How to Apply for FAFSA

Updated: Jan 05, 2024 1:13 PM ET | Originally published: Dec 22, 2023

Get ready, it’s time to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, aka FAFSA.

Usually available on Oct. 1, the redesigned 2024-25 FAFSA opened via a soft launch on Dec. 30. The form is what the U.S. Department of Education uses to determine who’s eligible for federal financial aid to help pay for college.

This year’s FAFSA features sweeping changes, including fewer questions to make it easier to complete and revisions to the aid formula that could change students’ aid eligibility, including increasing how many students are eligible for federal Pell Grants.

Besides being the gateway to more than $39 billion in federal grants, colleges use the FAFSA to determine state aid, institutional aid, work-study awards, federal student loans and sometimes merit scholarships.

In other words, not filling out the form means you could be passing up on cold, hard cash to help you pay for college. Plus, there’s free FAFSA help available for those with more complicated situations.

Here’s everything students and parents need to do to complete the aid application, in a step-by-step guide.

1. Plan to file well ahead of the FAFSA deadline

Experts always recommend parents and students submit the FAFSA as early as they can. But this year, the Education Department won’t start processing forms until late January, so officials are telling families they don’t need to rush to fill it out. Plus, the roll-out of the new form has been a bit bumpy, with very limited availability in first days. Accessing the form has been easier since then, but there are still ongoing maintenance pauses to iron out kinks.

That said, with the form coming out at the end of December, the financial aid timeline is running three months behind. Some states have already pushed back their deadlines to account for the later start date, but it’s still a good idea to get your application squared away as quickly as the roll-out allows. Several states award aid on a first-come, first-served basis and they will note the date you filled out the form. Plus, colleges will be scrambling to condense their work into a shorter time period.

Finally, even if you don’t get your application in early, you should still file. In fact, the deadline to apply for federal aid for the 2024-25 school year isn’t until June 30, 2025.

2. Create your Federal Student Aid ID in advance

You’ll fill out the FAFSA application online at Before you can start the application process, you must set up an account to obtain a Federal Student Aid ID, which requires a student’s Social Security number or proof you're an eligible non-citizen (like an alien registration number). It takes one to three days to confirm your account, so start this process several days ahead of when you plan to fill out the form. This video will guide you on setting it up.

One parent, aka “contributor,” also needs to set up a separate FSA ID if you’re a dependent student. “Contributor” is new terminology used to describe anyone filling out the form (students are also contributors).

It’s a good idea to figure out who your required contributors are before the FAFSA opens. In some cases, like married parents who filed taxes separately, both parents will need to create FSA IDs. For divorced or separated parents, the rules have changed: In past years, it was the parent with whom the student lived most of the time who was required to fill out the form. Now it’s the parent who provided greater financial support for the last 12 months or earned more income if both support the student equally.

Contributors’ FSA IDs allow them to transfer their federal tax information from the IRS to the FAFSA, as well as sign the form electronically. Even if a parent doesn’t have a Social Security number or didn’t file taxes, they need to create an FSA ID to authorize consent to transfer their non-filing status and fill out their sections on the form.

Consenting to have your information transferred from the IRS is a critical new requirement, and it’s not tied to tax-filing status, says Paul Martin, owner of College Money Method. If contributors don’t consent to the online transfer, the FAFSA won’t be processed, and you won’t be eligible for federal financial aid.

The parent contributor FSA ID requires a separate email address and date of birth. If a parent doesn’t want to or can’t create an FSA ID, there’s still an option to submit a paper FAFSA. But mailing a FAFSA typically adds weeks of processing time, Martin says.

Make sure to write down and save FSA ID usernames and passwords. You and your contributor(s) will use the same FSA ID every year you fill out the FAFSA. (And parents with multiple children will use the same ID for each of them.)

3. Gather your financial documents before filling out the FAFSA form

You and your contributors need the previous year’s tax returns to file for next year — that is, you’ll use your 2022 tax return for the 2024-25 school year. However, when you report assets, you’ll report the most recent information.

