Should You E-File or File Taxes by Mail?

Know the pros and cons of digital and paper tax returns

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You have two options for submitting your tax return to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) at tax time: You can do it electronically or by mail. Both methods of filing come with pros and cons. E-filing is safe, faster, and generally more convenient than paper filing. Filing by mail can be cheaper, but it takes the IRS longer to process refunds that are due on these returns. 

Key Takeaways

  • E-filing is fast and efficient and the IRS provides several free filing options.
  • Tax prep software like TurboTax and H&R Block charge fees, sometimes upwards of $100, depending on how complex your filing is and the services you need.
  • Paper filing requires more time than e-filing and can be overwhelming, especially for those who are used to e-filing.
  • Alternatives to filing taxes on your own include hiring a tax professional or participating in a filing assistance program.

The Advantages of E-Filing

E-filing was first introduced in 1986, and it got off to a slow start. A scant number of tax professionals—just five of them, according to the IRS—took advantage of this new technology at the time. But the filing method eventually caught on and more than 135 million individual income tax returns were e-filed in the 2022 filing season by May that year.

There are several advantages to e-filing.

Immediate Confirmation

The biggest benefit of electronic filing is that you'll receive almost immediate confirmation that the IRS has received your tax return. Your authorized IRS e-file provider is required to attempt to contact you within 24 hours with an explanation if the IRS finds errors in your return. This will typically indicate what triggered the action and what you can do to fix your tax return.


Check the email you have on file with your tax prep software or your service provider to catch any notifications that the IRS accepted or rejected your return.

E-Filing Is Safer

E-filing is more secure than paper filing, according to the IRS. All your sensitive information meets strict security guidelines and is protected by modern encryption technology.

Processing Is Faster

Your refund is likely to be processed sooner because e-filing means that the IRS doesn't have to sort or transcribe your tax return at its service center.

There's Less Human Error

There's a lesser chance that the IRS will make a mistake when processing your return because IRS employees don’t have to manually enter your return into its system line by line. 

You Can Skip Tax Prep Programs

You don’t necessarily have to use expensive tax preparation software or an internet site to e-file your taxes. You can fill tax forms in directly by using IRS Free File Fillable Forms if you’re tax savvy, have a simple situation, and are willing to learn. But you should be comfortable completing basic tax forms to use the program because no guidance is provided.


The IRS publishes a yearly list of Free File Alliance partners that will file your tax return for free. Your 2022 AGI must have been $73,000 or less to qualify, although some Free File providers cap income eligibility at less and you may have to meet an age requirement. This 2022 limit applies to the tax return you'll prepare and submit in the 2023 filing season.

The Disadvantages of E-Filing

The convenience and efficiency of e-filing have made it the preferred filing option for millions of people, but there are some potential drawbacks as well.

Fees Aren't Cheap

Some tax prep tools are free, but many of the leading tax prep firms such as TurboTax, TaxSlayer, and H&R Block charge fees for tax returns that go beyond a basic filing. They can exceed $100 depending on how complex your tax return is and the services you need.

It Doesn’t Accommodate Certain Filing Situations

E-filing supports most tax situations, but there are certain scenarios that it doesn't support. You can’t attach images or PDFs to your return or file before the IRS opens e-filing for the tax year. This usually occurs late in January. It was Jan. 23 in 2023.

The Advantages of Paper Filing

Filing a paper return can be very helpful in certain situations that e-filing can't accommodate.

You Have a Rare Filing Situation

E-filing can only do so much. For example, you must complete the form and mail it if you have to file Form 1310 to claim a refund owed to someone who passed away. Paper filing also allows you to print and submit images or PDFs to supplement your tax return. 

You Want To Build Your Tax Expertise

Many online tax prep tools automate the filing process by asking you questions and using your answers to fill out the appropriate forms for you. Filing a paper return provides the transparency you need if you want to learn about and better review the details of your tax return, including all the forms that are related to your tax situation and why.

You can fill out each form line by line when you prepare your own return and see firsthand all the calculations and considerations that your refund requires.

The Disadvantages of Paper Filing

There are several drawbacks to paper filing that make the process riskier and more challenging than e-filing.

An Increased Chance of Errors

Data transcribers at the IRS must manually input taxpayer information for every paper return it receives. This could result in errors that require you to file an amended return. They're only human, after all, and they can get tired and overwhelmed during tax season.

It's Overwhelming for Beginners

Gathering all the forms necessary for things like student loan interest, mortgage interest, capital gains, and business deductions can be intimidating for filers who try paper filing after years of electronic filing. This could lead to missing forms or mistakes as well.

Remember To Sign the Return

Veteran paper filers realize that you have to manually sign the paper return you submit or the IRS won’t accept it. Novice paper filers often forget this, leading to even longer delays than what's normal with a paper return.

Tips for Paper Filing

You can do a few things to streamline your submission when you file your tax return on paper.

  • Make sure your name and Social Security number are on every page, both front and back.
  • Double-check your address. This is where the IRS will send any notices so it's important that you don't make a mistake. 
  • Mail your return to the right IRS service center. The address can change depending on which state you’re in and whether you’re including payment with your return. The IRS provides a state-by-state list online so you can find the correct address.
  • Get an automatic extension if you're mailing your return close to the official filing deadline. Keep in mind that you should make a payment with your extension if you think you'll owe anything. Otherwise, you could be subject to penalties and interest.

The IRS will generally accept paper filings that are postmarked by the filing deadline. It doesn't have to actually receive them and have them in hand by this date.

Alternatives to E-Filing and Paper Filing

The IRS provides a list of acceptable filing options on its website. They include:

In the unlikely event that your identity is stolen and the thief files a tax return with your information, your own e-filed return will be rejected by the IRS as a duplicate. You must file a paper tax return in this case and mail it in with Form 14039, the “Identity Theft Affidavit.” This notifies the IRS of the issue.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Who can e-file taxes?

Most taxpayers are eligible to file electronically, but you may have to file by mail in some cases. Here are a few examples:

  • You, your spouse, or one of your dependents doesn't have a valid Social Security number.
  • Someone already claimed a dependent you're trying to claim.
  • You're married but filing separately and subject to community property rules.
  • Your return requires forms that can only be filed by mail.
  • You have power of attorney for someone and require that the refund to be sent to a third party.

When is the earliest I can e-file my taxes?

The IRS usually announces the first day it will accept returns sometime in January of each year. That date usually falls during the last week of the month. You might be able to pre-file through a tax preparation service or electronic filing software, but it will hold your return and won't submit it until the first day the IRS begins accepting them.

How long does it take to get my tax refund?

The IRS says refunds due on most e-filed tax returns with direct deposit take 21 days or less if you request direct deposit. It could take up to six weeks if you file by mail. Filing electronically and accepting your refund by direct deposit is the fastest way to do your tax return and get your money.

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