The Best Tax Software for 2021

Each new year ushers in a season of hope as we make New Year’s resolutions to do better. But the opening weeks of the new year means spending hours (days?) preparing to file your taxes. Thankfully, the best tax software makes it easy to file taxes – and for free, in many instances.

While you can use any tax software and get similar results, some platforms can be better for specific tax situations. We can show you the best way to file taxes with complex tax situations such as reporting self-employment income, selling investments, or filing an itemized return.

Filing online can be the easiest and most affordable option for most tax filers. You don’t have to download any tax software and you can file from home but get expert tax advice if you need it. Filing electronically also the fastest way to get your return, especially when you file as soon as possible in the tax year.

Table of Contents
  1. TurboTax: Best Place to File Taxes
    1. Free Edition
    2. Deluxe
    3. Premier
    4. Self-Employed
  2. Credit Karma Tax: Best Free Tax Software
  3. H&R Block: Best for Itemized Returns
    1. Free Online
    2. Deluxe Online
    3. Premium Online
    4. Self-Employed Online
  4. TaxAct: Best Budget Tax Software
    1. Free
    2. Deluxe
    3. Premier
    4. Self Employed
  5. Visor: Best Place to File Taxes with an Advisor
  6. How to Choose the Best Tax Software
    1. Qualify for Free Tax Returns
    2. Cost to File State Tax Returns
    3. Compare Advanced Features
    4. Audit Support
  7. Summary

TurboTax: Best Place to File Taxes

TurboTax continues to be the best tax software overall. While this perennial favorite isn’t always the cheapest for advanced tax returns, TurboTax offers more features than most alternatives.

Some of the TurboTax features include:

  • Auto-import of tax documents from most banks and finance apps
  • Upload W-2 with a smartphone camera
  • Live support from tax experts
  • Year-round CPA or EA tax prep services
  • Import of last year’s tax return

Other tax software may offer similar features but TurboTax tends to have the most features. For example, your bank or brokerage might be able to auto-import your tax forms to TurboTax but not a discount tax software. Having to input multiple tax forms manually can take a long time and be mistake-prone.

The auto-import, smartphone upload, and step-by-step tax interview questions make filing your taxes online easy nearly foolproof.

While it’s an additional cost of up to an extra $90, you can have an enrolled agent (EA) or Certified Public Accountant (CPA) help prepare your return. This one-on-one TurboTax Live feature can be cheaper than hiring a local tax preparer. In addition to getting a line-by-line review at tax time, you get year-round EA/CPA access for your tax questions.

Similar to the other tax software recommendations on this list, TurboTax offers a 100% accuracy guarantee. If there’s a calculation error, TurboTax covers the IRS penalties.

It’s free to start your tax return for free with TurboTax. As you claim advanced deductions and income streams, TurboTax will prompt you to upgrade to a higher pricing plan. Below are the different online TurboTax versions.

Free Edition

Federal tax return cost: $0

State tax return cost: $0

You can file simple tax returns for free with TurboTax when you only have these tax details:

  • W-2 income
  • Limited interest and dividend income (reported on a 109-DIV or 1099-INT)
  • Not filing an itemized return
  • Eligible for the Earned Income Tax Credit and child tax credits

There are several common tax situations where you will need to pay for your federal and state returns. Some examples include when you itemize, sell investments, deduct student loan interest, or earn income reported on a 1099-MISC (i.e., side hustle income).

Tip: Some TurboTax alternatives file more advanced tax situations for free.

Deluxe

Federal tax return cost: $60

State tax return cost: $50 per state

You will need to upgrade to TurboTax Deluxe in these situations:

  • Itemized returns (Form 1040 Schedule A)
  • Mortgage and property tax deductions
  • Student loan interest deductions and educational credits
  • One-on-one, on-demand tax help

This version includes a charity contributions calculator to track the value of the physical and cash donations you make. You can still file for free if you only claim the $300 Cares Act charity donation for non-itemizers as it’s an “above-the-line” tax donation.

TurboTax also looks for over 350 advanced tax deductions to reduce your total tax bill.

Premier

Federal tax return cost: $90

State tax return cost: $50 per state

Did you sell any investments or earn rental property income this year? If so, you will need to use the TurboTax Premier version.

