SBA Loans: What They Are and How to Qualify

An SBA loan is a small-business loan offered by banks and online lenders, and partly guaranteed by the government.

Jackie Veling, Ryan LaneFebruary 24, 2021
What Is an SBA Loan?
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Update Jan. 19, 2021: The latest round of the Paycheck Protection Program is open to small businesses hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic.

The legislation provides more than $284 billion for first and second forgivable coronavirus relief loans, reviving the Paycheck Protection Program that lapsed in the summer. It also widens the kinds of businesses that could seek PPP funding, such as news outlets, and adds funding for smaller, independent entertainment venues and restaurants. For the latest information, read our PPP page.

SBA loans are small-business loans partially guaranteed by the U.S. Small Business Administration and issued by participating lenders, usually banks.

SBA loans have tight lending standards, but their flexible terms and low interest rates can make them one of the best ways to finance a business. Here's what to know about SBA loans and how to maximize your chances of approval.

What is an SBA loan?

An SBA loan is a type of small-business loan that's issued by private lenders but backed by the federal government. The SBA has several loan programs, including 7(a) loans, 504 loans and microloans (more on these below).

You apply for an SBA loan via a lending institution like a bank or credit union. That lender then applies to the SBA for a loan guarantee, which means if you default on an SBA loan, the government pays the lender the guaranteed amount.

The SBA requires an unconditional personal guarantee as business collateral from everyone with at least 20% ownership in a company. This guarantee puts you and your personal assets on the hook for payments if your business can't make them.

Temporary SBA loan changes

The latest coronavirus relief bill has temporarily changed some SBA loan features to promote lending and assist borrowers.

The following changes are on top of additional relief programs for small businesses, such as the Paycheck Protection Program and Economic Injury Disaster Loans, and went into effect Feb. 1:

  • Loan limits increased. As of Jan. 1, 2021, the borrowing limit for SBA Express loans was increased from $350,000 to $1 million. That maximum will permanently drop to $500,000 on Oct. 1, 2021.

  • Fees waived. For 7(a) and 504 loans, the SBA will eliminate fees for both lenders and borrowers.

  • Loan guarantees increased. Until Oct. 1, 2021, the SBA will guarantee 90% of loans from its 7(a) program and 75% for SBA Express loans of more than $350,000. The maximum SBA guarantee is usually 85% for loans up to $150,000, 75% for loans greater than $150,000 and 50% for Express loans.

  • Payments covered. The government will make monthly payments of up to $9,000 on eligible SBA loans. The number of payments you can receive will depend on when your loan was approved, issued or disbursed.

The SBA provided updated guidance on Feb. 16, 2021, regarding payment relief options for eligible 7(a) and 504 loans:

  • For loans approved prior to March 27, 2020: Two months paid, and those in select industries hit hardest by the pandemic may receive three months on top of that.

  • For loans approved between March 27 and Sept. 27, 2020, and disbursed on or after Sept. 28, 2020: Three months paid.

  • For loans approved between March 27 and Sept. 27, 2020, and fully disbursed before Sept. 27, 2020: The SBA will cover six months of payments.

  • For loans approved between Feb. 1 and Sept. 30, 2021: Three payments covered.

Payments are subject to the availability of funds, so the number covered may change in the future.

Types of SBA loans

There are multiple types of SBA loans — each with its own terms and conditions. The best SBA loan for you will depend on what you plan to use the funding for.

Program

Loan size

Lender

Purpose

7(a) loan program (SBA’s flagship loan program)

Up to $5 million

Banks, credit unions, specialized lenders

To fund working capital, expansion and equipment purchases

504 loan program

Up to $5.5 million

A combination of traditional lenders like banks and Certified Development Companies (CDC)

To fund long-term, fixed assets like land, machinery and facilities

Microloans

Up to $50,000

Community-based nonprofits

To fund working capital, inventory, supplies, equipment and machinery

The 7(a) loan program has additional variations, including an SBA Express loan with smaller funding amounts but faster turnaround times. The SBA also offers funding via small-business grants and loan programs for veterans.

