The Difference Between Tax Transcripts & Tax Returns

Tax transcripts are a cheap and easy way to prove your income.

Tax transcripts are a cheap and easy way to prove your income.

Whether you are buying your dream home or going back to school, there are many situations where you have to prove your income. Your choice between a transcript and a return depends on the situation you are facing. Mortgage lenders require tax transcripts before approving your application. Students facing financial aid verification need to provide a tax transcript to verify their income or that of their parents. Certain legal proceedings such as adoptions require certified copies of your tax returns. Tax transcripts are cheaper and easier to acquire, but only tax returns can be certified by the IRS.

Tax Transcripts

Tax transcripts show limited information regarding your tax returns. The IRS offers two transcripts: tax return transcripts and tax account transcripts. The tax return transcript shows most of the line items from your tax return as well as accompanying schedules and forms. Tax return transcripts do not reflect any changes you make to your return after it was filed. The tax account transcript shows your basic information such as filing status, return type, adjusted gross income and taxable income. Tax account transcripts show changes made after your return was filed. Tax transcripts are available for the current year and the previous three years.

Tax Returns

Copies of tax returns show exactly what you filed. The copied return includes all documents filed, including your W-2, 1099s, schedules and forms. Tax returns may be certified by the IRS to prove their authenticity for legal proceedings. Copies of tax returns are available for the current year and the previous six years. Requests for joint returns do not need to be signed by both spouses.


Ordering a tax transcript requires filling out Form 4506-T with the IRS. You may fill out the form using its online request or you may fill out the paper form and mail it in. You can also call the IRS at 800-908-9946 to order a transcript by phone. Copies of tax returns are available by filling out Form 4506 Request for Copy of Tax Return and mailing it to the IRS processing center.

Fees & Processing Times

Tax transcripts are available free. A tax transcript takes approximately five to 10 days to process. Tax returns are $57 for each year requested and take up to 60 calendar days to process. Make your check or money order payable to the United States Treasury. Include your Social Security number or employer identification number on your payment.

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About the Author

Leigh Thompson began writing in 2007 and specializes in creating content for websites. She has been published online in various capacities. Thompson has an associate degree in information technology from the University of Kansas and is working on a bachelor's degree in business and personal finance.

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