The Best Online Tax Filing Software

Doing your taxes might never be fun, but the right tool can turn the worst annual chore into a manageable—and dare we say, rewarding—afternoon. The best tax software makes sure you get all the credits and deductions you deserve without dragging you through forms hell. After testing six online tax apps updated for the 2020 tax year, we can say with confidence that TurboTax is the most sophisticated, accurate, and straightforward tool for the job. File for free with the IRS Free File by TurboTax version if you meet the requirements, or start with TurboTax Free Edition if you don’t.

Because of its superior step-by-step tax guidance, TurboTax has been one of our top picks since we started testing tax software in 2013. But there are two cases where we think you should take a different route:

Confused yet? Here’s a flowchart of the options we recommend this year:

The options we recommend are: A tax pro if you have a complicated return, IRS Free File by TurboTax if you qualify, H&R Block Free Online if you have a simple return with tuition or student loan deductions. For everyone else we recommend TurboTax Free Edition

Finally, if you absolutely do not want to spend any money to file your tax return—regardless of how badly the software might make you want to rip your hair out—MyFreeTaxes (sponsored by United Way and using TaxSlayer as the platform) is completely free and has no income or age limitations. It isn’t the most user-friendly software, so we recommend it only if you’re comfortable researching tax information yourself rather than getting assistance from the software. You can learn more about that option in our Notable competition section.

Our pick

IRS Free File by TurboTax

Free tax filing for simple to complex tax situations, if you qualify

If your adjusted gross income (AGI) is $39,000 or less or you meet other requirements, you can file your federal and state returns for free with the IRS-sponsored version of TurboTax. This version gives you access to all the forms, without any upsells.

Buying Options

All the online editions of TurboTax offer the same smooth tax-filing experience, with context-sensitive help and clear, concise explanations, but the unpublicized IRS Free File by TurboTax is the best of the bunch. It’s the same as Intuit’s other online TurboTax versions, with one important difference: It has no upsell screens nagging you to add services such as one-on-one support or identity-theft protection. All forms are covered for free, including those not available in the more well-advertised TurboTax Free Edition, such as student loan interest, business profit or loss, and investment capital gains or losses. The catch? It’s available only for certain households.

To qualify for free federal and state returns, you need to meet one of the following criteria:

Other tax apps also offer IRS Free File editions, and some of them have higher AGI limits—but judging from our testing of those apps’ commercial options, we think TurboTax will do a better job of helping you maximize your tax return. Also, unlike some other apps’ Free File offerings, this one includes free returns for all states.

Our pick

TurboTax Free Edition

The best online tax software for most people

If you don’t qualify for TurboTax’s IRS Free File, start with TurboTax Free Edition. It’s the most polished tax app around, and most people don’t have to pay for Deluxe if they take the standard deduction.

Buying Options

TurboTax is the best online tax software because of its thorough and intelligent interview process. Although TurboTax bills its Free Edition “for simple tax returns only” and recommends TurboTax Deluxe if you want to “maximize tax deductions and credits” (who doesn’t?), we think most people should start with the Free Edition. Even if you might have some deductible expenses, such as mortgage interest or charitable donations, it’s better to start here and upgrade to Deluxe only if you’re required to.

The reason is simple, although not obvious if you’ve never used TurboTax before: If you start with TurboTax Deluxe and enter all your information only to find that the standard deduction is more valuable than itemizing, you’ll have to either pay the Deluxe fee ($40 at this writing, plus $40 per state) or clear out all the information and start over with the Free Edition. Thanks to the Tax Cut and Jobs Act passed a few years ago, most people will benefit from taking the standard deduction (90% of taxpayers filed with the standard deduction in 2019).

There’s one exception, though. If you have a simple return and student loan interest or tuition payments, you should file for free with H&R Block Free Online instead. TurboTax Free Edition doesn’t cover filing with those deductions.

Also great

H&R Block Free Online

The best free software if you paid student loan interest or college tuition

H&R Block is not as easy to use as our top pick, but it lets you claim the college tuition and student loan interest deductions for free. Use it if you have only a few other forms to enter.

Buying Options

Student loan interest and higher-education tuition and fees are valuable deductions you can take even if you file with the standard deduction. Unfortunately, our top pick, TurboTax Free Edition, doesn’t support filing those forms. H&R Block Free Online does. If you have those student forms and only a handful of other forms to file, such as a W-2 and bank interest income, this is the best way to file for free.

