The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, also known as the FAFSA, is how you apply for federal student aid and some state and institutional aid. Filling out the FAFSA can be a confusing process, and if you don’t fill it out correctly, you could forfeit your eligibility for financial aid.

Here are the answers to the most common FAFSA questions.

FAFSA basics

  • The FAFSA is a free form that you fill out to apply for college financial aid, like grants, work-study and federal student loans. The application can be completed online or on pape. It must be filled out every academic year you wish to receive financial aid.

    The application opens on Oct. 1 every year and stays open through June of the award year for which you seek funding. For example, to apply for aid for the 2023-24 academic year, you can apply from October 2022 through June 2024.

    Unlike with private student loans, there are no credit requirements to apply. You just need to be enrolled in college at least half time and be in good academic standing to be eligible for most aid. The amount and type of aid you’ll receive is based on your economic need, or how much you or your parents are expected to contribute financially to your college costs.
  • If you want federal financial aid and even some state or college aid, you need to fill out the FAFSA. Even some private scholarships require a completed FAFSA form if they’re need-based.

    Because the FAFSA is free, it’s almost always a good idea to fill it out every year.
  • Through the FAFSA, you can receive federal work-study, federal grants and federal student loans. It may also open up state-based grants or college-specific scholarships. If you qualify for any need-based federal aid based on your FAFSA information, your school will let you know in your financial aid offer letter.
  • No. The FAFSA is free to access, complete and submit. If you encounter a website that prompts you to pay, return to the Department of Education’s official website.

Filling out the FAFSA

  • There are three FAFSA deadlines: federal, state and college:
    • Federal: The federal FAFSA deadline is June 30 of the award year for which you need funding. The deadline for the 2023-24 award year is June 30, 2024, although you’ll have until Sept. 14, 2024, to submit any permissible corrections.
    • State: Each state has its own FAFSA deadline. The Federal Student Aid website lists each state’s deadline, some of which are as early as a few months after the application opens.
    • College: Each college has its own FAFSA deadline. Check with your school’s financial aid office or your school counselor to make sure that you stay on track.
    Even though the FAFSA stays open for over a year, it’s best not to wait for the deadline. The federal deadline is the closest thing to a FAFSA due date, but you will also want to adhere to state and school deadlines. Some aid is awarded on a first-come, first-served basis, so the earlier you apply, the better your chances of qualifying for free funding like grants. A rule of thumb is to apply as soon as possible after Oct. 1.
  • The FAFSA asks for your personal information, your financial information, your family’s financial information (if filing as a dependent), your household information and what schools you want to send your FAFSA to. Some questions to expect are:
    • What is the highest level of school completed by your parents?
    • What college degree or certificate will you work on when you begin the 2023-24 school year?
    • How much did you earn from working in 2021?
    • As of today, what is your parents’ total current balance of cash, savings and checking accounts?
  • Here are some of the documents you need to have on hand when filling out the FAFSA:
    • Your Social Security number.
    • Your parents’ Social Security numbers (if filing as a dependent).
    • Your driver’s license.
    • Your Alien Registration Number (if not a citizen).
    • Your most recent federal tax information (W-2s, Form 1040s, foreign/U.S. territory tax returns).
    • Records of untaxed income.
  • It will take about 10 minutes to create an FSA ID (the ID you need to fill out the FAFSA online), and it typically takes under an hour to complete the application. If you’re renewing your FAFSA for subsequent funding years, it can take anywhere from 20 to 30 minutes.
  • Your dependency status will be determined as you fill out the form. These are some of the questions that will be used to determine your status:
    • Will you be 24 years or older by Jan. 1 of the school year for which you’re applying for aid?
    • Are you married or separated but not divorced?
    • After you turned 13, were both of your parents deceased, were you in foster care, or were you a ward or dependent of the court?
    • Are you an emancipated minor?
    • Do you have children that receive more than half of their support from you?
    If you answer “yes” to any of these, you may qualify as an independent student, which means you could be eligible for additional financial aid. To see the full list of questions, check out the Federal Student Aid website.
  • You can list up to 10 schools on the FAFSA. If you would like to add more schools beyond the initial 10, there is a way of doing so after you’ve received your Student Aid Report (SAR). Bankrate has step-by-step instructions for adding more schools to the FAFSA.
  • Even if you’re not sure which schools you will apply to, list any you are considering on your FAFSA. If you want to add a school after submitting your application, you can do so after online, by phone, or by mail after receiving your Student Aid Report.
  • Yes, you can fill out the FAFSA without a driver’s license. The Department of Education asks for a driver’s license number because it is a common state-issued form of ID and an easy way of verifying your identity– but you do not need one to apply for student aid. If you don’t have a driver’s license, you can skip this question on the FAFSA.

