Your guide to Form 1040

The basic income tax form, line by line

Derek Silva

By

Derek Silva

Derek Silva

Senior Editor & Personal Finance Expert

Derek is a former senior editor and personal finance expert at Policygenius, where he specialized in financial data, taxes, estate planning, and investing. Previously, he was a staff writer at SmartAsset.

Updated|17 min read

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IRS Form 1040 is the basic federal income tax form that almost every taxpayer in the U.S. must use. There are two main exceptions: nonresident aliens use Form 1040-NR and seniors have the option to file Form 1040-SR, which is nearly identical but has language tailored to taxpayers aged 65 and older. Certain individuals also don’t need to file a tax return, such as some single filers whose earned income is less than the standard deduction. Certain credits and tax deductions can be claimed right on Form 1040, but you will most likely have to fill out and attach other forms to prove you can claim them. Some kinds of income, like self-employment income and rental income, also require you to complete and attach additional forms.

Key takeaways

  • All taxpayers can use the same Form 1040, except nonresident aliens.

  • Form 1040 is just 38 lines and two pages long, but you need to attach additional forms if you have certain types of income, tax credits, or tax deductions.

  • You can start filing your 2021 taxes in early 2022, and they must be filed before Tax Day on April 18, 2022.

  • All federal income taxes go to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), but most states have their own income taxes and forms.

What is Form 1040?

Form 1040 is the main federal tax form and almost all people need it in order to file federal income taxes. The form allows you to report how much income you earned in 2021, and then it walks through the process of finding how much of your income you actually have to pay tax on, and whether you should receive a tax refund or pay a tax bill. The Form 1040 is a two-page form that’s greatly simplified from years past because of the 2017 tax reform.

You can also claim certain deductions and credits right on Form 1040, such as the recovery rebate credit, which you claim if you didn’t receive your 2021 coronavirus stimulus checks. However, most taxpayers also need to fill out and attach other forms (sometimes called schedules). The additional tax forms that attach to your 1040 will allow you to more clearly report certain types of income, claim certain deductions or tax credits, or provide any other information that’s necessary to share with the IRS for this year’s taxes.

Related: 53 tax credits and deductions you can take in 2021

Who should use Form 1040-SR?

When you file your 2021 taxes, which you file in early 2022, you will most likely use the standard version of Form 1040. If you are 65 year old or older, you have the option to use Form 1040-SR instead of the usual Form 1040. Both forms are nearly identical, except that Form 1040-SR has larger font and it has more information about the expanded standard deductions available to seniors. Again, using Form 1040-SR is optional and allows you to report all the same information as the standard 1040 forms. The instructions are also the same for both.

Who should use Form 1040-NR

If you are a nonresident alien, you must use Form 1040-NR, which is very similar to the regular Form 1040, but is more tailored to the information and tax forms required by a nonresident alien when filing federal income tax in the U.S.

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When to file Form 1040

Tax season 2022 is between early 2022 and April 18, 2022 (Tax Day). If you need more time to file your taxes you can request a six-month tax extension, which gives you until October 15, 2022, to file. Everyone automatically gets an extension if they request one on time. Just keep in mind that if you owe a tax bill, you still need to pay it (or a reasonable estimate) by Tax Day. The filing extension only gives you more time to file, not more time to pay. Failing to pay your bill on time will result in penalties and interest.

How to file Form 1040

The easiest and most secure way to file your taxes is electronically through an online tax filing service. With e-filing, you don’t have to worry about anything getting lost in the mail. It’s easier because online filing software can guide you through the filing process even if you don’t know a lot about taxes. E-filing can also help prevent mistakes. The IRS estimates that 21% of paper returns have errors, while fewer than 1% of e-filed returns have mistakes. E-filing also takes the IRS significantly less time to process and if you also opt for direct deposit of your tax refund, you could receive your money in a few weeks instead of the months it may take a physical refund check to reach you through the mail. You can also e-file amended tax returns starting with your 2020 taxes.

Unsure of the best way to file? Start with our complete guide to filing taxes.