This version is necessary for these investment income sales:

  • Stocks
  • Bonds
  • Employee stock purchase plans (ESPPs)
  • Cryptocurrency
  • Rental property income

If you have sold stock in previous years and manually entered the details of each sale, you will appreciate the TurboTax auto-import feature.

TurboTax can also help you claim rental property depreciation. If you acquired a rental property in 2020, this tax software can help you set up your property to accurately calculate its value and rental depreciation.

Self-Employed

Federal tax return cost: $120

State tax return cost: $50 per state

Small business owners, freelancers, and those with side hustle income reported on Form 1099-MISC will need to use the Self-Employed tier.

A new feature for this tax year is uploading a picture of your 1099-MISC with your smartphone.

Other benefits of using TurboTax Self-Employed include:

  • Find industry-specific deductions
  • Mileage and vehicle deductions
  • Rideshare data import from Uber and Lyft
  • Asset deprecation calculation support
  • Qualified Business Income (QBI) deduction guidance
  • Prep and print unlimited W2 and 1099 forms for employees

Get started with TurboTax

Credit Karma Tax: Best Free Tax Software

Credit Karma Tax makes it easy to file any personal tax return for free. Other online tax software can charge over $100 for a federal and state return. But Credit Karma lets you file simple and complex tax returns for free, including self-employment income and sold investments.

You can file a federal return and one state tax return. You also enjoy other Credit Karma benefits including a free credit score from two credit bureaus. Unfortunately, Credit Karma Tax doesn’t support part-year resident state returns or let you file multiple state tax returns.

It costs $0 for each federal and state return.

Admittedly, Credit Karma Tax isn’t going to offer all of the bells-and-whistles as TurboTax but you can file your taxes for free. This tax platform can also be easy to use if you don’t need live support from a tax expert or a one-on-one personal review from an enrolled agent or CPA.

Some of the Credit Karma Tax features include:

  • Import W-2 data with a smartphone photo
  • Auto-import a prior year tax return from TurboTax, H&R Block or TaxAct
  • File itemized tax returns for free

Credit Karma Tax offers two different tax return guarantees. First, you get a Max Tax Refund Guarantee worth up to $100 when another tax prep software calculates a higher tax refund by filing an amended return. Second, the Accurate Calculations Guarantee reimburses up to $1,000 in IRS and state tax penalties in the unlikely event of miscalculations.

Credit Karma Tax will check your income, tax credits, and deductions for potential tax audit red flags before submitting your return. You can correct any potential issues while filing. If you still get audited, Credit Karma provides free tax audit protection from Tax Protection Plus. This protection assists you with federal and state tax audits for most situations. You will get a personal Case Resolution Specialist (CRS) that can review your documents and provide written correspondence to the tax agency.

Learn more about how to get free tax audit defense and our full Credit Karma Tax review for more.

Get started with Credit Karma Tax

H&R Block: Best for Itemized Returns

In addition to their local branches, H&R Block has feature-rich online tax software that’s easy to use and rivals TurboTax but can be cheaper. You can upload your W-2 by using your smartphone camera. One-on-one an enrolled agent or CPA review is available if you choose an Online Assist plan (up to $80 more per federal return). There’s a free online tax library if you want to self-prepare your return.

Their free online plan supports more tax forms than TurboTax. Unlike TurboTax, H&R Block lets you claim student loan interest, educational fees, unemployment income, and childcare expenses for free.

It can also be cheaper to file an itemized return with H&R Block than with TurboTax. You can download the tax software or schedule an in-person meeting. But the online-only filing option is the most cost-effective – unless you need to make up to five federal e-files for your family.

In addition to the discount prices, H&R Block offers a 4% bonus if you choose to receive your tax refund as a free Amazon gift card. If you don’t need your refund to pay off debt or build up your savings, this payment method is an easy way to boost your spending power.

Below are the prices for the online H&R Block plans.

Free Online

Federal tax return cost: $0

State tax return cost: $0 per state

More basic returns will qualify to file for free with H&R Block than with other competitors. You should consider H&R Block if you have childcare expenses, student loan expenses, or unemployment benefits to report.

H&R Block Free Online supports these slightly-complex tax situations:

  • Child and dependent care expenses
  • Earned income tax credit and child tax credits
  • Student loan interest deduction
  • Tuition and fees statement
  • Unemployment income (Form 1099-G)
  • Clergy with housing allowance or parsonage

The free version includes chat technical support and an online library for your tax questions. You can share your screen to help the agent solve your problem quickly. On-demand access to a tax expert only comes with the premium plans.

