The IRS is now accepting tax returns for tax year 2020, and they’re due by May 17, 2021—an extended due date. Most U.S. residents can file their taxes for free thanks to the IRS Free File Program, but many people still don’t know this. Here’s how.
Incomes Below $72,000: IRS Free File Program
If your adjusted gross income for 2020 was $72,000 or less, you qualify for the IRS Free File Program. This program is a partnership between the IRS and tax software companies like Intuit and H&R Block. If you qualify, you can use certain tax programs for free, paying $0 for every feature the software offers. Once your federal and state taxes are complete, you can e-file them for free, too.
Here’s something you need to know: The free versions available through IRS Free File are different from the normal free versions available on each program’s website!
In other words, “IRS Free File Program delivered by TurboTax” and “TurboTax Free Edition” are different software packages. If you start using TurboTax Free Edition, you may be surprised with upsells—and you may have to pay for features that the IRS Free File version of TurboTax offers for free. TurboTax is under no obligation to inform you about the IRS Free File version of its software.
To take advantage of a free offer, you must start by using the IRS Free File version of the software. If you meet the qualifications, you can use the software for free, and you won’t be asked to pay for any of its features. You can’t just start by using a tax program’s “normal” free version.
To get started, visit the official IRS Free File website. You can browse all available Free File offers or use the IRS Free File lookup tool to discover the Free File software that supports your situation.
It’s a little complicated—different tax programs have different limitations. For example, TurboTax’s Free File Program software requires you to have an AGI of $39,000 or less. TurboTax’s standard free edition may still work for you if you have an AGI above that, but read the fine print: It’s only free for very simple tax returns. Use the IRS’s Free File website to see which Free File programs fit your financial situation.
Based on the options available on the IRS website, H&R Block doesn’t seem to be participating in the IRS Free File program this year. If you prefer it, you may be able to file for free with H&R Block’s free online software. However, know what you’re getting into: The standard “free” versions from TurboTax, H&R Block, and other applications will hit you with upsells and require payment for all but the most simple tax situations.
Almost Anyone: Credit Karma Tax
Every year, we also highlight Credit Karma Tax. This tax software is absolutely free. It won’t upsell you on any features—it doesn’t even offer paid features.
Credit Karma offers a free credit report service that makes money by showing you personalized offers for financial products. Credit Karma Tax makes money in a similar way.
Not everyone can use this software, however—Credit Karma Tax doesn’t support a variety of more complicated situations and forms. For example, you can’t file part-year state returns, multiple state returns, or nonresident state returns. You can’t file forms like Form 1116 for the Foreign Tax Credit or Form 2555 for Foreign Earned Income. Here are the situations and forms that Credit Karma Tax doesn’t support.
Credit Karma Tax is much newer than the other options on this list. But it’s been around for a few years and is now owned by Intuit, which makes TurboTax. If you have a complicated situation, you might want to double-check its work in another tax-filing application before you file. (Many tax programs will only charge you when you go ahead and file, so you can put in all your data and get a final estimate from multiple programs to see if they match up.)
Note: Intuit, makers of TurboTax, now owns Credit Karma. Intuit completed its acquisition in December of 2020. However, the free Credit Karma Tax software is still available.
Free Federal Returns Only: FreeTaxUSA
If you live in a state that doesn’t require you to file a state tax return, check out FreeTaxUSA. FreeTaxUSA offers free federal tax returns and just charges a small fee ($15) for state tax returns.
So, if you don’t have to file a state tax return in your state, FreeTaxUSA will be completely free for you to use.
FreeTaxUSA has been around longer than Credit Karma Tax and supports a variety of situations that Credit Karma Tax doesn’t offer, too. It’s certainly a more budget-friendly alternative to pricey products like TurboTax if you have to pay to file.
Incomes Above $72,000: Free Fillable Forms
Want to do things the old-fashioned way—but with digital conveniences?
The IRS also offers Free Fillable Forms. Absolutely everyone can use these with no income limit.
These are exactly what they sound like: Electronic copies of the IRS’s standard paper tax forms. These forms will do some basic math calculations for you when you plug in numbers, but that’s all the help you’ll get. There’s no user-friendly interview process that will walk you through everything.
However, these are still easier than dealing with standard paper forms. When you’re done, you can e-file right from the IRS’s website. You don’t have to print or mail anything.
Note that the IRS only offers federal tax forms. You’re on your own for state tax forms. Your state tax agency’s website may offer its own free fillable forms on its website, but that’s up to your state.
A few of these electronic forms have some minor limitations that will affect people in rare situations. For example, the electronic version of Form W-2G for certain gambling winnings will only let you insert 30 W-2Gs—no more. If you need to enter more, you’ll have to use a different program or do it on paper. Here’s a list of available forms and limitations on the IRS’s website.
This guide is similar to our guide for filing 2019’s taxes last year. Not a lot has changed. But every year, we especially like to highlight the IRS Free File Program and remind people that you can do your taxes for free—if you know the secret. Pass it on.