ProPublica has reported extensively about taxes, the IRS Free File program and the IRS. Specifically, the ways in which the for-profit tax preparation industry — companies like Intuit (TurboTax), H&R Block and Tax Slayer — has lobbied for the Free File program, then systematically undermined it with evasive search tactics and confusing design. These companies also work to fill search engine results with tax “guides” that sometimes route users to paid products.

Over the years, the IRS has created a vast network of forms. To file your taxes, you’ve got to navigate a lot of paperwork. Get a regular salary? There’s a form for that. Unemployment benefits? There’s a form for that, too. Social Security? You get the idea.

Why Is It Important to Understand Tax Forms?

Nowadays, most people file their taxes using websites or other products that do the work of figuring out which forms you need to file and filling them out. But it’s not always cheap. Many of those services and software — like TuroTax or H&R Block — charge users depending on which forms they need to use.

For 2020 tax filings (the ones due on May 17, 2021), anyone who made less than $72,000 a year is able to file for free as part of the IRS Free File program. Companies including Intuit, which makes TurboTax, H&R Block and others spent millions lobbying to bar the IRS from making its own free filing option while promising to create their own free products. But then, as ProPublica reported, they systematically undermined the truly free options by hiding search results and calling their products “free” even though for many, they’re anything but.

If you haven’t filed yet, we recommend checking out our guide to filing your state and federal taxes completely for free, looking to see if you qualify for the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) or learning how to track your refund. Though the IRS offers the option of paper filing, with the current COVID-19 state of affairs — and a massive backlog of paper returns and documents — the agency is encouraging taxpayers to file electronically to ensure prompt payment of refunds and avoid filing errors. Most paid and free tax prep services will tell you which forms you need to file, but if you’re still confused, see below for a list of the most commonly used tax forms.

Where Can I Get Tax Forms?

The IRS keeps all of its forms in a database online that offers each form in several languages, and it has a page that specifically highlights the most common forms filers use during tax season. These pages include the forms themselves and documents that instruct users on how to use them.

Which Tax Forms Do I Need?

Everybody’s tax situation is unique and might require different forms. The list below will explain what the most common forms are for and whom they might serve best.

What Is a 1040 Tax Form?

People use Form 1040 to file their annual income tax returns. This form helps you calculate your taxable income and how much you owe the IRS. It asks for personal information, filing status, the amount of tax you’ve paid through withholding (as detailed on your 1099 or W-2, or in quarterly estimated tax payments), how much income you made and from what sources (such as wages, salary, tips or retirement benefits). It’s also where you can claim your dependents and tax benefits like the standard deduction and Earned Income Tax Credit. If you use tax software or a website, the software will fill this form out for you and calculate your taxes based on the information you enter.

Best for: All individual taxpayers, no matter your tax status. Those over 65 can use a 1040-SR.

What Is a W-4 Tax Form?

Use Form W-4, also called Employee’s Withholding Certificate, to tell your employer how much in taxes to withhold from your paycheck. Any time you start a new job, your employer will ask you to fill this out. The W-4 will help you determine the correct amount to have your employer withhold; if you ask your employer to withhold less, you will still owe the remaining tax, plus, in some instances, a penalty. The IRS online Tax Withholding Estimator can help you fill out this form correctly.

Best for: People with new jobs, a change in income or other significant financial or family changes.

What Is 1040-ES Form?

You can use a Form 1040-ES to estimate how much you owe in taxes and pay them. Use this form for any income that isn’t subject to withholding, like earnings from self-employment, rent paid to you and alimony. If you don’t select voluntary additional withholding on your taxable income (like your salary), then you would also use Form 1040-ES. For tax year 2020, estimated taxes were due quarterly on April 15, 2020, June 15, 2020, Sept. 15, 2020, and Jan. 15, 2021. For tax year 2021, they are due on April 15, 2021, July 15, 2021, Sept. 15, 2021, and Jan. 18, 2022. (Alternatively, these payments can be made online for free through IRS Direct Pay, and the IRS has more electronic payment options at

Best for: Self-employed people or those with income that isn’t subject to withholding.

What Is a W-9 Form?

Form W-9 is a one-page form consisting of your personal information and taxpayer identification number (your Social Security number if you have one) that you provide to an entity like an employer, bank or other payer. While there are a number of reasons you would fill out a W-9, it’s most often used by freelancers or independent contractors. Other examples of when you would provide a W-9 form would be when you:

  • Make a real estate transaction.
  • Pay mortgage interest.
  • Acquire or abandon a secured property.
  • Have a debt cancelled.
  • Contribute to an IRA.

Best for: Freelancers, independent contractors or anyone else who needs to provide their taxpayer identification number.

What Is a 4506-T Form?

Use Form 4506-T to request a transcript of previously filed tax returns free of charge. It contains most of the line items on your full return and is widely accepted by most lenders. Mortgage lenders and student loan lenders, for example, will often ask you to fill out this form to verify your income. With COVID-19 delaying processing of paper forms at the IRS, an easier and faster option is the IRS’ online “Get Transcript” tool.

Best for: People who need a transcript of their tax return free of charge.

What Is a 4506 Form?

