The IRS says you should keep a copy of your tax return for at least three years. If you don’t have a copy, you can order one from the IRS. However, lenders and others want a tax transcript from the IRS, not a copy of your actual return.

Why you might need a copy of your tax return

Your old tax returns have lots of important uses. For example, they can you prepare your taxes for the current year. You can repeat a lot of the information from last year when you prepare your new return.  Previous tax returns also show how much money you paid the IRS in prior years.

Your old returns also show you how you’ve been doing financially. Want to know how much money you made in 2016? Look at your tax return for that year.

A copy of your tax return can also serve to verify your income. This can be necessary if you want to borrow money, get student financial aid, or even rent an apartment. For example, if you’re self-employed, prospective landlords often want to see your tax returns to make sure you earn enough income to afford the rent.

You might think that lenders also want to see your tax returns to verify your income. But this isn’t usually the case. They usually want something called a tax return transcript instead.

IRS tax return transcript example

Tax transcripts

A tax transcript is not an actual copy of your tax return. Instead, it is an official IRS summary of the key information on your return.

You can get two types of transcripts from the IRS:

  • Tax Return Transcript. A tax return transcript shows most line items on your original tax return as filed, along with any forms and schedules. This includes your adjusted gross income (AGI), which is the number lenders and others want to know. A tax return transcript doesn’t show changes made after you filed your original return. You can only get a tax return transcript for the current tax year and for the previous three years.
  • Tax Account Transcript. A tax account transcript contains less information than a return transcript. It only shows basic data such as return type, marital status, adjusted gross income, taxable income, and all payment types. It also shows changes made after the filing of the original return.

If you want to get a home loan, personal loan, or student financial aid, you’ll usually have to supply a tax return transcript from the IRS to verify your income.

Masking of personal information on transcripts

The IRS is fighting a war against identity theft and tax fraud. Thieves attempt to gain access to IRS transcript data to file fraudulent tax returns or engage in other crimes. To help prevent this, transcripts only display partial personal information, such as the last four digits of your social security number. Full financial and tax information, such as wages and taxable income, is shown on the transcript. You can see a sample of a redacted transcript on the IRS website.

You may request an unmasked transcript for tax preparation.  The IRS mails unmasked transcripts to your address in its records. Tax professionals can also obtain copies of their clients’ unmasked transcripts.

How to get a tax transcript

You get obtain a tax transcript online from the IRS website or by postal mail. There is no charge.

To order online, use the Get Transcript Online tool on IRS.gov. To use the online tool, you must first register with the IRS and obtain a password. You’re required to provide:

  • Your social security number, date of birth, filing status, and mailing address from your latest tax return
  • Access to your email account
  • Your personal account number from a credit card, mortgage, home equity loan, home equity line of credit, or car loan
  • A mobile phone number with your name on the account.

Requesting tax transcript by mail

To order by postal mail, you can use the Get Transcript by Mail tool on the IRS website. Alternatively, you can complete and send in IRS Form 4506-T or Form 4506T-EZ.  You can usually use the shorter Form 4506T-EZ to obtain a tax return transcript. Therefore, use Form 4506-T to request a tax account transcript.

You are not required to register with the IRS when you order by mail. On the form, provide your social security number and mailing address from your latest tax return. You can also designate a third party (such as a mortgage company) to receive the transcript.

A new optional Customer File Number field is also available to use when requesting a transcript. You have the option of inputting a number, such as a loan number, in this field. This is something your lender will provide you. If you’re applying for a home loan, typically the lender will have you complete Form 4506T and send it in for you.

The IRS mails the transcript to the address it has on file for you, or to your lender or other third-party you designate. The IRS says it takes five to ten calendar days to receive the transcript.

Copy of tax return

You can only get a tax transcript going back three tax years. If you need something older than that, you’ll have to order a copy of your actual filed tax return. You can get one for the current tax year and as far back as six years. To do so, you must complete and mail in IRS Form 4506, Request for Copy of Tax Return.

If you’re married and file a joint return, either you or your spouse may request a copy of your return. Only the requesting spouse need sign the form. You must pay a fee of $50 for each tax return you request.

But people who live in a federally declared disaster area can get a free copy. The IRS says it takes about 75 days to receive the copy of your return.

Stephen Fishman

Stephen Fishman

Stephen Fishman is a self-employed tax expert and regular contributor to MileIQ. He has dedicated his career as an attorney and author to writing useful, authoritative and recognized guides on taxes and business law for entrepreneurs, independent contractors, freelancers and other self-employed people. He is the author of over 20 books and hundreds of articles, and has been quoted in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Chicago Tribune, and many other publications. Visit Fishman Law and Tax Files for more information on his work.
Stephen Fishman