TurboTax is one of the most popular online tax preparation and filing software programs in the United States. Major TurboTax competitors include popular online tax filing software such as H&R Block, TaxAct, eSmart Tax, and TaxSlayer.
I’ve personally used TurboTax to file my taxes for many of the past several years. Its free filing package has long been one of the best free tax filing options around, and it’s only growing more robust.
That’s not to say that TurboTax is perfect. Though its interview-based filing process is highly intuitive and the mobile-friendly platform is a snap to use, it’s a bit pricier than most competitors and requires people with complicated tax situations (myself included) to upgrade to more expensive plans. I’ve encountered sporadic technical issues in that past that hampered the filing process and overall experience. And though I’ve never gotten a bigger refund from another program, TurboTax isn’t the fastest filing service I’ve ever used.
Plans, Pricing & Features
TurboTax uses an interview-style tax preparation process, using your answers to a series of simple questions (such as “Do you have any children or dependents?”) to evaluate your tax situation and determine which forms and schedules you need to successfully complete your return.
To start, you can choose from one of five DIY plans. If during the prep process TurboTax recognizes that your return requires a form or function that isn’t supported by your current plan (such as itemized deductions or self-employment income), it automatically prompts you to upgrade without losing the information you’ve already entered. If you opt for a paid plan, you don’t have to pay until you file. If your situation is very complex or you want the added assurance that comes with professional guidance, opt for the TurboTax Live package, which merges the capabilities of the highest-price DIY plan with a pre-filing professional review and on-demand CPA or EA assistance throughout.
Be aware that TurboTax customarily raises its prices in March, so if you want to lock in the pricing indicated below, it’s best to file early.
It’s worth noting that, regardless of the plan you select, TurboTax guarantees the accuracy of its calculations. If it’s responsible for any errors that result in an IRS penalty, TurboTax promises to pay the penalty and any associated interest costs.
1. Free Edition (Absolute Zero)
This plan offers free federal and state tax returns through March 15, 2018. After that, state returns carry a fee.
Since it doesn’t support most schedules, Absolute Zero is only appropriate for very simple tax situations. Furthermore, you can’t transfer or import last year’s return or any information contained on it, regardless of whether you filed with TurboTax or another service. If you want to be able to import a prior-year return, you need to upgrade to PLUS.
- W-2 Importing. The Free plan allows you to import as many W-2s as you need, and also allows you to record all W-2 income. This is particularly useful if you have more than one job.
- Earned Income Tax Credit. If you’re eligible for the Earned Income Tax Credit, the Federal Free edition lets you file Schedule EIC.
- Affordable Care Act Forms. This edition also lets you file any forms related to the Affordable Care Act and can help you determine whether you qualify for subsidies to purchase health insurance under the Act. Bear in mind that the Affordable Care Act remains in flux, with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services periodically rolling out new rules that affect the act’s enforcement and the U.S. Congress curtailing aspects of it (such as the individual mandate, which was effectively repealed by the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017). Check with the IRS for up-to-date information about your responsibilities and obligations under the current statutory and rulemaking regime.
- Credit and Deduction Checks. As you fill out your return, TurboTax asks targeted questions that determine whether you qualify for particular tax credits and deductions. If you qualify for enough deductions, you’ll be notified that you should itemize your deductions, rather than take the standard deduction. However, the Federal Free edition doesn’t support itemized deductions, so you need to upgrade to a paid plan (Deluxe or better) to go this route.
- AnswerXchange. TurboTax’s AnswerXchange is an interactive forum where users can post questions on topics related to taxes, such as, “What is Form 1099-R?”, and questions about the TurboTax platform, such as, “How do I import my W-2?” Both users and TurboTax customer care employees can answer these questions, though TurboTax reserves the right to delete unhelpful or profane answers from users. A powerful search engine guides you through the massive amount of content to find relevant answers.
