Bank account promotions aren’t the only way to get your hands on free money.
If you have a relatively simple tax situation – for example, if you work for a single employer and don’t qualify for many itemized deductions – you can take advantage of more than a dozen free online tax preparation software programs for your federal tax return. That’s great news if you don’t want to eat into your federal refund or fork over your credit card number before sending your tax return off to the IRS (though there are solid arguments to be made for paying taxes with a credit card).
Several services also offer free state tax returns, raising the possibility of a completely fee-free tax season. With the exception of some members of the Free File Alliance – an IRS-sponsored consortium of online tax preparation companies that don’t always provide free returns in every state – these services are available to residents of all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and U.S. nationals serving abroad.
IRS Free File Alliance
If your adjusted gross income (AGI) was less than $69,000 last year and you have a relatively straightforward tax situation, you may be eligible to file your taxes for free through an IRS Free File Alliance provider.
The Free File Alliance is a listing service offering direct access to about a dozen free filing services from a consortium of participating tax preparation companies, all of which have to meet strict quality and security standards set by the IRS.
According to the Free File Alliance, roughly 70% of the U.S. taxpaying population is eligible for free filing, and tens of millions of returns have been filed since the Alliance’s inception in the early 2000s. Use the Free File Alliance Lookup Tool to find options that apply to your specific tax situation.
Who Participates in the Free File Alliance?
Free File Alliance participants include well-known online and offline tax preparation firms, including Jackson Hewitt and H&R Block, as well as lesser-known options like Online Taxes at OLT.com and ezTaxReturn.com. Aside from the $66,000 AGI cap, each participating company has specific eligibility criteria. Some things to keep in mind regarding Free File Alliance eligibility and access:
- Accessing Free File Platforms. To qualify for a free return with any of the participating companies, you need to access their filing platform through the Free File website. It’s like an affiliate promotion – you don’t get the deal unless you click the affiliate link on the partner site.
- Age Limits. Free File Alliance eligibility skews younger. Not all platforms impose age limits, but those that do tend to cap participation somewhere between age 50 and 70.
- Income Limits. Some Free File Alliance members impose stricter upper income thresholds, below the $69,000 cap. For instance, the 1040.com Free File Edition is restricted to filers who earned $60,000 or less in taxable income during the filing year.
- Citizenship Status. Some free filing options are limited only to U.S. citizens and/or permanent residents. If you’re in the United States on a work visa or other temporary arrangement, check with your preferred tax prep option to determine whether you’re eligible.
- Tax Situation Complexity. Some Free File Alliance companies only offer free filing to people with simple tax situations. If you’re an independent contractor, business owner, investor, or have a complicated situation for other reasons, you may still need to pay a filing fee. Therefore, it’s important to evaluate your options carefully and choose from those that offer free preparation for people who need to file Schedules C, D, E, or other forms common to complex tax situations.
- Filer Location. Some Free File Alliance companies decline to serve filers in certain states. For instance, Free1040TaxReturn.com is off-limits to residents of Florida, Nevada, Tennessee, Texas, and Washington State. Before you sign up for a service, make sure it’s available in your area.
- Platform Functionality. Functionality may vary from program to program. For instance, some limit whether you can import prior-year returns and forms into your current-year tax return. Others have limited customer support resources. It’s best to read the fine print on each service’s features before making a choice.
State Free File Programs
The IRS also maintains links with about two dozen state-level Free File programs (indicated in deep blue on the map below), which also leverage relationships with name-brand tax filing services that meet states’ security and quality criteria. As with the federal Free File program, filer eligibility requirements may vary by company and state.
Free Online Tax Prep Services
Not interested in using a Free File Alliance product? Consider these 100% free online tax prep options instead.