In our tests, we found H&R Block’s help screens and in-app guidance to be nearly as good as TurboTax’s. However, the software was also more error-prone, especially as the complexity of returns increased. We ran into a couple of problems trying to hunt down stray forms, and the automated chat help was ineffective. For those reasons, we recommend using H&R Block Free Online to save money only when you’re filing a basic return with a student loan or tuition deduction.

Our recommendation for self-employed individuals and complicated returns: A certified public accountant (CPA) or an enrolled agent (EA)

As with auto repair, home improvement, and first aid, there are situations in which it makes sense to DIY and then there are situations that are better left to the pros. If you freelance or own a business, if you manage rental property, or if you have investments more complex than interest or dividend payouts, you can save yourself time and stress by finding a good tax professional.

Though a tax preparer’s services will likely cost you more than even the most expensive tier of DIY tax software—CPA fees vary depending on where you live and the complexity of your return—you get a lot of value from that higher price tag. Once you turn over your forms and documents, the pro enters your data for you, which not only saves you time but also prevents DIY errors. Plus, their pricing is often more up front than that of most online software, which usually tries to upsell you midway through the filing process. Building a relationship with a pro that you can count on for years to come is also invaluable.

Missing stimulus payments and other tax software concerns

We’d be remiss if we didn’t address the concerns many people have with major tax software companies like TurboTax and H&R Block. Both companies have faced multiple lawsuits and investigations regarding their marketing, lobbying, and other business practices. Adding to that public distrust, many people who filed their 2019 tax returns with these companies did not receive their Economic Impact Payments (aka stimulus payments); more on that below.

It’s not quite the same thing, and we’re not trying to make excuses for shady business practices, but just as all printers suck, all tax software options are flawed. TurboTax is arguably the easiest yet most thorough and accurate way to file your taxes on your own; we recommend the IRS-sponsored version so you get the same experience without any of the upsell. But if you still have qualms and want to do your own taxes, you could use (which is really a free version of TaxSlayer sponsored by United Way) or the IRS’s Free File Fillable Forms (even the government likes alliteration, apparently). These options provide less hand-holding and have more frustrating interfaces than TurboTax and H&R Block, which means you could potentially make more errors, but they’re completely free. For live help, the IRS’s Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) and Tax Counseling for the Elderly (TCE) programs provide assistance from certified volunteers for those who qualify. (Generally, you need to make $57,000 or less, have a disability, or speak limited English.)

Millions of people haven’t received one or both of last year’s stimulus payments; many of them filed with TurboTax or H&R Block, but others filed with other tax software, such as TaxSlayer, or an online and in-person tax service like Jackson Hewitt. The problem, according to the IRS, is that payments may have been made to bank accounts that were closed or no longer active. It’s possible, too, that if you opted to pay for the tax software’s fee with proceeds from your expected refund, the bank information the IRS got was that of the tax software company, not your bank account. So, to get your stimulus payment as soon as possible, we recommend that you do the following:

Why you should trust us

This is Wirecutter’s eighth year testing and recommending online tax-preparation software, and it’s my second time working on the guide as a senior staff writer at Wirecutter. For over five years before joining Wirecutter, I wrote extensively about personal finance for sites such as Lifehacker, SmartAsset, and MyBankTracker. Topics I covered included when to hire a tax pro, the biggest deductions you should claim, what to do to make the audit process less stressful, and, yes, head-to-head tax software comparisons.

Over the years, I’ve personally used various tax-prep software and worked with tax pros to file complex returns involving self-employment income, business deductions (including home-office expenses), stock gains and losses, homeownership, education credits, and dependent care. I’m one of the 34% of Americans who actually like or love doing their taxes, but I also sympathize with those who just want to get their taxes over with. In doing research for this guide, I’ve kept up with major tax changes for the 2020 tax year, subscribing to riveting alerts from the IRS.

Who this is for

The best way to file your tax return is electronically, and you should do it as soon as possible. It will get you your refund quickly, and it can help thwart identity theft. For the 2020 tax year, you should do this especially if you’re missing either of the two stimulus payments; this also applies to households that don’t normally have to file federal taxes. Need further convincing you should file electronically? The IRS still has a backlog of about a million mailed-in paper tax returns for the 2019 tax year.

