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Self-assessors spend 26 million hours on tax returns

With six weeks to go until the tax return deadline, it might be tempting to put off filing for a little longer – but the paperwork may take you longer than you expect. A Which? survey found self-assessors collectively spending around 26 million hours on their paperwork. That’s roughly the amount of time it would take to build four Empire State Buildings.

Which? explains how much time it takes to do you tax and how you can speed up the process.

How long do tax returns take?

Around half (47%) of people who have previously filed a tax return[1] say it took between one and three hours. And one in three (29%) have honed the process down to under an hour, likely helped by good record keeping and relatively straightforward affairs. But there’s a substantial amount of people who find the process far more gruelling.

At least one-in-five say it takes them more than three hours – and there’s a handful (3%) who find it such a hassle that they spend more than 15 hours on their return.

What takes so long when filing tax?

Most people find the process relatively easy (59%), though one in five (19%) struggle with preparing their returns. Keeping accurate paperwork, tracking invoices, income and receipts is more likely to ease the burden more than anything else – 44% of people who file a tax return say that’s the biggest hassle.

What costs you the most time when filling in a tax return?

But getting your head around HMRC’s jargon and systems can prove tricky too. Around 34% say their biggest struggle is understanding HMRC’s forms, and a further 10% are slowed down by looking up the definitions in the paperwork.

  • Need help filing your tax return?

    The easy-to-use, jargon-free Which? tax calculator[2] allows you to work out your tax online

The cost of late returns

Leaving it until the last minute could prove costly. Missing the deadline by just minutes will land you an automatic GBP100 fine for the late return[3] alone – and that’s before the separate round of charges for paying the tax bill. And the tardiest returns could lead to bills running into the thousands, as the fine starts rising by GBP10 for each day it’s late.

After three months, you could be hit by an another fine worth GBP300 – or 5% of your bill. In the worst cases, HMRC has the power to double your tax bill.

How can you speed up your tax return?

The key to no-hassle tax filing is advance preparation. Here are our top tips for tax season:

  • Keep track of your expenses and receipts. Personal finance software, apps or websites can help you track your expenses and invoices as you receive them through the year, so you don’t spend the end of the year drowning in receipts.
  • Find out what information you need in advance. Try to get your head around the self-assessment process before you’re under pressure from the up-coming deadline.

    Our guide to self-assessment can help you understand what’s required – and we have additional information for the self-employed, investors, landlords or pensioners.[4][5][6][7][8]

  • Know your deadlines: Your final chance to file your tax return is 31 January 2017. But if you want tax to be withheld from your pay, you’ll need to file by 30 December. And remember you’ll now have to file online – the deadline for paper returns was 31 October.
  • Consider using an online tool: You’re able to file unassisted directly with HMRC.

    But if you want a helping hand, there are a number of online tools that can streamline the process – including the easy-to-use, jargon-free Which?

    Tax calculator[9]


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    Tax calculator (

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