H&R Block is one of the United States’ best-known tax preparation firms. It has thousands of storefront tax prep outlets scattered about the United States, along with a powerful, user-friendly online tax prep option for at-home filers. If your gross AGI was $69,000 or less in the most recent tax year, you were 51 or younger as of the end of the most recent tax year, or you qualify for the Earned Income Tax Credit, you’re eligible for its free federal filing program, which includes unlimited free state returns.
H&R Block’s free filing plan is ideal for people with simple tax situations, including those who qualify for subsidies under the Affordable Care Act. However, it’s not set up to support filers with capital gains or losses, self-employment income, interest and ordinary dividend income, and rental property income. It also doesn’t allow you to store or access past-year returns – you need to upgrade to a paid plan for that. There’s a stiff fee to pay your filing fees with your refund using H&R Block’s Refund Transfer service, too.
On the other hand, H&R Block’s free edition has some nice perks. For starters, it’s available to residents of all 50 states and comes with no other restrictions. All filers automatically qualify for free, in-person audit support, which includes hands-on advice and assistance with audit preparation. And, if you ever get badly stuck, you can always walk into an H&R Block office near you, though you may have to pay extra for in-person assistance.
See our full H&R Block Review for a complete analysis.
The Federal Free Filing option from TurboTax is ideal for simple tax situations. It includes most of the features and functionality of TurboTax’s paid options, including a best/fastest refund guarantee, support via live chat, W-2 importing, and your choice of e-filing or print-and-mail filing. And it lets you file your first state return for free – a $36.99 value.
TurboTax’s tax prep interface is incredibly intuitive, with simple, straightforward questions that guide you through every step of the filing process, reducing the likelihood of a preventable error. It’s available to residents of all 50 states, too. And there’s no maximum income limit.
TurboTax’s free edition isn’t appropriate for complex tax situations. If you have significant interest or capital gains income, rental property income, or business income, or qualify for certain common tax credits (such as the Student Loan Interest Deduction), you’ll need to upgrade to a paid plan. Moreover, customer support for anything but technical issues is more limited at this price point. If you want to pay your tax prep fees with your federal refund, you must pay a hefty refund payment processing fee.
The good news: TurboTax has several plans at multiple price points. If you feel like the free version is no longer suitable for your needs, it’s easy to upgrade to a paid plan at any time without losing any information.
See our full TurboTax Review for a complete analysis.
Credit Karma Tax has one plan, and it’s totally free for all filers. It doesn’t get better than that.
There are some devils in the details. Unlike larger competitors, Credit Karma Tax has no expert support to speak of, so it’s not a great choice if the complexity of your tax situation exceeds your familiarity with tax law. And the platform does have some functionality gaps that may impact filers with unusual tax situations (for instance, those who earned income from foreign sources).
On the bright side, Credit Karma Tax boasts free state returns, pre-filled forms for existing Credit Karma members (saving time during intake), and 24/7 customer support. Like the rest of Credit Karma, the tax prep interface is colorful and mobile-friendly.
See our Credit Karma Tax Review for a full analysis.
TaxAct‘s Free Edition is a user-friendly platform that’s appropriate for simple situations (Form 1040EZ and 1040A). If you’re filing through the Free File Alliance, you need to meet one of the following qualifications:
- AGI under $55,000 and younger than age 56
- Qualify for the Earned Income Tax Credit
- AGI under $66,000 and active military
These qualification requirements are subject to change, so check with TaxAct before completing your return.
TaxAct’s free version was once quite expansive, appropriate for virtually any tax situation. That’s no longer the case. If you want to itemize deductions or report passive income from stock sales or rental properties, you’ll need to upgrade to a paid plan.
On the bright side, TaxAct’s free version waives filing fees on state returns, so it’s truly a nothing-out-of-pocket deal, though paying your federal filing fees with your refund will set you back a few bucks.
See our full TaxAct Review for a complete analysis.
TaxSlayer‘s free file option plan has no residency or citizenship restrictions. Federal filing is free for filers who earn less than $100,000 (AGI). One state return is included; additional state returns are available for $29 apiece.
