The American Institute of CPAs website says that you should keep copies of your tax returns, including W-2 attachments, for at least six or seven years. These documents come in handy if the Internal Revenue Service decides to audit your return or if you ever need to show proof of income. If you are missing a W-2 from a prior tax year, you have several ways to retrieve it.

Utilizing Your Employer’s Resources

If your employer is still in business, contact your payroll department for a copy of your W-2. Some employers have a self-service option for current and former employees to print W-2s online. Federal law says that employers must keep copies of employee W-2s for at least four years. Your employer may keep them for a longer time. Your employer or payroll service provider may charge a fee to issue replacement W-2s.

Requesting an IRS Transcript

You may request a free transcript of your W-2 from the IRS by completing Form 4506-T. The transcript is not an actual photocopy of your W-2, but a printout of most of the information on the form. It does not include state tax data. You can request up to 10 years of W-2 transcripts from the IRS, excluding the current tax year. Mail or fax Form 4506-T to the IRS at the address or fax number provided on the form. Alternatively, you may request a W-2 transcript by calling the IRS’s designated toll-free number or ordering it online. (See Resources.) Allow the agency 5 to 10 business days to process your request.

Ordering a Copy of Your Tax Return

To get an actual photocopy of your W-2 from the IRS, you must order your entire tax return by completing Form 4506. On the form, include the 1040 series you are requesting. You can get up to seven years of tax returns for a 1040 series. The cost is $50 per return, as of 2014. Mail Form 4506 and your payment to the IRS location stated on the form. Give the agency up to 60 calendar days to send you your return.

Requesting Duplicate W-2s From Your State

If your employer withheld state taxes from your wages, you might be able to get a duplicate W-2 from your state revenue agency. The cost of a duplicate W-2 from the state might be less than ordering a copy of your entire tax return from the IRS. There may be drawbacks, however. For instance, duplicate W-2s from the California State Controller’s Office are available for only up to the last four years.