The University Network

The Complete Guide To FAFSA

*Updated May 10, 2019

The FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) is a college student’s gateway to financial aid, be it grants, work-study programs available at your school, federal student loans, or state and school financial aid awards.

Current and prospective colleges need a completed FAFSA form to determine a student’s eligibility for various forms of financial aid. It is, therefore, critical that you (and your parents) get it right when completing the FAFSA form.

The FAFSA form is long and complicated, but completing it doesn’t have to be stressful. You will be okay as long as you are organized, follow directions well, and pay attention to the details.

Here is what you need to know to help you complete your FAFSA form correctly and on time.

1. Start the process early

October 1 is the open date — the first date that the FAFSA form is available for use — for the next school year.

Open date for 2019-20 school year → October 1, 2018

Open date for 2020-21 school year  → October 1, 2019

Ideally, you should start gathering the documents/information you need — list provided in #4 below — a month or two before October 1. This way, you will be set and ready to fill out the FAFSA form on October 1 or shortly thereafter.

Starting the process early will give you room to maneuver if you should run into problems with your application.

If you’re applying for aid for the 2019-20 school year and you haven’t completed your FAFSA form, you need to start now.

Note: If you’re applying for a summer session, check with your school’s financial aid office to find out which school year would apply.

2. Stay on top of deadlines

It’s crucial that you stay on top of deadlines. If you miss a deadline, you won’t get financial aid for that school year.

Unfortunately, this is not as easy as it sounds. Why? Because you have to track not just the federal deadline, but also various individual college deadlines and state deadlines.

Pro Tip: The best way to keep track of all deadlines is to start a spreadsheet, listing the due dates and any additional forms you are required to submit by individual states or colleges.

  • When is FAFSA due?

June 30 of the school year for which you’re applying for financial aid is the federal deadline for online applications. This means that if you haven’t filed your FAFSA form for the 2018-19 school year, you still have some time left. Your online application must be submitted by midnight Central time (CT) on June 30, 2019. If you have already filed your 2018-19 FAFSA, you have until midnight CT on September 12, 2019 to correct any errors or update any information.

Federal deadline for 2019-20 school year → June 30, 2020 (midnight CT)

2019-20 Corrections/Updates → September 12, 2020 (midnight CT)

Federal deadline for 2020-21 school year  → June 30, 2021 (midnight CT)

2020-21 Corrections/Updates → September 12, 2021 (midnight CT)

  • What are the college financial aid deadlines?

Colleges may have their own deadlines, which may be different from the federal deadline. If you’re a freshman or transfer student, contact the financial aid office at all the colleges you would like to attend and find out not just the deadline but also what you need to accomplish by that date. For example, ask if the college is using the date of receipt or the date the FAFSA is processed as its deadline. For returning students, you just need to check with your current college.

  • What are the state financial aid deadlines?

The deadline for state financial aid may be the same as the federal deadline, or it may vary by state and by the type of aid within each state. For example, New York State has the same deadline as the federal deadline, i.e., June 30, 2020 (midnight CT) for the 2019-20 school year. Florida’s deadline for the 2019-20 school year is May 15, 2019 (date processed). In California, the deadline depends on the type of aid — March 2, 2019 is the deadline for many state financial aid programs for the 2019-20 school year, while September 2, 2019 (date postmarked) is the deadline for applications for additional community college grants.

To find out the deadline and additional forms, if any, for each state, check here. It’s easy — all you have to do is select the state and the school year for which you are applying for aid.

Pro Tip: To ensure that you receive state financial aid, submit your FAFSA form as close to October 1 as possible. Delaying your application increases the risk of your state running out of funds by the time your FAFSA form is received or processed.

3. Determine if you’re a dependent student

Your status as a “dependent” or “independent” student is important because FAFSA requires different information based on your status. If you’re a dependent, you will be asked to submit your parents’ information in addition to yours. If you’re an independent student, you only have to submit your own information, unless you’re married, in which case you have to submit your spouse’s information as well.

So, how do you determine if you’re a dependent student?

Answer these FAFSA questions to help you determine your dependency status for the purpose of applying for financial aid:

1. Will you be 24 or older by Jan. 1 of the school year for which you are applying for financial aid? — For example, if you plan to start school in August 2019 for the 2019–20 school year, will you be 24 by Jan. 1, 2019 (i.e., were you born before Jan. 1, 1996)?

