IRS enables Americans to download their tax transcripts over the Internet

UPDATE: Learn how to download your tax transcript from IRS.gov.

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Earlier today, at the White House Education Datapalooza, an official from the United States Department of the Treasury informed a packed theater and livestream that students, parents and citizens would finally be able to do something simple and profoundly useful over the Internet: download a transcript of their tax return from the Internal Revenue Service.

“I am very excited to announce that the IRS has just launched, this week, a transcript application which will give taxpayers the ability to view, print, and download tax transcripts,” said Katherine Sydor, a policy advisor in the Office of Consumer Policy of the Treasury, “making it easier for student borrowers to access tax records he or she might need to submit loan applications or grant applications.” [VIDEO]

Previously, filers could request a copy of the transcript (not the full return) but would have to wait 5-10 business days to receive it in the mail. For people who needed more rapid access for applications, the delay could be critical. A White House fact sheet subsequently confirmed the news, under the rubric of “streamlining application paperwork,” and a quick follow up with an official secured the correct URL for the new IRS Web application to get a tax transcript.

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I created an account, which involved jumping through the  hoops familiar from establishing online access bank accounts — choosing pass phrase, pass image and security questions — and then answered a number of questions that made it pretty clear that the IRS knew exactly who I was and where I had lived. (It’s not clear whether they hold this information or used a credit bureau, from the consumer-side.)

When I tried to actually download the transcript, though, I ran into some issues: first, a browser error in Chrome — “This XML file does not appear to have any style information associated with it. The document tree is shown below.” Using Firefox, however, I was able to at least get the page where I could choose from various years of transcripts.

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Unfortunately, clicking any of the links delivered a file that my Macbook was unable to parse. I was, however, able to log into IRS.gov and easily download last year’s tax return with one click to my iPhone. Success!

While the technical problems I ran into suggest that Apple computer users might run into some issues, I have a funny feeling that (the vast majority) of people who are running Internet Explorer on a Windows machine will fare better.

The fact that American citizens could not access their own tax returns online in 2014 might seem jarring but, until this week, that was the status quo. This advance represents the sort of somewhat mundane but important shift that the Obama administration’s approach to digital government have enabled over the past five years.

While the troubles behind the botched launch of Healthcare.gov have shaken the confidence of many citizens in the capacity of this administration to deliver effective digital services and months of headlines about digital surveillance by the National Security Agency have diminished trust in government overall, the ability of the “tech surge” to fix the site and the success of the technology team at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau not only offers a guide for how to avoid similar issues but highlights a less salacious and boring reality that will generate no headlines nor heated rhetoric on cable news shows: most public officials and civil servants are quietly working to deliver better customer service for citizens.

Being able to download a tax transcript online is not, however, without risks. The Internal Revenue Service will need to continue to be vigilant about security. The new functionality will almost certainly inspire fraudsters to create mockups of the government website that look similar and then send phishing emails to consumers, urging them to “log in” to fake websites.

Perhaps most problematically, people will download tax transcripts to mobile devices and laptops and then not take steps to protect them with encryption. If you do download your transcripts or personal health information, make sure to also install full disk encryption on every machine you own. Leaving your files unprotected there is like leaving the door to your house unlocked with your tax returns and medical records on the kitchen table.

I have asked the IRS for comment on the new feature, browser and operating system and security guidance and will update this post if and when I receive any.

Update: comment from the IRS on follows.

How much time and technical resources did the IRS invest in deploying the feature? Has the IRS increased the capacity of the website for more demand?

From establishing the business case and receiving funding plus approval to start the work to implementation took approximately one year. Additional time was spent in ideation, innovation, and confirming requirements of the product prior to receiving approval.

I had trouble downloading my transcript on an Apple computer using Chrome and Firefox. (I was able to get it through my iPhone.) What browsers and operating systems does the new function officially support?

