It’s many people’s least favorite time of year: tax season.
Between frantically searching for your tax forms, organizing your receipts, figuring out how much it’ll cost you to file and trying to remember the most recent updates to the tax code, tax season can be stressful … to say the least.
Thankfully, some smart software companies have made the process way easier — and, in some cases, even free.
Even the tax pros themselves are getting on board.
“I actually informally started my own tax practice using TurboTax to prepare people’s returns from my kitchen table,” said Ben Rugg, CPA.
So you can rest assured your taxes are in good hands with online tax filing services — and save yourself a boatload of money and stress.
The three best online tax programs with paid plans are undoubtedly TurboTax, H&R Block and TaxAct. Here’s a quick look at how they stack up.
For detailed information about each, check out our reviews:
Note: The prices below are accurate as of Feb. 7, 2022 and may fluctuate throughout tax season.
Best Tax Software 2022: At a Glance
|Cost||$0 to $84.99||$0 to $89||$0 to $64.95|
|Live Help||$39.99 to $144.99||$0 to $169||Included|
|Audit Assistance||$39.99 to $144.99||Included||Buy/Tax Protection Plus|
|Mobile Apps||Extra Fee||iOS and Android||iOS and Android|
|Refund Advance||Up to $1,000||Up to $4,000||None|
|Pay with Refund||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Accuracy Guarantee||Up to $6,000||100%||Up to $100,000|
Tax Software Features, Compared
Each of these three tax prep services offers a similar suite of options that are split among their free and paid tiers. The details and prices vary among them, so take a look at the features that are important to you to see which product is the right fit.
Free Federal Filing
All three services include free federal filing for your tax return with any service tier. That’ll file your federal tax return with the IRS.
Most services charge an additional fee to file a state return — which you’ll be required to do if you live in any of the 41 states that collect income tax, or did work in one that requires you to file a tax return. State filing fees are charged for each state you file with.
Each tax preparation service includes a free option for basic filers. What each covers varies, so which is best for you depends on how complex your tax situation is.
- H&R Block: H&R Block’s most basic online version covers earners whose wages come entirely from W-2 income, and also includes deductions for student loan interest, the Child Tax credit, Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and retirement income.
- TurboTax: The TurboTax Free Edition covers W-2 income, the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and child tax credits.
- TaxAct: This tier covers W-2 income; and tax breaks for dependent deductions, Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and child tax credits, student loans and education expenses for current students, and retirement income.
Support for Complex Returns
Each service offers almost identical paid tiers for more complex tax returns: a “Deluxe” and a “Premier” or “Premium” tier.
These tiers help you prepare your taxes when you have additional deductions and credits to claim, or you have income from anywhere other than an employer.
- H&R Block: Deluxe covers additional deductions related to things like home ownership, charitable donations, Health Savings Accounts (HSAs), and some freelance or gig work income. You’ll need Premium to cover income from investments, cryptocurrency or real estate.
- TurboTax: Deluxe covers mortgage and property tax deductions, charitable donations, student loan interest, education expenses and 1099-MISC income from freelancing or contract work. Premier covers investment income and rental property income, cryptocurrency gains and refinancing deductions.
- TaxAct: TaxAct Deluxe is more comprehensive than the others; it covers itemized deductions, mortgage interest, real estate taxes, student loan interest, Health Savings Accounts (HSAs) and adoption credits. Premier adds options for investors, people earning royalties or K-1 income, rental property owners and foreign bank account holders.
Each service includes support for self-employment income in less expensive tiers.
But if the majority of your income comes from self-employment of any kind — as a freelancer, independent contractor or small business owner — you’ll benefit from tax prep support specifically tailored for self-employment and small business owners.
These versions are the most expensive of the basic online filing options, but they cost significantly less than paying an individual accountant to prepare your taxes. They’re a budget-friendly way to tackle your complicated paperwork and ensure you don’t miss out on vital tax breaks.
All three services provide the same basic support for self-employed filers, but here are some highlights that could help you choose:
- H&R Block: An interview-style process walks you through industry-specific expenses and deductions you might miss on your own, and you’ll have access to tools covering asset depreciation.
- TurboTax: Get a host of perks designed specifically for freelancers, including deductions for your line of work, ability to import your 1099-MISC with a photo, free access to Quickbooks Self Employed and access to a year-round tax estimator after filing.
- TaxAct: Gain the ability to calculate personalized business deductions, calculate depreciation and access year-round planning resources.
Live Tax Assistance
All three companies offer tax help from real, live tax professionals, like a Certified Public Account (CPA) or IRS Enrolled Agent (EA) — and this option is where they differ the most. Pay attention to these options if live tax support is important to you!