Also, the free edition imports your prior-year tax return from most tax software competitors.

Deluxe Online

Federal tax return cost: $49.99

State tax return cost: $44.99 per state
Itemizers will need to use the Deluxe Online version. You will also need to upgrade to this version to deduct home mortgage interest and real estate taxes on a Schedule A form.

Other perks the free version doesn’t come with include:

  • Six years of online storage of tax forms and documents in MyBlock
  • Technical support by phone and chat
  • DeductionPro tool to find qualifying charitable donations

H&R Block will walk you through the potential tax deductions to maximize your tax return.

Learn more about the difference between tax credits and tax deductions.

Premium Online

Federal tax return cost: $69.99

State tax return cost: $44.99 per state

Selling investments and earning rental property income continues requires the Premium Online version. Freelancers and independent contractors with less than $5,000 in income and simple deductions can qualify for this plan and save money by not upgrading to the Self-Employed version.

You will be able to import expenses and mileage from expense tracking apps and use the deductions wizard.

It’s also possible to auto-import your investment documents from select online brokers if you sell investments.

Self-Employed Online

Federal tax return cost: $104.99

State tax return cost: $44.99 per state

The highest-tier Self-Employed Online is necessary when you have these tax return details:

  • Import Uber driver tax information
  • Self-employment or small business income above $5,000
  • Advanced business tax deductions or asset depreciation

You will need to use this version if your self-employment income is greater than $5,000 or you need to claim advanced deductions like asset depreciation.

Get started with Credit Karma Tax

TaxAct: Best Budget Tax Software

There are several low-cost tax prep software options you can choose and TaxAct is one of the best. Filers that sell investments or self-employment income to report will save the most money. But you won’t have on-demand access to a tax expert to answer personal tax questions.

The experience isn’t as fancy as TurboTax or H&R Block but TaxAct provides similar results. If you’re switching from one of these pricey tax prep programs, you can import last year’s return free of charge.

Your TaxAct return also has an accuracy guarantee worth up to $100,000 in the difference between your true tax liability or refund and what TaxAct calculates.

Free

Federal tax return cost: $0

State tax return cost: $0

The free online version of TaxAct is similar to the other self-prepare software options. You can likely file for free if you don’t itemize, sell investments, or earn self-employment income.

Supported tax events include:

  • Education credits for current students
  • Child tax credit
  • Earned income credit

You also get chat and phone technical support and self-help access to an online tax glossary consisting of over 300 tax terms. Another nice perk can be getting assistance with completing your FAFSA for college financial aid.

TaxAct provides up to one year of online access and six years of PDF access to your return for the free prep option and the premium tiers.

Deluxe

Federal tax return cost: $29.95

State tax return cost: $39.95 per state

The Deluxe version is necessary for these tax events:

  • Itemized deductions
  • Child and dependent care
  • Student loan interest
  • Mortgage interest
  • Real estate taxes
  • Unemployment income
  • Health savings account (HSA)
  • Adoption credits

The deduction finder and charitable donations calculators can maximize your returns.

Like the free plan, you get free technical support and online access to the self-help Answer Center library.

Premier

Federal tax return cost: $39.95

State tax return cost: $39.95 per state

The TaxAct Online Premier version is when you sell investments or a house, earn rental property income or have foreign bank and financial accounts. This version also supports royalty and Schedule K-1 income.

You most likely won’t be able to import your brokerage tax forms which can be frustrating. TaxAct does offer a rental property deduction calculator that can be useful.

Self Employed

Federal tax return cost: $74.95

State tax return cost: $49.95 per state

You will need to use the TaxAct Self Employed version for these complex tax situations:

  • Freelance and self-employment income (Form 1099-MISC)
  • Business and farm income
  • Personalized business deductions
  • Depreciation

You also get year-round planning resources to pay your business taxes and quarterly taxes.

Get started with TaxAct.

Visor: Best Place to File Taxes with an Advisor

Visor can be one of your best options if you want a tax preparer to complete your return. You get year-round access to an advisor and pay a flat fee per year.

A basic package costs $299 per year and includes these tax situations:

  • Single or married
  • Dependents
  • W2 income (Form 1099 income costs extra)
  • Interest and dividends
  • Homeownership
  • Itemized deductions
  • Up to two state returns

You can purchase add-on purchases for advanced tax situations for $99 each. The self-employed, international residents, and those who sell investments or earn investment income via Schedule K-1 will need to pay extra.