As a web application, Get Transcript is supported on most modern OS/browser combinations. While there may be intermittent issues due to certain end-user configurations, IRS has not implemented any restrictions against certain browsers or operating systems. We are continuing to work open issues as they are identified and validated.

A side note: For the best user experience, taxpayers may want to try up-to-date versions of internet explorer and a supported version of Microsoft windows; however, that is certainly not a requirement.)

Does the IRS have any guidance for ensuring that Americans connect securely to the website and then protect tax returns on their home computers once they have downloaded them?

The IRS has made good progress on oversight and enhanced security controls in the area of information technology. With state-of-the-art technology as the foundation for our portal (e.g. irs.gov), we continue to focus on protecting the PII of all taxpayers when communicating with the IRS.

However, security is a two-way street with both the IRS and users needing to take steps for a secure experience. On our end, our security is comparable to leaders in private industry.

Our IRS2GO app has successfully completed a security assessment and received approval to launch by our cybersecurity organization after being scanned for weaknesses and vulnerabilities.

Any personally identifiable information (PII) or sensitive information transmitted to the IRS through IRS2Go for refund status or tax record requests uses secure communication channels that meet or exceed federal requirements for encryption. No PII is passed back to the taxpayer through IRS2GO and no PII is stored on the smartphone by the application.

When using our popular Where’s My Refund? application, taxpayers may notice just a few of our security measures. The URL for Where’s My Refund? begins with https. Just like in private industry, the “s” is a key indicator that a web user should notice indicating you are in a “secure session.” Taxpayers may also notice our message that we recommend they close their browser when finished accessing your refund status.

As we become a more mobile society and able to link to the internet while we’re on the go, we remind taxpayers to take precautions to protect themselves from being victimized, including using secure networks, firewalls, virus protection and other safeguards.

We always recommend taxpayers check with the Federal Trade Commission for the latest on reporting incidents of identity theft. You can find more information on our website, including tips if you believe you have become the victim of identity theft.

Does the IRS have any plans to provide Americans with access or insight to estimated tax returns online in the future? Now that we have the ability to establish user accounts, would it ever be possible, for instance, for people with simple taxes (1040EZ, etc) to log in, review an estimated return, make any required edits, and then e-file it on IRS.gov?

IRS: The IRS is considering a number of new proposals that may become a part of the online services roadmap some time in the future. This may include a taxpayer account where up to date status could be securely reviewed by the account owner.

Note: This post has been updated throughout to make it clear that the IRS has provided online access to tax transcripts, not the entire return. You can read up on the difference between a tax transcript and tax return here.

22 thoughts on “IRS enables Americans to download their tax transcripts over the Internet

  1. Pingback: You Can Now Download Your Tax Returns From The IRS | TechCrunch

  2. What Information is required to create an account? What prevents someone from creating an account for information that people or businesses may already have, such as address, social security number, date of birth, etc?

    • As I noted in the post, the questions are quite similar to those posed by a bank, including several that are based upon where you have lived and worked. If someone has a complete enough profile of you to know that level of detail — and it is a considerable amount of personal information — it’s theoretically possible that they could create an account.

  3. Pingback: Weekend Reading: Open Data Philippines, Now Open | Socialgence

  4. I am glad you mentioned that you had similar problems with printing the transcripts from a Mac. Make me remain sane that I am not the only one. I also could not print the transcript in chrome, using Macbook Pro. Had is download an XML file that read: “This page contains the following errors:
    error on line 1 at column 1: Document is empty
    error on line 1 at column 1: Encoding error
    Below is a rendering of the page up to the first error.”

  5. I just attempted to get my transcripts online by using my Android phone, clicked on the link for my 2013 return, downloaded the pdf file, but when i tried to open it, it said it wasn’t a valid pdf file! I used Adobe Reader, so i downloaded another pdf reader, but it did the same thing! So what gives? Any help?

