What is a W-2 — and how do you read it? (2024)

If you work full-time for a paycheck and earn at least $600 during the year, you can expect a W-2 form from your employer during tax season. IRS Form W-2, or a "Wage and Tax Statement" is a tax form that reports the wages an employee earned during the year, as well as any taxes their employer withheld. This is an essential form you need to file your taxes as it often determines the size of your refund — or if you'll owe taxes.

CNBC Select explains how to get your W-2, what information it contains and how to include it in your tax return.

How W-2s work

  • What is the purpose of a W-2 form?
  • What does the W-2 form tell you?
  • When are W-2s sent out?
  • Bottom line

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What is the purpose of a W-2 form?

A W-2 form reports vital information such as the income you've earned from your employer, how much your employer withheld in taxes, and information about certain benefits (such as employer-provided health insurance) for the previous year.

Your employer uses this form to report salary and wage information to the IRS, and sends a copy to you as well so you have the information you need to accurately file your taxes. You can receive multiple W-2 forms in a year if you've worked full-time for several employers and have earned at least $600 in wages from each of them.

When you file your taxes, the information on your W-2 will help you complete your tax return. If you're using online tax software, you might not need to input any numbers manually. For example, TurboTax supports automatic import of W-2 information from over a million employers. Alternatively, you can upload your W-2 from your computer or use the TurboTax app to snap a photo.


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What does the W-2 form tell you?

Besides your income and withholding, the W-2 form tells you important information such as your retirement contributions, the amount your employer paid for your health insurance and how much you received in dependent care benefits.


Here's how to read your W-2 form:

  • Boxes A to F show identifying information about you and your employer.
  • Boxes 1 and 2 show the total taxable income your employer paid you and how much was withheld in federal taxes.
  • Boxes 3 to 6 show how much of your pay was subject to Social Security and Medicare taxes — and how much was withheld.
  • Boxes 7 and 8 apply if you earned tips and tell you how much of the tip income was subject to Social Security tax and the amount your employer allocated to you.
  • Box 10 reports how much your employer paid you in dependent care benefits.
  • Box 11 tells you how much you received in deferred compensation — or, as TurboTax explains, pay you get outside of tax-advantaged retirement plans for work performed in previous years, typically after leaving employment or retiring.
  • Box 12 details other types of compensation or income reductions, such as a 401(k) plan or health savings account contributions, with a single or double-letter code corresponding to each. You can look up the codes in the W-2 instructions from the IRS.
  • Box 13 shows whether you worked as a statutory employee (a contractor treated as an employee for certain tax purposes), participated in an employer-sponsored retirement plan or received sick pay from a third-party source, such as an insurance company.
  • Box 14 is for information that doesn't fit into other boxes, like uniform payments, union dues and health insurance premiums deducted, to name just a few examples.
  • Boxes 15 to 20 contain state and local income tax information.

When are W-2s sent out?

The IRS requires that employers provide employees and the government with W-2s by Jan. 31. Typically, you can expect to get your W-2s in the mail, although some employers send out electronic versions.

You should receive a W-2 from every employer that paid you $600 or more during the year — unless you're an independent contractor, in which case you'll receive Form 1099 instead.

That means that by mid-February, you should have all your W-2s. If that's not the case, contact your employer. Your company's HR department might not have the right address on file, or you might have missed communication about online access to your tax documents. Either way, getting in touch with your employer should usually solve the issue.

If that's not the case, it may be a good idea to give the IRS a call at 800-829-1040. You'll need to provide your name, address, phone number, Social Security number and dates of employment. The IRS will ask for your employer's information too, including name, address and phone number. After the call, the IRS will contact your employer and request the missing W-2.

Remember that your taxes are due by April 15 (or April 17 if you live in Maine or Massachusetts), whether or not you have all the required documents on hand. Make sure you have your W-2 well before then so you can file with time to spare.

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Bottom line

Form W-2 shows crucial income and tax information you'll need to complete your tax return. Once you get the form from your employer, include it with the documents you share with your tax professional — or use it to file taxes yourself.

Why trust CNBC Select?

At CNBC Select, our mission is to provide our readers with high-quality service journalism and comprehensive consumer advice so they can make informed decisions with their money. Every tax guide is based on rigorous reporting by our team of expert writers and editors with extensive knowledge of tax software products. While CNBC Select earns a commission from affiliate partners on many offers and links, we create all our content without input from our commercial team or any outside third parties, and we pride ourselves on our journalistic standards and ethics.

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Editorial Note: Opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the Select editorial staff’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any third party.

What is a W-2 — and how do you read it? (2024)
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