Online tax software can simplify the chore of doing your taxes on your own and filing electronically, and it’s less expensive than hiring a pro. A few companies offer desktop tax software, but these packages tend to be more expensive and worth the investment only if you must work offline or have several returns to file (the TurboTax Basic downloadable program, $40 at this writing, is comparable to TurboTax Free Edition except it includes five federal e-files, with state e-filing additional). You would also need to buy the desktop software again each year to keep up with tax changes.

The online tax apps we recommend here are best for people with simple returns (a few standard forms), as well as those who might benefit from itemizing common deductions such as home ownership, dependent care expenses, tuition or student loans, large charitable deductions, a health savings account, or medical expenses. Most people take the standard deduction, but if itemizing makes more sense, the software helps you fill in the appropriate forms and informs you when you need to upgrade in order to file for those deductions or credits.

Small-business owners, active stock traders, and those with complex real estate situations are best served by a professional tax preparer. In these cases, there are simply more chances to miss valuable deductions if you prepare your return yourself, and the results probably aren’t worth the time you’d spend entering all the info.

How we picked and tested

Under the hood, every tax software platform—even those that tax pros use—fills in the same IRS forms and (usually) uses the same math to calculate the amount you owe or the amount of your refund. But they don’t all offer the same experience. The biggest differences among the tax-filing options lie in how thorough their questions are, whether they ask the right questions, and how pleasant or taxing (pun intended) the experience is.

For the 2020 filing period, we retested four major online tax apps—H&R Block, TaxAct, TaxSlayer, and TurboTax—and two we hadn’t tested before that are part of the IRS’s Free File Program, and OLT. We decided not to retest Credit Karma Tax, our previous pick for filing simple returns, due to multiple negative reports we received regarding the program’s accuracy and its ability (or rather its inability) to handle different tax situations, including filing state returns in more than one state. You can learn more about the reported issues with Credit Karma Tax in the Competition section.

To test these apps, we created three fictional filers to represent a range of situations. These were the same ones we used previously, but slightly updated to include more common scenarios for many people in 2020—things like getting unemployment income, not receiving their stimulus payments, or making charitable contributions. (For 2020, you can deduct charitable cash contributions up to $300 even if you don’t itemize. In our testing, some tax apps pointed out this fact more clearly than others.)

We ran these tax-return situations through the apps but stopped short halfway through the premium return because the questions there, as in previous years’ tests, were more involved and trickier than what we were comfortable navigating on our own. For example, for us to claim a deduction on using a car for business, TurboTax had several screens requesting details such as gasoline expenses, maintenance expenses, vehicle depreciation, and which “Modified Accelerated Cost Recovery System (MACRS)” we used when we first started using the car for business. We decided to leave the fictional filer to consult their fictional tax professional instead.

We proceeded with more common tax-filing situations. These are the key distinctions we considered during testing:

Our pick (if you meet the eligibility requirements): IRS Free File by TurboTax

A screenshot of the IRS Free File by TurboTax screen telling the user they will receive a $528 refund.

Our pick

IRS Free File by TurboTax

Free tax filing for simple to complex tax situations, if you qualify

If your adjusted gross income (AGI) is $39,000 or less or you meet other requirements, you can file your federal and state returns for free with the IRS-sponsored version of TurboTax. This version gives you access to all the forms, without any upsells.

Buying Options

TurboTax is the best tax software for doing your own taxes, thanks to its superior review process and an elegant interface that makes filing nearly stress-free. And IRS Free File by TurboTax is the best edition, if you qualify: It covers any and all tax scenarios, whether you have a simple return with just a few common forms (including a W-2 for employee wages or a 1099-G for unemployment income) or itemized deductions like mortgage interest, childcare expenses, and charitable deductions. You can file very complicated returns with it for free, too, including things like business profit and loss or property-rental income—but unless you love doing your taxes and are confident in handling them yourself, we think it’s smarter to leave complex returns to a tax professional, as doing so saves you time and could potentially save you money.

To qualify for this edition of TurboTax, your household has to meet at least one of the following criteria:

Screenshot of TurboTax's page with information about

Besides letting you file your federal and state taxes for free under any scenario, the IRS-sponsored version of TurboTax doesn’t subject you to upsell prompts for unneeded services like identity-theft protection (which most people shouldn’t pay for anyway). You’ll know, each step of the way, that you won’t have to pay to file your federal or state tax return—unlike in other programs, including the commercial TurboTax Free Edition, where it might be unclear whether you can file for free.

