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How a third payment could be proposed could also affect when it happens.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Nothing about stimulus checks is a given, but one thing seems likely: If a third stimulus check happens, it won’t take Congress nine months to approve it. President Joe Biden is eager to quickly pass a sweeping COVID-19 stimulus package, and he has the Democratic majority of Congress to do it (albeit by the slimmest margin). He also has a group of moderate Republicans who have already reached out with a counterproposal (PDF), a move that signals momentum going into future negotiations.

However, several obstacles could slow down a process that can be lengthy even in the best circumstances. The Senate impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump that starts Feb. 9 is one of them. Biden’s strong preference to pass a single stimulus package instead of two smaller COVID-19 relief bills will also impact the timeline. And if Biden pushes for a bipartisan bill rather than using the method of “budget reconciliation” to force a simple majority vote, a debate over a highly “targeted” $1,000 stimulus check could likewise pump the brakes.

The week ahead could bring some clarity to the situation, after the House of Representatives returns to Washington on Monday. Until then, here’s how a third stimulus check timeline could potentially play out, how quickly the IRS could get a third payment out the door and what could happen if it arrives during tax season 2020. This story was updated with new information.

When would a third stimulus check arrive? The absolute earliest, and the more likely scenario

Let’s say for the sake of argument that (despite the White House’s support for a single bill) a smaller bill approves a third stimulus check at breakneck speed, ahead of the Feb. 9 impeachment trial of Former President Donald Trump. This isn’t likely to happen, but it helps illustrate the time pressure Congress would be under to act. 

We compare that to some hypothetical dates we selected at random that fall in the mid-March timeframe we’ve been hearing about. The chart below highlights potential timelines for when the next stimulus check could be approved and arrive, based on how quickly the IRS processed and sent out the second stimulus payments. Note that checks for different payment groups (direct depositphysical checks and EIP cards) may arrive at different times. We’ll refresh these dates as the situation changes in Washington.

When could the next stimulus check hypothetically arrive?

Smaller stimulus bill Larger COVID-19 relief package
Stimulus check passes Congress Feb. 8 March 22
Stimulus bill signed into law Feb. 9 March 23
First direct deposit check sent Feb. 15 March 24
First paper checks sent Feb. 22 March 31
First EIP cards sent March 1 April 7
Claims for missing stimulus money open May 3 (after April 15 tax deadline) May 3

What would the advantage be of a ‘skinny’ bill?

Congress has considered splitting the stimulus package into two parts: a smaller “skinny” bill now, which contains a third stimulus check and COVID-19 vaccine distribution, followed by the rest of the funding with a target date of passing in mid-March, after negotiations. But on Jan. 28, the White House press secretary spoke out against splitting the bill in two, backing a unified package instead.

A smaller bill might face less opposition in an evenly divided Senate and allow the IRS to start sending out the next checks quicker. However, pressure to pass those measures could make a much larger package easier for opponents to swallow.

While Democrats rejected the idea of a standalone bill during negotiations for the December’s package, there’s certainly precedent for a standalone bill of some sort in the House. The chamber passed the CASH Act on Dec. 28, 2020, a bill that would have amended the December 2020 stimulus package signed by Trump to bump the $600 upper limit of the second stimulus check to $2,000 instead — by replacing “$600” with “$2,000” on every mention and “$1,200” (the amount allotted to married couples) with “$4,000). It wasn’t taken up in the Senate before the new term began Jan. 3. Now, the White House is endorsing a unified bill.

How quickly could the IRS issue the third stimulus checks?

In under three weeks, the IRS and Treasury sent more than 100 million second stimulus checks. That was a tremendously fast turnaround with the second check. In comparison, it took the IRS 19 days from the date the March 2019 stimulus bill passed to the day the first check was issued. Conversely, the Dec. 27 stimulus package gave the IRS just 17 days total, including weekends. (If you didn’t get yours, you have to claim it as part of tax season 2020.)

