How to file taxes and get your refund for free

By Jessica Roy

Historically, April is tax time. (We will hold briefly for boos.) But there is a silver lining. Two, actually: Most people don’t need to pay for special software to file them. And if you’re fortunate enough to be a Californian, your state and federal taxes probably aren’t due until October.

You can thank the winter storm onslaught for the delayed deadline. The Internal Revenue Service and Gov. Gavin Newsom announced in March that for anyone who lives or works in the 51 counties affected by federal emergency and disaster declarations, the tax deadline is pushed back to Oct. 16.

That list of affected counties includes Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, Ventura and San Diego.

Though taxes aren’t uniquely American, the way we handle them is. In most other countries, the government calculates how much you owe, and tells you. Filing your taxes is simple and free.

In America, a system fiercely protected by paid special-interest lobbyists forces taxpayers to do the math themselves, often with a paid intermediary guiding them through the process.

The reason anyone would need a guide, of course, is that the process is intensely complex — a feature, not a bug, that keeps money flowing to the companies that back those lobbyists.

About 20 years ago, the federal government mulled over creating an option that would make it free and easy for most Americans to file their taxes electronically. The private sector pushed back, and a compromise was born: The Free File Alliance, a coalition of software companies that offer a free version of their tax software for Americans who meet certain criteria.

To be a member of the Free File Alliance, companies have to offer a free version of their software that could be used by 70% of taxpayers. Of course, other companies can also offer free tax software, and some do.

In the intervening decades, Intuit (the maker of TurboTax) and H&R Block have spent millions to maintain the status quo. At one point, Intuit offered a free version of its software but made it impossible to find on Google.

The Free File Alliance is not particularly well-marketed or well-used. As of 2018, only about 3% of eligible tax returns were filed through the Free File Alliance.

So here are some ways to file your taxes for free.

Free File Alliance Fillable Forms: The Free File Alliance, a public-private partnership with the Internal Revenue Service, offers two options to file your taxes for free. The bare-bones option, Free File Fillable Forms, allows you to download all the forms and fill them out with no help. Fillable Forms is only for federal taxes, not state.



Other Free File Alliance options: If a total DIY job sounds daunting, the IRS has other options. A number of software companies participate in the Free File Alliance.

To qualify, you must have adjusted gross income of $73,000 a year or less. (You can find your adjusted gross income, or AGI, on your 1040 tax form.)

Some options are completely free for qualified filers, and some will try to “upsell” you to a paid version of the software, depending on your selections. Some offer state filing as well as federal, and some have certain additional restrictions on things like income, age and state of residence.

Browse all the Free File Alliance options online to find the option that best fits your situation. At the top of the page, you can input your AGI, age, state and answer a few other questions to see which options would work for you.


Volunteer Income Tax Assistance or Tax Counseling for the Elderly: The IRS runs two programs in addition to Free File that help certain taxpayers file. One is Volunteer Income Tax Assistance, or VITA. VITA offers free tax help for qualified taxpayers, including people who generally make $60,000 or less, have disabilities or have limited English speaking skills.

Tax Counseling for the Elderly, or TCE, offers help for filers who are 60 years old or older. Most VITA and TCE sites are staffed by volunteers.




Cash App Taxes: Mobile payment platform Cash App acquired Credit Karma Tax in 2020. It’s now called Cash App Taxes.

(Credit Karma was purchased by TurboTax maker Intuit in 2020. The former landing page for Credit Karma Taxes now prompts users to file with TurboTax.)

You do need to download Cash App on your smartphone and create a free account or log in to your existing one to begin using Cash App Taxes. Though you have to start the process with your phone, you can complete filing your taxes on either a computer or your smartphone. There’s no income limit for Cash App Taxes, and you can file federal as well as California state taxes with it.

Free versions from H&R Block or TurboTax: Though lobbying from the biggest players in the industry is why the Free File Alliance exists in the first place, neither H&R Block nor Intuit (the maker of TurboTax and Jackson Hewitt tax software) participate in the IRS program as of the 2022 tax year.

But they both offer versions of their software that start at $0 for simple filings. There are, of course, multiple paid upgrades on offer.




Cal File for state taxes: California offers its own free software for state taxes, called Cal File. You have to meet certain income criteria, and certain sources of income, deductions or write-offs will make you ineligible. Here is a full list of Cal File qualifications.



Fun fact: California once ran a pilot program that created return-free filing for middle- and low-income taxpayers — so, a version of the way people pay taxes in almost every other country. ReadyReturn was a huge success. Tax software firms persuaded the IRS to kill it.