If you start a return and don’t qualify for the program, the software notifies you and prompts you to stop. We recommend checking to see whether you qualify for this program before starting, though. Repetitive data entry isn’t on anyone’s list of things they look forward to doing.

Screenshot of TurboTax software alerting you that File Free isn't an option.

Although there are other IRS Free File offerings with higher income limits, we can’t recommend them because of issues we found with their commercial, non-IRS-backed versions.

Our pick for most tax filers: TurboTax Free Edition

Screenshot of TurboTax Free Edition explaining the standard deduction.

Our pick

TurboTax Free Edition

The best online tax software for most people

If you don’t qualify for TurboTax’s IRS Free File, start with TurboTax Free Edition. It’s the most polished tax app around, and most people don’t have to pay for Deluxe if they take the standard deduction.

Buying Options

If you don’t qualify for IRS Free File by TurboTax, start with TurboTax Free Edition. As with the other TurboTax editions, this software’s interview process, support, and interface are best-in-class, and it does a better job than other tax apps of asking questions that are easy to understand, offering in-depth explanations for any terms or calculations that might be confusing and telling you whether each thing is a common concern or a rare issue. For people who aren’t sure whether they’d be better off itemizing or taking the standard deduction, TurboTax helps you figure that out. Even if you think you might want to itemize, start with the Free Edition; you’ll be able to upgrade to Deluxe later on if you must, such as to take the Health Savings Account (HSA) deduction.

Since tax time can be stressful for even the most organized people, in our testing we favored tax-preparation software that offered reassuring guidance throughout the filing process. Unlike the experience with other tax software, which can make you feel like you’re being interviewed by someone who forgets your answers as soon as you tell them, using TurboTax feels like collaborating with a professional. It asks the right questions—no more, no less than are needed—in contrast to other apps, which tend to ask for irrelevant details.

Screenshot of TurboTax software with a popup telling user about stimulus payments impact on taxes.

Clicking any of the numerous question-mark boxes inside TurboTax’s web app opens a pop-up that usually answers any questions you might have about the given subject. The search function should cover most everything else, as TurboTax staff and community members have answered a litany of questions about even the smallest of details.

TurboTax also does a great job of keeping you engaged in the process and preventing you from mindlessly clicking past important details. Its entry forms switch between boxes that look like nicer IRS forms, nested lists of categories you can explore, animated loading screens, and yes-or-no or multiple-choice questions. The large buttons and fonts are also more accessible to tax filers than in competing software; we found that the not-so-user-friendly design of other apps made an already painful task more painful.

TurboTax’s flow made the most sense and had the least errors, very rarely dumping us back to a top-level menu when we clicked the Back button and never trapping us in endless loops due to missing information (as some other apps, like TaxSlayer, did). In our tests, most other tax apps had runs of five or more similar questions asked in succession, or very long lists of dozens of irrelevant deductions or topics to click.

If your tax situation requires you to use TurboTax Deluxe, the software will tell you once you’ve entered information that triggers the upgrade. You can avoid surprises and see which forms are available for each version of TurboTax on its comparison page.

Screenshot of TurboTax Deluxe signup page required to get certain deductions.

We especially liked TurboTax’s Tools Center, which lets you jump to any form, delete a form, see your tax summary, and clear everything to start over—features that many tax programs don’t offer. For taxpayers who like a more hands-on approach to filing, it’s nice to take a peek under the hood.

TurboTax Tools Center popup within the software.

We upgraded to TurboTax’s live support service—an add-on of about $50, paid when you file—and within a couple of minutes got in touch with a professional tax preparer via online chat. They walked us through questions such as how to verify we were getting all the right credits and why TurboTax estimated a lower refund than a different tax app did. Paying for live support isn’t something most people need to do, but this was the best live-support experience we had with all of the tax software we’ve tested in the past two years. For the right person, who knows the right questions to ask about their return, using a service such as this could be a smart middle-ground option between DIY filing and hiring a tax pro. But since the experience can be highly variable depending on the chat agent you’re assigned, we hesitate to make it a blanket recommendation.

TurboTax also offers a service to have a CPA or other tax professional review your return and file it for you, for about $100 more. If you’re uncertain that you’ve done everything right or extracted the most from your return, this service could provide added peace of mind, but it’s not something most people need.

