Online tax preparation sites and their companion mobile versions have radically changed the way we file our income taxes. Rather than scribbling on a handful of IRS forms and schedules you grabbed at the public library, you're now more likely to turn to dedicated services and software that have streamlined and simplified the process. In fact, as of October of 2020, 71,761,000 self-prepared returns had been e-filed for the 2019 tax year, according to the IRS. That represents a 24.6% increase over those who e-filed for the 2018 tax year. While at first e-filing on a phone was limited to the simplest of returns, mobile devices have been able for years now to deal with even the most complex tax situations. As of this March, the IRS changed the 2020 tax filing deadline to May 17, with e-filing having opened on February 12.
This year, we reviewed eight personal tax preparation services and their companion mobile versions, combinations that make it possible to prepare and file your return no matter where you are. Some of these are available as Android apps and iOS apps, and others feature responsive websites that are easily accessed via your smartphone's browser.
Sites with responsive design adapt to the size of the screen and the type of inputs required by the device being used. The interface and elements may look slightly different, but the functionality remains the same. While all the sites reviewed here offer at least some responsive design functionality, tuning the interface of the web version for multiple platforms can be a serious challenge.
The Best Tax Software Deals This Week*
*Deals are selected by our partner, TechBargains
- H&R Block — $39.99 for Deluxe Plan (List Price $49.99)
- Intuit TurboTax — $60 for Deluxe Plan
- TaxSlayer — $24.95 for Classic Plan
Given that ease of use is so critical when it comes to tax software, it's not surprising that many companies also offer iOS and Android apps. Younger users may be more used to working on mobile devices, and some tax filers' only devices with connectivity may be phones or tablets.
TurboTax, H&R Block, TaxAct, TaxSlayer, and Credit Karma Tax all offer dedicated apps for their services. FreeTaxUSA, Jackson Hewitt, and Liberty Tax, on the other hand, employ responsive-design sites to let you get the job done on your smartphone or tablet. We’ve included information about the mobile access they provide—and its quality—in our reviews of the major tax preparation websites. If you are having trouble deciding between our two top picks, take a look at our head-to-head comparison: TurboTax vs. H&R Block: Which Tax Software Is Best for Filing Your Taxes Online?
Note that, in general, we saw less innovation on this year’s tax services, perhaps because their development and support staffs were busy working with new users in a last year's extended tax season. Plus, the overnight move to working from home had an impact on their workflow, just it did for so many other workplaces. Still, all of the companies whose sites we reviewed managed to update their services for the 2020 tax year and, in some cases, make improvements. Those enhancements carried over to their mobile versions.
What Does It Cost to File Your Taxes on Your Phone?
Most of the companies behind these applications offer multiple levels of their services. The price is the same whether you access the service via your desktop or a dedicated app.
If your financial situation is simple enough that you can file a 1040 and little else, several of these services—like TurboTax, H&R Block, and TaxSlayer—offer free editions that you can use to file both your federal and state income taxes. Other free versions, such as those from Credit Karma Tax and FreeTaxUSA, support more advanced tax topics, like self-employment, capital gains, and rental income. Does it sound like there are still a lot of confusing forms and levels to worry about? There are. That's why using tax software is such a good idea.
In most cases, the more complex your return, the more you'll pay. You'll rarely pay more than $100, and sometimes much less. Unlike desktop software, these solutions do not collect money until your return is ready to file, which means you can try before you buy.
Note, too, that you might qualify to use paid commercial software like TaxSlayer for free, if your income is low enough or if you're in the military. The IRS Free File Program allows you to submit your federal (and maybe your state) taxes for free, even if you use a premium app. To find out if you qualify, visit this page. Note that since the 2020 tax season ended, TurboTax has exited the Free File Program.
Another eye-catching deal to be aware of: Jackson Hewitt has reduced its prices to just $5 for federal and unlimited state returns for anyone who filed for unemployment last year.
Note that you may not have to pay anything to e-file your taxes. For more, check out our story, E-Filing Your Taxes for Free: Are You Eligible?
A Similar Approach
Whether you're viewing them on a huge monitor or an iPhone SE, personal tax preparation services work similarly. You don't see the official IRS forms and schedules, though some applications offer sneak previews of those, and you can always print the finished product. Rather, they walk you step-by-step through the process of answering questions about your tax-related information. Since this process keeps you from having to enter data on the IRS forms, it reduces the amount you actually need to know about the ins and outs of the tax code and how it has changed over the last year.
If you’ve felt lost using a mobile tax solution in the past, consider giving them another try this year. These services just keep getting better, and if you follow our tips for mastering your tax app, you might be surprised at how easy it is to get through your taxes. You'll find that tax software can help you get the biggest refund you are due, for one thing. Since these services are thorough and encourage accuracy, they can also help you avoid being audited by the IRS, too.
Help Along the Way
Without extensive help resources, tax websites and apps would still make the tax preparation process easier than it is using paper IRS forms and schedules. But the guidance they provide can mean the difference between completing your return yourself and taking it to a professional—which may be necessary if your financial situation is convoluted. Do-it-yourself tax prep is not for everyone.
Some of the applications included in this roundup are the products of well-known in-person tax prep companies—Liberty Tax and Jackson Hewitt, for example. These companies are happy to have their tax professionals finish what you've started if it gets to be too much for you. TurboTax and H&R Block both offer more expensive versions that connect you to a CPA, EA (Enrolled Agent), or other tax professional via screen share, chat, or phone. You get unlimited access to this service year-round, which can come in handy if you file an extension or do tax planning in the off-season.
