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Your FAFSA Questions Answered
Students must file the FAFSA to get financial aid. Here's what you need to know to apply and what comes next.
Anna Helhoski is a senior writer covering economic news and trends in consumer finance at NerdWallet. She is also an authority on student loans. She joined NerdWallet in 2014. Her work has appeared in The Associated Press, The New York Times, The Washington Post and USA Today. She previously covered local news in the New York metro area for the Daily Voice and New York state politics for The Legislative Gazette. She holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from Purchase College, State University of New York.
Many or all of the products featured here are from our partners who compensate us. This influences which products we write about and where and how the product appears on a page. However, this does not influence our evaluations. Our opinions are our own. Here is a list of our partners and here's how we make money.
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When will the new FAFSA be available? The redesigned FAFSA is expected to launch in December 2023 for the 2024-25 academic year — a delay from the typical Oct. 1 release date. You can still submit the 2023-24 FAFSA until June 30, 2024. Stay tuned for more updates on the new FAFSA deadline.
Filling out and submitting the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, is the key to getting financial aid to help pay for college if you or your family can’t foot the entire bill.
3. What if I don't qualify for need-based aid? Should I still file the FAFSA?
All students should file the FAFSA, even if they think their parents make too much money to qualify. That’s because not all financial aid is based on need. For example, you could qualify for a merit scholarship that requires the FAFSA to be on file.
The Department of Education estimates it takes applicants less than an hour to complete the FAFSA. This includes collecting needed documentation and filling out, reviewing and submitting the FAFSA. You can shorten and streamline the process by having the required documentation and tax information on hand.
5. When should I fill out the FAFSA?
Complete the FAFSA as close to the opening date as possible to ensure you receive the maximum amount of aid. In some states, financial aid is disbursed on a rolling basis. That means it’s first come, first served, so find out your state’s FAFSA deadline.
To submit the FAFSA electronically, use the form on the Federal Student Aid website. Before you can submit, you’ll need an FSA ID. It’s a username and password used to sign in to federal student aid websites. You’ll also need the FSA ID to sign the FAFSA and promissory notes electronically.
Alternatively, you can submit the FAFSA by mail. Download and fill out a PDF copy or request a paper copy by calling 1-800-433-3243.
7. What documents do I need to file the FAFSA?
Before you fill out the FAFSA, get all documents together to make the process easier. U.S. citizens typically need their Social Security number, driver’s license number and tax and income records. Use this FAFSA checklist to determine exactly what you’ll need.
Families should use their “prior-prior year” tax information to complete the FAFSA instead of the prior year’s tax information. In other words, use 2022 tax information to complete the 2024-25 form. This allows you to file the FAFSA before filing your previous year’s taxes.
On the 2023-24 form, for example, if you were born before Jan. 1, 2000, you are considered an independent student. You’re also considered independent if you are married, a veteran, homeless, enrolled in a graduate program, or you provide a certain amount of support to dependents or children.
Take care to choose the correct dependency status because it can impact how much aid you receive.
9. My parents are separated or divorced. Which parent is responsible for filling out the FAFSA?
In past years, including the 2023-24 FAFSA, the parent you lived with the most over the past 12 months was the primary parent responsible for filling out the FAFSA. For the 2024-25 FAFSA, the primary or "custodial" parent will be the one who has provided the most financial support over the last 12 months.
10. I can’t get my parent’s financial information. Can I still apply for aid?
If you’re considered a dependent, you’ll need your parents' financial information to access most financial aid. If your parents decline to help, you can still file the FAFSA and could get unsubsidized student loans.
On the FAFSA, answer "no" when you’re asked if you can provide information about your parents. You also should answer "no" when asked about special circumstances if you don’t meet those standards. Special circumstances include if your parents are in prison or if you don’t know where your parents are. Then you can submit the FAFSA without their information. It will be up to your college to determine if you can get an unsubsidized student loan. You’ll need to contact the school’s financial aid office as soon as possible to discuss getting approved for a loan.
11. Is there a way to know how much aid I will receive?
You can use the Federal Student Aid Estimator tool to estimate the type and amount of aid you may be eligible to receive. Once you submit the FAFSA, you will get your Federal Student Aid report (replaced by the FAFSA Submission Summary beginning with the 2024-25 FAFSA).
It contains all the answers you provided on the FAFSA and the amount your family is expected to pay, known as your expected family contribution. If you don’t have an EFC, your FAFSA likely contains an error that you need to correct.
For the 2024-25 FAFSA and beyond, the Student Aid Index or SAI will replace the EFC. This number will help colleges see the amount of federal aid you may be eligible for.
12. I’m already attending college. Do I need to complete another FAFSA this year?
Yes. If you want to keep getting federal loans and grants, you’ll have to apply for financial aid every year. Because it won't be your first time filling out the FAFSA, you already know what to expect. And if your parents’ income hasn’t changed since last year, you'll likely receive a comparable amount of student aid.
13. My parents haven’t filed their taxes. What information should I use?
Don’t wait for them to file taxes before you submit the FAFSA. Filers must report prior-prior-year taxes. For example, on the 2023-24 FAFSA form, you need to report 2021 tax information.
You can import tax information into the FAFSA form by using the IRS data retrieval tool. Starting with the 2024-25 FAFSA, the Direct Data Exchange will replace the IRS data retrieval tool.
When you sign in to your application, you’ll see a “Link to IRS” button if you’re eligible to use the tool. If you aren't eligible, you’ll need to have that tax information on hand.
14. I'm not sure where I want to go to college. Where should I send the FAFSA results to?
Uncertainty about where you plan to apply shouldn’t stop you from submitting the FAFSA. If you submit the form online, you can include FAFSA codes for up to 10 schools where you plan to apply. The 2024-25 FAFSA application allows applicants to include up to 20 schools.
If you file a paper form, you can include up to four schools. You can always update your FAFSA at fafsa.gov if you need to add more schools.
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15. When will I receive my FAFSA results?
Your results, known as your Student Aid Report (or FAFSA Submission Summary for the 2024-25 FAFSA and beyond), will arrive by email or mail between three days and three weeks after you submit the form, depending on your application method.
The report provides basic information about financial aid eligibility, including your answers to questions on the FAFSA. It also specifies your expected family contribution, which is the amount your family must pay toward your education. Colleges use your EFC to determine your financial aid package. The Student Aid Index or SAI will replace the EFC, starting on the 2024-25 FAFSA.
Once you get your Student Aid Report, ensure all the information is accurate. If you find inaccuracies, update your FAFSA.
16. Can I make changes to the FAFSA after I submit it?
Yes. Use your FSA ID to log into fafsa.gov to update information if you find any errors, if your family’s financial situation changes or if you want to send your Student Aid Report (or FAFSA Submission Summary, starting with the 2024-25 FAFSA) to more schools.
On the “My FAFSA” page, click on “Make FAFSA Corrections.” You can then make a save key, change the information and resubmit your application. Making changes can impact your aid.
You can make changes up until the FAFSA deadline – June 30 after the school year you need aid. For the 2023-24 award year, the deadline is June 30, 2024.
17. How do I accept or decline a financial aid offer?
Once you choose a college to attend and receive an aid offer, you must indicate what aid you want to use for the upcoming school year. Accept aid in this order: grant and scholarship money, work-study, subsidized federal student loans and then unsubsidized federal student loans.
If you have payment gaps you can’t fill with savings or income, consider a private student loan. Private loans are not available through the FAFSA process. You’ll need to research the possibility of getting private loans from banks, credit unions or online lenders. Compare interest rates, repayment options and protections, such as forbearance, before choosing a private loan.