Who has to submit information depends in part on your dependency status according to the Department of Education. Dependent students, who are most students under 24, must provide their financial information and their parents’ information. Independent students, typically defined as those 24 and older or students who are married or have children, don’t need to provide a parent’s information.

This year, fewer families will have to answer questions about assets, as most students from households earning up to $60,000 will be exempt and will not see those questions on their form.

For everyone else, here’s what to collect in advance:

  • Federal income tax returns (if filed) from the previous year and W-2s (in case your situation requires manually entering income information into the online form).
  • Bank and asset statements for parent and student showing the most recent asset information, including checking, savings, non-retirement investment records, parent-owned college funds for the student, real estate (but notyour primary home), net worth records for a business or farm, and student accounts such as UTMA or UGMA accounts.

Note: Child support is now counted as a parent asset and is no longer assessed as untaxed income. It’s called out as a separate asset question, and parents should report the previous year’s amount, in this case from 2023. Also, students don’t need to report cash gifts or 529 plan distributions from relatives anymore.

If a parent’s income situation has changed since you filed taxes — because of a job loss, for example — you’ll still use the same tax return. After filing the FAFSA, contact each of your colleges to discuss your family’s changes and how to document them.

4. Fill out all the FAFSA sections

First, choose the correct FAFSA year. You’ll see two options, one for the current academic year and one for the next year. For 2024, use the 2024-25 form. Then complete each section.

The new FAFSA is “roles based,” says Martin, “and neither contributor will see the entire application.” Instead, each contributor will only see the questions for their own section — parent or student — and filling out the form will require two (possibly three) different logins, one per contributor. However, your family will still need to work together to fill it out.

The new “consent” page where you agree to the tax information transfer comes at the beginning of the form after your identity information.

Any contributor can start the FAFSA. If you’re the parent of a dependent student, and they start it, you’ll receive an email from them inviting you to fill it out. You can log in straight from that email. Alternatively, you can start the FAFSA to fill in the parent contributor information. In that case, use your own FSA ID to log in. Each person “submits” their own completed section.

The parent contributor will see a question about family size. Martin says it’s okay if your family size doesn’t match your 2022 tax return. There’s a question that will ask about changes to family size; answering yes enables you to manually enter the correct number.

For parents recently divorced or separated, your 2022 tax-filing status may not line up with your marital status. The form will “put you on a path to manually enter your information,” Martin says. You can still submit the form online.

5. Add your list of schools

While you’re filling out the form, you’ll list schools of interest, up to 20 colleges, including trade or career schools. That’s expanded from 10 on previous FAFSA forms. Your FAFSA gets sent to schools at no cost, so list any of interest even if you haven’t applied or been accepted. You can add new ones later if needed. You’ll also need to include the federal school code for each college you list. If you live in a state that awards state financial aid, you should list any in-state schools first.

6. Watch out for common mistakes

While this year’s form is supposed to be much simpler, the language on the FAFSA is still formal and, frankly, bureaucratic — much like you’d see when filling out a tax return. So, take your time reading each question carefully to avoid making simple mistakes, especially if you have a complex family situation or tax return. Use the FAFSA’s owl icon (named Aidan) in the bottom right-hand corner to ask questions, or select the question mark icon next to each line item for additional information on that item.

Watch out for these particularly common mistakes:

  • Listing a parent or student-owned 529 account as a student asset. The student’s 529 account should always be listed in the parent section. New this year, parents should list only your 529 account, not those for siblings. Also, don’t include 529 plans owned by grandparents or other relatives.
  • Reporting retirement account balances (money in a 401(k), IRA or Roth IRA, for example). Money in qualified retirement accounts is exempt and doesn’t need to be reported. Keep in mind, money intended for retirement that’s stashed in a non-retirement account does need to be reported.
  • Including the home equity value of your family’s primary home. Don’t report this value.

7. Check your work before you submit the FAFSA application

At the end of the student and parent section, you’ll each have a chance to review your information before signing and submitting. It’s an important step. Making corrections after you submit the aid application can be a pain and may even delay your financial aid offer. Proofread all your information and look for extra zeros on those reported asset amounts.

