A Step-by-Step Guide to Filing Taxes in the U.S. for the First Time

Last updated on April 2nd, 2024 at 01:07 pm

If the thought of filing taxes in the U.S. fills you with fear, you’re not alone. Around 52% of adults in the United States find the tax-filing process seriously stressful.

This guide will help you navigate the complicated world of federal taxes so you can avoid late filing and payment penalties when filing in the U.S. for the first time.

Filing Taxes in the U.S. - tax forms

Know Important Tax Filing Deadlines

When does the tax year start and end?

In the U.S., the tax year runs from Jan. 1 through Dec. 31. You might need to file a tax return and pay taxes on any amount you earn during that period.

When are the due dates for those taxes?

The filing season is usually in April. You normally have to file a tax return and pay any taxes owed by April following a tax year. In 2024, the deadline for filing a return and paying taxes for the prior year is April 15. Don’t miss the tax season. Mark the date on your calendar.

How do you file a federal tax return?

You can file a tax return online (electronic filing, or e-filing) or send it in the mail.

Some people prefer to e-file their taxes online, such as state taxes, individual income taxes, local taxes, own taxes, federal income tax returns, etc., because it is more convenient.

How do you pay taxes?

If you owe taxes, there are several ways to pay, including:

Who do you pay taxes to?

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is the government department responsible for collecting federal taxes in the U.S.

Read more: Do Immigrants File Taxes in the U.S.?

Filing Taxes in the U.S. - forms

Collect All Your Documents

The IRS might ask you to input figures from various tax documents on your return. These documents show your income from the previous tax year and any taxes withheld from employers.

Some of the most common tax documents and tax forms people receive at the end of the tax year include:


W2 form

Your employer (or employers) might send you a W-2 form once the tax year is over. This document shows the income you earned from your employer, any taxes withheld by the employer, and any benefits issued to you. You will need to enter this information on your income tax return.


1099 form

1099 refers to several types of documents issued by an entity other than an employer. For example, a client might send you a 1099-MISC or 1099-NEC form once the tax year is over if you earned money as a freelancer or contractor.

Like a W2, this document shows the amount of income you received, any taxes withheld by the employer, and any benefits given to you. You will need to enter this information on your tax return.

Read more: How to File Taxes in Spain

Learn About Tax Deductions and Credits

The IRS lets you claim various tax deductions and credits when filing your return. Deductions and credits might lower the amount of tax you owe. Some of the most common include:

  • Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC): A tax credit for low-to moderate-income workers and families.
  • American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC): A credit for students enrolled in a degree program or other educational credential.
  • Home office deduction: A deduction for people who work from home.
  • Standard tax deduction: A flat amount that the IRS allows you to deduct from the tax you owe.

Know About Refunds

If your employer withheld taxes from your paycheck during the tax year, you could be entitled to a refund if you paid too much tax. The IRS will calculate any tax refund and reimburse you by check or electronic payment. If you file your taxes online, you could receive a tax refund in as little as three weeks.

Read more: How to File Taxes in France

Filing Taxes in the U.S. - forms

Know About Penalties

The IRS might issue you a penalty if you file your tax return late, don’t pay your taxes on time, or make a mistake on your return.

For example, you might receive a late payment penalty of 0.5% of the tax you owe for each month your tax remains unpaid. The more tax you owe, the higher your penalty.

Use a Tax Preparation Tool

Filing your taxes for the first time can be a daunting experience, especially if you are entitled to deductions and credits. A third-party tax prep tool can guide you through the tax filing process and help you avoid mistakes.

Some of the most popular (and maybe free online) tax preparation software include:

Some people also seek tax advice from tax experts or tax professionals.

Final Word About Filing Taxes in the U.S.

Filing taxes in the U.S. for the first time doesn’t have to be a challenge. Collecting the right documents, learning about credits and deductions, researching refunds and penalties, and using a tax prep tool can make the tax-filing process a lot less stressful.