The federal Office of Management and Budget’s Quicksilver Task Force obligated the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to start offering free tax preparation and filing to eligible taxpayers back in 2001. As a result, the Free File Alliance was formed by the IRS in 2003.
Numerous private-sector tax software providers have teamed up with the IRS to provide free services for virtually all taxpayers—subject to certain rules. If your income is higher than the eligibility limit, you might be entitled to more limited assistance.
The Free File program had filed more than 60 million returns since 2003. However, according to observations made by think tank Bipartisan Policy Center, Free File is being significantly underused by eligible taxpayers, meaning that even more people are eligible to use it to file their tax returns for free.
Eligibility for Free File
Eligibility for the IRS Free File depends on your adjusted gross income (AGI). For example, if your AGI was $73,000 or less for the 2021 tax year, you could have used the Free File software to prepare and file your return.
The IRS typically opens up the Free File tool for the tax year in January of the next year. The Free File tool is available beginning Jan. 14, 2022, for 2021 tax returns you will file in 2022.
If your AGI is higher than the threshold, you can still access free, fillable tax forms on the IRS website. However, you won’t get the interactive, personalized assistance that Free File provides.
Keep in mind that the Free File income threshold is your adjusted gross income, which is what remains after you take certain adjustments to income. This not necessarily everything you earn during the year, so you might be eligible even if your salary is over the threshold.
Benefits.gov offers an online eligibility checker if you’re uncertain whether you qualify.
IRS Free File Providers
For the upcoming tax season, free file providers include TaxAct, TaxSlayer, FreeTaxUSA, 1040NOW and ezTaxReturn.com, among others. The IRS website allows you to browse all providers available or you can answer a few questions and get directed to a provider that may work for you.
Age & Other Restrictions
The IRS places restrictions and limits on just how many taxpayers Free File software providers can serve each year, according to the Bipartisan Policy Center. As a result, some alliance members have imposed their own additional restrictions for eligibility.
According to the Bipartisan Policy Center, of the 12 Free File Alliance member in 2019, only three had no age limit, while five could only be used by taxpayers under age 60.
Step-by-Step Overview of Free File
The IRS offers access to the alliance members’ tax preparation software on its website.
You’re not obligated to use any particular provider—you can select whichever one works best for your own situation. Click on the link, and the IRS site will send you to that provider so you can review eligibility requirements and find out exactly what each offers.
You must then create an account, and the software provider will walk you through the completion of your tax return, step by step. You will need documents such as last year's return, social security number, W-2s etc. to get started. The software will ask you a series of questions and hunt down tax breaks and the best filing options for you, based on your answers.
Each provider will electronically file your return for you and you’ll receive an email receipt when it’s been accepted by the IRS. Both preparation and filing of federal returns are provided free of charge.
Don’t forget to print out a copy of your return. Printing is free, too.
Free, Fillable Forms
You have another option if your income is over the threshold for eligibility with the free file software providers: The IRS also offers free, fillable tax forms.
The biggest difference here is that you won’t have helpful program nudges to walk you through the ins and outs of completing these forms. They’re still online, but you must enter all the data yourself, so you’ll have to know where to place the information.
The forms don’t self-check for errors the way the free software programs do, and they’re capable of doing only very basic math.
You can e-file your return and forms after they’re completed. You don’t have to print out the forms and snail-mail them in.
If you aren't comfortable completing your return by hand without guidance from software prompts, you should choose another method for filing your tax return.
Only free, fillable forms for federal tax returns are available. You can’t use this service to prepare your state return.
Pros and Cons of Using Free File
A large number of Americans are eligible
The software asks questions to walk you through the steps of filling out forms correctly
Taxpayers can file without paying for the help of a tax professional or software
All information entered is protected from unauthorized access
Customer service from the software providers is free as well
Certain internet service providers, security software programs, and web browsers may block access or result in compatibility issues with some software providers
You may run into glitches or lose information if you access the fillable forms via your mobile device
Not all software providers will prepare state returns for free—you might have to pay for these
Browsers Compatible with Free File
Google Chrome, Microsoft Edge, Safari, and Mozilla Firefox are generally compatible with Free File.
You also might be out of your element if you’re not particularly computer-savvy, or if you’re using older equipment, such as an older browser. These have been known to result in printing and display problems. You’ll also need a valid email address.
The IRS recommends an Intel Core 2 Duo 1.8 GHz processor, if you’re using the fillable forms, and memory of at least 1 GB RAM. You’ll need a high-speed internet connection and Acrobat Reader 8.0 or newer for printing.
If you run into problems, the IRS suggests trying another internet service provider, browser, or computer. You can also contact the software provider—not the IRS.
Who Should Use Free File?
Free File is considered to be most suitable for those with relatively basic tax situations. The software programs do provide a variety of different tax forms, but only the most common ones, so this program is probably not for you if your return:
- Requires filing obscure tax forms
- Includes multiple schedules
- Includes income from a business that you own
You’ll also need to be comfortable with the English language. In 2021, only two of the software providers are set up to accommodate those who speak Spanish.
If your tax situation is relatively simple, however, and you are comfortable with both computer software and the English language, Free File may be the best option to file your taxes quickly and inexpensively.
- Multiple tax preparation firms team up with IRS to help certain taxpayers file their returns from free
- Filers whose adjusted gross income (AGI) meets a certain threshold, $73,000 or less in 2021, are eligible to file their returns for free under Free File.
- Eligible filers may receive guidance from the tax prep companies
- Those with AGI in excess of the threshold may still use free fillable forms under Free File but will get no filing guidance
- The Free File tool is typically opened up for the tax year in January of the following year. For filing 2021 taxes, IRS Free File is available Jan. 14, 2022.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
What is the best IRS Free File software?
The Free File program is a non-profit, public-private partnership and IRS announces a list of participating tax preparation providers every year. These providers are subject to Federal Trade Commission Privacy and Safeguards Rules and IRS e-file regulations. The IRS does not endorse one company over the other.
When will IRS Free File be available?
Typically, the IRS opens the Free File program mid-January the year following the tax year. For filing 2021 tax returns, the IRS Free File program is available starting Jan. 14, 2022.