For instance, if you’re self-employed and sold investments, you will pay $198 plus the $299 base fee.

Depending on your local options, Visor can be cheaper than a local CPA if you have business income to report.

Get started with Visor

How to Choose the Best Tax Software

In addition to looking for the best price to file your taxes and trusting your best friend’s recommendations, you can use these tips to choose the best place to file taxes.

Qualify for Free Tax Returns

There are many tax software platforms to choose from and comparing the options can be time-consuming. The best place to start is by seeing which software is most likely to prepare taxes for free.

Credit Karma Tax is the most likely to offer tax returns. But you can have more options if you’re not itemizing or selling investments that can be easy to use.

Cost to File State Tax Returns

Many online tax prep programs advertise the cost to file a federal return with highly-visible lettering. However, state tax return prep costs can be a little harder to find. If you need to file one or multiple state tax returns, this “hidden fee” can add up quickly.

Compare Advanced Features

Once you have a ballpark estimate of how much it will cost to prepare your taxes, see which software has the best features. For example, spending a few extra dollars to auto-import your financial documents can be worth the time savings.

You might also choose a specific software for on-demand access to a tax expert for your tax questions. Cheaper tax software may only provide tech support when you need help navigating their platform.

Audit Support

Each legit online tax prep software has a guarantee of some kind of cash offer if they don’t deliver the highest tax refund (or lowest tax liability). You should also compare the audit support options that the tax software might offer if your return is subject to an audit.

It’s common for tax prep software to reimburse the corresponding penalties and fees for miscalculations. Each program also looks for tax audit red flags before you e-file.

Some programs also offer audit support but the coverage can vary. You may not get in-person representation but they can provide online advice. Some brands offer add-on audit protection packages and you should read the terms and conditions before buying.

Summary

The best tax software can be different for various tax situations. Many can file for free. Even if you need to pay, you can get many advanced features that make preparing an error-free return easy and affordable.

What is your favorite tax prep software? Are you going to switch to a different platform this year?

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About Josh Patoka

After graduating in $50k with student loans in May 2008 from Virginia Military Institute with a B.A. International Studies and Political Science with a minor in Spanish (I studied abroad in Sevilla, Spain for 3 months), Josh decided to sell his soul for seven years by working in the transportation industry to get out of debt ASAP and focus on doing something else with a better work-life balance.

He is a father of three and has been writing about (almost) everything personal finance since 2015. You can also find him at his own blog Money Buffalo where he shares his personal experience of becoming debt-free (twice) and taking a 50%+ pay cut when he changed careers.

Today, Josh relishes the flexibility of being self-employed and debt-free and encourages others to pursue their dreams. Josh enjoys spending his free time reading books and spending time with his wife and three children.

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  1. Leslie Watson says

    I have used TaxAct and TurboTax in the past many times. However, when I started having 1099 income years ago, I had to either find another alternative (I like FREE), or start filing by mail again… So, a friend suggested freetaxusa.com. It is awesome and has a whole lot more FREE options than both TaxAct and TurboTax!! (And it saves your information year to year with no fee! What????) Try it out!

    And to be honest, for the first 3 years, I did my taxes on both TurboTax and FreeTaxUSA to see if they were the same, and aha! they were!!!

  2. Sonia Tian says

    Last year, I first tried to file tax myself, I first tried TurboTax, but felt not easy. I am self-employed and had a part time, so it is quite complicated. After I tried freetaxusa.com, I also watched online tutoring, wow, I did it, with little difficult. I think I like freetaxusa.com better.

    • Jim Wang says

      Thanks for sharing your experiences – I think some of those trickier situations (two sources of income, one of which is self employment) can be a challenge especially if the software doesn’t do a good job asking the right questions.

  3. Cristina Steel says

    We are ranchers and home business owners, we have always used Turbo Tax. This year 2021 – The online software is lacking on questions and forms. I review my 2020 & 2019 taxes to double check etc. and Turbo Tax isn’t populating Schedule K and others I have to manually pull it them. I cannot trust it this year. Also my daughter’s the IRS has no record efiled taxes, she called them directly & TurboTax says Federal was accepted. Her stimulus is not being direct deposited also because of TurboTax issues. I in search of another option this year for farmers/ranchers.

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