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Published: Jan 28, 2022 11 min read
Illustration of a person with a giant tax form in front of them
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The 2022 tax filing season is in full swing at the IRS. And although doing one's taxes is a near-universally dreaded task, there is a glimmer of good news: It doesn't have to be expensive.

Millions of taxpayers are eligible to file their taxes for free thanks to IRS Free File, a partnership the government launched with several online tax prep services in 2003. Depending on your income, you may qualify for guided tax preparation from one of eight name-brand companies.

However, you won't find TurboTax or H&R Block among those options. TurboTax and H&R Block are no longer affiliated with the IRS Free File program.

That said, both advertise free tax prep services on their websites, and there are a plethora of other tax software options for taxpayers who don't want to pay to file a return. Here's what you need to know.

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How to file taxes for free

Identify if you are eligible to file for free

Your income determines whether you qualify to use IRS Free File.

If your adjusted gross income for 2021 is $73,000 or less, you're eligible for guided tax preparation through the IRS. You can calculate your adjusted gross income by taking your income (wages, capital gains, dividends, retirement distributions, business income and such) and subtracting any adjustments (student loan interest, alimony, teacher expenses, retirement contributions and the like). The $73,000 limit for IRS Free File applies to both single taxpayers and married couples who file jointly.

If your adjusted gross income is over $73,000, your only IRS Free File option is Fillable Forms, in which you complete electronic forms yourself without guidance.

Pick a free service or program to use

IRS Free File

If you qualify for guided tax preparation, head to the IRS website to view the eight options available from the Free File Alliance this year:

  • Free 1040 Tax Return
  • Online Taxes at OLT.com
  • ezTaxReturn.com
  • FreeTaxUSA
  • FileYourTaxes.com
  • TaxAct
  • TaxSlayer
  • 1040NOW.net

Each of these services has its own restrictions, so read the fine print. Some offers are only valid for people who live in certain states, are a certain age or make below a certain amount of money.

IRS Free File is focused on federal tax returns, not state returns, so you'll need to pay extra attention if you live in a state with income taxes. A few of the IRS Free File offers, like OLT.com and FreeTaxUSA, give a free state filing to anyone who qualifies for a free federal return. Others, like TaxSlayer and FileYourTaxes.com, only give free state filing to people in certain states. A few don't offer free state returns, period.

Need help navigating it all? Enter your personal information into the lookup tool at IRS.gov, and it'll narrow down the choices for you.

If you don't qualify for guided prep, check out Free File Fillable Forms. This isn't for beginners — you have to select the right form, type in your data, make sure you're not introducing errors and file the federal return on your own. Though it's free, this method does require a bit of tax knowledge.

FYI: IRS Free File is available in English and Spanish.

Free versions of online tax software

Despite no longer being affiliated with IRS Free File, both TurboTax and H&R Block still offer ways you can file for free.

TurboTax's free service is focused on simple tax returns — Form 1040 only — which owner Intuit says some 60 million taxpayers file. There are currently three ways to do your taxes for free through TurboTax: Free Edition, Live Basic and Live Full Service Basic.

Free Edition is a DIY option that's available for free all season long. TurboTax Live Full Service Basic, in which an expert does your taxes for you, is free through Feb. 15. TurboTax Live Basic, which allows you to ask tax experts questions via chat or video as you prepare your taxes, is free through March 31.

H&R Block's Free Online service starts at $0 for federal and state tax prep. It includes coverage for the Earned Income Tax Credit, the child tax credit, education expenses and retirement income. For tax situations that are complicated beyond that, you'll have to pay. Live tax help, access to six years of storage and assistance reporting items like freelance income, crypto sales and real estate taxes also cost extra through H&R Block.

Other tax software options include Cash App Taxes, which is the rebranded version of Credit Karma Tax. It claims it "costs $0 to file your state and federal tax returns, and it won't cost you a penny. Ever."

Cash App Taxes supports a variety of documents and tax situations, including Form 1040, student loan interest, Schedule A itemized deductions, the first-time homebuyer credit and self-employment. But you'll have to seek tax prep elsewhere if you're a minor, have foreign earned income or fall into one of these other categories. You also can't use Cash App Taxes to file state taxes if you haven't already filed your federal return with it.

Speaking of state taxes, you may want to check your local government websites for information about where to file for free or cheap. States like California and Pennsylvania have their own free e-filing systems for residents.

VITA (Volunteer Income Tax Assistance)

Whether you're doing taxes yourself or prefer a preparer, the IRS has two initiatives that provide free help for taxpayers who need it: the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) and Tax Counseling for the Elderly (TCE) programs. VITA is targeted at people who make $58,000 or less a year, have disabilities or only know limited English. Americans 60 and up who have questions about retirement, pensions and such are eligible to get advice through TCE.

The programs typically operate out of libraries, college buildings and community centers. Use this tool to find a provider near you. (You might have to make an appointment.)

Another option for free tax help is AARP Foundation Tax-Aide, which offers both in-person and online tax assistance to "anyone, free of charge, with a special focus on taxpayers who are over 50 or have low to moderate income," according to its website.

Gather your paperwork

Filing your taxes requires a whole bunch of documents. The exact papers you must gather depend on your situation, but most people will need to reference income statements like Form W-2 (from your employer) and any Forms 1099 (for freelance income, interest income, gambling winnings, et cetera). If the IRS mailed you Letter 6475 about your third Economic Impact Payment or Letter 6419 about the child tax credit, locate those, too.

You'll also need to know your Social Security number or Taxpayer Identification Number, as well as your prior year adjusted gross income or your self-select PIN. This should be on your 2020 tax return. You may also need a government ID.

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Where to file taxes for free

Check out the above options.

The IRS is pretty strict about what its tax software partners can and can't charge for. They're prohibited from making you pay "anything to file your federal tax return" and asking you to buy "any products or services (for example, promotional rebates) in exchange for having your federal tax return prepared," according to the IRS website. They also can't offer you bank products that come with fees.

If you're doing your taxes on your own, be diligent. It's easy to get fooled into paying for add-ons like "Pay With My Refund," "Refund Processing Service" or "Refund Transfer." These functions offer to take money from your refund to cover any prep fees you owe — but often charge a fee in the process.

Be careful what you click on, and read the fine print.

How to file a tax extension online for free

If you need extra time to get your federal taxes done, you can electronically request an extension with the IRS by using Free File (regardless of what your income is). You can also submit Form 4868 by visiting a preparer's website directly or make an online payment to the IRS and indicate that it's connected to an extension.

Filing for an extension will give you six additional months to file your 2021 taxes. But take note: Even though an extension moves your deadline for filing back, you still have to pay any taxes you owe by April 18 (or April 19 if you live in Maine or Massachusetts).

Bottom line to filing taxes for free

If you're hoping to file your taxes for free, a good place to start is the IRS Free File website. Depending on your income level, you may qualify for guided tax prep from an online provider or free forms you can fill out yourself.

Failing that, browse offers on websites like TurboTax directly to see if your federal return is simple enough to do for free. Do your research, gather your paperwork and ask for help if you need it.

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