Should You E-File or File Taxes by Mail?

Know the pros and cons of digital and paper tax returns

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When you file your taxes, you have two options for submitting your return with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS): electronically or by mail.

Both methods of filing have their pros and cons. E-filing is safe, faster, and generally more convenient than paper filing. Filing by mail can be cheaper, though it takes the IRS longer to process refunds. 

Learn more about choosing how to file your tax return.

Advantages of E-Filing

E-filing was first introduced in 1986, and it got off to a slow start. A scant number of tax professionals—five of them, according to the IRS—took advantage of this new technology at the time.

The new filing method eventually caught on though, and, as of May 2022, over 135 million individual income tax returns were e-filed in the 2022 filing season.

There are several advantages to e-filing, which are outlined below.

Immediate Confirmation

The biggest benefit of electronic filing is that you'll receive almost immediate confirmation that the IRS has received your tax return.

If the IRS finds errors in your return, your authorized IRS e-file provider is required to attempt to contact you within 24 hours with an explanation, which will typically indicate what triggered the action and what you can do to fix your tax return.

Check the email you have on file with your tax prep software or service provider to catch any notifications that the IRS accepted or rejected your return.

Safety

According to the IRS, e-filing is more secure than paper filing because the return, with all your sensitive information, meets strict security guidelines and is protected by modern encryption technology.

Faster Processing

Your refund is likely to be processed sooner because e-filing means the IRS doesn't have to sort or transcribe your tax return at its service center.

Less Human Error

There's a lower chance that the IRS will make a mistake when processing your return, because IRS employees don’t have to manually enter your return into its system line-by-line. 

Skip Tax Prep Programs

You don’t have to use an expensive tax preparation program to e-file your taxes—if you’re tax savvy, have a simple situation, and are willing to learn, you can fill tax forms in directly using IRS Free File Fillable Forms.

You should be comfortable completing basic tax forms to use the program, as no guidance is provided.

The IRS publishes a yearly list of Free File Alliance partners that will file your return for free. To qualify, your AGI must be $73,000 or lower (though some free-file providers cap income eligibility at $39,000), and you may have to meet an age requirement.

Disadvantages of E-Filing

While the convenience and efficiency of e-filing have made it the go-to filing option for millions, there are some potential drawbacks as well.

Fees

Though there are tax prep tools that are free, many of the leading tax prep firms, like TurboTax, TaxSlayer, and H&R Block, charge fees for tax returns that go beyond a basic filing. Fees can exceed $100, depending on how complex your tax filing is and the services you need.

Doesn’t Allow for Certain Filing Situations

Though e-filing supports most tax situations, there are certain scenarios it doesn't support. For example, you can’t:

  • Attach images or PDFs to your return
  • File before the IRS opens e-filing for the year

Advantages of Paper Filing

Filing a paper return can be very helpful in certain scenarios that e-filing cannot accommodate. Here are some examples.

You Have a Rare Filing Situation

E-filing can only do so much. For example, if you need to file Form 1310 to claim a refund owed to someone who passed away, you must complete the form and mail it. Paper filing also allows you to print and submit images or PDFs to supplement your tax return. 

You Want To Build Your Tax Expertise

Many online tax prep tools automate the filing process by asking you questions and using your answers to fill out forms without ever telling you which forms it’s filing on your behalf. 

If you want to learn about, and better review, the details of your tax return, including all forms related to your tax situation, filing a paper return provides the transparency you need.

You can fill out each form line-by-line and see firsthand all the calculations and considerations your refund requires.

Disadvantages of Paper Filing

There are several drawbacks to paper filing that make the process riskier and more challenging than e-filing:

Increased Chances of Errors

Data transcribers at the IRS must manually input taxpayer information for every paper return they receive. This could result in errors that require you to file an amended return

Overwhelming for Beginners

For filers who try paper filing after years of electronic filing, gathering all the forms necessary for things like student loan interest, mortgage interest, capital gains, and business deductions can be intimidating. That could lead to mistakes or missing forms.

