Skip to Main Content
Filter By +
Topic +

Tax Withholding: Definition, Types and Rates

10 Minutes to Read

Topics covered


    Tax withholding is when a business deducts money from an employee’s income to prepay an individual’s annual taxes. But between different credit, statuses, tax brackets and more, what an employee — let alone an entire workforce — may owe isn’t always obvious. Read everything you need to know about tax withholding, filing status, the Form W-4 and more.

    Tax withholding is the money an employer takes out of an employee’s paycheck and sends to the government as prepayment for income taxes. Calculating the correct amount to withhold is crucial; too little may result in a tax bill and penalties, while too much could mean giving the government an interest-free loan.

    To help, we’ll:

    • explain all the intricacies of tax withholdings
    • describe the different types
    • teach you how to calculate the ideal amount so you can avoid surprises at tax time

    Let’s dive in.

    What is tax withholding?

    Tax withholding is a process where an employer deducts a portion of an employee’s paycheck and sends it directly to the government. This prepayment helps the employee pay their annual tax liabilities progressively throughout the year, instead of potentially facing a large sum at tax time.

    The concept of tax withholding isn’t limited to income tax; it also includes withholdings for payroll taxes, which help fund government programs like Social Security and Medicare. For self-employed individuals, estimated tax payments work similarly, where the taxpayer makes quarterly payments to cover their tax liabilities.

    The goal of tax withholding is to align an individual’s tax payments with their income, preventing significant underpayments or overpayments by the end of the fiscal year. Think of it as a prepayment plan for yearly taxes, spreading out payments throughout the year. This helps make one’s overall tax burden more manageable and prevents excessive repayment during tax season.

    Types of withholding tax

    Several types of withholding taxes exist, and they target different forms of income to serve specific purposes in the tax system. This structure is designed to ensure the collection of taxes on various forms of income.

    The U.S. has an extensive system of withholding taxes that apply to both residents and nonresidents. Let’s take a look at how withholding taxes apply to these two taxpayer statuses.

    U.S. resident withholding tax

    Some of the common withholding taxes that apply to residents include:

    • Federal income tax withholding. Employers withhold federal income tax from employees’ wages based on the information provided on Forms W-4. The amount withheld is determined by the employee’s earnings, marital status, and claimed allowances or deductions.
    • State and local income tax withholding. If applicable, residents may also have state and/or local taxes withheld from their income. The specifics vary by state and locality, with some states having no income tax at all.
    • FICA taxes. These are the Social Security and Medicare taxes. Both employees and employers contribute to FICA taxes, with the current rates being 6.2% for Social Security and 1.45% for Medicare on the employee side, matched by the employer, up to certain income limits.

    Nonresident withholding tax

    Non-U.S. residents are also subject to U.S. withholding taxes on certain types of U.S.-source income, including:

    • Fixed, Determinable, Annual or Periodical (FDAP) income. Non-U.S. residents are taxed on U.S.-source FDAP income, including interest, dividends, rents and royalties. The default withholding rate is 30% — unless a tax treaty specifies a lower rate.
    • Effectively Connected Income (ECI). If a non-U.S. resident conducts a trade or business in the U.S. and the income is effectively connected with that trade or business, the income is taxed on a net basis, similar to a U.S. resident, and not subject to withholding at the source.
    • Backup withholding. Non-U.S. residents could also be subject to backup withholding on certain types of income if they fail to provide a taxpayer identification number or don’t certify their foreign status. This is a mechanism to collect taxes on income, like interest and dividends.
    • Withholding on real property sales by foreigners (FIRPTA). The Foreign Investment in Real Property Tax Act (FIRPTA) mandates withholding on the sale of U.S. real property interests by non-U.S. residents.

    How does tax withholding work?

    Tax withholding operates as a preemptive tax collection mechanism, where a portion of an individual’s income is deducted and paid directly to the government by the employer before the income reaches the individual. This ensures that taxpayers gradually pay off their expected tax liability over the course of the year, rather than facing a lump sum payment when they file their annual tax return.

    For employees, this results in the withholding of federal and state income taxes, as well as Social Security and Medicare contributions, based on the information provided on their W-4. For non-wage income, such as interest and dividends, backup withholding could apply if the recipient fails to provide a tax identification number. For nonresidents, withholding tax on U.S. source income ensures the collection of taxes earned stateside. This system ultimately helps in smoothing the tax payment process, aligning the withheld amounts closely with the taxpayer’s actual liability to avoid significant underpayments or overpayments.

    How to calculate the tax withholding amount

    Multiple factors influence the amount of tax that is withheld from an individual’s income. These include:

    • the individual’s filing status
    • the number and types of income sources
    • their year-to-date (YTD) earnings

    Filing status — i.e., whether they are single, married filing jointly or head of household — plays a significant role because it affects the tax brackets and standard deductions that apply to them. The number of income sources — including wages, salaries, bonuses, dividends or interest — can complicate the calculation because different types of income are subject to different tax treatments and withholding rates.

    YTD earnings are also important for accurately adjusting the withholding amount. As people earn more, they may move into higher tax brackets, which could require adjustments in withholding to avoid underpayment penalties.

    The withholding calculation is further refined by considering allowances and deductions claimed by the employee on their W-4 or equivalent documents. These allowances account for dependents and other tax-deductible expenses, reducing the portion of income subject to withholding.