Use Form 4506 to request the copies of previously filed tax returns from the IRS. You can also use the form to designate a third party to receive the tax return. The form will ask for personal information, the year and types of forms you would like to recieve, and a $43 fee for each return requested.

Best for: People who need a copy of their tax return and can’t get one free of charge from a tax preparer if they used one.

What Is a 941 Form?

Use Form 941, also titled Employer’s Quarterly Federal Tax Return, if you’re an employer, to report “income taxes, Social Security tax or Medicare tax withheld from employee’s paychecks” and to pay the “employer’s portion of Social Security or Medicare tax.” You’ll need to fill this out four times a year by these deadlines: April 30, July 31, Oct. 31 and Jan. 31.

Best for: Employers.

What Is a W-2 Form?

An employer will send both an employee and the government a W-2 form at the end of the year, which shows the employee’s wages for that year and the amount of taxes that were withheld from their paycheck. If you receive a W-2, you’ll use it to file your own taxes. You will receive this if your employer pays you a wage or salary. If you are a contract worker, you will receive a 1099 instead.

Best for: Employees. Your employer will provide it to you.

What Are 1099 Forms?

1099-G: States will send both you and the federal government a 1099-G form at the beginning of the year, which shows income you received from that state during the previous tax year. The income can include:

  • Unemployment compensation.
  • State or local income tax refunds, credits or offsets.
  • Reemployment trade adjustment assistance (RTAA) payments.
  • Taxable grants.
  • Agricultural payments.

You will receive a 1099-G in 2021 from any state that gave you money in 2020. This form is where the unemployment compensation you received is listed. Remember: If you made less than $150,000 in 2020, only unemployment benefits over $10,200 are taxable. If taxes were withheld from your unemployment insurance checks, this will be reflected in your 1099-G form.

Best for: People who received unemployment compensation.

1099-MISC and 1099-NEC: For tax year 2020 or a prior year, entities or people who have paid you money during the year (but who are not your employer) will mail you a 1099-MISC form for miscellaneous income. If you’re a freelancer or a contract worker, you can expect to receive a 1099 form in the mail for each of the people or companies you worked for. Starting with tax year 2020, freelancers will receive the new Form 1099-NEC. There are a number of other reasons you might receive a 1099-MISC form, including if you received monetary prizes or awards, or were paid royalties or rent. You’ll use the form to file your own taxes.

Best for: Freelancers, contract workers or anyone who receives miscellaneous income.

What Are the 1095-A and 8962 Forms?

If you or a member of your family enrolled in health insurance coverage through a government-run marketplace in 2020, the marketplace should send you a 1095-A form. The form shows the months of coverage purchased through the marketplace and any Premium Tax Credit the insurance company received from the government to help cover your premiums. If you are eligible for the Premium Tax Credit, received your insurance through a qualified marketplace (either or a state marketplace) and did not have the credit paid out throughout the year directly to your health insurance provider, you should file an 8962 form to receive reimbursements.

Best for: People who bought private health insurance on government-run marketplaces.

What Is a 9465 Form?

If you cannot pay your taxes in full when you file, you can use Form 9465 to request a monthly payment plan. If you can pay within 120 days and you owe less than $50,000, you can request a payment plan online, too. Such payment plans will incur a user fee, accrued penalties and interest, but low-income taxpayers may have the user fee reduced, waived or reimbursed. User fees are usually lower when you set up a payment plan online. While a payment plan is in effect, late-payment penalty accruals are cut in half. If you can pay your taxes in full within 120 days, you can apply online for the IRS’s payment plan or call the IRS at 800-829-1040 to avoid the fee associated with setting up an installment agreement.

Best for: People who need more than 120 days to pay their taxes in full and owe more than $50,000. If you want to set up a monthly payment plan, the IRS encourages you to request one online.

What Is an SS-4 Form?

If you don’t have an employer identification number, or EIN, use Form SS-4 to apply for one. The nine-digit number is “assigned to employers, sole proprietors, corporations, partnerships, estates, trusts, certain individuals, and other entities for tax filing and reporting purposes.” Use the IRS’s Do You Need an EIN? to determine if you need to apply for one. You can receive your number more quickly by applying online.

Best for: Employers who answer yes to any of these questions, and others who need an EIN.

What Is a W-7 Form?

Use Form W-7 to apply for or renew an individual taxpayer identification number, or ITIN. The IRS issues the nine-digit numbers to individuals who do not have a Social Security number and are not eligible for one.

Best for: Taxpayers who do not have a Social Security number and are not eligible for one.

About this guide: ProPublica has reported extensively about taxes, the IRS Free File program and the IRS. Specifically, we’ve covered the ways in which the for-profit tax preparation industry — companies like Intuit (TurboTax), H&R Block and Tax Slayer — has lobbied for the Free File program, then systematically undermined it with evasive search tactics and confusing design. These companies also work to fill search engine results with tax “guides” that sometimes route users to paid products. ProPublica’s guide is not personalized tax advice, and you should speak to a tax professional about your specific tax situation.

Kristen Doerer is a reporter in Washington. Her writing has appeared on “PBS NewsHour” and in The Guardian and The Chronicle of Higher Education, among others. Follow her on Twitter at @k2doe.