You Need To Remember To Sign the Return

Veteran paper filers realize that you have to manually sign the paper return you submit, or the IRS won’t accept it. Novice paper filers often forget this fact, leading to even longer delays than what is normal with a paper return.

Tips for Paper Filing

You can do a few things to streamline your return submission when you file by paper:

  • Make sure your name and Social Security number are on every page, both front and back.
  • Double-check your address. This is where the IRS will send any notices, so it's important that you don't make a mistake. 
  • Mail your return to the right IRS service center. The address can change, depending on which state you’re in and whether you’re including payment with your return. The IRS provides a state-by-state list online so you can find the correct address.
  • Get an automatic extension if you're mailing your return close to the official filing deadline. Keep in mind that you should make a payment with your extension if you think you'll owe anything. Otherwise, you could be subject to penalties and interest.

The IRS will generally accept paper filings postmarked by the filing deadline—it doesn't have to receive them by this date.

Alternatives to E- and Paper Filing on Your Own

The IRS provides a list of acceptable filing options on its website, which include the following:

In the unlikely event that your identity is stolen, and the thief files a tax return with your information, your own e-filed return will be rejected by the IRS as a duplicate. You must file a paper tax return in that case and mail it in with Form 14039, the “Identity Theft Affidavit,” notifying the IRS of the issue.

Key Takeaways

  • E-filing is fast and efficient and the IRS provides several free filing options.
  • Tax prep software like TurboTax and H&R Block charge fees (sometimes upwards of $100) depending on how complex your filing is and the services you need.
  • Paper filing requires more time than e-filing and can be overwhelming, especially for those used to e-filing.
  • Alternatives to filing taxes on your own include hiring a tax professional or participating in filing-assistance programs.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Who can e-file taxes?

Most taxpayers are eligible to file electronically. However, in some cases, you may have to file by mail. Here are a few examples:

  • You, your spouse, or one of your dependents doesn't have a valid Social Security number.
  • Someone already claimed a dependent you are trying to claim.
  • You're married but filing separately and subject to community property rules.
  • Your return requires forms that can only be filed by mail.
  • You have someone with power of attorney and require the refund to be sent to a third party.

When is the earliest I can e-file my taxes?

The IRS usually announces the first day it will accept returns sometime in January of each year. That date usually falls around the beginning of February. You might be able to pre-file through a tax preparation service or electronic filing software, but they will hold your return until the first day the IRS begins accepting them.

How long does it take to get my tax refund?

The IRS says most e-filed tax returns with direct deposit take 21 days or less to complete. If you file by mail, it could take up to six weeks. Filing electronically and accepting your refund by direct deposit is the fastest way to do your taxes.

Article Sources

  1. Internal Revenue Service. "How To File."

  2. Internal Revenue Service. "IRS E-File: A History," Page 1.

  3. Internal Revenue Service. "2022 Filing Season Statistics: Cumulative Statistics Comparing May 7, 2021, and May 6, 2022."

  4. Internal Revenue Service. "Handbook for Authorized IRS e-file Providers of Individual Income Tax Returns," Page 27.

  5. Internal Revenue Service. "Six Reasons To E-file."

  6. Internal Revenue Service. "IRS Free File Online: Browse All Offers."

  7. TurboTax. "Let’s Find the Right Tax Solution for You."

  8. Internal Revenue Service. "Free File Fillable Forms: Program Limitations and Available Forms."

  9. Internal Revenue Service. "Form 1310, Statement of Person Claiming Refund Due a Deceased Taxpayer," Page 1.

  10. Internal Revenue Service. "Common Errors To Avoid When Filing a Tax Return."

  11. Internal Revenue Service. "Penalties."

  12. Internal Revenue Service. "Topic No. 301 When, How, and Where To File."

  13. Internal Revenue Service. "When To File a Form 14039, Identity Theft Affidavit."

  14. H&R Block. "What Are the E-File Requirements?"

  15. Internal Revenue Service. "What To Expect for Refunds This Year."