    To calculate the withholding amount, employers or individuals must:

    1. determine the gross income subject to tax
    2. apply the appropriate deductions based on filing status and allowances
    3. use the relevant tax tables or formulas to ascertain the tax on the remaining taxable income

    For example, let’s say an employee has a gross biweekly salary of $2,000 and is claiming single status with two allowances. Assuming these allowances reduce the taxable income, the employer would then reference tax tables to calculate the federal income tax withholding on the adjusted amount. If these calculations result in $200 being withheld per pay period, this amount is remitted to the IRS on the employee’s behalf for their annual tax liability.

    This process is repeated each pay period, adjusting as necessary for changes in income or personal circumstances, to ensure the correct amount of tax is withheld over the course of the year.

    Withholding tax forms for 2024

    The Form W-4, also known as the Employee’s Withholding Certificate, is an essential document for U.S. employees. When someone starts a new job, they’re required to fill out their W-4. Doing so provides their employer with the necessary information to calculate the correct amount of federal income tax to withhold from their paychecks.

    W-4s have several sections that prompt employees to enter their filing status, such as whether they are:

    • single
    • married
    • head of household

    It also allows for the specification of multiple jobs or a working spouse, which can affect the withholding amount. This form also includes options for claiming dependents, which could qualify the taxpayer for child tax credits or other deductions and reduce the amount of tax withheld.

    Furthermore, the W-4 form provides a section for other adjustments, including additional income (like interest or dividends) that isn’t subject to withholding, deductions other than the standard deduction and any additional tax the employee wishes to have withheld each pay period. This comprehensive approach ensures that the withholding is as accurate as possible, reflecting the employee’s tax situation in a way that closely matches their annual tax liability.

    Changing a withholding tax amount

    The Form W-4P is an important document for people who receive pension, annuity and certain IRA payments and want to adjust the amount of federal income tax withheld from these distributions. Like the W-4, the W-4P allows retirees and other beneficiaries to specify their desired withholding preferences, ensuring that the amount withheld aligns with their expected tax liability.

    This form lets recipients choose their filing status, claim dependents and specify additional amounts they want withheld or opt for no withholding at all, depending on their overall tax situation and strategies for managing their taxable income. By accurately completing and submitting the W-4P form to their payer, individuals can:

    • better manage their tax obligations
    • potentially avoid underpayment penalties
    • ensure that their tax withholding more closely matches their actual taxes due for the year

    This proactive approach to tax planning is especially beneficial for retirees and others on fixed incomes, who need to carefully manage their cash flow and tax liabilities.

    Withholding tax exemptions

    Some individuals might be eligible for exemption from withholding taxes on their income, subject to certain conditions as specified by the IRS. For instance, teachers and trainees under certain types of visas (like J or Q visas) could be exempt from withholding federal income tax on specific income related to their teaching, training or research activities.

    To claim this exemption, they have to file Form 8233, “Exemption From Withholding on Compensation for Independent (and Certain Dependent) Personal Services of a Nonresident Alien Individual.”

    Moreover, individuals who had no tax liability in the previous year and expect none for the current year can claim an exemption from withholding on their W-4. This usually applies to students and part-time workers whose earnings don’t exceed the standard deduction and personal exemptions and, therefore, are not expected to owe any federal income tax. It’s essential for anyone claiming exemption to carefully review eligibility requirements and update their status annually, as tax laws and personal circumstances change.

    Tax withholding: FAQ

    What factors can change your withholding tax rate?

    Factors that can alter your tax rate include changes in your income level, marital status or the number of allowances you claim on your W-4. These factors directly affect the amount of tax withheld from your paycheck. In addition, changes in tax laws or tax brackets can also impact your withholding rate.

    If, for example, you receive a raise, get married or have a child, you should update your W-4 to reflect these changes in your life. This will ensure that the amount withheld matches your current tax liability as closely as possible.

    How can I submit a change in my withholding tax amount?

    To make a change to the amount of tax that is withheld from your paycheck, you’ll need to complete a new W-4 and submit it to your employer. This form allows you to modify your withholding preferences, such as your filing status, number of allowances and any extra amount you want to be taken out of your paycheck. Once your employer receives the updated information, they’ll adjust the amount of federal income tax that’s deducted from your future paychecks, making sure it accurately aligns with your actual tax liability.

    What is the purpose of withholding tax?

    The purpose of withholding tax is to collect income tax from employees’ wages throughout the year instead of a lump sum payment at the end of the year. This system helps taxpayers meet their tax obligations gradually, ensuring no significant overpayments or underpayments at the end of the fiscal year. Withholding tax also helps manage the government’s revenue flow by spreading the tax liability over each pay period, allowing for more consistent funding of public services and programs.

    What happens when an employer withholds the wrong amount of tax?

    When an employer withholds the wrong amount of tax from an employee’s paycheck, it can lead to either the employee owing additional tax or receiving a refund when they file their annual income tax return. If too little tax is withheld, the employee could face underpayment penalties and a larger tax bill at the end of the year. On the other hand, if too much tax is withheld, the employee is essentially giving the government an interest-free loan and will receive the extra amount back as a refund. In other words, it’s essential for employees to regularly review their withholdings and adjust their W-4s as needed to make sure their withholdings are accurate.

    Explore Paycom’s resources to learn more about taxes, HR compliance and more.

    DISCLAIMER: The information provided herein does not constitute the provision of legal advice, tax advice, accounting services or professional consulting of any kind. The information provided herein should not be used as a substitute for consultation with professional legal, tax, accounting or other professional advisers. Before making any decision or taking any action, you should consult a professional adviser who has been provided with all pertinent facts relevant to your particular situation and for your particular state(s) of operation.