What is an SBA disaster loan?

Outside of its three main lending programs, the SBA provides disaster assistance to businesses, renters and homeowners located in regions affected by declared disasters.

These loans can cover physical damage, such as the cost of repairs and replacement to a home or other building, or economic injury, which cover small-business operating expenses.

Loans are limited at $2 million and processed through the SBA. You can view an updated list of current declared disasters on the SBA website.

Benefits of SBA loans

Competitive rates

Per federal rules, participating lenders base SBA loan interest rates on the prime rate plus a markup rate known as the spread.

Note that the APR on a loan is different from the interest rate. The APR is a percentage that includes all loan fees in addition to the interest rate.

APRs can vary substantially between SBA lenders and non-SBA lenders. For example, an online lender that specializes in SBA loans may cap its APR around 10%, while major online small-business lenders that don't offer SBA loans have loans with APRs as high as 99%.

Low fees

Fees for SBA loans usually consist of an upfront guarantee fee, based on the loan amount and the maturity of the loan, and a yearly service fee, based on the guaranteed portion of the outstanding balance. The SBA reassesses its fee structure each year.

Fees are SBA loans are currently being waived.

Longer terms

Another perk of SBA loans is that you get more time to repay them, which means you’ll have more money available for other business needs. The loan term will depend on how you plan to use the money. The current maximum maturities are:

  • Working capital or inventory loan: 10 years.

  • Equipment: 10 years.

  • Real estate: 25 years.

How to apply for an SBA loan

1. Make sure your business is eligible

To qualify for an SBA loan, lenders typically like to see at least two years in business, strong annual revenue and a good credit score, which starts around 690.

If your business is struggling, an SBA loan is probably out of the question. And if it falls into any of the ineligible categories, such as charitable and religious institutions, you shouldn’t apply.

2. Gather your application documents

If you think you qualify, the best place to start is the SBA website, which includes a loan application checklist. Use this to gather your documents, including your tax returns and business records.

Here are some of the documents you will need before applying:

  • SBA’s borrower information form.

  • Statement of personal history.

  • Personal financial statement.

  • Personal income tax returns.

  • Business tax returns.

  • Business license.

  • Lease agreement if applicable.

  • One-year cash flow projection.

3. Choose a lender

The SBA offers a convenient Lender Match tool to match potential borrowers with lenders within two days.

If you’re applying through a traditional bank, it helps to work with one that has a track record of processing SBA loans. Ask your potential lender these questions:

  • How many SBA loans do you make?

  • How often do you fund SBA loans?

  • How experienced is your staff in the process?

  • What is the dollar range of the loans you make?

In general, a bank with multiple years of SBA experience will be able to better guide you, including letting you know your chances of being approved. Banks will follow SBA guidelines but use their own underwriting criteria to evaluate loan applications.

As an example, Live Oak Bank based in Wilmington, North Carolina, is the most active SBA 7(a) lender in the United States by lending volume. Loan amounts range from $75,000 to $5 million. To qualify, you must be in good financial standing and able to show personal and business tax returns for the past three years.

4. Wait

The time it takes to get approved for an SBA loan will depend on the lender you choose. With a bank, the entire process — from approval to funding — can take from 30 days to a couple of months.

Short on time? The SBA has another financing program called SBA Express, which aims to respond to loan applications within 36 hours. The maximum amount for this type of financing is temporarily set at $1,000,000, and the maximum amount the SBA could guarantee is 75%.

Once your application is approved, your lender is responsible for closing the loan and disbursing the loan proceeds. You repay the lender directly, usually on a monthly basis.

Find and compare small-business loans

If an SBA loan isn't the right fit, look for small-business loans to meet your needs and goals with the help of NerdWallet’s comparison tool. We gauged lender trustworthiness and user experience, among other factors, and made recommendations based on categories including your revenue and how long you’ve been in business.