- SmartLook. Launched in 2016, SmartLook is a free, live tool that lets you chat and screen share with a TurboTax support representative in real-time. On the desktop version, it’s accessible through the Contact tab. On the mobile app, hit the question mark icon, then “Connect with an expert.” Once you’re in the SmartLook feature, you’re prompted to enter your question, then paired with a rep qualified to help.
TurboTax PLUS costs $29.99 for your federal return and $36.99 for each state return. PLUS isn’t advertised on the company’s main pricing and plans page – it’s only offered as an upgrade for people who begin filing with the Free Edition, and is suitable for the same tax situations covered by the free plan (except with more convenient features).
PLUS comes with all the features and functions of the Federal Free plan, plus:
- Previous Year Transfer. If you filed with TurboTax last year, you can transfer the information on that return to your current year’s return. This automatically populates basic information, including your adjusted gross income (AGI) and home address.
- Previous Year Importing. If you filed with another tax service last year, you can import your return (if saved in PDF format) into TurboTax and save the trouble of filling out basic information fields. TurboTax supports importing from all online and in-person tax filing services, as long as they allow you to download your return in PDF format.
- ExplainWhy. This popup feature brings more transparency to the tax preparation process with “personalized, bite-sized explanations of the changes to your refund as you go” – for instance, when you add a new deduction or income source.
- My Docs. My Docs is a cloud storage service that offers up to 100 MB of online storage for tax-related documents. Take it from someone who knows – this is a lot neater than keeping all your forms and receipts in a filing cabinet or shoebox.
- Customer Support via Phone. PLUS customers have on-demand phone access to TurboTax’s customer support team, including tax experts, reachable by calling (800) 414-5644. The call center’s hours run from 5am to 8pm PST throughout the year, though hours are subject to change.
- Access to Your Returns Through 2018. PLUS customers have unlimited access to their returns through October 2018.
Deluxe is ideal for filers with more complex tax situations, such as those involving itemized deductions and some miscellaneous income. It costs $39.99 (normally $59.99) to file a federal return and $36.99 (normally $39.99) for each state return.
TurboTax Deluxe comes with all the features and functions found in lower-priced plans, plus:
- Itemized Deductions. If it makes financial sense to itemize your deductions, a determination that TurboTax can help you make, you’ll need to file Schedule A. The Deluxe package offers all the support necessary to do so.
- Support for Miscellaneous Income. If you earned miscellaneous income (indicated on Form 1099-MISC), TurboTax Deluxe allows you to log it in your return. You can log unlimited 1099s with the Deluxe plan.
- Access to All Previous Tax Returns. Deluxe customers have access to all previous tax returns filed with TurboTax, as well as all user data tied to their TurboTax accounts.
TurboTax Premier costs $59.99 (normally $79.99) for your federal return and $36.99 (normally $39.99) for each state return. It offers support for most common schedules, including B, D, and E, so it’s appropriate for filers with investment income, rental income, and other forms of non-wage income.
This plan comes with all the features and functions found in lower-priced plans, plus:
- Support for Schedule B. If you have more than $1,500 in ordinary dividend or interest income, you may need to file Schedule B. TurboTax Premier provides all necessary forms and support, including checks for relevant credits and deductions.
- Support for Schedule D. TurboTax Premier can help you file Schedule D, which covers capital gains or losses from the sale of securities, real property, and other assets, and walk you through relevant credits and deductions. You can import transaction records from your brokerage – potentially saving lots of time over entering each transaction manually. TurboTax automatically calculates your cost basis for multi-part transactions as well.
- Support for Schedule E. If you’ll be reporting income from rental properties or pass-through entities (such as S-corporations, trusts, estates, and certain types of partnerships), you need to file Schedule E. TurboTax Premier provides all necessary forms for doing so and can walk you through all appropriate credits and deductions.
