Filing taxes can be confusing. Can you deduct healthcare expenses? What are the rules about claiming dependent children? With all of the highly specific regulations, tax preparation is its own area of expertise. Tax preparation software helps demystify the process, but only if you find the best online tax service. We know you don’t have the time to explore every option, so we’ve done some of the work for you. This quick guide explores the pros and cons of some of the most widely used tax help software platforms, so you don’t need to spend hours reading tax program reviews.

Before you can choose, you need to know what type of software you need. There are desktop programs and online filing, and some companies only offer one or the other. Online versions streamline tax filing in 2017 because you don’t need to install any software and can access your return from any device. Desktop versions offer a bit more security by keeping all of your data locally on a single machine.

In addition to online versus desktop, you need to know which of the best tax companies offer services that will work for you. When you’re filing a standard return with just a W-2 to report income and limited deductions, you can probably use a basic or free version, depending on your income level. If you make too much money, own a house, take on some contract work, claim your kids, include rental income, trade on the stock market or any other activities that can complicate your return, you’ll likely need a more comprehensive filing option — and it’s likely to cost a bit more. Before you can choose the best tax preparation software in 2017 for your situation, you need to know what services you need and the pricing.

This guide will help you compare so you can find the best tax return service on the market, at the best possible price.

TurboTax

Powered by Intuit, TurboTax is an industry giant that’s regularly recognized as the best professional tax preparation software available. It offers one of the most comprehensive packages around, although it is not a discount service. Every user, even those using the Federal Free Edition, can take advantage of these features:

  • Mobile apps: Access all of the TurboTax website features through an Android or iOS app.
  • Pay filing fees with your refund: Instead of paying upfront for your return, you can choose to pay any filing fees out of your refund for an additional fee.
  • Real-time refund display: See what changes to your filing do to your return as you enter data.
  • Automatic information transfer to state returns: Avoid spending hours re-entering information on your state return with this auto-fill option.
  • Audit support: Use a free phone consultation to discuss any IRS correspondence with a tax professional.

Packages and Pricing

  • Federal Free Edition — Free — This plan is perfect for anyone with a very simple return. It offers both federal and state filing at no cost, but it doesn’t support all, or even most, schedules. It does include W-2 importing, Earned Income Tax Credit support, help with Affordable Care Act forms, credit and deduction checks, access to forums to ask questions, and the SmartLook chat feature, which you can use to discuss your return with an expert.
  • PLUS — $29.99 for federal and $36 for a state return — If you’d like to use the PLUS plan, simply start filling out a free form and accept the upgrade offer. It includes all the features offered for a free federal return and some convenient upgrades. Get automatic transfers for previously filed returns, import information from another tax service, get more information about tax filing with the ExplainWhy feature, enjoy cloud storage to keep your attached documents in one place and get continued access to your return through October 2017.
  • Deluxe — $54.99, but on sale for $34.99 for federal returns — If you itemize deductions and/or report miscellaneous income, this plan offers a range of services. When filing a Schedule A, you’ll need to upgrade to this plan. When you do, you’ll get all of the features of the lower-priced plans, as well as support to log 1099 forms and access to previous tax returns.
  • Premier — $79.99, on sale for $54.99 — With Premier, you can add on support for Schedules B, D and E. This includes filing for dividend interest income, capital gains/losses, income from rental properties or pass-through entities.
  • Self-Employed — $114.99, on sale for $89.99 — For business owners, or anyone else who files a Schedule C, this is the right package. Not only does it include all of the rest of TurboTax features, it also offers a year of bookkeeping software to help track deductions and expenses like mileage, phone expenses, home office deductions and more.

H&R Block

Combining both online and brick-and-mortar service locations, H&R Block has become one of the most recognizable brands in tax preparation. The convenience of being able to go online or in-person has helped make this one of the best tax services on the market. Some of the features included in their tax software in 2017 are:

  • Free chat with support: Unlimited access to chat with tech support staff for troubleshooting help and service questions. It’s available Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. CST.
  • Updated refund info in real time: See refund estimates that change along with information you input. Get detailed explanations about the changes.
  • Save your return: Create an H&R Block account to start your return and come back later to finish filing. If you don’t want to save it, you can still start it without creating an account.
  • Audit support: With any plan, even free filing, users get in-person support to help with audits. This includes reviewing and interpreting notices, helping to gather documents, reviewing findings and advice on how to respond.
  • Load your refund on a debit card: Using prepaid debit cards, H&R Block allows users to receive their refund in a convenient pay method accepted anywhere Visa is allowed.
  • Health insurance finder: As a GoHealth partner, users can shop government insurance exchanges to find the right plan for the following year.