2. Are you married or separated but not divorced?

3. Will you be working toward a master’s or doctorate degree (such as M.A., MBA, M.D., J.D., Ph.D., Ed.D., etc.)?

4. Do you have children who receive more than half of their support from you?

5. Do you have dependents (other than children or a spouse) who live with you and receive more than half of their support from you?

6. Are you currently serving on active duty in the U.S. armed forces for purposes other than training?

7. Are you a veteran of the U.S. armed forces?

(Note: You can consider yourself a veteran only if you satisfy two tests, or can satisfy these tests by June 30 of the school year for which you seek financial aid (i.e., June 30, 2020 for 2019-20 school year.

a) You had been in active duty (including basic training) in the U.S. armed forces, or you are a National Guard or Reserves enlistee who was called to active duty for other than state or training purposes, or you were a cadet or midshipman at one of the service academies; AND

b) Your release was NOT dishonorable.)

8. At any time since you turned age 13, were both of your parents deceased, were you in foster care, or were you a ward or dependent of the court?

9. Are you an emancipated minor or are you in a legal guardianship as determined by a court?

10. Are you an unaccompanied youth who is homeless or self-supporting and at risk of being homeless?

You are a dependent student if your answer is “NO” to ALL 10 questions. This is true, even if you’re not living with your parents, they don’t claim you as a dependent on their tax forms, or you’re paying your own expenses, including educational expenses.

You are an independent student if your answer is “YES” to ANY one of the 10 questions, in which case you may not be required to provide parent information on your FAFSA form.

Note: If you are unclear about any of these questions (or have any questions during the application process), don’t hesitate to ask your college’s financial aid office.

4. Collect the documents you need

Start collecting the documents you need to support your application before you (and your parents) actually sit down to fill out the FAFSA form. Organize them by category and have them handy.

Pro Tip: Use paper clips to keep each category of documents together, place them in a manila folder clearly labeled “FAFSA,” and keep the folder somewhere safe.

What are the documents you need for FAFSA?

The documents or information you actually need will depend on your status as a “dependent” or an “independent” student, U.S. citizenship, and the tax forms you (and your parents) used. To make it easier for you, the documents you need have been organized into four distinct categories:

  • Dependent student and U.S. citizen → PROCEED to “A” below
  • Dependent student and non-U.S. citizen → PROCEED to “B” below
  • Independent student and U.S. citizen → PROCEED to “C” below
  • Independent student and non-U.S. citizen → PROCEED to “D” below

A. If you’re a DEPENDENT student and U.S. citizen, you will need:

  • Your Social Security card or number
  • Your parents’ Social Security numbers and birthdates
  • Your driver’s license (if you have one)
  • Your income tax returns + your parents’ returns
    • IRS Form 1040, 1040A, or 1040EZ
    • Foreign tax return, if any
    • Tax return for Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, the U.S. Virgin Islands, the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, or Palau

FAFSA uses financial information from two years before the school year in question.

2019-20 school year → 2017 tax returns

2020-21 school year → 2018 tax returns

  • Your IRS W-2 form + your parents’ W-2s — like the federal income tax returns, these should be from two years before the school year in question.

2019-20 school year → 2017 W-2s

2020-21 school year → 2018 W-2s

  • Records of your untaxed income + your parents’ untaxed income — such as child support received, interest income, and veterans noneducation benefits, etc.
  • Your cash information and savings and checking balances (from bank statements) + your parents’ cash info and bank balances
  • Your investments information + your parent’s investments — such as real estate (excluding the home you live in), stocks and bonds, business and farm assets, etc.

B. If you’re a DEPENDENT student and non-U.S. citizen, you will need:

  • Your Social Security card or number
  • Your parents’ Social Security numbers and birthdates
  • Your driver’s license (if you have one)
  • Your Alien Registration number
  • Your income tax returns + your parents’ returns
    • IRS Form 1040, 1040A, or 1040EZ
    • Foreign tax return, if any
    • Tax return for Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, the U.S. Virgin Islands, the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, or Palau

FAFSA uses financial information from two years before the school year in question.

2019-20 school year → 2017 tax returns

2020-21 school year → 2018 tax returns

  • Your IRS W-2 form + your parents’ W-2s — like the federal income tax returns, these should be from two years before the school year in question.

2019-20 school year → 2017 W-2s

2020-21 school year → 2018 W-2s

  • Records of your untaxed income + your parents’ untaxed income — such as child support received, interest income, and veterans noneducation benefits, etc.
  • Your cash information and savings and checking balances (from bank statements) + your parents’ cash info and bank balances
  • Your investments information + your parent’s investments — such as real estate (excluding the home you live in), stocks and bonds, business and farm assets, etc.

