Not all questions can be answered by a computer—especially when it comes to your taxes. But when you call the IRS, it can seem impossible to get an real human to take your call.
These circumstances have worsened over the past year, as the pandemic further depleted the notoriously understaffed agency, which is also dealing with a glut of inquiries in the wake of an unusually complicated tax year and amid potential confusion over changes to the child tax credit that will see payments distributed monthly. Even so, sometimes you just need to talk to a person. Here’s how you can reach someone quickly.
How long will you have to wait to talk to someone at the IRS?
The IRS received more than 100 million calls last year, but only 1 in 4 callers ultimately got through to an IRS employee, according to a recent National Taxpayer Advocate report. Most callers either get frustrated with the long waits or fed up with the complicated phone tree that only leads from one automated message to another, so they simply hang up.
If you do stick it out, the IRS says that you can expect an average wait of 27 minutes when calling calling between May and December, with the longest waits typically on Mondays and Tuesdays. However, many on social media are claiming calls are still taking up to 2-3 hours, if not longer. In 2017, a large enQ, Inc. study found that the best times of day to call were before 9 a.m. on the East Coast and after 5 p.m. on the West Coast.
What to do before you call the IRS
The IRS recommends checking its online resources before calling. It has a list of common issues that might have the answer to your question about your tax return, payments, or identity theft concerns.
How to reach an actual person at the IRS
Someone doesn’t just pick up on the second ring when you call the IRS. You have to go through a menu to get routed to find an agent for your issue, if one is available.
The IRS telephone number is 1-800-829-1040, and they are available from 7 a.m. – 7 p.m. local time, Monday thru Friday. Accountant Amy Northard offers this cheat-sheet for navigating the IRS phone menu on her blog:
The first question the automated system will ask you is to choose your language.
Once you’ve set your language, don’t choose Option 1 (regarding refund info).
Press 2 for “For answers about you personal income taxes…” instead.
Next, press 1 for “For questions about form you have already submitted…”
Next, press 3 “for all other questions.”
Next, press 2 “for all other questions.”
When the system asks you to enter your SSN or EIN to access your account information, don’t enter anything.
After it asks twice, you will be prompted with another menu.
Next, press 2 for “personal or individual tax related questions”
Finally, press 4 for all other inquiries. The system should then transfer you to an agent.
(Lifehacker has tried this a few times, both in the early morning and late afternoon, and we were able to reach an agent in approximately 30 minutes on average).
Make sure you’re prepared before you call the IRS with questions
Before you call, make sure you’ve gathered everything you might need while taking with the agent. The IRS recommends having the following items ready:
- Social Security numbers (SSN) and birth dates
- Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) for taxpayers without a Social Security number
- Filing status – single, head of household, married filing joint, or married filing separate
- Prior-year tax return
- Tax return you’re calling about
- Any correspondence the IRS sent to you
What to do if you can’t get ahold of anyone at the IRS
If you live near a local IRS office that’s reopened post-the height of the pandemic, you may want to skip the main phone line and call it directly. They probably can’t answer your questions by phone, but your Taxpayer Assistance Center (see the state-by-state directory here) can schedule a face-to-face appointment (with social distancing, of course) so you can get help from an agent.
If you’re still having a hard time getting help from a real live person, try contacting the Taxpayer Advocate Service. It’s an independent office within the IRS that exists to help people with their ongoing tax issues.
This story was originally published in 2020 and updated on Feb. 9, 2021 with new information. It was updated again on June 10, 2021 with additional context and to align with current Lifehacker style.