Tax season is here. You’ve probably got a flurry of W-2s and 1099s blanketing your desk, and a deep sense of dread in your belly. April 18th is only two months way, and the sooner you get your return in, the sooner you get your refund.
There are a plethora of options available for reconciling your yearly receipts with Uncle Sam: plain old paper, an expensive accountant, online tax software, and, now-an app on your phone or tablet.
TurboTax, H&R Block, and TaxSlayer-the “big three” of digital tax filing-all offer mobile apps to e-file your taxes. But what do these apps offer that you can’t get from their desktop brethren?
How tax apps work
All three mobile tax apps use your camera or tablet’s smartphone to upload information to your return-for TurboxTax and H&R Block, it’s your W-2s, and for TaxSlayer, it’s your driver’s license, so that you don’t have to input your name and address by hand. If your phone’s camera isn’t up to snuff, it could be a frustrating experience, and you might end up putting the information in by hand, which is tedious, and also probably more likely to produce errors. (And errors are really what you don’t want.)
Obviously, you also need Internet access, either through your data plan or secure Wi-Fi, to use these apps. The Week recommends using a secure device and network to avoid tax fraud. Translation: Don’t use your local coffee shop’s Wi-Fi, even if they have a really secure password like “nameofcoffeeshop81”.
Who should use them
There are restrictions on who can e-file at all. CIO reports SnapTax, TurboTax’s older e-filing mobile app, had clear restrictions. If you made over $80,000 a year beyond a W-2 job, had dependents, or owned property, you could not use SnapTax. While that’s for an older version, the concept still applies: If your taxes are too complicated, you might want to stick with the desktop version, or even go to an accountant. (As The Wirecutter found, even the best tax software often can’t handle a truly idiosyncratic return.)
That said, all of these apps claim they can handle complex returns. But they’re still probably best for people with the simplest taxes-those who would probably file a 1040EZ if they were doing it on paper.
The options available
You’ve probably seen the TurboTax commercials about their improved app. It’s known for its user-friendly step-by-step process, where users answer simple questions to complete their return. If you get stuck, you can connect live with a financial expert to answer specific questions immediately.
Additionally, TurboTax offers supplemental apps once you’ve actually filed. MyTaxRefund checks your e-file status and tax refund timing, whether you filed with TurboTax or not. TaxCasher quickly estimates your tax refund. ItsDeductible helps track donations year-round, but is only available for iOS.
H&R Block Tax Preparation offers similar features to TurboTax. However, this app doesn’t offer live online support, but will help you schedule an appointment with a tax expert in a nearby location. Their supplemental app, MyBlock, allows users to upload receipts and other financial documents, estimate refunds, access previous tax returns, and more.
According to The Fiscal Times, H&R Block experienced a 200 percent increase in mobile browser activity from 2014 to 2015. Sixty percent of that came from phones, the other 40 percent from tablets.
Online reviews at the Apple App Store, however, suggest H&R Block’s app might need some updating, as many users have reported crashes. Keep that in mind, especially if you’ve got newer equipment, like the iPhone 6.
TaxSlayer offers similar features compared to TurboTax and H&R Block apps, but excludes live support. However, if your taxes become complex between interest, dividends, or retirement income, the app will redirect you to the desktop site.