There was one notable direct deposit error as a result of the IRS’ rush to get payments delivered, and people who didn’t get their payment may now have to wait weeks or months for their second checks. But the scenario suggests that if the protocols are in place, the IRS could theoretically ship out third stimulus checks within days and weeks, rather than weeks and months.

As an interesting data point, the IRS was able to process between 5 million and 7 million a week with the first stimulus check, according to a government report from June.


How you get your second stimulus check could also influence how soon your payment arrives.

Sarah Tew/CNET

What if the next check is approved during tax season?

Questions are already swirling around how the IRS and Treasury would handle a third stimulus check, and some of that could very well depend on timing. 

Let’s say that a stimulus bill was to pass both chambers of Congress before Feb. 12, the day the IRS begins processing the first 2020 tax returns. Would they send a separate check or attempt to bundle them in with the Recovery Rebate Credit for missing money from the first two checks? Apart from the fact that Congress would have a very narrow window to pass the bill in this hypothetical scenario, the IRS would have very little time to process the third checks, or change their protocol to wrap the second into taxes.

Now, let’s say a bill passes in early March as part of an overarching COVID-19 relief bill and the checks begin shipping in mid-March. That scenario would still overlap with tax season by a month, before the April 15 tax deadline. 

By that time, tens of millions of Americans may have already received their tax refunds, which could make it tricky for the IRS to straighten out or redact after issuing. Things could get complex whether the IRS would attempt to fold a third check delivery into the remaining tax cycle, or send a third check separately.

How could I get my next stimulus payment faster?

While we don’t know when or if a third stimulus check will arrive, there are a few things you can do to help speed up receipt of your check, if it happens. For example, signing up for direct deposit in your 2020 tax return would put you in the priority category for a third stimulus payment. 

And if you’ve moved recently, tell the IRS and USPS. Here are our other suggestions for people to get their second checks faster. Note that, there could be some changes to qualifications that may not apply to a possible third stimulus check.


The first and second stimulus checks were nominally sorted by different payment groups, and one had a clear advantage over the others.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Would the bill impose another deadline to deliver checks? 

The Jan. 15 deadline set for the second stimulus check was written into the text of the bill without explanation. It isn’t immediately clear if the bill text would adopt another cutoff in the future, or if that was a one-time consideration that took into account the IRS’ overlapping duties to process stimulus checks and prepare for Tax Season 2020. Last year, the April 15 tax date was extended to July 15.

The two overlap with the second stimulus check in that anyone who didn’t receive all or part of their second payment must claim it as part of the IRS’ Recovery Rebate Credit on their tax return — even if they have non-filer status and aren’t typically required to file taxes.

How could your priority group affect when your third check would arrive?

We noticed with the first check that the IRS seems to organize when payments go out into certain categories of people based on the method of payment — basically, payment groups. The second check seemed to have followed the same de-facto priority. 

While we can’t say for certain what the IRS will do this time, the main payment groups have consisted of people who get their checks through direct deposit (the largest group, and the quickest delivery), through paper checks in the mail and through EIP debit cards. The cards are a method the IRS has told CNET gets payments out faster than physical checks, but which was also the last payment method to go out in both stimulus check rounds. It also requires that you activate a prepaid debit card.

The other groups that are loosely defined (by us) include social security beneficiaries, who received payments a different way the first time if they’re part of the SSI or SSDI programs, and people with more complex scenarios, which could lead to potential issues or holdups receiving their money. People in child support situations have been an example, and so have people who are incarcerated, as well as those with more complex citizenship scenarios.

Is a third stimulus check a sure thing?

No. While it seems likely given the current discussions in Washington and Biden’s campaign promises around helping everyday Americans with a direct payment, whether a third stimulus check happens or not, and which form it could take, is up to Congress. The rest, for now, is the basis of today’s public conversations in government — and from those discussions we form educated guesses. There’s always a chance that a bill may pass one chamber and not the other, or fail entirely. For now, we watch and wait.

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