After you submit your federal tax return to the Internal Revenue Service, you may wonder when you can expect your refund. The time it takes to process a tax return and release a refund can vary. However, in general, most taxpayers will see their return pass through the same stages before receiving a refund.

What Are the Stages?

The first stage in the process is "return received." Your return reaches this stage when the IRS receives and accepts it. If you e-file your return, receipt will be almost instantaneous. As long as there are no glaring errors or oversights on the return, it should be accepted quickly. Next, the IRS will approve the refund, which means that the IRS has agreed to send you the amount you listed on your return. In the final stage of the process, your refund will be sent to you. Most refunds are issued within 21 days.

Checking Your Progress

The IRS maintains an online tool that allows you to get personalized information about the processing of your tax return and the status of your refund. You can begin using this tool in as little as 24 hours after the IRS receives your e-filed return. If you mail a paper return, this tool will be available within four weeks. The system is updated once a day and is available at all hours.

To use this tool, you will need several pieces of information, including your filing status, social security number and the exact amount of your expected refund. Once your refund has been approved, the tool will estimate the date the refund should be sent. Taxpayers who are unable to use this tool can track their refund using the IRS's Refund Hotline at 1-800-829-1954.