The IRS will start accepting tax returns on Monday, Jan. 29. If you’re ready to file your taxes, you can use online tax software to guide you through the process, and answer common questions along the way.
This story is part of Taxes 2024, CNET’s coverage of the best tax software, tax tips and everything else you need to file your return and track your refund.
Require in-person assistance? Some of the best online tax software options also offer in-person tax-filing support. And if you need more time, you can even use online tax software to file an extension with the IRS, so you can book an appointment with a tax professional of your choice.
If you aren’t waiting on any tax forms and are comfortable filing online, completing your tax return before the April 15 deadline will help you avoid refund delays or potential IRS penalties. (You can also buy and download software to your desktop if you prefer.)
We reviewed seven of the top online tax software options for ease of use, guidance, pricing and more to help you find the best service for your tax situation.
What is tax software and how does it work?
Online tax software can help you file your taxes by guiding you through the process — often for a fee — and double-checking that you’ve filled out all of the necessary tax forms for your filing status and situation.
Most tax software options offer one of two types of systems: interview-based filing or form-based filing. Interview-based filing prompts you to answer questions about your finances and then inputs your answers into the correct tax forms. This is best if you’re new to filing your taxes or if you want guidance along the way. Most tax software, TurboTax, TaxSlayer and H&R Block, for instance, use a type of interview-style interface.
The form-based filing option can be a bit more complicated if you’re not familiar with tax forms. Some programs let you toggle back and forth between interview and form, just in case you want to check your figures.
Who should use tax software?
Tax software can simplify the filing and guide you through the process, while minimizing errors, according to Andrew Griffith, a certified public accountant and associate professor of accounting at Iona University.
Americans also have the option of filing their taxes via mail, which can introduce a lot of unnecessary risk, such as delaying the processing or delivery of your tax return, Griffith added.
“The primary advantage to filing taxes electronically is the ability to minimize data entry errors in the tax authorities’ systems,” said Griffith.
While online tax software can help you file your tax return faster — and receive your refund even quicker — each software option has its own list of benefits and drawbacks to consider.
If you have a fairly simple tax return, meaning you have a W-2, want to claim some basic credits and don’t need to itemize your taxes, you may find tax software easy and helpful. It’s also a great option if you can confidently navigate the tax filing process on your own, and already know which deductions or credits you plan to claim.
Who shouldn’t use tax software?
While tax software can also help you tackle more complicated returns — self-employment income, itemized deductions and multiple real estate properties and other investments — you might find it difficult to navigate even the most user-friendly tax software. In this case, we recommend reaching out to a CPA or visiting a tax preparer in person. Going this route may also save you some cash.
Most CPAs and tax professionals are open until the last minute, but schedule an appointment as early as possible to ensure your taxes get filed on time.
“Anytime a person’s tax returns involve more than W-2 and 1099-INT forms, it is a good idea to have a CPA involved,” Griffith said. “Also, if a person has assets or income from multiple states or countries, it is a really good idea to have a CPA involved with preparing the income tax returns for those years.”
You also don’t want to pay for tax software before checking to see if you qualify for free filing options. If you have a simple tax return, you may be able to file your taxes with online software for free. Some tax software, like FreeTaxUSA or TaxSlayer, offer free filing options for simple returns. If your adjusted gross income is under $79,000 for 2023, you may also qualify for free tax filing under the IRS Free File program. Seniors, those who speak limited English and filers with disabilities may also qualify for free filing services through the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program or Tax Counseling for the Elderly.
How to choose the best online tax software
Each tax software option works a little differently. You should compare different tax software based on your filing situation. Some other factors to consider include:
How we rate tax software
CNET reviews tax software by comparing products across set criteria. We use the software to prepare personal tax returns, examine tax products’ terms and offers, communicate with software representatives to resolve questions about products, compare feature sets and analyze software for its effectiveness in common tax situations.
We consider the features and functionality of the tax preparation software, the user experience, the software interface, website performance, quality of help and support, and the value based on price. We are also looking for and evaluating specific features, including file importing or photo capture of forms, number and type of available IRS forms and schedules, contextual help, desktop and phone/tablet compatibility and syncing, professional tax assistance, maximum refund and accuracy guarantees, live support and security protections.
The editorial content on this page is based solely on objective, independent assessments by our writers and is not influenced by advertising or partnerships. It has not been provided or commissioned by any third party. However, we may receive compensation when you click on links to products or services offered by our partners.