C. If you’re an INDEPENDENT student and U.S. citizen, you will need:

  • Your Social Security card or number
  • Your driver’s license (if you have one)
  • Your income tax returns:
    • IRS Form 1040, 1040A, or 1040EZ
    • Foreign tax return, if any
    • Tax return for Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, the U.S. Virgin Islands, the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, or Palau

FAFSA uses financial information from two years before the school year in question.

2019-20 school year → 2017 tax returns

2020-21 school year → 2018 tax returns

  • Your IRS W-2 form — like the federal income tax returns, these should be from two years before the school year in question.

2019-20 school year → 2017 W-2s

2020-21 school year → 2018 W-2s

  • Records of your untaxed income — such as child support received, interest income, and veterans noneducation benefits, etc.
  • Your cash information and savings and checking balances (from bank statements)
  • Your investments information — such as real estate (excluding the home you live in), stocks and bonds, business and farm assets, etc.

Note: If you are married, you need to provide your spouse’s personal and financial information as well.

D. If you’re an INDEPENDENT student and non-U.S. citizen, you will need:

  • Your Social Security card or number
  • Your driver’s license (if you have one)
  • Your Alien Registration number
  • Your income tax returns
    • IRS Form 1040, 1040A, or 1040EZ
    • Foreign tax return, if any
    • Tax return for Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, the U.S. Virgin Islands, the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, or Palau

FAFSA uses financial information from two years before the school year in question.

2019-20 school year → 2017 tax returns

2020-21 school year → 2018 tax returns

  • Your IRS W-2 form — like the federal income tax returns, these should be from two years before the school year in question.

2019-20 school year → 2017 W-2s

2020-21 school year → 2018 W-2s

  • Records of your untaxed income — such as child support received, interest income, and veterans noneducation benefits, etc.
  • Your cash information and savings and checking balances (from bank statements)
  • Your investments information — such as real estate (excluding the home you live in), stocks and bonds, business and farm assets, etc.

Note: If you are married, you need to provide your spouse’s personal and financial information as well.

For information on how DACA students can fill out the FAFSA form, check here.

5. Figure out who counts as your parents

I’m not kidding. You think you know who your parents are, but the picture is not so clear for purposes of financial aid.

Let’s start with the definition of a parent.

A “parent” must be a legal (biological or adoptive) parent or stepparent, or a person deemed by the state to be a legal parent, such as the parent listed on your birth certificate. (It doesn’t matter if your parents are of the same gender.)

So, who are your parents for FAFSA purposes?

Here’s a general guideline:

  • If your parents are married to each other, they both count.
  • If your parents are not married to each other but they live together, they both count.
  • If your parent is widowed or was never married, that is the parent who counts.

The situation is more complicated when your parents are divorced or separated (either legally separated or because they choose to live separate lives even though they are married).

If they are divorced or separated and don’t live together, the parent who counts is the parent with whom you lived more in the past 12 months. If that parent is remarried, your stepparent counts as well. (A stepparent doesn’t count if widowed and he or she did not legally adopt you.)

But if the time you lived with them is the same, then the parent who counts is the parent who provided more financial support in the past 12 months or the most recent 12 months in which you actually received support from a parent. If that parent is remarried, your stepparent counts as well.

If your parents are divorced and live together, they both count — check off “Unmarried and both parents living together” in your FAFSA form.

If your parents are separated and live together, they both count — check off “Married or remarried” and NOT “Divorced or separated” in your FAFSA form.

The picture gets even more fuzzy if your parents’ marital status has changed since they filed taxes for the year in question. Let’s walk through various scenarios, using 2019-20 school year for your FAFSA application, which requires 2017 tax information.

The key here is that you’re answering the FAFSA question on marital status “as of today”, i.e., the day you’re filling out the FAFSA form.

Scenario 1 — Your parent was NOT married in 2017 and didn’t file taxes as married. However, on the day you’re filling out the FAFSA form, that parent is married. This means that you will need your stepparent’s 2017 income on your FAFSA form.

Scenario 2 — Your parent was married in 2017 and filed taxes as married. But the parent is no longer married on the day you’re filling out the FAFSA form. This means that you will need to deduct your parent’s former spouse’s 2017 income from your FAFSA form.

