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FreeTaxUSA 2021 Edition review: No-frills free federal taxes

With a streamlined interface and manual input, FreeTaxUSA 2021 covers many tax situations, but don’t use it if you have a lot of questions

FreeTaxUSA 2021 Edition
(Image: © FreeTaxUSA)

Tom's Guide Verdict

FreeTaxUSA lacks the niceties of more expensive services, but it’s a viable choice for federal taxes if you don’t mind an archaic interface, limited guidance and manual data entry.

Pros

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    Free tier covers investments, cryptocurrency and self-employed filings

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    Works on mobile and desktop browser

Cons

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    Dated interface lacks visual design

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    No clear info on tax expert review

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    Must complete return in specified order

FreeTaxUSA is blunt about its primary attribute: This tax filing service is free for federal e-file, even for more complicated taxes like those who are self-employed. FreeTaxUSA 2021 Edition has some add-on charges, including for state filing, but as far as a tax service goes, FreeTaxUSA offers far more than most competitors. Only Cash App Taxes (formerly Credit Karma Tax) might be an alternative to FreeTaxUSA, and even then, FreeTaxUSA has the advantage of having some level of both chat and phone support.

Utah-based TaxHawk runs FreeTaxUSA, as well as an identical-looking web tax service under the TaxHawk moniker. While the underlying software is identical, and both share the same fee structures, clearly a name like FreeTaxUSA encapsulates the service’s aesthetic. Nothing fancy here. No onboarding questions, minimalist design, little help or guidance. Even the investment support is slim (you have to manually enter transaction information). But if you’re looking to save some money and don’t need a lot of hand-holding, FreeTaxUSA can get the job done.

FreeTaxUSA 2021 review: Cost

All three tiers — Basic, Premium and Self-Employed — are free for federal e-file.  That’s it. What’s jarring is that the service lists tiers at all. Clearly, FreeTaxUSA does so as a marketing play to show how its free products stack up to competing services’ offerings. 

Unlike Cash App Taxes, FreeTaxUSA has step-up pricing that adds additional features and support levels. 

The Deluxe package at $6.99 gets you Priority Support to jump to the head of the chat queue for information on how to use the service, and for basic tax information (but not tax assistance). Priority Support includes unlimited amended returns and audit assistance should you need it. Unlimited amended returns are an extra $14.99 otherwise, making the Deluxe add-on a reasonable jump. 

Other uncommon extras: $7.99 for a mailed printed return, and $14.99 for a professionally bound tax return. You can also prepare prior year federal returns for free, or pay $17.99 for prior year State returns.

FreeTaxUSA 2021 review: State filing

Like other services, FreeTaxUSA charges to file a state return. Unlike competitors, FreeTaxUSA’s price is a bargain, just $14.99 — a significant savings over services like TaxAct ($39.95) and TurboTax ($54), but still a charge (compared with Cash App Taxes, which is free).

FreeTaxUSA 2021 review: Features

Unlike other tax software with stated tiers of service, it doesn’t matter the amount you spend — aside from that $6.99 for priority support, FreeTaxUSA has no charge. You get a wide variety of forms as part of the service, supporting typical scenarios that will be faced by families, individuals, students, investors, sole proprietors and small businesses. Deluxe customers who spend the $6.99 extra also get unlimited amendments to returns, and access to an Audit Center online that gives step-by-step guidance.

FreeTaxUSA 2021 review: Available help

General support hours are not clearly noted on the site, although it says e-mail messages get replies within 24 hours, and typically sooner. The online help is very basic, almost crude, in its design. For example, click on the Help with this Page or Deduction Dictionary links in the right-hand support pane, and you’ll get a pop-up of basic HTML hyperlink lists of supporting definitions. The content lacks the depth and original reporting of competing services, like TurboTax. For example, the service has minimal resources explaining the Child Tax Credit.

(Image credit: FreeTaxUSA)

To access live chat, you have to first go to the Support page via the link at the top right of the screen, then select live chat. That in turn triggers a chat window overlay at right–okay, but you can’t navigate back to another screen while that overlay is active. In the standard form, the help pane is underutilized, with too much unused prime real estate. At least the search tool at the top of the site does search for relevant help entries. And, the site does have several entries discussing cryptocurrency investments.

(Image credit: FreeTaxUSA)

If you pay the $6.99 for the Deluxe package, you get to go to the head of the chat queue and get additional hours, Monday to Friday, from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. ET. Plus, you’ll need to be at the Deluxe level to sign up for this year’s new “Pro Support,” which gives access to chat, screen sharing and phone calls with tax pros (CPAs and EAs).