Packages and Pricing

  • More Zero — Free — H&R Block typically sits near the top of tax software review lists due to its comprehensive free filing option. This tier includes both 1040EZ filing and Schedule A for itemized deductions. Along with the federal, state filing is also free.*
  • Deluxe — $54.99, on sale for $34.99 — This tier adds on digital storage for returns for six years and filing for the self-employed, along with unlimited phone and chat support.
  • Premium — $79.99, on sale for $54.99 — With everything from the previous tiers, this level also includes filing for investment income, capital gains/losses, business filings, a full Schedule C (rather than just the Schedule C-EZ supported by Deluxe) and lots more.

*When comparing prices, be aware that state filing is only free with the More Zero plan.

TaxAct

Ease of use makes TaxAct a clear contender for best online tax service. It combines the depth of services offered by TurboTax with a discount price point of only $30 for their premium service. TaxAct professional software reviews regularly compare it favorably to the industry giants. Features include:

  • Stop and start returns: Users can start filing as soon as the first tax document arrives and finish at a later time when everything is on-hand.
  • Easy navigation: One of the big inconveniences using other services is that you often have to start at the beginning again in order to fix any errors. With TaxAct, users can navigate directly to the section that needs an update.
  • Complete explanations: Where TaxAct really shines is in the information provided about possible life situations. Users not only get a Q&A session, they also get a detailed description of what these events mean as they pertain to tax filing.

Packages and Pricing

Not only is TaxAct one of the least expensive options, it is also one of the most streamlined. There are only three tiers to choose from and one of them is free.

  • Free — Free — This package is for 1040EZ and 1040A filers and includes a free state return.
  • PLUS — $15 — For those who itemize, own their own home or have investment income, this $15 package is the best TaxAct option.
  • PREMIUM — $30 — This level includes filing for the self-employed, contractors and freelancers.

E-file

As a relatively new option, E-file offers a complete range of 2016 tax software for the home user. Be aware that it does not support complex business tax filing in 2017, so it may not qualify as one of the best online tax software options of 2017. What it does offer is a complete package of features that helps you file quickly and easily.

  • Fast filing: It could take as little as 15 minutes from start to finish to file your taxes.
  • Customer support from qualified professionals: Customer support is not just about using the tax help software. Experts can answer questions specifically about tax filing. Support is free, but it may take a while for the answer to arrive since E-file has no dedicated customer support phone line.
  • Instantly file an extension request: For anyone not ready to file by the deadline, E-file allows users to file an extension request online.

Packages and Pricing

  • Free Federal Edition — Free — At no cost, users filing a basic return can complete and submit their federal filing.
  • Deluxe Edition — $24.99 — This package allows filing for the 1040A and itemized deductions, along with investment income.
  • Premium Edition — $45.99 — At this tier, users can file self-employment income, small business income and more complex personal returns.
  • State Filing Fee — $25 — None of the filing options include a state return. To add one on, users must pay an additional fee.

eSmart Tax

For an easy-to-use program, tax software 2017 reviews point to eSmart Tax. The intuitive interface and easy access to live support make it a top contender. Not only does it include many of the standard features, it also offers:

  • Brick-and-mortar support: When users get held up using the online filing 2016 tax software, they can visit a store location for personalized help. Liberty Tax is the owner of the software and offers complimentary services at one of the best tax preparation companies.
  • Import prior tax returns: Some other services offer this option, but only if a user upgrades to a paid service. Everyone can use the import option, even those filing a free federal return.

Packages and Pricing

  • Free — Free — For those filing a 1040EZ, this service offers some of the best tax filing around, though failure to include a free state return might make it less appealing.
  • Basic — $14.95 — This level supports form 1040 and Schedule A and B filing. That makes it workable for families, those with itemized deductions, investment income, interest income and self-employment income.
  • Deluxe — $19.95 — Get everything included in Basic and help with income from a sole proprietorship and deducting home office expenses.
  • Premium — $49.95 — Like the name, this is a premium service that covers everything from Deluxe and adds on filing for capital gains/losses, sale of a house, rental income and additional support for filing Schedule E, F or K-1.
  • State Return – $29.95 – After finishing a federal return, eSmart Tax allows users to add on the state return for $29.95.