If you qualify for a VA loan, you can obtain a mortgage without needing a down payment or having to pay for mortgage insurance. However, you need to apply for a VA loan certificate of eligibility before you can apply for the loan.

What is a VA certificate of eligibility?

A VA loan certificate of eligibility (COE) is the first step toward getting a VA loan. The COE is provided by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, and serves as evidence that you meet the requirements to be eligible for a VA loan. Without it, you won’t be able to take advantage of low VA loan rates and other benefits.

How to get a VA loan certificate of eligibility

To get a VA loan certificate of eligibility, you’ll need to meet some key requirements. These vary based on your status (active duty or veteran), the period of time you served and your discharge status:

Qualifications for a VA certificate of eligibility

  • If you are on active duty now, you need to have served at least 90 continuous days.
  • For veterans, the service requirements are a bit more complex, varying from 90 days of active duty to 24 continuous months. Your discharge status is also a factor. To determine if you meet the requirements, review the VA’s standards.

Where to get a VA certificate of eligibility

There are three main options for getting your certificate of eligibility:

  1. Apply online: The VA eBenefits online portal is the easiest and fastest route to get your certificate of eligibility.
  2. Ask your mortgage lender: If you know which VA lender you’d like to work with, you can ask the lender for help obtaining your COE.
  3. Apply via mail: You can print out the VA’s COE request form, complete it and mail it to the appropriate regional loan center (the addresses are on the form). Keep in mind that this option will take additional time.

What you need to get a VA COE

If you are currently active, you’ll need a statement of service signed by your commander, adjutant or personnel office that includes your name, your Social Security number and date of birth. It’ll also need to document the day you started your service, any lost time and the name of the command providing the information.

If you are a veteran, you’ll need your discharge or separation papers (DD214).

If you are a discharged member of the National Guard or Reserves and were never activated, you’ll need to meet a few other requirements in order to document your eligibility. Check the VA’s complete list of what you need for your application.

Surviving spouses also have some additional paperwork. You’ll need to complete the VA’s Request for Determination of Loan Guaranty Eligibility–Unmarried Surviving Spouses form. Then, you’ll need to track down your spouse’s military records, which you can do via the National Archives; a copy of your marriage license; and a copy of your spouse’s death certificate.

How long does it take to receive a COE?

If you apply online and your eligibility is easy to verify, getting your COE can be a relatively quick process: roughly 30 days. If you can, though, apply early, and leave six weeks for processing.

In rare cases, verifying service and eligibility can take time. For example, if your discharge was classified as “less than honorable,” you can go through the VA’s Character of Discharge review process, which can take up to a full year.

What do I do when I get my COE?

When you have your COE, it’s time to move forward with the VA loan process. Receiving a COE doesn’t automatically mean you are approved for a VA loan; it only means you’re eligible to apply for one. You’ll still need to go through the application process and meet the lender’s criteria, which can vary from lender to lender.

The process looks fairly similar to other loans at this point, and involves reviewing your credit history, your debt-to-income ratio and your overall financial picture.

When does a COE expire?

Your VA home loan certificate of eligibility never expires; once you’re eligible, you’re all set. However, there is one caveat to that rule: If you receive your COE while you are on active duty, you will eventually need to obtain a new COE once your status changes to a veteran.