- H&R Block: This is the only of the three that runs brick-and-mortar locations, where you can meet with a tax pro face-to-face. It also lets you upload documents online or drop off paperwork to let them prepare everything for you. Like the others, H&R Block also offers online assistance; you can sign up for Online Assist filing rather than DIY online filing to get on-demand access to a tax professional while you prepare your returns through the DIY software.
- TurboTax: In place of the DIY products, you can purchase TurboTax Live in similar tiers for on-demand answers to your questions and a line-by-line review of your returns by a CPA or EA. You can upgrade to Full Service TurboTax Live to have a tax expert take care of the filing for you.
- TaxAct: TaxAct offers free live assistance over the phone for all filers, regardless of tier . You can also upgrade to its Full Service option to have a tax pro file for you.
H&R Block or TurboTax should be your go-to services if you’re concerned about a complicated tax audit. TaxAct doesn’t provide audit support for most customers.
- H&R Block: For an additional fee, the company’s Peace of Mind Extended Service Plan lets you take in any notification from the IRS to figure out what it means and get access to representation by an H&R Block enrolled agent if you need it.
- TurboTax: Through its Audit Support Center, all TurboTax customers get access to live, one-on-one guidance online in case of an audit.
- TaxAct: TaxAct does NOT provide audit support itself. It gives TaxAct Professional users (tax pros filing taxes for clients) access to third-party service Protection Plus Audit Defense.
H&R Block, TurboTax and TaxAct all have mobile apps available for both iOS and Android. All three offer comparable functionality, though TaxAct’s apps are rated a little lower in their respective app stores than the other two.
Need money now? H&R Block and TurboTax both offer a tax refund advance, while TaxAct does not. An advance from H&R Block will cost you a lot more than one from TurboTax.
- H&R Block: Apply for the Emerald Advance line of advance credit ahead of tax season to put up to $1,000 of your tax refund in your pocket before you file through a Mastercard debit card with a $45 annual fee and 36% interest rate.
- TurboTax: The service offers an advance up to $4,000 (typically around 50%) of your expected federal tax refund with 0% interest and $0 loan fees. Eligible customers get access to funds within a few hours through a Credit Karma Money checking account.
- TaxAct: TaxAct doesn’t offer a tax refund advance, though TaxAct Professional users can offer their clients a refund advance through a partner bank.
Pay With Your Refund
All three services let you use your tax refund to pay for product and filing fees, so you never see an out-of-pocket cost for your tax preparation. The competition is in the fees.
- TaxAct: $17.99 if you’re receiving your refund by direct deposit or $9.99 if you’re receiving it on a PayPower reloadable debit card.
The companies offer different levels of peace of mind for using their products.
- H&R Block: If there’s an error in your tax return, H&R Block will reimburse you for up to $10,000 in additional interest or fees owed due to its mistake.
- TurboTax: If you tally up a larger refund (or similar tax liability) with another tax preparation service, TurboTax will refund your software fee (or pay you $30 if you used the Free edition).
- TaxAct: If there’s an error on your tax return OR you calculate a higher refund with another service, TaxAct will reimburse you for up to $100,000 in additional taxes and penalties owed due to its mistake, plus refund your TaxAct fees. If you’re not totally satisfied with TaxAct for any reason, you can discontinue using it before completing your return and paying the fee.
To prepare and file your taxes online with each service, you’ll pay a product fee, filing fees for state returns, and — depending on the company — fees for live tax professional assistance.
Fees vary dramatically when you access these products online. What’s listed here is accurate as of this writing, but note that these services might advertise different fees to you depending on when and how often you visit their sites.
Fee Comparison at a Glance
|State Filing Fees||$0-$36.99||$39-$49||$39.95-$44.95|
|Tax Pro Fees||$39.99-$144.99, Online||$0-$169, TurboTax Live||Free for all filers|
|More Tax Pro Fees||$80 and up, live help||$0-$259, full service||n/a|
Alternatively, you can download tax preparation software from each company, so you can save your tax information on your own computer. Software products are tiered similar to online tiers and include a one-time download fee and filing fees.
The download fee for tax filing software is usually a little higher than the fee to file online, because they include the option to file multiple federal returns (typically around five). Those are only good for a single tax year, but you can use them for multiple people, so downloadable software could save you money if multiple people in your family need to file.
H&R Block vs. TurboTax vs. TaxAct: Which Is Best for You?
Any of these popular, tested tax preparation services is a good fit for you if you want to DIY your tax returns this year and file online — with added assurance from software or tax pros that you’re doing everything right.
Here are a few standout differences among H&R Block, TurboTax and TaxAct that might help you pick the best product for your situation.
H&R Block Is Best for You If …
- You want access to in-person tax pros. H&R Block is the only of these three services that runs brick-and-mortar offices where you can work with tax pros face-to-face.
