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Last Updated: July 24, 2020

Options for Filing a Tax Return

Each year, most people who work are required to file a federal income tax return. If you must file, you have two options:

  • Filing an electronic tax return (often called electronic filing or e-filing), or
  • Filing a paper tax return.

E-filing is generally considered safer, faster, and more convenient, but some people can’t e-file and must mail their tax returns to the IRS. Each year, you need to decide which filing method is right for you.

What do I need to know?

If you must file a paper tax return, consider sending it by certified mail, with a return receipt. This will be your proof of the date you mailed your tax return and when the IRS received it. You may also use certain private delivery services designated by the IRS. For mailing purposes, you can find IRS addresses in the resources section.

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What should I do?

Find out if you need to file a tax return
Some people aren’t required to file a tax return. To see whether you’re required to file a tax return, use the IRS.gov tool – “Do I need to File a Tax Return?“.

Paper or electronic tax return?
Most taxpayers can file their tax returns electronically. If you can e-file, consider one of the Free File options. The IRS offers free access to tax preparation software to taxpayers who make less than a fixed amount and free fillable forms to all taxpayers.

Limitations for e-filing exist for certain IRS forms, prior year returns, and amended returns.

  • See Available Forms and Limitations for forms that are not supported through e-filing
  • You may be able to e-file a prior year return using participating tax software or through an authorized e-file provider going back two years.
  • You can now file Form 1040-X electronically with tax filing software to amend 2019 or 2020 Forms 1040 and 1040-SR.

You are required to file a paper tax return if you’re:

  • Claiming a dependent who was already claimed on another tax return
  • Filing before or after the e-file season. This program operates from the beginning of each filing season through mid-October of each year.

See Electronic Filing Options for Individuals for more details.

What if I can’t file on time?
If you can’t file by the due date of your tax return, you should request an extension of time to file. An extension of time to file doesn’t extend the time to pay your tax. If you don’t pay your tax by the original due date of your tax return, you will owe interest and may owe penalties on the unpaid tax.


If you must file a paper tax return, consider sending it by certified mail, with a return receipt. This will be your proof of the date you mailed your tax return and when the IRS received it. You may also use certain private delivery services designated by the IRS. For mailing purposes, you can find IRS addresses in the What are my resources? section.

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How will this affect me?

If you electronically file (e-file) your tax return
If you e-file, the IRS will notify you within 24 hours if your tax return was received and accepted or if it’s being rejected.

The IRS accepts most tax returns, but if it has a problem such as an incorrect Social Security Number, the IRS will reject your tax return and tell you how to fix it. You can usually fix the problem and try to e-file again, but in some cases, you’ll need to submit a paper tax return instead.

E-filed tax returns are processed faster than paper ones, and so refunds come more quickly– sometimes within ten days if you ask for a direct deposit or 21 days if you ask to have a check mailed to you.

The PATH Act made the following changes, which became effective for the 2017 filing season, to help prevent revenue loss due to identity theft and refund fraud related to fabricated wages and withholdings:

  • The IRS may not issue a credit or refund to you before February 15, if you claim the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) or Additional Child Tax Credit (ACTC) on your tax return.
  • This change only affects tax returns claiming EITC or ACTC filed before February 15.
  • The IRS will hold your entire refund, including any part of your refund not associated with the EITC or ACTC.
  • Neither TAS, nor the IRS, can release any part of your refund before that date, even if you’re experiencing a financial hardship.


If you owe taxes
If you owe taxes on your tax return, you can schedule the payment to be deducted from your bank account or mail a check to the IRS. To avoid any additional charges, schedule your payment to be deducted on any day up to the due date of the tax return, or mail your check in time to be received at the IRS by that date. If you mail a check, you can expect the IRS to cash it within a week or two of receipt.

Include the following information on your payment to make sure you get credit on your account:

If you e-file, the e-file system will provide you a voucher to mail with your payment.

If you mail your return, send IRS Form 1040-V, Payment Voucher, when mailing your payment.

If you can’t pay, you have options for making payments over time.

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Wait, I still need help.

The Taxpayer Advocate Service is an independent organization within the IRS that helps taxpayers and protects taxpayers’ rights. We can offer you help if your tax problem is causing a financial difficulty, you’ve tried and been unable to resolve your issue with the IRS, or you believe an IRS system, process, or procedure just isn’t working as it should. If you qualify for our assistance, which is always free, we will do everything possible to help you.

Visit www.taxpayeradvocate.irs.gov or call 1-877-777-4778.

Low Income Taxpayer Clinics (LITCs) are independent from the IRS and TAS. LITCs represent individuals whose income is below a certain level and who need to resolve tax problems with the IRS. LITCs can represent taxpayers in audits, appeals, and tax collection disputes before the IRS and in court. In addition, LITCs can provide information about taxpayer rights and responsibilities in different languages for individuals who speak English as a second language. Services are offered for free or a small fee. For more information or to find an LITC near you, see the LITC page on the TAS website or Publication 4134, Low Income Taxpayer Clinic List.

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