TurboTax Self-Employed costs $89.99 (normally $119.99) for your federal return and $36.99 (normally $39.99) for each state return. With full support for all credits and deductions related to Schedule C, it’s ideal for freelancers, solopreneurs, and small business owners. TurboTax Self-Employed comes with all the features and functions found in lower-priced plans, plus:
- Full Support for Schedule C. If you’re an independent contractor, sole proprietor, or consultant, you may be liable for self-employment tax. If so, the IRS requires you to file Schedule C or Schedule C-EZ. TurboTax Home & Business provides full Schedule C support, including all applicable business credits: vehicle mileage, phone expenses, home office deductions, and more. You’ll get customized advice on industry-specific business deductions too.
- Complimentary QuickBooks Self-Employed Membership. If you use TurboTax Self-Employed to complete your return by 4/17/18, you’ll get a one-year complimentary subscription to QuickBooks Self-Employed. To maintain your free subscription through the entire year, you need to activate and access your account twice by 7/15/18. Your subscription runs through 4/30/19.
6. TurboTax Live
TurboTax Live is a hybrid package that blends the capabilities of the Self-Employed plan with on-demand CPA or EA assistance throughout the prep process and a thorough CPA review before filing. It costs $149.99 (normally $179.99) for your federal return and $36.99 (normally $39.99) for your state return. It’s ideal for people with complex situations and those who need (or prefer) more prep assistance than TurboTax’s DIY resources can provide.
- On-Demand Consultation With Live Experts. You can connect with a CPA or Enrolled Agent as often as you like with TurboTax Live. The expert appears by video on a split screen next to your tax prep interface, so you can follow along with them and take suggested actions in real time.
- Pre-Filing Expert Review. Before you file, your CPA or EA reviews your entire return and makes any warranted changes. They’ll let you know when you’re all set to file, at which point you’ll complete the e-filing process as you would with any other plan.
Additional TurboTax features available across all packages include:
TurboTax has slick, user-friendly mobile apps for both Android and iOS devices. The apps have all the important features and functions of the main website, which is pretty mobile-friendly in its own right.
Pay Filing Fees With Your Refund
Regardless of which plan you use, TurboTax lets you pay your filing fees with your federal refund. The charge is rather steep: usually $34.99, but variable depending on your package and the complexity of your situation.
Real-Time Refund Display
TurboTax calculates your estimated federal and state refund in real-time, visible in the upper left corner of the interface. As soon as you enter a new piece of information that affects your tax liability, this number changes to reflect it.
Automatic Information Transfer to State Returns
If you need to file a state return after completing your federal return, TurboTax automatically transfers all relevant information to the state forms. This cuts down on redundant, tedious entering of basic information on two different sets of forms.
This free feature is available to all TurboTax customers, regardless of plan. It includes a free phone consultation with a tax professional, during which you can ask open-ended questions about any IRS correspondence you’ve received. However, if you’re worried about actually being audited, TurboTax recommends purchasing MAX, a more hands-on package, when you file.
MAX Benefits Package
If you’re worried that your audit risk is elevated, you can purchase TurboTax’s optional MAX bundle as an add-on to any plan before completing your return (you can’t buy it after the fact). MAX costs $49.99, though TurboTax reserves the right to change the price at any time, and covers all state and federal returns in a given tax year.
MAX’s signature inclusion is Audit Defense, which activates if you’re audited by the IRS. Audit Defense provides access to a tax professional who reviews and interprets all IRS correspondence, schedules all audit-related appointments, and helps you gather any documents necessary to respond to your audit.
MAX also includes Tax Identity Resolution, which helps mitigate the damage if someone files a fraudulent tax return in your name, and Priority Care, which expedites your access to TurboTax’s on-staff tax professionals whenever you call in with a question about your return (or any issue that arises after you file).
Active-duty military members and reservists qualify for several different discounts with TurboTax. Servicemembers classified E1 (private trainee) through E5 (sergeants and petty officers) can file federal and state taxes for free using the Federal Free or Deluxe plans, or take $5 off federal filing costs under more expensive plans. Those ranked E6 (staff sergeant or petty officer first class) or higher can take $5 off federal filing costs under any plan.
