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Best tax software of 2021: File fast and accurately, plus get your maximum refund

The best tax filing software programs allow you to file your state and federal tax returns fast and accurately, while maximizing your refund. Here are the top five.

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Tax season is upon us, and for many Americans that means signing up for an online tax software.

The IRS started accepting and processing tax returns on February 12, so you can begin filing your state and federal returns as soon as you have all your documents. After all, the sooner you file, the quicker you’ll receive any refund you’re owed, assuming there are no issues with your return. The federal tax deadline is Thursday, April 15, 2021.

Doing your taxes isn’t a fun task, but you can make the process faster by filing your tax return using a tax software program. Services like TurboTax and H&R Block walk users through the process so you can maximize deductions and increase your refund. Many of the best services offer both free and paid plans that allow you to select the option that best suits your needs — whether this is the first time you've needed to file or you've been paying taxes for years.

CNBC Select reviewed 12 tax filing software programs, evaluating them on a range of features, including cost, user experience, expert tax assistance and Better Business Bureau rating. (Read more about our methodology below.)

Here are the best tax filing software programs.

Best tax filing software

Best overall tax software

TurboTax

On TurboTax's secure site
  • Cost

    $0 to $170 federal, $0 to $50 per state (see breakdown by plan below)

  • Free version

    Yes

  • Mobile app

    Yes

  • Live support

    Yes, costs extra

  • Better Business Bureau rating

    A+

Terms apply, see below for our methodology.

Pros

  • Step-by-step guidance with a Q&A format that is easy to follow
  • TurboTax Live provides on-demand advice and a final review from a tax expert or CPA
  • Live Full Service has a tax expert prepare, sign and file your return
  • 100% accuracy guarantee, or TurboTax will pay your IRS penalties
  • Maximum refund guarantee, or TurboTax will refund the plan fees you paid
  • Audit support, which provides free assistance if you get an IRS or other tax notice

Cons

  • More costly than other software programs
  • Live expert assistance plans cost $50 to $70 more for federal and $10 more per state
  • Live Full Service charges an additional $80 to $100 for federal, state is additional

Cost breakdown by plan:

  • Free (for simple returns): $0 federal, $0 per state
  • Deluxe (helps you maximize credits and deductions): $40 federal, $40 per state
  • Premier (includes returns with investments and expenses): $70 federal, $40 per state
  • Self-employed (for personal and business income and expenses): $90 federal, $40 per state
  • Live Basic (includes help from tax experts): $0 federal, $0 per state (must file by 2/15/21)
  • Live Deluxe (includes help from tax experts): $90 federal, $50 per state
  • Live Premier (includes help from tax experts): $140 federal, $50 per state
  • Live self-employed (includes help from tax experts): $170 federal, $50 per state

Runner-up

H&R Block

On H&R Block's secure site
  • Cost

    $0 to $144.99 federal, $0 to $36.99 per state (see breakdown by plan below)

  • Free version

    Yes

  • Mobile app

    Yes

  • Live support

    Yes, costs extra

  • Better Business Bureau rating

    A+

Terms apply, see below for our methodology.

Pros

  • Simple step-by-step guidance that's easy to follow
  • Unlimited on-demand chat or video support with Online Assist plans
  • Ability to speak to a tax expert who has an average of 10 years experience (costs extra)
  • Over 11,000 physical locations so you can meet with a tax expert in-person
  • Maximum refund guarantee, or H&R Block will refund the plan fees you paid
  • Audit support guarantee, which provides free assistance if you get an IRS or other tax notice
  • 100% accuracy, or H&R Block will reimburse you for any penalties or interest up to $10,000

Cons

  • Plans that include speaking with a live tax expert start at $39.99 for federal, plus additional state fee
  • One of the more costly software programs

Cost breakdown by plan:

  • Free (for simple returns): $0 federal, $0 per state
  • Deluxe (helps you maximize credits and deductions): $23.99 federal, $36.99 per state
  • Premium (includes returns with investments and expenses): $39.99 federal, $36.99 per state
  • Self-employed (for personal and business income and expenses): $67.99 federal, $36.99 per state
  • Online Assist Basic (includes help from tax experts): $39.99 federal, $0 per state
  • Online Assist Deluxe (includes help from tax experts): $69.99 federal, $36.99 per state
  • Online Assist Premium (includes help from tax experts): $109.99 federal, $36.99 per state
  • Online Assist Self-employed (includes help from tax experts): $144.99 federal, $36.99 per state

Best free tax software

Credit Karma Tax

On Credit Karma's secure site
  • Cost

    $0 federal and state

  • Free version

    Yes

  • Mobile app

    Yes

  • Tax expert support

    No

  • Better Business Bureau rating

    B

Terms apply, see below for our methodology.

Pros

  • Completely free to use
  • Get access to Credit Karma services like credit monitoring alerts and credit score updates
  • Audit defense, which gives you support from a representative if the IRS audits your tax return
  • Maximum refund guarantee, or Credit Karma will pay you the difference up to $100 ($25 minimum)
  • 100% accuracy, or Credit Karma will reimburse you for any penalties up to $1,000

Cons

  • Only available in 40 states and D.C.
  • You can't file with Credit Karma if you lived in a state for only part of the tax year, earned income in more than one state during the tax year or earned income in a state you didn't live in
  • No support from tax professionals

Best affordable tax software

TaxSlayer

On TaxSlayer's secure site
  • Cost

    $0 to $30.55 federal, $0 to $32 per state (see breakdown by plan below)

  • Free version

    Yes

  • Mobile app

    Yes

  • Tax expert support

    Yes, costs extra

  • Better Business Bureau rating

    A+

Terms apply, see below for our methodology.

Pros

  • Cheaper plans, making this a more affordable choice if you don't have a simple return and need to upgrade
  • Low state filing fees
  • One-on-one support from real tax experts with Ask a Tax Pro (select plans only)
  • 100% accuracy, or TaxSlayer will reimburse you for any penalties or interest charges
  • Maximum refund guarantee, or TaxSlayer will refund the plan fees you paid
  • IRS inquiry and audit support guarantee with select plans

Cons

  • Experts are only available on Premium and Self-Employed plans

Cost breakdown by plan:

  • Simply Free (for simple returns): $0 federal, $0 per state
  • Classic (for all tax situations): $11.05 federal, $32 per state
  • Premium (includes priority phone and email support, live chat and help from a tax expert): $24.05 federal, $32 per state
  • Self-employed (for personal and business income and expenses): $30.55 federal, $32 per state

File for 35% off with code SLAYIT35, prices above reflect discount.

Best for accuracy guarantee

TaxAct

On TaxAct's secure site
  • Cost

    $0 to $126.96 federal, $19.95 to $44.95 per state (see breakdown by plan below)

  • Free version

    Yes

  • Mobile app

    Yes

  • Tax expert support

    Yes, costs extra

  • Better Business Bureau rating

    A+

Terms apply, see below for our methodology.

Pros

  • Up to $100,000 accuracy guarantee, which reimburses you for IRS/state penalty or interest if the TaxAct software causes a calculation error in your return
  • More affordable than other paid software
  • One-on-one support from real tax experts (costs extra)
  • Maximum refund and 100% accuracy guarantee, or TaxAct will refund the plan fees you paid and pay any difference in the refund or tax liability, plus cover any legal or audit costs up to $100,000

Cons

  • Free plan charges per state return
  • Xpert help plans cost at least $35 more for federal

Cost breakdown by plan:

  • Free (only covers simple returns): $0 federal, $19.95 per state
  • Deluxe (helps you maximize credits and deductions): $19.96 federal, $44.95 per state
  • Premier (includes returns with investments and expenses): $27.96 federal, $44.95 per state
  • Self-employed (for personal and business income and expenses): $51.96 federal, $44.95 per state
  • Xpert Help Free (includes help from tax experts): $35.00 federal, $19.95 per state
  • Xpert Help Deluxe (includes help from tax experts): $69.96 federal, $44.95 per state
  • Xpert Help Premier (includes help from tax experts): $87.96 federal, $44.95 per state
  • Xpert Help Self-employed (includes help from tax experts): $126.96 federal, $44.95 per state

FAQs

When are taxes due?

