What are the 5 stimulus check payment groups and why does it matter which you’re in?


A stimulus check is back on the table, but not everyone will get it at once.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The debate over when a second stimulus check will come and how much money it should dispense is expected to once again heat up in the coming week, as tense negotiations over a $908 billion coronavirus relief plan threaten to boil over. Two opposing parties want to add another direct payment of either $1,200 or $600 maximum per person, threatening to topple a precarious agreement as Congress races toward a deadline it’s determined this time not to miss.

The situation may not may not bode well for lawmakers trying to pass a cohesive economic rescue bill before the end of the year, but the staunch support does augur hope that another stimulus check will at some point arrive. When and if it does pass, the next question is: how soon can you get it?

It’s a question with multiple answers. We go into more depth elsewhere about the possible dates your stimulus check could come. But here, we’ll explain the general framework the IRS used to deliver stimulus checks under the CARES Act, and why that matters for how quickly you’ll be able to receive your direct payment.

Turns out, where you stand in line and how complex your personal situation is can put the delivery of your check days, weeks or even months later than others. A second round of checks would likely work the same way, though there may be things you can do to speed up the receipt of your next payment.

Below, we’ll explain what the different “priority” groups are and what they could mean for you. If a second stimulus check doesn’t pass as part of a bill in 2020, here’s what’s likely to happen in 2021. We updated this story recently with new details.

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Here are 5 stimulus payment groups based on the first check

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.

With the IRS under pressure to get out stimulus money fast, how soon you received your check often depended on 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 can’t send all the checks at the same time

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

Some people were still waiting for their 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 nonfilers 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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