How to file Form 1040 for a previous year

If you have back taxes — taxes from a previous year — you can find previous years’ tax forms and instructions on the IRS website, but you may want to work with a tax preparer if you have any questions or issues.

For tax returns for 2017 or earlier, you’ll notice that Form 1040 used to have three versions: Form 1040-EZ for simple tax returns, Form 1040-A for tax filers with additional tax credits, and the full Form 1040 for more complex situations like filers who itemize deductions. (These are in addition to 1040-NR and 1040-NR-EZ for nonresident aliens.)

When submitting your return, you have to mail the physical form to the IRS. You cannot e-file a federal income tax return from a previous year, though some online filing services may allow you to fill in a previous year’s tax return that you can print out and mail.

Need copies of old tax forms, like a 1099 or W-2 form? Get those from the IRS by requesting a free tax transcript.

Where to mail Form 1040

If you’re filing back taxes or if you otherwise want to file a paper return, where you mail a paper form depends on which state you live in. There are also different mailing addresses for people who are receiving a tax refund and for those who are including a check to make a tax payment. Check the Form 1040 instructions for the most up-to-date mailing addresses.

How to fill out Form 1040 in 2022, line by line 

IRS Form 1040 is a relatively simple two-page form. There are a few sections at the beginning for personal and filing information, followed by 38 numbered lines and then a signature section. You will need to add other forms to report some types of income and to claim certain tax credits or deductions. If you’re e-filing, your filing service should walk you through the entire process, but it’s still useful to understand exactly what you’re doing when you file.

Personal information

The first section of Form 1040 is for personal information. This includes your tax filing status, name, address, and Social Security number (SSN). There’s also room for your spouse’s information in case you’re filing a joint return. If you have an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) instead of an SSN, enter that on the SSN line.

If you would like to donate $3 to the presidential election campaign fund, you can opt to do so. Donations are divided equally between the Democratic and Republican nominee in the next general election.

Cryptocurrency question

Next you need to check a box — yes or no — to indicate whether or not you sold, purchased, received, exchanged, or otherwise owned any virtual currency, like bitcoin, ether (Ethereum), or XRP (Ripple) during the year. If you select yes, you may need to pay capital gains taxes.

Read more about how to file taxes with cryptocurrency.

Standard deduction

Next there is a section about your standard deduction. The amount of your standard deduction varies based on your filing status, age, and whether or not you’re blind. This section of the 1040 has seven boxes to help determine the amount of your standard deduction. Check the ones that apply to you. Joint filers should check the boxes that apply to either spouse.

Dependents

The section on your dependents has room for each of their SSNs, their relationship to you, and then a box you can check if the dependent qualifies you for the child tax credit or credit for other dependents.

Learn more about who you can claim as a dependent.

Determine your taxable income

Lines 1 through 15 help you calculate your taxable income for the year. Each line asks you to enter the amount you made from a different type of income. Then you will make any necessary adjustments before determining how much of your income was actually taxable. If a line doesn't apply to you, either leave it blank or write in a zero. You should also round all values to the nearest dollar (whether up or down) before writing them on a line.

Line 1 is for all income reported on your W-2 forms. Attach your W-2 forms, unless you’re e-filing.

Line 2 has two parts, one for tax-exempt interest (mainly municipal bonds) and one for taxable interest. Taxable interest includes income from a 1099-INT or 1099-OID. You will need to attach Schedule B if you had $1,500 or more of taxable interest.

Line 3 is where you list income from dividends. Line 3a is for qualified dividends and 3b is for ordinary dividends. You will need to attach Schedule B if you had more than $1,500 of ordinary dividends.

Learn more about the types of 1099 forms.

Line 4 is for distributions you made from an individual retirement account (IRA). Line 4a is where you write all your income from IRAs, and line 4b is for your taxable IRA income. (You generally don’t need to pay income tax on Roth IRA distributions but you may in the case of certain early withdrawals.)

Line 5 is for income from pensions or annuities, with line 5a covering your total income from these sources and line 5b covering your taxable income.

Line 6 is for your income from Social Security benefits. Again, part a is for the total income and part b is for the taxable amount. Include any Railroad Retirement Board benefits on this line.

