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How to file your taxes online

IRS tax forms
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Filing your taxes online has never been easier; gone are the days of slaving over handwritten numbers on tax forms and then mailing those at the post office. There are now multiple ways to e-file your taxes, whether it’s through one of the best tax software services, or by going straight to the IRS itself. We’ll walk you through each method of how to file your taxes online, and if it’s the best option for you.

Tax software

One of the more popular options is to simply use one of the best tax software services. These apps will not only guide you through the process of filling out your tax forms, but will then automatically file the taxes for you. After reviewing half a dozen of them, our two favorite services are TurboTax and H&R Block

If you’re having trouble deciding between the two, be sure to read our H&R Block vs. TurboTax comparison.

IRS Free File

If you want to eschew such services and go the do-it-yourself route, the IRS provides its IRS Free File service for taxpayers to file online. Here, you’re offered two options: Guided Tax Preparation and Free Fillable forms. The former is for those who have an adjusted gross income of less than $73,000, while the latter can be used by anyone.

IRS tax forms

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

If you’re using Guided Tax Preparation, you’ll be prompted to review the Free File options from third-party providers. Set up an account set with the provider, and then follow the instructions set forth by that provider from there.

If you’re using Fillable Forms, you’ll be taken to a page that explains this path, how it works, and points you to open an account with the IRS.

Guided tax preparation

This option lets you choose one of eight online tax preparation services, which have partnered with the IRS as part of the Free File Alliance, a non-profit, public-private partnership. Some of these providers have familiar names as part of our best tax preparation software roundup, including FreeTaxUSA, TaxSlayer, and TaxAct

To get started you’ll review the eight available IRS Free File Online providers to find the best match. The fine print matters here. For example, some services limit your adjusted gross income — TaxSlayer allows only $39,000, for example. Some services are only available in certain states, while others are limited by residence or age of the filer (IRS Free Tax File Program delivered by TaxAct has the max age set to 65). All include handling military pay and the earned income tax credit. FreeTaxUSA, OLT Online Taxes, and TaxSlayer have free state filing for all states; and of those, only OLT has the maximum allowable AGI of $73,000.

Considering this hands you over to third-party tax prep services with their own free versions anyway, it does raise a question: Why bother with IRS Free Tax File Program?  Well, if you qualify, one benefit to using IRS Free File is some of these services do include state filing for free. That can be a money-saving bonus. 

The flipside? You may not get all the features and help available if you went directly to that services’ site to file. Let’s take the example of TaxAct. What’s covered in the IRS Free File version of TaxAct and the service’s own free tier is the same, in terms of forms supported. But the free tier of TaxAct includes its TaxAssist tax pro assistance and charges $39.99 to file your state taxes, while the IRS Free File version includes a free state file for “some” states, and lacks TaxAssist support.

In order to qualify for IRS Free File, you have to go through the IRS’ site. You won’t receive the same Free File benefits directly from a company’s website.

Once you complete your taxes, you’ll follow the service’s instructions to eFile. As of 2021, more than 20 states had a state Free File program modeled after the federal program (Arkansas, Arizona, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Mississippi, Montana, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Vermont, Virginia and West Virginia, plus the District of Columbia). 

If the service doesn’t include the state return through the IRS Free File offer, you can either try to file the state return using that service separately, use another service that allows filing a state return independently from your federal (OLT Online Taxes, a participant in the Free File program, does this), or you can go to your state’s tax board and follow the instructions to file a state return directly through your state.

Free Fillable Forms

If you don’t want to use one of the Free File partner services, or your adjusted gross income is higher than $73,000, the other available IRS option is IRS Free File Fillable Forms. Think of this as a truly do-it-yourself approach to getting your taxes done. Unlike the best tax preparation services that give you at least some prompts to nudge you in the right direction, the Free Fillable Forms are simply electronic versions of the tax forms that you can fill out online. 

You’ll start by going to IRS.gov and setting up an account. Don’t worry about the IRS holding your info indefinitely – all accounts and associated data are deleted shortly after the final filing deadline for a given tax year in October, and you’ll need to open a new IRS account the next year.

IRS tax forms

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Free Fillable Forms starts out with the digital version of the 1040 tax form, and then need to add forms at will to the return. Unlike paid tax prep services, you won’t get much in the way of friendly help, calculations, or explanations at IRS.gov. The only help available is a useful 26-page PDF walking you through the process of using Free File Fillable Forms, and access to IRS tax bulletins and other documents written in tax jargon. Even the IRS states up front “you should know how to prepare your own tax return” if you use this service. 

Once you’re confident you have all the forms you need completed, you can start the process of preparing to E-File. This is a six step process unto itself. You’ll start by adding your W-2, 1099-R and/or W-2G information (1099-MISC and other 1099 forms do not need to be added here), if you have these documents. Then you’ll add your withholding information, verify your identity (either with your previous year’s AGI or with last year’s five-digit self-selected signature PIN). Next you’ll add your electronic signature, creating a new five-digit Signature PIN, and complete how you will pay your taxes due. After that, you can confirm your email, review the return electronically or by by printing it, and then complete your E-File by transmitting your return to the IRS.

Melissa Perenson is a freelance writer. She has reviewed the best tax software for Tom's Guide for several years, and has also tested out fax software, among other things. She spent more than a decade at PC World and TechHive, and she has freelanced for numerous publications including Computer Shopper, TechRadar and Consumers Digest.