Scenario 3 — Your parent was married in 2017 and filed taxes as married. But the parent is divorced and married to another person on the day you’re filling out the FAFSA form. This means that you will need to deduct your parent’s former spouse’s 2017 income, but add the new spouse’s 2017 income.

6. Create your FSA ID

Now that you know what and whose information you need to report, it’s time to create your FSA ID — a unique username and password combination. This will only take you a few minutes, and it will make your application so much easier.

Note: You only have to create your FSA ID once, although you need to update your password every 18 months. Keep your FSA ID somewhere safe, as you will need it to renew your FAFSA in subsequent years.

With your FSA ID, you can sign your FAFSA form electronically, access the myStudentAid app, sign your loan contracts, and access your financial aid information online.

To get started, click on “Create Your FSA ID Now” and follow the instructions.

Step 1 — Enter your email address, username and password. → click “CONTINUE”

Step 2 — Enter your personal identification information — name, date of birth, and Social Security number. Be sure to enter them accurately! → click “CONTINUE”

Note: Your name, date of birth, and Social Security number must MATCH EXACTLY the information on your Social Security card, so it ties in with your Social Security Administration’s records.

Step 3 — Enter your mailing address, confirm if you wish to register a mobile phone number that you can use to reset password and retrieve username (provide the number if you do), and set your language preference. → click “CONTINUE”

Step 4 — Complete the “challenge questions and answers” segment. The information you provide will be used to retrieve your password or username and to unlock your account. → click “CONTINUE”

Step 5 — Verify your information. If there are any errors, select “PREVIOUS” and correct the errors. Otherwise, review the terms and conditions and click the box to accept them. → click “CONTINUE”

Step 6 — If you elected to register a mobile phone number, you will receive a secure code by text. Enter the code to verify your phone number. → click “SUBMIT”

Step 7 — You will receive another secure code by email. Enter the code to verify your email address. → click “SUBMIT” and you are DONE.

Note: Your email and mobile number can only be associated with your FSA ID.

Your FSA ID will be ready for use once your information is confirmed with the Social Security Administration. Your FSA ID is ONLY for YOU to use. DON’T SHARE it with anyone, even your parents.

If you are a dependent student, one of your parents will need to create his or her own FSA ID in order to sign your FAFSA form electronically.

If you have siblings in college, your parents can use the same FSA ID, but each of your siblings will need to create his or her own FSA ID.

Note: If your parent doesn’t have a Social Security number, he or she won’t be able to create an FSA ID. If that’s your situation, you should print out the signature page for your parent(s) to sign and send it by mail to the address provided in the FAFSA form.

7. Start your FAFSA form

There are 4 ways to complete the FAFSA form:

  • Complete it online at the official website;
  • Complete it using the IOS app or Android App;
  • Fill out 2018-19 or 2019-20 FAFSA PDF form online, print it out and mail it for processing; and
  • Call 800-433-3243 or 334-523-2691 — TTY 800-730-8913 — for a hard copy of the FAFSA form to be sent to you, complete it and mail it for processing.

The first two options are the most convenient, but your parent(s) — if you’re a dependent student — must have an FSA ID in order to sign your FAFSA form electronically.

A. Online application

To apply online as a new user, click “START HERE” and use your FSA ID to start the form. This will load your personal information — name, date of birth and Social Security number — and limit errors with the application.

If you’re a returning user, you can simply “LOG IN.” Be sure to select “I am the student” and enter your FSA ID.

Click “FAFSA RENEWAL” as your option, which will pre-fill many non-financial questions from your previous FAFSA application. It is important, though, that you update any information, if necessary.

You should create a temporary password — a “Save Key” — almost right away. This will allow you to save your FAFSA form without finishing it and return to it later. You can even share the “Save Key” with your parents, so they can access the form to complete their portion. This comes in handy particularly if you and your parents are filling out the FAFSA form from two separate locations.

B. Application by mobile app

You need an FSA ID to use either of the apps.

If you’re a new user, click “START HERE” and enter your FSA ID.

If you’re a returning user, you can simply log in as a student and your FAFSA renewal will automatically pop up.

Be sure to create a “Save Key,” as mentioned above.

C. PDF or hard copy application

If you are filling out a PDF or hard copy application, be sure to follow the instructions on how to fill out each field correctly. In terms of mechanics, for example, you should use black ink, fill circles completely, use capital letters, and skip a box between words. And don’t use cents for dollar amounts. For example, if your income is $12,500, enter 12500 — and not 12500.00 — in the appropriate boxes, otherwise the income would be reported as $1,250,000. Commas are already provided to separate groups of thousands, so it shouldn’t be a problem. If you’re in doubt, start filling out the number from the rightmost position.