Read more about Social Security payment schedules.

Line 7 asks about your capital gains or losses from the past year. Two common reasons to have capital gains are that you sold stock investments or you sold your house. You likely received a 1099-B or 1099-S if you had capital gains, and you will probably need to attach Schedule D to your 1040. To learn more, try our guide to capital gains tax.

Line 8 covers any other income you had during the year. This includes everything not included in the previous lines. If you did have other income, you will also need to attach Schedule 1.

Line 9 asks you to add the values on lines 1 through 8. The sum is your total income, also known as your gross income.

Line 10 is where you consider any applicable income adjustments. Income adjustments include certain expenses you incurred that are eligible to exclude from your gross income. You can calculate income adjustments on Schedule 1. Common examples include alimony payments, educator expenses, the deduction for IRA contributions, and the student loan interest deduction.

Line 11 requires you to subtract your income adjustments (line 10) from your total income (line 9) to find your adjusted gross income (AGI). AGI is simply your income after factoring in adjustments, and it’s the value used to calculate your actual taxable income and your eligibility for most tax deductions.

Line 12 has 3 parts for 2021. First, 12a asks you to write in either the amount of your standard deduction or your itemized deductions. Most people will take the standard deduction, which is listed on the form to the left of this line (your standard deduction is higher if you're over age 65 or blind). Only about 10% of taxpayers can benefit from itemizing. If you itemize, complete Schedule A to find the total value of your itemized deductions. Next, line 12b is for the charitable contribution deduction, which is worth up to $300 ($600 for married individuals filing jointly) if you claim the standard deduction. Then line 12c asks you to add the total of 12a and 12b.

Line 13 applies to anyone claiming the qualified business income deduction. You will need to attach either Form 8995 or Form 8995-A to take the QBI deduction.

Line 14 asks you to add up line 12 and 13 for the total value of your deductions from the previous three lines.

Line 15 is where you finally find your taxable income, which is your adjusted income (line 11) minus line 14. If your taxable income is zero or less, write zero on this line.

Calculate your annual tax bill

Lines 16 through 24 help you calculate what the form calls your “total tax” — how much tax you owed for the year before factoring in certain tax credits. This section also considers the child tax credit. (Credits directly reduce how much tax you owe. Learn more about the difference between credits and deductions.)

Line 16 has three boxes, which you should mark if you had certain types of income not included earlier. These include a child’s income that you’re claiming as your own (complete and attach Form 8814); a lump-sum distribution from an IRA, pension plan, or tax-advantaged account (complete and attach Form 4972); and certain other types of income you had, like any excess advance payments from education credits or the health coverage tax credit (HCTC). See the 1040 instructions for types of income to include. (Remember that the lump-sum disbursement from a life insurance policy is tax free.)

Line 17 asks you to write in the value from Schedule 2 line 3, which you should have completed if you owe any alternative minimum tax (AMT) or received excess advance premium tax credit (APTC) repayment.

Line 18 is just for adding up lines 16 and 17 and shows certain additional tax you may owe for 2021.

Line 19 is for claiming any nonrefundable child tax credit you have and the credit for other (non-child) dependents. The credit for other dependents is not a nonrefundable tax credit, but the regular CTC was made fully refundable for 2021 by President Biden's American Rescue plan. (This expanded credit will not apply for 2022 taxes unless a new law makes it permanent.) You will need to complete and attach Form 8862.

Line 20 instructs you to write in the value on Schedule 3, line 8, if you used that form. The first half of Schedule 3 is where you calculate certain tax credits you may qualify for, including the saver’s credit (retirement savings contributions credit), credit for child and dependent care expenses, education credits like the lifetime learning credit, or the foreign tax credit.

Line 21 asks you to add your child tax credit (line 19) and your Schedule 3 credits (line 20).

Line 22 instructs you to subtract line 21 (your total tax credits) from line 18 (additional taxes you may owe).

Line 23 requires you to write in certain other additional taxes you paid, like self-employment tax, as found on Schedule 2, line 21.

Line 24 shows you your total tax after you add lines 22 and 23. This is the amount of tax you actually owe for the year, before factoring how much you already paid or other tax credits.

