How Soon Can You File Your Tax Return?

Filing Deadlines and Refund Information for 2018

Filing IRS Form 1096 with 1099 Forms
••• Hanson Quan/Getty Images

"How soon can I file my tax return?" "When's the earliest I can file?" "When does tax season start?"

Tax professionals frequently hear these questions and others like them as the calendar flips over to a new year every January. The answer depends on a few factors, and filing early doesn't always mean you'll get your refund any sooner.  

Filing and Processing 

You can file your federal tax return as soon as you have all the relevant information and documents you'll need to prepare it. Your employer has until January 31, 2018 to send out W-2s for 2017 earnings, and most 1099 forms must also be sent to earners by that date. 

Even if you receive your documentation earlier than this, it doesn't mean that the Internal Revenue Service will immediately process your return if you file as soon as possible. The IRS will officially start accepting tax returns for the 2017 tax year on January 29. (That's later than last year's date of January 23, as the IRS has had to scramble to adjust to the new provisions of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act that was passed at the very tail end of 2017.) 

The IRS will begin accepting electronically filed tax returns on that day and processing paper returns that have been mailed in. So if you mail in your tax return the first week in January, it will just sit in the queue until January 29 arrives. There's no advantage in mailing a return any earlier instead of waiting to e-file. 

The Deadline to File 

The deadline to file your personal tax return for tax year 2017 is April 17, 2018. Why not April 15? Because April 15 falls on a Sunday, and Monday is Emancipation Day, which is observed in Washington D.C., the home of the IRS. 

You can request a six-month extension from the IRS if you're not ready to prepare and file your return by April 17. This would push your filing deadline back to October 15, 2018. Payment of any taxes due for the year are still due by the April deadline, however. The IRS will charge interest and sometimes late payment penalties if you don't pay by April 18. 

When Will You Receive Your Refund? 

This question is a bit trickier. The IRS says that it issues refunds in less than 21 days for most returns, but it can take up to six weeks after you mail in a paper return. And if you're requesting a paper check for your refund rather than direct deposit, the IRS advises that you should tack on another 10 days to allow for the postal delivery process. 

Additionally, the Protecting Americans from Tax Hikes Act of 2015, commonly known as the "PATH Act," began delaying some refunds beginning in 2017. If you're expecting a refund because you claimed the Earned Income Tax Credit or the Additional Child Tax Credit, the IRS can't issue your refund before February 15, 2018 regardless of when you file. The PATH Act provides that the IRS needs time to examine returns claiming these refunds to prevent fraud, which would ultimately result in tax hikes to all taxpayers across the board.

The IRS indicates that it should have some information about when you can expect your refund on or about February 17, 2018. You can check the status of your refund and get a more exact date after that time by visiting the IRS website, but the IRS does not expect that you'll receive it before February 27, 2018 if you're claiming either of these refundable tax credits. 

You're still subject to the delay even if your refund is only due in part to one or both of these credits. In other words, if you overpaid $1,000 in taxes and you're also entitled to a $1,000 EITC refund for a total of $2,000, the IRS won't send you one refund for $1,000 and hold the EITC refund until February 27. Your entire refund will be delayed.