- You’re concerned about a complicated audit. Both TurboTax and H&R Block provide audit assistance, but H&R Block’s service offers a better user experience and is available in-person — which could be comforting in a stressful situation.
- You own a small business. All three services provide ample support for self-employed filers, but H&R Block has the most robust suite of services for year-round tax support.
TurboTax Is Best for You If …
- You want live, online help. TurboTax offers online assistance with tax pros comparable to H&R Block’s service at a lower price, and Free filers get free online assistance.
- You’re a freelancer. TurboTax’s self-employed editions offers some of the most user-friendly and robust assistance specifically designed for freelancers and independent contractors.
- You need a refund advance. Eligible customers get access to a larger advance at no added cost, compared with a smaller advance for an annual fee and interest charges at H&R Block.
TaxAct Is Best for You If …
- You’re shopping for the lowest cost. TaxAct beats its competitors significantly on price at every tier and provides live assistance from a tax professional at no additional cost.
- You’re concerned about accuracy. Every tax service comes with an accuracy guarantee, but TaxAct offers one of the highest reimbursement levels at $100,000.
- You want to guarantee the biggest refund. TaxAct’s $100k Accuracy & Maximum Refund Guarantee promises not only to refund your fees if you find a better refund with a different service but also to pay you the difference in taxes owed up to $100,000.
6 Ways to Get Free Tax Filing & Prep Assistance
In addition to these top options for affordable online filing, you can find tons of free ways to file simple returns online for free.
1. IRS Free File Program
You can always file your federal taxes for free-free, if you’re eligible, through the IRS Free File portal. This service is available to filers who earned $73,000 or less (in 2021), and the page also links to free fillable forms for earners at all levels.
The IRS doesn’t directly provide this service, but it partners with a group of online tax preparation companies — including TaxAct and TaxSlayer— to facilitate your process.
Free File services are provided through the Free File Alliance, a public-private partnership between the IRS and participating tax software companies, a group that changes from year to year. Even though you might not realize it at first, most Americans are eligible for free filing — the program aims to cover 70% of filers.
2. United Way MyFreeTaxes
If you made less than $73,000 in 2021, take advantage of United Way’s MyFreeTaxes program to file federal and state taxes online for free.
The site notes that 100 million Americans qualify for this free filing option, powered by H&R Block. The service covers all tax situations except rental property income, farm income and returns with income above $73,000.
If a 1040EZ is all you need to file, TaxSlayer will help you do it online for free. The Simply Free edition offers a deduction finder, and you can add your state returns at no charge.
Active duty military members can file a federal return for free, regardless of your tax situation.
EFile offers free basic federal filing and advises this option if you’re single or married and filing jointly with no dependents. You can get 50% off the state filing fee with the promo code “50eFile.com.”
5. Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program (VITA)
Get help with basic tax prep from an IRS volunteer through the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program (VITA) and Tax Counseling for the Elderly (TCE) programs. VITA assistance is available to:
- People who “generally make $58,000 or less” (for tax year 2021).
- People with disabilities.
- Limited English-speaking filers.
TCE assistance is available for filers over age 60, and volunteers specialize in questions about pensions and retirement-related issues.
All volunteers are certified by the IRS and many have professional backgrounds in accounting and finance.
6. Cash App Taxes
Cash App Taxes (formerly Credit Karma Tax) provides free federal and state tax filing for the most common tax forms, including those for more complex tax situations, like business income (Schedule C) and itemizing deductions (Schedule A).
Plus, when you create an account to use Cash App Taxes, you’ll also get access to Cash App’s other services, including peer-to-peer payments, banking, investing and crypto trading.
Should You Do Your Own Taxes or Hire a Tax Pro?
So you can file your own taxes from the comfort of your home… but should you?
Rugg told us that some circumstances add new levels of tax considerations you might miss if you don’t bring in a professional eye.
“There are five situations where taxpayers should consider using a professional — when they get married, when they buy a home, when they have a child, when they have investments and/or when they are self-employed,” he said.
One of these events might trigger you to work with a tax pro every year after. Or you might just want to bring in help for the tax year when the change happens so you can get a better understanding of your situation, the forms you’ll need; and the deductions, credits and additional tax liabilities you should know about.
You probably don’t need to work with a tax expert if you’re a single W-2 employee with no dependents or property. You should be able to easily find free tax software/platforms, instead of paying for guidance from a real person or pricy software.
We hope with the best online tax preparation software at hand, April 19 — this year’s filing deadline — doesn’t seem so ominous anymore.
Just don’t wait until the day before to file your taxes, and you’ll be fine.
Dana Sitar (@danasitar) has been writing and editing since 2011, covering personal finance, careers and digital media. Laura Grace Tarpley contributed reporting to this review.