Taxes are due on Thursday, April 15, 2021. While the IRS extended the deadline to file taxes last year to July 15, 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, there are currently no plans to repeat the extension this year.

What happens if I miss the tax deadline?

If you miss the April 15 deadline, you still need to file your taxes and should do so as soon as possible. You'll incur a penalty if you file late and owe taxes, which only gets pricier the longer you wait. You won't incur a penalty if you don't owe and instead have a tax refund coming.

How much does it cost to file taxes?

Many tax software programs have a free version, but you'll be charged a fee if you upgrade to a paid plan. The tax programs we reviewed either have no cost for the free plans, or charge as low as $11.05 for federal filing plus $4.95 per state. However, the costs can add up fast with the more complex deluxe, premium and self-employed plans — the most expensive is $170 for federal, plus $50 per state. If you want to add live tax support, the surcharge can be $35 to $100, plus state fees.

We found that the most affordable service is TaxSlayer. The Classic plan supports all tax situations and currently costs $11.05 for federal and $32 per state (when you take 35% off with the code SLAYIT35).

Don't miss: Free vs. paid tax services: When to plan on paying for an upgrade

Simple tax return vs. complex tax return

A simple tax return is the most basic type of tax return you can file, and many tax software programs let you file this return for free. A simple return generally includes W-2 income, limited interest and dividend income, standard deductions and unemployment income.

Some free plans also include the earned income tax credit (TurboTax, H&R Block, Credit Karma and TaxAct), child tax credits (TurboTax, H&R Block, Credit Karma and TaxAct) and student loan/education deductions (H&R Block, Credit Karma, TaxAct and TaxSlayer).

If your finances are more complicated and you don't qualify for a simple tax return, you'll need to file a complex tax return, and most tax software programs will charge you fees to file. Complex tax situations typically include anyone with freelance income (1099 tax forms), small business owners and landlords, as well as anyone with earnings from investments and stock sales.

The tax program you use will notify you if you can't file a free simple tax return and instead need to upgrade and pay to file a more complex return. And even if you can file a simple tax return, you may want to pay for the next-tier plan to benefit from more deductions.

Our methodology

To determine which tax software offers the best way to file your taxes online, CNBC Select analyzed 12 programs. We compared each program on a range of features, including:

  • Cost
  • User experience
  • Expert tax assistance
  • Accuracy and maximum refund guarantee
  • Better Business Bureau (BBB) rating
  • Customer reviews, when available

Cost was one of the most important factors. While many of these services offer free versions, many people have complicated finances that require them to pay to file their taxes. We evaluated the price per plan and weighed the features you receive, like the ability to maximize deductions and credits. The more bang for your buck, the higher a service ranked.

Whether you're new to filing taxes or a seasoned pro, user experience is crucial to filling out and submitting your return quickly and with little frustration. The services we chose had to be relatively user friendly.

The ability to speak with a tax expert or support representative was a big plus. Four out of five of the best tax software offered some form of support.

And if a service supported consumers with a generous accuracy and maximum refund guarantee, it was ranked higher.

We also considered the Better Business Bureau rating associated with the software. BBB ratings help determine whether a business is operating responsibly and if it helps to resolve customer complaints in a timely manner. Customer reviews were also taken into consideration.

After reviewing the above features, we sorted our recommendations by best for overall tax filing, runner-up, free tax software, most affordable and best accuracy guarantee.

The federal and state filing fees for the software programs mentioned above are subject to change without notice. Many programs don't charge you until you file, so there's a chance the fees can change from the time you start your return until you submit it.

Editorial Note: Opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the CNBC Select editorial staff’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any third party.