Flaws but not dealbreakers

More than any other tax-prep software we reviewed, TurboTax kept prompting us to add services such as more advanced support or identity-theft insurance—things that are unnecessary for the majority of households that have basic returns covered by TurboTax Free Edition. This means you need to be vigilant as you click through each screen in order to avoid falling for the unnecessary upsell.

Screenshot of one of many TurboTax screens encouraging the user to pay for an upgrade.

TurboTax’s mobile site is clean, uncluttered, and as easy to use as the desktop browser version. However, some modern features—such as uploading a PDF or an image of a W-2—didn’t work in our tests, on mobile or desktop. The program seemed to hang while processing an image file, so we just gave up and entered the information manually. Although it imported information from a PDF, it created some duplicate entries, which we then had to delete; we had the same experience with H&R Block. (Remember: If you use the import feature in any tax software, it’s always a good idea to double-check all the information it brings in, just to ensure accuracy.)

For simple tax returns with student loan interest or college tuition: H&R Block Free Online

Screenshot of the H&R Block Free Online software.

Also great

H&R Block Free Online

The best free software if you paid student loan interest or college tuition

H&R Block is not as easy to use as our top pick, but it lets you claim the college tuition and student loan interest deductions for free. Use it if you have only a few other forms to enter.

Buying Options

H&R Block Free Online supports two common forms for students that TurboTax Free Edition doesn’t: the student loan interest deduction (1098-E) and the tuition and fees statement (1098-T). These are valuable “above the line” deductions that can reduce the amount of taxes you owe or increase your refund even if you take the standard deduction. If you have a simple return and you paid interest on a student loan or paid for college tuition, H&R Block Free Online is the best way to file for free.

H&R Block’s interview process and guidance are nearly as good as TurboTax’s. The software points out when some selections are uncommon to help you avoid checking the wrong boxes; for example, when we entered a dependent, H&R Block told us it’s uncommon to report that the child has an individual taxpayer identification number. After each major section, the program provides a summary of what you’ve entered so far. And at any time, you can click the shopping cart icon to see if you’ll need to pay for the program.

Screenshot of H&R Block summary screen of all a user's deductions.

However, we ran into a bug in this year’s testing that we also saw last year: The program can sometimes generate forms that are irrelevant to your situation, which can prevent you from continuing until you hunt them down and delete them. In this year’s testing, after we entered our fake filer’s income, the program calculated that we needed to pay the tax-underpayment penalty and generated the associated form (Form 2210). But after continuing the interview process, entering our deductions and credits, we discovered that our fictitious filer should have gotten a refund, which made that underpayment penalty unnecessary. H&R Block didn’t automatically remove the form, and in the accuracy-review tests it insisted we fill out the form (which at the time was not yet available from the IRS). It took us multiple attempts—more than half an hour in total—to find the form and fix the problem. And unlike TurboTax, H&R Block doesn’t provide an easy way for you to see all the forms and worksheets the program creates.

We contacted support over chat, but as we found in last year’s testing, the automated help was not helpful. It misunderstood our issue and then refused to transfer us to a live agent.

Because of these problems, we wouldn’t recommend using H&R Block for returns that involve more than just a couple of common forms. But the software does provide a better experience than the majority of cheap online tax tools we’ve tested, with solid in-app help explanations and a user-friendly interface (for the most part). If you have a simple return, don’t qualify for IRS Free File by TurboTax, and don’t want to pay just to deduct student loan interest or college tuition, we recommend using the free version of H&R Block.

For small-business owners and complicated returns: A certified public accountant (CPA) or an enrolled agent (EA)

An illustration of an income tax services sign

In recent years tax laws have undergone major revisions that could drastically affect the returns of people with complicated tax situations. If your tax needs take you beyond what TurboTax Deluxe can handle, you should seriously consider hiring a tax professional or getting live help from an IRS-certified volunteer (if you qualify) rather than upgrading to TurboTax Premier or Self-Employed. A pro can not only capture all of your deductions accurately but also set you up for future tax strategies and savings.

With a tax professional, you don’t have to do form-by-form price comparisons or hope that you fit inside an income or age cap—they’ll take whatever you have, and most are clear up front about what they’ll charge based on your specific situation.

