W-4 vs W-2 Forms

Understanding the Differences: W-4 vs W-2 Forms


Understanding the difference between W-4 and W-2 forms is essential for employers, especially when managing a diverse workforce. These forms are crucial in the United States for tax processing and compliance.

What is a W-4 Form?

  • Purpose: The W-4, or Employee’s Withholding Allowance Certificate, is used by employees to inform employers how much federal income tax to withhold from their wages.
  • Who Fills it Out: It is completed by the employee.
  • Key Information: Employees declare their withholding allowances, marital status, dependents, and any additional income.
  • Frequency of Update: Employees should fill this out at the start of employment and update it with any significant life changes.
  • State Variations: Some states have their versions, while others, like Texas or Florida, do not require state tax withholding.

What is a W-2 Form?

  • Purpose: The W-2 form, or Wage and Tax Statement, is used to report an employee’s annual wages and the amount of taxes withheld from their paycheck.
  • Who Fills it Out: It is completed and filed by the employer.
  • Key Information: It includes details about the employee's earnings, federal and state taxes withheld, and contributions to Social Security and Medicare.
  • Annual Requirement: Employers must issue this form annually by January 31st for the previous tax year.

Key Differences Between W-4 and W-2

  • Form's Purpose:

W-4: Determines how much federal income tax to withhold from the employee's paycheck.

W-2: Reports the employee's annual earnings and taxes withheld.

  • Who Completes the Form:

W-4: Filled out by the employee.

W-2: Completed by the employer.

  • Usage:

W-4: Guides tax withholding for each paycheck.

W-2: Summarizes the total earnings and taxes withheld for the year.

  • Filing Frequency:

W-4: Typically filled out at the start of employment or after significant personal or financial changes.

W-2: Filed annually by the employer.

  • Practical Applications for Employers

W-4 Submission: Employees should submit a completed W-4 during their onboarding process, with updates as necessary.

W-2 Distribution: Employers must file and distribute W-2 forms to their employees by January 31st each year.

Final Thoughts 

Employers must ensure accuracy in both forms to maintain tax compliance and proper payroll management. For companies with a global workforce, like those using international hiring platforms, understanding these forms is vital for managing U.S.-based employees. It’s important to note that contractors or self-employed individuals use different forms, such as 1099s, not W-2s.