    • How long does it take the IRS to post the 2013 transcript? They have this new “toy” that we the people paid for anyway, when will it work. I need the 2013 transcript for a purchase!

  6. For the last few days I have been unable to get a student tax transcript online. The university I am attending requires a copy as a supplement to my FASFA application. The website indicates that there is a problem try again later. Tried again and it would not allow me to register – locked out for 24 hours due to an incorrect street address. I have seen online that others have been having problems with the online request for 2013 tax transcript. Also the website would not allow me to request a mailed copy. I have read the website has been having problems because of the high traffic? I tried using just the house number for the address line and not include the street name. This also did not work. On another occasion it said that my name was incorrect. Therefore thought the site wanted the middle initial after the first name as it is listed on the copy of my tax return. I decided to try connecting with someone on the website via their Chat feature. After a 28-minute wait, I was directed to another site that also did not work. I will try again tomorrow after waiting another 24-hour lockout period.

  7. My parents and I have been trying to access our 2013 tax return transcripts for the past few weeks. I need these transcripts for my financial aid for college.
    We first tried creating an online account, and the registration process would not accept our address as valid. We tried several times over the course of two weeks, and got locked out each time with no success at getting our transcripts. Then we called the IRS about the problem, but they weren’t able to help us at all with the problem and didn’t seem to be bothered about it either. We tried for another week to open an online account- same outcome. We called the IRS a second time- no help. We also tried the 1-800 number for ordering our transcripts, but the other end was not able to access our accounts and hung up on us. Why is this online account giving us and also many other tax-payers so much trouble? It sounds like many people are not able to create accounts to access their transcripts. This is bad news for many university students,, as we NEED those transcripts in order to get our financial aid.
    We need the IRS technicians who made this online account to get on the problem and fix it! Many students need these transcripts desperately for our financial aid, and time is running out.

  8. I had similar problems parsing the xhtml files that I downloaded from this site. However, changing the extension from xhtml to pdf allowed me to view the content of these files.

    • Thanks, this worked for me…BTW, I really feel like we need to collectively jump down the throats of the bureaus who can’t figure out how to properly link us to a download of a frikkin’ PDF.
      This is MUCH WORSE than the Obamacare rollout, because it affects so many more people who rightfully expect SO MUCH more of an agency that has been caught spending lavishly on their yearly ‘retreats’.
      They expect so much more of us, we should feel right to a)expect them to do their damn jobs, b)not waste tons of our money on themselves, and c)present options in their offices and website that facilitate the tax process, including not forcing us to jump through hoops to get this stuff working ourselves.
      This was bullshit.

  9. Pingback: [FAQ] How do I download a tax transcript from IRS.gov? | E Pluribus Unum

  10. Finally A solution! If you downloaded the file and received an Error Message!

    1) Make sure you have the latest Adobe and select it in your Windows Start Menu
    2) Select Adobe from your programs
    3) In Adobe’s Select PDF File box, click on the downloaded file and select all files instead of the prompted All supported files(*.pdf) in the lower right hand corner
    4) File should appear

  11. Well, here it is September of 2014 and the system didn’t work for me. The pdf file was obviously way too small to be valid (19 kb) and of course didn’t open. I was using the latest version of Firefox on a PC running Win7. After three failed attempts, I switched to latest version of IE and got an error message much earlier in the process. Total frustration. And then, try to get a live person on the phone at IRS! If they were a private business, they’d be out of business.

  12. I just attempted to negotiate the account creation process on the IRS website. It was the buggiest web form I have ever encountered. First I was unable to scroll on the page when fields went outside the bottom window margin. i worked around that by using the tab button. Second the rules for creating a password are self-contradictory indicating that you can and cannot use the ‘@’ symbol. Half the time clicking ‘Continue’ generated an error and I had to start over. The designers of this web form should be ashamed.

  13. Pingback: 17 million tax transcripts downloaded online through IRS feature, reducing offline request by 40% | E Pluribus Unum

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