The average cost of professional tax preparation ranges from $188 to $481, depending on the complexity of the returns and where you live, according to the 2018–2019 Income and Fees Survey from the National Society of Accountants. That could make even the cost of TurboTax Self-Employed—which starts at $130 to file one federal and one state return—look appealing, but there are many factors beyond sticker price to consider.

Having prepared over two dozen fake returns in testing over the past two years (and personally preparing my own for over a decade), I’ve learned that the chance of making mistakes and missing deductions increases dramatically as you add more forms and complications. And in many advanced tax situations, such as when you need to record capital gains and losses or business expenses, you’ll likely have to report a boatload of information. When I was freelancing for multiple clients and ran my own business, preparing my taxes took the better part of a weekend—sometimes two weekends, plus a lot of back-and-forth emails with tax pros to clarify some details.

Most of the software we’ve tested or recommended can handle any tax scenario. If you’re confident in your bookkeeping, if you’re willing to put the time into entering all of your data, and if you have experience filing taxes for your operations, online tax programs may work for you.

But given the cost, time commitment, and changes to income taxes in tax year 2018, we think more people should consider hiring a CPA or tax professional they can meet with face-to-face (or at least by videoconference). Although online tax apps mimic the process by which tax professionals interview their clients, according to CPAs we’ve interviewed, software has problematic limitations: For example, it can’t hear the uncertainty in your voice or guess that, based on where you live, you might be due a historic-renovation credit. Plus, the tax pro does most of the dirty work for you: Just hand them (or upload) a stack of documents, and they sort through everything much faster than you ever could.

Both TurboTax and H&R Block offer a service where you can start your return online and then have a tax pro review your information and file for you. These services cost about $100 in addition to the regular software fee plus $40 to $50 per state—pushing them closer to the cost of using your own tax preparer.

This option might be a good middle ground if you want a tax pro to handle your return and you also want to save money, but it’s really ideal only if you are familiar with all the tax credits and deductions you’re entitled to, including tricky things such as what you can expense for business deductions. In my experience using CPAs, enrolled agents, and these add-on services to file my taxes, the ones I hired directly were more thorough and worked more diligently at minimizing my tax burden. For example, one CPA I worked with recommended investing in an IRA to reduce the amount of taxes I owed; he also pointed out when the deductions I was claiming were lower than common for my household. Your mileage may vary, of course, and finding a good accountant or tax pro can take work. (As with finding a trustworthy dentist or home improvement contractor, asking people you know for references is a good way to go.)

Most important, hiring a tax pro lets you establish a relationship with one person you can count on every year. A tax pro who knows you can provide personalized advice and help you save money in future tax years. Should you have any problems with the IRS, your CPA or EA will be available to help (sometimes for an additional fee, and sometimes as part of their normal responsibilities).

Notable competition: MyFreeTaxes (via TaxSlayer)

Screenshot of MyFreeTaxes software run on TaySlayer.

MyFreeTaxes runs on the TaxSlayer platform. It’s completely free—no income, age, or geographic limitations. What’s the catch? As far as we can tell, there isn’t one, except that we don’t particularly like TaxSlayer’s interface. This is a service provided by the charitable organization United Way to anyone and everyone. But because the software is so clunky and the guidance is less thorough than what you get from our picks, we recommend it primarily for those who are above the $39,000 AGI limit for IRS Free File by TurboTax and are willing to spend extra time puzzling over how to enter their info in exchange for totally free federal and state filing.

TaxSlayer’s commercial offerings are attractively priced: The Classic edition, which includes all forms, is $17 for a federal return and $32 for each state tax return. (TurboTax Deluxe, in contrast, costs $40 for a federal return and $40 for each state tax return, and it doesn’t include every form.) But if you go through MyFreeTaxes, you get the same TaxSlayer service for free. (Be sure to check which forms are included before beginning.)

We wouldn’t recommend paying for TaxSlayer because the software, although it has been updated for the 2020 tax year, feels unfinished. Unlike other apps, which provide contextual help in a sidebar to the right, TaxSlayer places the help panel to the left, on top of the form you’re working on, which makes understanding the topic harder. The help text is largely copied and pasted from IRS publications, making it less helpful than our picks’ more plainspoken explanations, and sometimes during our testing the help panel was completely blank and we were unable to close it. We had problems with the interview process and navigating through the software, too: Sometimes we needed to click through multiple redundant screens, and we found ourselves starting the return all over again when we hit the Back button.