FreeTaxUSA’s website lacked details about this feature when we tested the service, but according to a support chat only a “limited number” of customers will be able to upgrade. The service’s bargain price of $17.99 sounds good — maybe even too good — if you can get it, but the lack of information makes it impossible to draw any conclusions. We found one reference to this in the help, but never saw any mention of it beyond being told about it by a chat representative.

FreeTaxUSA 2021 review: Ease of use

Even though FreeTaxUSA lists multiple products by name under its menus, ultimately you just have one button — Start Free Return — to press to get going. Setting up an account is mostly standard fare, where you enter name, email address, username and password, then get an account verification code sent to your phone. The username part deviates from the norm, though, due to the company’s guidelines not to use your name or email. Presumably since FreeTaxUSA is free at all tiers, it lacks on-boarding questions of competitors like TurboTax and H&R Block.

Once we entered our account, it was clear that this is a no-frills service, from a visual perspective. The screen’s layout is about as old-school as it gets, with the biggest variances being bold text and text size, but so much being…text. Even the color scheme is minimal, with a white center main panel to work in, and slightly gray surrounding, and colored buttons and menu tabs (to notate what you’re working on). The page has responsive design, and curiously looks better, and more visually appealing, on mobile web, the only way to use the service on mobile since it lacks an app.

(Image credit: FreeTaxUSA)

Along the top of the page are seven drop-down menus for navigating the different components of the return, but you can’t do so until you’ve actually run through the entire return once. You also can’t move among different areas of the return until you’ve filled out the screens in the order prescribed; this can be annoying if you’re trying to test out the product before committing your info, or trying to fill in what you have without having all of your documents on hand.

To begin our 2021 tax return, we clicked on the option to import 2020 tax returns. We liked that, up front, FreeTaxUSA gave an option to file an extension, too. Many other services don’t list or offer extensions at all (for example, TurboTax lets you file an extension, but we found that through a Google search since it’s not listed as an option off the main turbotax.com site).

FreeTaxUSA lets you import PDF files from TurboTax, H&R Block Online, H&R Block Tax Software (self-prepared) — their wording, not what we see at H&R Block — and TaxAct. Anything else and you’ll have to start from scratch.

We then entered personal information, including taxpayer specifics, filing status, and dependents. At this screen, FreeTaxUSA prompted for information related to the Child Tax Credit payments from 2021, although there is minimal help info surrounding what this all means.

(Image credit: FreeTaxUSA)

In the summary screen you can add your IRS Identity Protection PIN, if you have one, and add an additional phone number to your account with FreeTaxUSA.

The next prompts are for income. Everything has to be entered manually; there’s no way to take a photo and have the info imported into the FreeTaxUSA system. Same for interest income and 1099 income, which can get tiresome fast if you have lots of accounts or clients.

(Image credit: FreeTaxUSA)

While there is no clear reference in the main income screen to cryptocurrency, FreeTaxUSA does have some help topics available, and the service reminds you after the main income entry screen to include cryptocurrency on your tax return. But that’s the extent of crypto guidance.

(Image credit: FreeTaxUSA)

For all entries, you can download a PDF preview of the actual form, but this preview is watermarked and can’t be used for the IRS. Also, all pages have three navigation elements in the upper right corner: bookmark, history and topic list, each of which is a pop-up on the page. As with everything about FreeTaxUSA’s interface, the presentation is very Web1, with basic HTML links and zero visual presentation. The topic list is the best way to navigate among what you’ve already done, even though the drop-down menus do show surprising detail, too.

(Image credit: FreeTaxUSA)

The deductions screens seem straightforward, and walk through many common, and uncommon, scenarios. Then you get to Miscellaneous Forms and Topics, for additional information, and finally a summary to review everything before moving on to your state taxes.

(Image credit: FreeTaxUSA)

FreeTaxUSA has a certain simplicity about it, but it’s too simplified to the point of being annoying. Jumping around is frustrating, and explanations are present, but not detailed. If you need help with something in the free version, you have to first go to the support screen to get the chat overlay; and you can’t go back to where you were having problems while on the chat.

FreeTaxUSA 2021 review: Verdict

FreeTaxUSA 2021 Edition is free, and fairly comprehensive in what it covers. The simplified interface lacks the visual distinctions and details of competing products, including the free Cash App Taxes (formerly Credit Karma Tax). And it lacks any photo imports, again something that Cash App Taxes has. However FreeTaxUSA might be worth a look if you know you don't need much hand-holding with your taxes, and don’t mind the barebones interface. Intuit’s TurboTax Deluxe 2021 costs more, but we like it for its friendly interface and more robust data import tools and its handling of cryptocurrency and investment transactions.

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.