Turbo Prepaid Visa® Card
You can elect to receive your tax refund, if eligible, on a Turbo Prepaid Visa® Card – a reloadable prepaid debit card backed by Intuit. Moving forward, you can set up payroll direct deposit or make manual transfers to juice your card balance, making Turbo Prepaid Visa® Card a great credit card alternative for those with poor credit or aversions to credit cards. Certain card actions incur fees and charges, so check the Turbo Prepaid Visa® Card page for more details.
1. Customer Service and Knowledge Base (AnswerXchange) Is Extremely Comprehensive
TurboTax’s customer support system, anchored by the interactive AnswerXchange knowledge base and a phone support hotline, is impressively robust. I’ve never had a question that couldn’t be answered by searching through the AnswerXchange, and I’m usually the type of person who prefers a back-and-forth conversation.
That said, TurboTax’s phone support is impressive too, with short wait times (less than 10 minutes every time I’ve called, though I’ve never waited until crunch time to do my taxes). And, for filers who want quick answers to complicated issues without picking up the phone, the SmartLook screen share/chat feature is a lifesaver.
2. Military Discounts Are Better Than Some Competitors
TurboTax offers discounts or completely free filing options to active-duty and reserve military members. All servicemembers qualify for at least a $5 discount off federal filing fees, and lower-ranked enlistees qualify for a free upgrade to TurboTax Deluxe (regularly a $39.99 to $59.99 value). These deals are better than those offered by competitors that don’t offer free upgrades for lower-ranked enlistees.
3. Automatic Transaction Importing and Cost Basis Calculation
If you have a brokerage account, you can quickly and easily import a complete transaction record (up to a limit of 500 individual transactions, so probably not ideal for active day traders) for the previous tax year by selecting “Add Other Documents” from the Import Summary menu in your TurboTax interface. (You don’t need to download a PDF or any other file type – the importing is automatic.)
If you made lots of securities trades during the year or simply don’t like the tedious process of entering each transaction individually, this is a big help. Some cut-rate competitors require you to enter transactions manually and separately – a potential time sink.
4. Ideal for Mobile Users
With a mobile-responsive website (bright colors, clean navigation, large-font text, and minimal clutter), as well as apps for iOS and Android, TurboTax is ideal for filers who prefer to use mobile devices. Though the tax prep space has by and large grown more mobile-friendly in recent years, some laggards remain – notably eSmart Tax and FreeTaxUSA aren’t as mobile-friendly. Both have cluttered text and navigation systems that are difficult to navigate on a touchscreen.
5. Popup Menus Can Be Useful
I’m normally not a huge fan of popup windows. However, TurboTax’s sparing use of popup windows is helpful. For instance, early in the filing process, a window appeared, briefly explained that I could use the top toolbar to navigate to any point in my tax return at any time, and then disappeared with one click. This was useful because I had assumed that the toolbar was more of a status indicator and that I couldn’t use it to go back or forward in my return.
6. QuickBooks Offer for Self-Employed Filers
Though TurboTax is a bit pricier than some competing tax prep services, its upfront cost is partially offset for self-employed filers who complete their returns by the 4/17/18 filing deadline. That’s thanks to a promotional partnership with TurboTax’s sister company, QuickBooks: self-employed TurboTax filers, who need to use the $89.99 to $119.99 Self-Employed package, get QuickBooks Self-Employed free for an entire year (through 4/30/19). That’s normally a $120 value.
7. TurboTax Live Is Great for Filers Who Need More Help
Even if you’re not a small business owner, the ability to connect with a CPA or EA on demand is a big confidence-booster. Though it’s more expensive than any mainline online DIY tax prep package, TurboTax Live is still substantially cheaper than in-person tax prep, which can cost as much as $500 with well-known providers such as Liberty Tax. If you don’t want to hire an independent CPA or use one of the in-office prep services, it’s a great compromise.
