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.

Update, Feb. 16, 2024: This article has been updated and fact-checked to reflect the most current tax information according to the IRS.

You’ve figured out your deductions or credits, calculated how much you owed in taxes and successfully filed your return. If you’re sitting around wondering where your money is, you’re not alone. Lucky for you, the IRS offers several ways to track your tax return.

How Do I Track My Tax Return?

Once you have filed your tax return, there are three options for tracking your refund:

What information do I need to track my tax return?

To track your tax return, there are three things you need:

  1. Your Social Security number or Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN).
  2. Your filing status: single filer, married filing jointly, married filing separately, head of household or qualifying surviving spouse.
  3. Your exact refund amount.

When Can I Check on My Tax Refund?

If you e-filed: You can check on your refund after 24 hours, unless you applied for the earned income tax credit before mid-February.

If you filed by mail: You usually aren’t able to check your status for four weeks if you mailed in your taxes, but you may have already received your refund by that time. The IRS warns of delays in processing your tax return if you file on paper.

If you filed your taxes and are waiting for your refund, the IRS says not to file a second time unless you filed on paper more than six months ago and Where’s My Refund doesn’t show that the IRS received your return. Filing a second time without that criteria could cause delays.

What is the tax refund schedule?

The IRS refuses to guarantee a day you’ll get your refund. Timing also depends on how you file and whether you get your return via direct deposit or check. For most people who file electronically though, the IRS issues refunds within 21 days of filing.

What are the tax return statuses?

When you check on your return, there are three statuses you might get:

  • Your return has been received.
  • Your refund has been approved.
  • Your refund has been sent.

Why Am I Not Getting My Tax Refund?

There are a number of reasons why your refund may be held up. There might be a delay if:

  • You filed by snail mail.
  • Your return includes any errors or is incomplete.
  • You filed for the earned income tax credit or the additional child tax credit. By law, the IRS cannot issue your refund before mid-February.
  • You’ve been the victim of identity theft, fraud or a scam.
  • You’ve been audited.
  • Your bank has referred you to the IRS for suspicious activity.
  • You owe back taxes, state taxes or child support. In some cases, the Treasury Department will put your refund toward the money you owe. You will receive a letter from the Treasury’s Bureau of the Fiscal Service explaining if your refund was used to pay another debt you owe.
  • Your return includes Form 8379, Injured Spouse Allocation, which can take as many as 14 weeks to process.

Can I Get My Tax Refund Early?

Short answer: No.

No one can give you immediate access to your tax refund — not the IRS, a bank or anyone else. That said, some tax-preparation companies do offer options to effectively give you access to money sooner, either through a refund anticipation check or a refund advance loan.

I need money now. What are refund advance loans and refund anticipation checks?

Some tax preparation services offer ways to get you money before your refund is issued.

With a refund advance loan — also referred to as a refund anticipation loan or RAL — your tax preparer will give you a loan that will be repaid with your tax refund. The loan amount is usually a portion of your estimated tax refund minus tax preparation service charges and other fees. Sometimes, the money will be deposited on a prepaid card that comes with additional fees. When the IRS issues your refund, your tax preparer will take money out of your tax refund as repayment for the loan.

These days, there are two types of RALs:

  • “No Fee” or “Advance” RALs are often called a “refund advance.” Tax preparers sometimes advertise the promise of these “no fee” loans to lure customers who do not need their tax preparation services into paying for them. There may also be hidden fees for these loans.
  • Interest-bearing RALs are another option where lenders offer much larger loans. The catch? You pay more in interest and fees.

A refund anticipation check, or RAC, lets you put off paying for the tax-preparation service you use to file your taxes. Typically, you’ll agree to pay an additional fee, usually between $30 and $50, to have the cost of tax preparation deducted from your refund amount. Once the IRS issues your refund, the preparer deducts this fee and the cost of preparing your taxes and then gives the rest of the money to you.

Keep in mind that if you don’t have the money to use a paid tax service, you may be able to file completely for free without worrying about any of these fees.

It’s not always clearly explained, but both refund advance loans and refund anticipation checks usually involve a temporary bank account being set up in your name, which is how the preparer takes out their portion of your refund.

Before agreeing to use a tax-preparation service in exchange for an advance, read the terms carefully and make sure you understand the total cost to you.

About this guide: ProPublica has reported on the IRS, the Free File program and other tax topics for years. ProPublica’s tax guide is not personalized tax advice. Speak to a tax professional about your specific tax situation.

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