For parent contributors with other kids currently in college, the same income information will attach to that sibling’s FAFSA when the student fills it out, but there may be other sections you need to fill out again (outside experts don’t know for sure until the final version is issued). Parents will still sign and submit the parent section.

8. Review your FAFSA Submission Summary and make corrections if needed

After you submit the form electronically, you’ll each receive a “confirmation” page. The parent page confirms their portion was submitted. The student page will include your SAI and an estimated amount of Pell Grant if you’re eligible.

Later, you’ll receive your official FAFSA Submission Summary (formerly Student Aid Report). While those are typically issued within a few days, this year the department won’t begin processing FAFSAs until late January.

The summary will also list a final Student Aid Index, or SAI. This figure — formerly called the Expected Family Contribution or EFC — is the key to all financial aid.

Colleges use the SAI to determine how much financial aid you’re eligible for from federal, state and institutional sources. Your financial need is usually equal to a college’s cost of attendance minus your SAI. But keep in mind, many colleges’ financial aid programs don’t offer enough financial aid to meet need.

The Submission Summary also summarizes all the information you submitted, though you won’t be able to see your income information. You can make corrections in the electronic form at this time. However, if your income has changed from 2022, you’ll need to contact your schools’ financial aid offices to ask for a “change of circumstance” form.

Finally, be aware that the Submission Summary is not the same thing as a financial aid award letter, which comes after you’ve been accepted to colleges. Those letters (from the colleges themselves) will break down the financial aid package a college is offering. It could include federal aid, state aid and institutional aid.

9. Follow through on the verification process if selected

Unfortunately, this is not the end of the FAFSA application process for every student; some applications every year are flagged for an audit-like process called verification. In theory the new FAFSA will reduce the number of students who go through the verification process due to the automatic IRS tax return transfer, but that reality remains to be seen. If you’re selected, don’t assume this means you made a mistake. Some students are selected at random.

Each college financial aid office handles verification on its own, but you’ll likely be asked for additional forms to support the submitted information — like a copy of your tax return if you didn’t use the IRS transfer. You might be contacted directly by one of your colleges. Submit the information in a timely way to avoid delays in accessing your financial aid.

For most families, the FAFSA is a straightforward process that doesn’t take too much time. Data from the Department of Education shows that most applicants complete the form in less than an hour, and that statistic is from the years before the form was simplified. It should be a quicker process this year.

If you need help while you’re filling out the form, watch these videos or try these FAQs from the National College Attainment Network. Don’t forget to use the online chat function; the Federal Student Aid Information Center also has a helpline (1-800-433-3243), but it may be flooded this year. It’s an odd year. Take a breath. Everyone is in the same boat.

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How to Apply for FAFSA FAQs

What are the benefits of filling out the FAFSA?

The FAFSA, officially known as the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, is a necessary step if you want financial aid for college. Students and their parents fill out the form to apply for federal grants, student loans and work-study funds. Most colleges, state scholarship agencies and private foundations also use the FAFSA to award money for college.

When should I file my FAFSA due?

The federal deadline for the FAFSA is June 30 each year. For the 2024-2025 academic year, you can submit the form and qualify for federal grants and student loans until June 30, 2025. But states and private scholarships have deadlines much earlier than the federal government's. Plus, in some cases awards are first-come, first-served. Don’t delay.

Can I file the FAFSA without my parents?

Most students under the age of 24 cannot submit the application without a parent’s financial information. To file the form without parents, you need to be classified as an independent student, which means you’re 24 or older, married or have a child of your own. Some student populations, like foster youth or students experiencing homelessness, are also considered independent for financial aid purposes.

How long does FAFSA take to process?

If you file the 2024-2025 FAFSA in early January, it will not be processed for a few weeks. In a normal year, an online FAFSA is processed within a few days. But this year, the financial aid system is going through a major overhaul and processing is expected to take longer, at least at the start of the application cycle.

How long does it take to fill out the FAFSA?

On average, it takes first-time filers less than an hour to complete the application, according to data from the Education Department. But that number should shrink this year with a shorter, simplified form. For independent students (who don't need to submit information from a parent) and students who are filling out the form for subsequent years of college, the average time to completion is even less.

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