8. Fill out your personal information

This is an easy section where you provide your basic information — name, date of birth, citizenship status, gender, marital status, and so on.

Note: Since the FAFSA is a student’s application, the words “you” and “your” apply to you (the student), not your parents.

9. Fill out your financial information

If you’ve already gathered the documents in #4 above, use the financial information from the relevant documents.

2019-20 school year → 2017 tax returns

2020-21 school year → 2018 tax returns

Don’t worry if the financial situation has changed significantly since you (and your parents) filed taxes. Just answer the FAFSA questions as required, submit the FAFSA form, and then call the financial aid office at your intended/present college to explain your situation.

An easy way to complete this section is to select the Internal Revenue Service Data Retrieval Tool (IRS DRT), which will automatically transfer your tax information to your FAFSA form. Check here to find out when your tax return information will likely be available via IRS DRT.

10. Verify if you’re a dependent student

This part should be easy, as you’ve already walked through it to determine if you’re a dependent student, using the questions in #3 above.

11. Have your parents fill out their information

You and your parent(s) need to complete this part only if you’re a dependent student.

This part should be easy, as you’ve figured out who counts as your parents for FAFSA purposes from #5 above and you’ve already collected the required documents from #4 above.

If you can’t provide parent information, you can indicate that on your FAFSA form, but call your school’s financial aid office right away and explain your situation.

If you have a special circumstance that prevents you from providing your parents’ information, it will be up to the school’s financial aid office to decide if you can be considered as an independent student. If your parents refuse to provide their information, you will be limited to unsubsidized loans, which require you to pay interest even when you’re in school, in grace period, or in deferment. In both cases, the decision will rest on the school’s financial aid office.

For details on how your special circumstance, or your parents’ refusal to provide information, impacts your FAFSA application, check here.

If your parents are concerned about providing information because they are non-U.S. citizens, let them know that the FAFSA form does not inquire about their citizenship status and that it doesn’t affect your application.

Check here for tips on how to report your parents’ information if they are non-U.S. citizens.

12. Choose your schools

You must specify at least one school on your FAFSA form. Check here to find the Federal School Code.

If you’re applying online or by mobile app, you can list up to 10 schools. For FAFSA PDF, you are limited to 4 schools initially, but you can add to your list.

You can always add or delete a school, but the maximum schools for online or mobile app applications is 10.

The financial aid office at your chosen schools will use your FAFSA information to determine your aid based on your Expected Family Contribution (EFC). Your EFC is an index number that varies from school to school based on their cost of education. Check this EFC formula guide to figure out how your EFC is determined.

If you’re applying for state aid, some states require you to list your schools in a specific order.

Note: Your school list is confidential and cannot be seen by another school on your list.

13. Sign and submit your FAFSA form

Your last step — after double-checking the accuracy of the information you’ve entered on your FAFSA form — is to sign your form.

For quick processing, sign with your FSA ID or use your FSA ID to log in.

If you’re a dependent student, your parent(s) are required to sign the form as well. If they don’t have an FSA ID, simply print out the signature page for them to sign and mail it in.

Next, submit your form — online is efficient and quick (just 35 days to process). Mail-in applications will take 710 days to process.

For seamless submission, be sure that your browser allows pop-ups from fafsa.ed.gov.

Note: Submit early, so your financial aid is in place by the time you start school. Otherwise, you may have to cover your tuition and other fees until the financial aid is disbursed.

14. Check your FAFSA status

Your FAFSA status is available immediately after an online application, or 710 days after mail-in application.

When your FAFSA is processed, you will receive your Student Aid Report (SAR) from the office of Federal Student Aid — within a few days of online application or 2 weeks of mail-in application. Your SAR contains basic information about the FAFSA information you provided, but does not specify how much aid you will get.

Check your SAR for accuracy and correct your FAFSA information right away if you made a mistake.

Next, you will receive aid offers, or award letters, from the schools you have been accepted at. You should compare them to see what’s best for you — your goal is to borrow as little as possible, so you are not overburdened with student debt.

Note: You must fill out the FAFSA every year if you want to stay eligible for financial aid, so be sure to keep abreast of any changes in the form and comply with deadlines.