TaxSlayer’s Free File Federal has some key downsides, however. Once built to support tax situations across the complexity spectrum, the Simply Free plan is now for the simplest situations only. Common situations that aren’t covered by the Simply Free plan include:
- Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC)
- Itemized deductions
- Self-employment income
- Stock sales
- Rental property income
Plus, you can’t take advantage of TaxSlayer’s audit assistance services or use the website’s live chat feature. And though phone support is available from TaxSlayer’s nonprofessional customer service team, TaxSlayer pushes higher-paying clients – those using the Premium and Self-Employed editions – to the front of the line when they call. So if you call at a busy time, plan to get comfortable.
See our full TaxSlayer Review for a complete analysis.
Though it’s not as well-known, FreeTaxUSA offers free federal tax filing for tax situations of all complexity levels. Known as Totally Free, it supports all major forms and schedules, as well as useful features like prior-year return importing and storage.
FreeTaxUSA also offers free live support from customer service professionals, though its roster of tax professionals doesn’t measure up to bigger competitors like TurboTax and H&R Block. FreeTaxUSA is available to filers across the United States, though state returns cost $12.95 each.
FreeTaxUSA has some noteworthy drawbacks, including a lack of audit assistance (which, with the Deluxe version, includes help interpreting IRS notices, drafting responses, and preparing the documents necessary to navigate your audit). It’s also not very mobile-friendly, making it a poor choice for filers utilizing tablets or smartphones.
See our FreeTaxUSA Review for more information.
7. Free File Fillable Forms
If your AGI is more than $69,000 and you don’t mind taking the DIY tax-filing route, you can still take advantage of an IRS-administered free electronic filing system. The IRS makes its entire database of tax forms and schedules available in PDF format at FreeFileFillableForms.com. To complete your tax return, fill out the appropriate forms through the online system and submit them through the IRS’s e-filing system. You’ll receive your refund (if eligible) on the same schedule as you would with a branded online tax preparation service.
With Free File Fillable Forms, your work is automatically saved as you go, so you don’t need to fill out your entire return in one sitting. And regardless of how complex your tax situation is, you can find the forms and schedules necessary to complete your tax return here, subject to some limitations outlined by the IRS. There aren’t any income, age, citizenship status, or other eligibility restrictions for Free File Fillable Forms.
Free File Fillable Forms might sound like the ultimate free filing option, but there’s a major catch: The IRS provides no support whatsoever for taxpayers who opt to use this resource. In other words, you have to know how to fill out each form and schedule on your own, or at least be confident enough to navigate the IRS’s library of tax preparation resources to find out how.
If you have a straightforward tax situation and have prepared your taxes on your own in the past, this might not be an impossible bar to clear. If your situation is more complicated or you’re just not comfortable with the idea of preparing your tax return unaided, Free File Fillable Forms isn’t a great option. Even a seemingly trivial preparation error could lead the IRS to reject your return and ask you to re-file, delaying your return in the process. In the worse case, you could be flagged for an audit. And note that functionality is severely constrained here – you can’t import prior-year returns, for example.
I don’t know many people who love filing their taxes, even if they’re reasonably confident that they’ll get a juicy refund. Filing taxes takes time and effort, and even the best software programs can’t totally protect you against mistakes. Filing for free can’t make up for the inconvenience, but at least it keeps more of your money where it belongs: in your wallet.
Still, free filing options aren’t for everyone. If you have a complicated tax situation – particularly if you’re self-employed, own a business, or have investment income from multiple sources – it’s likely not worth the small upfront savings. A mistake could easily offset the money you saved on your return. And you might set yourself up for a stressful, potentially costly IRS audit. There’s no shame in opting for a paid plan or even hiring a certified public accountant who can provide hands-on attention. If you do choose to hire a CPA, our top choice would be Circle CPA. Their CPAs provide quality tax prep service with a pay-what-you-want model.
Have you used any of these free online tax preparation services? Which do you recommend? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.