An added concern: A screen at the beginning of the interview process asks you to “sign” a privacy policy to continue entering your information. This step actually grants TaxSlayer the permission to use your info to provide you with offers, from the company or from third parties. Other tax software does this, too, but TaxSlayer doesn’t make it clear that agreeing is entirely optional; we recommend that you skip this page.

On the plus side, TaxSlayer lets you preview your return as a PDF file, and it offers live phone support (which we did not test). For knowledgeable tax preparers and DIYers, it also offers the option to select specific forms to work on rather than going through the guided wizards. And if you made less than $57,000 last year and didn’t have any income from a rental property or from a farm, it presents an option to have your taxes prepared for you for free through

To gain access to the completely free version of TaxSlayer, you need to enter your name and email address and accept email communications from United Way. You then receive a link to the software to begin.

Tax privacy and security tips

One understandable concern we’ve heard from readers is the desire to know how these tax tools protect your privacy and financial information. The good news is, the government has been taking steps to make sure that doing your taxes online is more secure. For example, last year, the IRS mandated multi-factor authentication for all online tax-prep tools (for example, you have to verify your identity via a code sent by text message or email if you log on from a new device). We also looked at the privacy and security policies for the tax software we tested and asked the companies for information on how they safeguard customer data. The answer: All of them encrypt the data when it’s stored on their systems and follow the IRS’s standards for electronically sending returns securely. (For more information, here are TurboTax’s privacy and security policies, and H&R Block’s privacy and security policies.)

The bad news is that the nature of the internet means there’s no such thing as 100% secure tax filing, and tax-prep services are especially common targets for hackers. We looked into software breaches from previous years at TurboTax and H&R Block and found that the breaches were caused by “credential stuffing”—identity thieves used passwords and usernames stolen from other services to log in to the tax software. The best thing you can do to protect yourself is to follow strong security practices, which includes never reusing the same password for different accounts. A password manager can help you create a strong, unique password for all of your accounts. Other recommendations:

The competition

The tax-filing service of Credit Karma, which was recently sold to Square after being acquired by Intuit, was our previous pick for filing a simple return. has a clean interface and is completely free (though you need an account with Credit Karma, which might use your information to suggest financial services). We dismissed it this year because of several reports of issues with the program. Wirecutter readers and staff, as well as commenters on the Better Business Bureau site, have noted frustrating problems such as missing deductions on state returns or forms that fail with no explanation. Credit Karma also doesn’t support multi-state filing and a few common forms such as for underpayment of estimated tax, and it doesn’t offer live support. Its help knowledgebase seems to have changed this year, but not for the better. Without clarity on what it supports or doesn’t support for state returns, we can’t recommend it this year.

peppers helpful tips throughout its program, such as advice to use a Flexible Spending Account to reduce your income for the next year, but working through the program is tedious. To enter interest income from a 1099-INT statement, for example, we were forced to click through six screens, compared with the single screen in most other apps. It also produced an error in our state return, carrying over just one W-2 instead of both, which would have resulted in a higher tax bill. In addition, TaxAct is the only program we tested that employed a different rounding method: Whereas most tax programs rounded our entries up or down according to IRS rules, TaxAct sometimes combined totals (such as two W-2s) and then rounded. This resulted in a $1 difference in the refund—not a significant difference, but even though the IRS allows this method, it isn’t typical practice. (We spoke with a tax preparer, who said that it’s more common to round each entry first.)

(OnLine Taxes) offers free federal returns and $10 state returns. Some of its questions gave us pause, requiring information such as our driver’s license number or state ID card, which no other program required. Its help topics often just linked to IRS publications or were filled with tax jargon, and the tedious interface made us somehow miss inputting some key forms, such as for dividend income.

Besides having an outdated interface, charges $45 to file a federal return, even if you have a simple return.

Last year, we dismissed because all of our email messages to the company bounced back, and we eliminated for its barebones interface and jargony help documentation.

About your guide

Melanie Pinola

Melanie Pinola is a Wirecutter senior staff writer covering all things home office. She has contributed to print and online publications such as The New York Times, Lifehacker, and PCWorld, specializing in tech, productivity, and lifestyle/family topics. She’s thrilled when those topics intersect—and when she gets to write about them in her PJs.