Claim credits and calculate tax liability

Line 25 is where you write down how much income tax has already been withheld from your pay. Line 25a is for tax that was withheld and reported to you on a W-2. Line 25b is any income withheld according to your 1099 forms. Line 25c is for any other tax forms you have that say income tax was withheld. Add all three lines up and write the total on 25d.

Line 26 asks you to write in the total of any estimated tax payments you made for the tax year, plus the value of any tax payments you made in the previous tax year that carry over to this return's tax year.

Line 27 is where you write in the value of your earned income tax credit, if you qualify. The EITC was expanded this year because of the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021. Line 27 also lets you state any nontaxable combat pay election and what your 2019 earned income was (this income may help determine the value of credits that were expanded during the coronavirus pandemic.)

Line 28 is expanded for 2021 taxes. It’s for filers who qualify for the refundable child tax credit in 2021 — which is most people who are receiving the CTC this year — as well as anyone claiming the additional child tax credit (ACTC) — which fewer people will claim this year because of the expanded CTC. You’ll also need to complete and attach Schedule 8812.

Line 29 asks you to write the value of your American opportunity tax credit (AOTC), if you qualify. Use Form 8863 to calculate your AOTC value.

Line 30 is where you can claim the recovery rebate credit, which may apply to anyone who didn’t receive the full value of their March 2021 stimulus checks. You do not qualify for the recovery rebate credit if you already received the full benefit amount of $1,400 plus $1,400 per dependent from the third round of economic impact payments. To see how much RRC you qualify for, use the Recovery Rebate Credit Worksheet in the Form 1040 instructions.

Line 31 asks you to write in the amount of credits and payments you should receive according to part two of Schedule 3. The credits on Schedule 3 are less common, but this year they do include the qualified sick and family leave credits, which are for people who missed work because they had COVID-19 or needed to care for a family member with COVID-19. For more on this new credit, read our article on what you need to know for your 2021 taxes.

Line 32 asks you to sum lines 27a and 28 through 31. The result is the total value of your refundable tax credits plus certain tax payments you’ve already made.

Line 33 asks you to add the values on 25d, 26, and 32. The result is your total tax payments for the 2021 tax year (including the value of your refundable tax credits).

Calculating your tax refund or bill

The next five lines are where you write in the total amount of your refund or tax bill. If the total tax you paid (line 33) is more than the total tax you owed (line 24), you will get a refund. Calculate your refund amount by subtracting line 24 from 33 and then writing the result on line 34.

Line 35 is for direct deposit of your refund. You will write in your bank account number, the bank routing number, and what kind of account it is (checking or saving). You can divide the refund among multiple accounts or opt for a paper check with Form 8888.

Learn more: Should you be using a checking or savings account?

Line 36 is for anyone who wants to apply some or all of their previous year's refund to their current year's estimated taxes.

Line 37 applies to anyone who owes money. Subtract line 33 from 24 to determine how much you owe. Any penalty you owe on that bill goes on line 38. You generally owe a penalty if your tax bill is at least $1,000 or if the tax you paid during the year was less than 90% of the total tax you owed. The Form 1040 instructions can help you calculate your tax penalty.

There is also a “Third Party Designee” section here to write in the contact information of any individual the IRS is allowed to contact to discuss questions about your tax return, like about any missing forms you may have or questions the IRS has about what you wrote on your form. You don’t have to name anyone, but you may want to if someone, like a CPA, is helping you do your taxes or otherwise manage your finances. Your designee could include most people, like a friend, relative, accountant, or someone with a financial power of attorney designation

Sign, seal, deliver

The final part of the 1040 form is for signatures. You will sign, date, and then write your occupation. Any tax preparer you worked with will also sign. Anyone mailing their return can find the proper mailing address on the IRS’s website.

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Author

Senior Editor & Personal Finance Expert

Derek Silva

Senior Editor & Personal Finance Expert

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Derek is a former senior editor and personal finance expert at Policygenius, where he specialized in financial data, taxes, estate planning, and investing. Previously, he was a staff writer at SmartAsset.

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