Besides providing supplemental text when they ask questions during the interview, tax preparation solutions offer many other kinds of help. They provide links next to some questions and other items that open windows containing expanded explanations of what's needed. They hyperlink words and phrases within queries and statements that also take you to help windows.
These explanations do not use the complicated language that IRS instructions do. Nor do they cover topics in as much excruciating detail. They've been written and rewritten over the years to make tax concepts as simple and understandable as possible.
Tax apps also have searchable help databases. You enter a tax concept, and they provide links to articles on the topic. They may also tell you how to get to the screens where that information should appear. They display context-sensitive questions and answers that can further educate you before you answer a question. They also offer chat, phone, and email help, and host online communities.
No one service has all of these options; each has its own combination of help resources. The best of them provide more than you'll probably need.
Little Difference in Mobile
If you've ever used a tax preparation solution on a desktop computer, you may wonder if it's possible to replicate that experience on a smartphone. The short answer is yes. We were pleasantly surprised when we saw what the apps' designers were able to do. Content is compressed, of course, and there isn't as much room for decorative graphics and big icons, however. But the small screens look remarkably similar to their desktop counterparts in many cases.
Navigation schemes differ among the apps, but you'll still do a lot of moving among screens by using Back and Next buttons. You'll have to scroll more to read help articles and to simply get through screens that contain a lot of questions, but you can indeed complete a return that includes the Form 1040. Schedules A through F, and myriad other supporting forms and schedules.
Of course, if your return is complex, it's easier to complete it on a big screen with a full-sized keyboard. We don't necessarily recommend that you take on a job that big on a smartphone. But no matter where you start your tax preparation, you can continue it on any other device by just signing in with your username and password. So, you could do some work remotely on your smartphone and finish up on your desktop or vice versa.
Those paper IRS forms at the public library may be free but consider what your time is worth. Besides saving time and frustration, personal tax preparation applications are thorough interviewers: You may learn that you can reduce your tax obligation by finding deductions and credits that you didn't know about before. And that might more than pay for the cost of access to one of these solutions.
What About IRS2Go?
There’s another mobile tax app you might want to check out, one that's hosted by the Internal Revenue Service itself. IRS2Go includes a handful of tools that can help with tax preparation and filing tasks. You can check the status of your refund by entering your social security number, filing status, and refund amount. This information is updated no more than once per day, usually overnight. If you file electronically, you should be able to get your status within 24 hours of the IRS receiving the transmission. The status of paper returns is usually available within four weeks.
Individual taxpayers can submit payments directly from their bank accounts using IRS Direct Pay, a free, secure method. Credit card payments are accepted too, for a fee, either online or by phone. The app accepts three approved payment processors. There’s also a link to an IRS site with additional options and information.
Another screen on the app provides three kinds of tax help. One is IRS Free File. This service allows you to file for free with popular tax preparation website providers like TaxAct and TurboTax if your adjusted gross income is below a specific maximum (usually $72,000 or less). Another link takes you to a search tool that helps you find free tax help in your area if you are elderly, have disabilities, or speak limited English and make less than $57,000 annually. And the AARP Tax-Aide Site Locator lets you search for free tax preparation services nearby or with remote options. AARP volunteers focus especially on taxpayers who are 50 and older or who have low to moderate income.
Click on the Connect icon at the bottom of the screen for links to IRS resources on Twitter and YouTube. There are also links to additional IRS tools and contact information. Enter your email address here to subscribe to periodic tax updates throughout the year. And if you want to apply for an online services account with the IRS, which allows you to use the same username and password to access most tax tools, you can do so via the app.
The IRS iOS and Android apps don’t take long to download and install. The app's interface on both platforms is clean, simple, and easy to understand. Every page we visited was optimized for mobile, so IRS2Go won’t add to your tax preparation frustration.
Be Mindful of Security
One note on filing your taxes with a mobile device: You need to think about security. The information in your taxes is, by definition, sensitive. All our recommended services take security seriously, but it's important that you do your part too. While we don't want to be alarmist, it's also important to acknowledge that most of us don't think enough about the security of our Wi-Fi traffic. If at any point in the filing process you're at all likely to be connected to a public Wi-Fi network you don't control, you should make sure to use an Android VPN app or an iPhone VPN app, depending on your platform. If the VPN conflicts with your tax service, wait until you can connect to a network you control.
One other important security fact to know is that the IRS will never call you out of the blue and ask for private information. The agency prefers to communicate via written letters sent via US Mail. For more on tax-season dangers, please read our piece on how to avoid tax scams this filing season.
It's Time to Get Started on Your Taxes
Kudos to tax software and website developers for mastering the Herculean task they took on in the early 1990s: taming the 1040. They've turned a massive number of IRS forms and schedules into understandable, accessible—sometimes even attractive—websites and mobile apps. All that's left is for you to gather your documents, brew up a strong cup of coffee, and get started.
Make sure to visit our article on cryptocurrency and taxes if you've used, sold, or exchanged any digital currencies this past tax year. Also, if you're wondering what to do with all the sensitive documents you aren't planning to keep after you finish your taxes this year, you should read For Tax Time and Beyond: The Best Shredders We've Tested.
Finally, it's not too early to think about next year's taxes! Our story on 7 Ways to Start Minimizing Your 2021 Taxes Now can help you get started.