January 20, 2021
There could be 5 different stimulus check payment groups. Which is yours?

The next stimulus check could come in 5 waves. Which one would you be in?


Sarah Tew/CNET

A stimulus check is on the horizon. Whether it comes as an add-on to the $908 billion relief proposal now working its way through Congress, or — more probable — as a separate stimulus bill in early 2021 is still unknown. What we do know is that when it happens, if it happens, not everyone will get their portion of the $1,200 checks at the same time.

The date your stimulus money arrives relative to others is just one of the many variables that make up the mosaic of stimulus check qualifications and exceptions. While many differences between two different people’s stimulus payment experiences come down to the finer points of eligibility, the precise timing of your stimulus check’s arrival also has to do with the form your payment will take.

We’ll explain more below, but for now, a few reminders. Even if you got the first payment, there’s no guarantee that a second check will follow the same blueprint as the first rollout. It’s also possible some qualifications might change with a future stimulus bill, which could leave you with less money than expected. You may even find you’re no longer eligible, depending on what happens with negotiations in Washington.

Here’s information about the main priority groups we’ve identified and why those groups might once again be the government’s guide for sending out a second stimulus payment.

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The 5 stimulus payment groups we know about now

When the CARES Act passed in March, it took a couple of weeks for the IRS to build a tool and a procedure to figure out who was owed a check and for how much. This formula helped determine the size of your household’s total sum, but the schedule for sending checks may have felt far less deliberate.

As the IRS was under pressure to get out stimulus money fast, how soon you received your check often aligned with the method by which you got paid. Any kind of complication could slow it down. In addition, some calculation errors meant there are people who may not see all or any of their allotted share until the middle of 2021.

Direct deposit recipients: People who already have their direct deposit information on file with the IRS or who provide that info when and if registration opens again should be first in line to receive a stimulus check. An electronic transfer of funds is faster and more efficient, which is why this group largely got their first payment faster.

Social Security beneficiaries: With the first stimulus payment, many Social Security beneficiaries who had direct deposit information on file with the federal government received checks in the first week, though not always the first day.

People who get paper checks: The IRS began to mail checks about a week later to those without direct deposit data on file. 


When you get your stimulus money could depend on who you are.

Sarah Tew/CNET

EIP card recipients: Economic impact payment debit cards are prepaid Visa cards the IRS sent to about 4 million people starting in mid-May. If the IRS follows the same payment priority order, this group could begin to see their payment weeks after the first direct deposit transfers take place.

People with more complex situations: This category includes people who received a check after June, are still waiting to receive their stimulus payment or who didn’t know they need to complete an extra step. Direct payments will continue through the end of 2020 for some individuals who weren’t part of the previous groups. Here’s what could be holding up the stimulus check delivery for some people and how to contact the IRS to report a missing, lost or stolen check.

Why the IRS would stagger its payment schedule

There are a few reasons the IRS doesn’t send all the stimulus payments at once. One is the sheer volume of disbursements it has to process. With the first check, the IRS said it could deliver 5 million to 7 million paper stimulus checks a week, starting with people whose adjusted gross income, or AGI, is less than $20,000, and then moving to people whose AGIs are progressively larger, according to the Government Accountability Office.

Another reason payments come at different times for different people depends on the way they get the cash. By summer, the IRS had sent money to at least 160 million people, with those the federal government had direct deposit information for receiving their checks first. 

Physical checks and EIP payments followed, creating a de facto priority order that could result in some Americans receiving their checks days or even weeks before others.

In fact, the final checks from the first round are still being distributed this month, and catch-up payments due to errors and unclaimed checks will continue to arrive throughout 2021. Some people will even need to claim their first check as part of their 2020 tax return.


Understanding your stimulus priority group will help you set your expectations about the next check.

Angela Lang/CNET

The IRS will finish sending the first checks this month

While the majority of people in line to receive a stimulus check got theirs by the end of July, up until late November, there were still millions of people who were eligible for stimulus money who hadn’t received it. That includes people who didn’t receive $500 allotted for their dependents, some who are involved in child support situations and non-filers who may be owed a stimulus check (including older adults and people who receive SSI or SSDI.) 

If you’re a US citizen abroad or live in a US territory and didn’t receive a check as expected, you may also need to investigate. And a new court ruling has made it possible for millions of people who are incarcerated to get a check, even after the IRS changed its rules to exclude this group.

The Nov. 21 deadline to claim the payment in 2020 has passed, but you’ll be able to claim a catch-up payment or error adjustment during the tax season 2021.

Depending on which group you’re in, we’ve also mapped out some speculative dates for how soon you could potentially get your next stimulus check.

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