Parent information on the FAFSA

  • If your parents are divorced or separated and living apart, you’ll answer all parental questions using the information of the parent with whom you’ve lived the most during the past 12 months.

    If your parents have equal custody, put the information of whichever parent supports you the most financially.

    If your parents are divorced or separated but living under the same roof, you’ll mark “unmarried and both legal parents living together” when asked about their marital status. Then, provide both parents’ information.
  • If you’re a dependent student, you’ll need your parents’ financial information for the Department of Education to calculate your Estimated Family Contribution or Student Aid Index, which determines your financial need.

    Omitting this information means losing access to grants and other need-based aid, although you may still qualify for unsubsidized federal student loans. In rare cases — for instance, if your parent is missing and you’re unable to contact them — you may be able to file for a dependency override to apply as an independent student.
  • If you are financially dependent on your parents, the FAFSA asks for their educational backgrounds to gauge your Estimated Family Contribution. Some schools may also use this information to determine your eligibility for grant funding.
  • Yes, you can submit a FAFSA if you have a legal guardian or foster parents. You will be considered financially independent, though, so their information will not be included or factored in when calculating your Estimated Family Contribution.

FAFSA Eligibility

  • Although you won’t be eligible for federal student aid as a DACA student, you should still fill out the FAFSA because it can determine your eligibility for state or institutional aid. However, to fill out the FAFSA as a DACA student, you’ll need to have a Social Security number. If you’re a dependent student and your parents don’t have a Social Security number, simply put “000-00-0000” when asked that question.
  • There are no income limits to fill out the FAFSA. That being said, how much financial aid you receive will be determined by your expected family contribution (EFC) or Student Aid Index (SAI), a formula that calculates how much you or your parents can contribute to your college costs based on their financial information.
  • Yes, you can– and you’ll want to. The FAFSA can help you maximize opportunities for scholarships, grants, and other types of student aid for any degree program.

    Some student aid is limited to a certain number of semesters or a maximum dollar amount. For instance, Pell Grants have a cap calculated in Lifetime Eligibility Used (LEU). There are annual and lifetime limits on federal student loans. Borrowing caps vary depending on the lender for private loans as well.
  • Yes. Any student can fill out the FAFSA, including older, returning, and nontraditional students. Affording college as an adult can be a different process from qualifying and paying for school as a dependent student, so in addition to completing the FAFSA, researching aid specifically for adult students can be helpful.

After filling out the FAFSA

  • It can take three to five days for the Department of Education to process your FAFSA if you applied online and seven to 10 days if you applied on paper.

    After processing your application, the Department of Education will send you a summary of your FAFSA, known as your Student Aid Report. This SAR is then sent to the colleges you listed on your FAFSA. The colleges will use this information to calculate your financial aid package, which is typically released to you when application decisions are made.
  • If you make a mistake on your FAFSA, you can mail in written corrections on your paper SAR or edit your information on the FAFSA website.

    The information you can change is limited. You may change your contact information or dependency status, but you cannot always change your financial information. There’s also a deadline to submit corrections. For the 2023-24 award year, you’ll have until Sept. 14, 2024, to make any changes.

    If your parents’ financial situation changes dramatically, you gain or lose a member of your household or you get married, you’ll need to speak to the financial aid office of the school you plan to attend to see if it can make changes for you.
  • You need to reapply for the FAFSA every year you need funding. If you don’t reapply, you won’t be eligible for federal aid for the upcoming academic year. Renewing your FAFSA takes less time than initially applying because some information from the previous year is automatically prefilled.
  • Each college handles financial aid differently, so if your financial circumstances have changed or you have other reasons for wanting to amend or appeal your FAFSA application, it is best to communicate directly with schools.

    This typically involves submitting a financial aid appeal letter, asking your school’s financial aid office to reconsider the aid package they’ve offered to you. You may also, to a very limited extent, appeal certain decisions, such as your eligibility for a Direct PLUS loan.
  • You can choose which financial aid to accept and which offers to decline. You will want to accept free money first (scholarships and grants), followed by earned money (like work-study offers), and only borrow what you need in student loans. If you have questions about how to pay for college or what options are best to accept, consult with your school’s financial aid office.