1. More Expensive Than Most Competitors
Of all the major online tax filing programs, TurboTax’s sticker prices are the highest, ranging up to $119.99. By contrast, comparable paid plans from H&R Block cost about half as much without compromising on any features, forms, schedules, or support. TaxSlayer’s paid plans are even cheaper.
And state filing fees at those competitors are comparable to or less than TurboTax’s, which clock in at $36.99 to $39.99.
2. Frustrating Website Errors
My experience with TurboTax has marginally improved since the 2014 tax year, when I encountered some perplexing website errors that could plausibly have resulted in data loss.
At several points that year, I got an error message or nonsensical request when attempting to enter my account dashboard or navigate to a previously completed page from the most recent page on my return.
Separately, when I tried to do something that wasn’t supported by my current TurboTax plan, the text on the upgrade prompt screen was replaced by plain HTML text reading “Bad Request” – a standard web page loading error. I could still cycle through the upgrade prompts (separate pages outlining cost and confirming that I wanted to upgrade) by hitting “Continue” repeatedly, but couldn’t see any text or images on the pages.
3. High Processing Charge When You Pay Filing Fees with Your Federal Refund
If you opt to pay your TurboTax fees with your federal refund, the company charges a stiff processing fee of $34.99. This is a hefty sum to pay for avoiding out-of-pocket filing fees. By contrast, TaxSlayer doesn’t charge any processing fees when you pay with your refund.
4. Doesn’t Offer a Refund Bonus
In previous years, TurboTax used to provide a 5% refund bonus to customers who elected to receive their refunds on Amazon.com gift cards. Unfortunately, the company discontinued the deal for the 2015 tax year. Some competitors still offer similar, or even better, promotions. For instance, H&R Block offers bonuses of 5% when you elect to receive your refund on an Amazon gift card.
5. Misleading Setup to the Free Filing Option for Returning Customers
When a returning customer (someone who filed with TurboTax the previous year) signs into their account for the first time in the current year, they’re immediately told that they can file their taxes for free. The next screen asks if they’d like to transfer information from the previous year’s return to their current-year return. If they agree, TurboTax shows what information has been transferred – AGI, address information, previous year’s refund/amount owed, address, employers, and lots of other data. It then says something to the effect of, “If you want to keep all this information and not start from scratch, sign up for the PLUS Plan,” which costs $29.99.
You have the option to select the Free plan here, but doing so wipes out already-stored information, lengthening the time it takes to file. While it’s understandable why TurboTax would want to push the PLUS plan before beginning your return in earnest, there’s probably a more straightforward way to do it.
6. Many Forms and Schedules Unavailable With the Free Plan
TurboTax’s Federal Free edition can only handle relatively straightforward tax situations. Since it doesn’t support Schedules A, C, D, E, H, or K, it’s not ideal for filers who wish to itemize deductions, pay self-employment tax, or report investment income or losses. If any of those situations apply to you, you need to upgrade to a paid plan.
7. Prices Jump a Month Before the Filing Deadline
TurboTax’s paid plan prices usually jump by upwards of 50% about a month before the mid-April filing deadline. For instance, the Deluxe Plan’s federal return cost rockets from $39.99 to $59.99. That’s a major inconvenience for people who wait until relatively late in the game to file their taxes, and a potential deal-breaker for people with complicated tax situations, who sometimes don’t have all the requisite forms in hand until a few weeks before the filing deadline.
I get to try out a lot of different products. However, most people don’t have the luxury of trying out multiple brands during tax season. No matter how smooth the filing process or straightforward the tax situation, there’s simply not enough time in the day.
That might partially explain why TurboTax remains so popular. For all its faults, it enjoys enviable brand recognition. In a competitive industry serving time-pressed customers, it’s easier to go with what you know than stray too far afield. That’s not to say that TurboTax doesn’t shine on the merits – just that, if you’re looking to go with what you know, it’s hard to beat TurboTax.
For more options, check out our full list of Top-Rated Free Online Tax Preparation Services.