Dec. 28, 2020, a bill that would have amended the December 2020 stimulus package signed by Trump to bump the $600 upper limit of the second stimulus check to $2,000 instead -- by replacing "$600" with "$2,000" on every mention and "$1,200" (the amount allotted to married couples) with "$4,000). It wasn't taken up in the Senate before the new term began Jan. 3.

How long will it take lawmakers to approve another stimulus check?

If a third stimulus check remains part of Biden's $1.9 trillion package proposal instead of branching off, mid-March seems to be the going timeline. That's because it would need to go through the typical process of negotiation, a period of extraordinary scrutiny and debate over specific legal language. 

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There's already an indication that the stimulus check could be less than $1,400 or otherwise more targeted, after a group of bipartisan lawmakers asked the Biden administration to propose limiting eligibility, the New York Times reported.

With the Democrats' slim margin of control over both chambers in Congress, Biden may have an advantage getting his objectives approved, though opposition is already vocal from members of his own party over the $1,400 per person maximum, with some pushing for $2,000 per person and at least one other questioning why Americans need a third check.

The chart below illustrates two potential timelines for when the next stimulus check could be approved and arrive. Note that the dates are illustrative only, and are based on how quickly the IRS sent the second stimulus payments based on your payment group (direct deposit, physical checks and EIP cards). We'll update the dates as the situation changes in Washington.

When could the next stimulus check hypothetically arrive?


Smaller stimulus bill Larger COVID-19 relief package
Stimulus check passes Congress Feb. 4 March 22
Stimulus bill signed into law Feb. 5 March 23
First direct deposit check sent Feb. 8 March 24
First paper checks sent Feb. 15 March 31
First EIP cards sent Feb. 22 April 7
Claims for missing stimulus money open March 22 May 3

How quickly could the IRS start sending out the next stimulus checks?

In under three weeks, the IRS and Treasury sent over 100 million second stimulus checks. There was a tremendously fast turnaround with the second check. For example, it took the IRS 19 days from the date the March 2019 stimulus bill passed to the day the first check was issued. Conversely, the Dec. 27 stimulus package gave the IRS just 17 days total, including weekends. (If you didn't get yours, you have to claim it as part of tax season 2020.)

There was one notable direct deposit error as a result of the IRS' rush to get payments delivered, and people who didn't get their payment may now have to wait weeks or months for their second checks. But the scenario suggests that if the protocols are in place, the IRS could theoretically ship out third stimulus checks within days and weeks, rather than weeks and months.

As an interesting data point, the IRS was able to process between 5 million and 7 million a week with the first stimulus check, according to a government report from June.

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How you get your second stimulus check could also influence how soon your payment arrives.

Sarah Tew/CNET

What happens if a third check gets approved during tax season?

Questions are already swirling around how the IRS and Treasury would handle a third stimulus check, and some of that could very well depend on timing. 

Let's say hypothetically that a stimulus bill was to pass both chambers of Congress before Feb. 12, the day the IRS begins processing the first 2020 tax returns. Would they send a separate check or attempt to bundle them in with the Recovery Rebate Credit for missing money from the first two checks? Apart from the fact that Congress would have a very narrow window to pass the bill in this hypothetical scenario, the IRS would have very little time to process the third checks, or change their protocol to wrap the second into taxes.

Now, let's say it passes in early March as part of an overarching COVID-19 relief bill and the checks begin shipping in mid-March. That scenario would still overlap with tax season by a month, before the April 15 tax deadline. 

By that time, tens of millions of Americans may have already received their tax refunds, which could make it tricky for the IRS to straighten out or redact after issuing. Things could get complex whether the IRS would attempt to fold a third check delivery into the remaining tax cycle, or send a third check separately.

Is there any way I can get my third stimulus check faster?

While we don't know when a third stimulus check could arrive, there are a few things you can do to help speed up receipt of your check, when and if it happens. For example, signing up for direct deposit in your 2020 tax return would put you in the priority category if a third stimulus payment came to be.

And if you've moved recently, tell the IRS and USPS. Here were our other suggestions for people to get their second checks faster. Note that, there could be some changes to qualifications that may not apply to a possible third stimulus check.

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The first and second stimulus checks were nominally sorted by different payment groups, and one had a clear advantage over the others.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Would the IRS face another deadline for sending out a third stimulus payment? 

The Jan. 15 deadline levied for the second stimulus check was written into the text of the bill without explanation. It isn't immediately clear if the bill text would adopt another cutoff in the future, or if that was a one-time consideration that took into account the IRS' overlapping duties to process stimulus checks and prepare for Tax Season 2020. Last year, the April 15 tax date was extended to July 15.

The two overlap with the second stimulus check in that anyone who didn't receive all or part of their second payment must claim it as part of the IRS' Recovery Rebate Credit on their tax return -- even if they have nonfiler status and aren't typically required to file taxes.

Will your priority group determine how fast you would get a third check?

We noticed with the first check that the IRS seems to organize when payments go out to certain categories of people based on the method of payment. Basically, payment groups. The second check seemed to have followed the same de-facto priority. 

While we can't say for certain what the IRS will do, the main payment groups have consisted of people who get their checks through direct deposit (the largest group, and the quickest delivery), through paper checks in the mail and through EIP debit cards, a method that the IRS has told CNET gets payments out faster than physical checks, but which was also the last payment method to go out both stimulus check rounds. It also requires you to activate a prepaid debit card.

The other groups that are loosely defined (by us) include social security beneficiaries, who received payments a different way the first time if they're part of the SSI or SSDI programs, and people with more complex scenarios, which could lead to potential issues or holdups receiving their money. People in child support situations have been an example, and so have people who are incarcerated, and those with more complex citizenship scenarios.

Is a third stimulus check definitely going to happen?

While it seems likely given the current discussions in Washington, whether a third stimulus check happens or not, and which form it could take, is up to Congress. The rest, for now, is the basis of today's public conversations in government, and our educated guesses. There's always a chance that a bill may pass one chamber and not the other, or fail entirely. For now, we watch and wait.