Filling Out the FAFSA | Federal Student Aid

You know you have to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®), but maybe you’re not sure what to do. 

Let’s review what to expect.

Filling Out the FAFSA

Filling out the FAFSA® can be a straightforward and easy process. The online FAFSA at fafsa.gov will guide you through the application; click on the “Start A New FAFSA” button on the home page, and just follow the directions on the screen. Here are some tips to help you along the way.

Getting an FSA ID
Gathering the Documents Needed to Apply
Getting Help
Starting Your FAFSA® and Providing Your Basic Personal Information
Listing Colleges and/or Career Schools
Determining Your Dependency Status
Reporting Parents’ Information
Providing Financial Information (Before or After Filing Taxes)
 
    Determining When Tax Information Will Be Available Via the IRS Data Retrieval Tool (IRS DRT)
Signing and Submitting the FAFSA
Taking the Next Steps


Getting an FSA ID

You’ll need an FSA ID, a username and password combination that allows you to sign your FAFSA electronically. Your FSA ID also can be used to sign loan contracts and to access certain information online. You can get your FSA ID as you fill out the FAFSA, but you also have the option to get it ahead of time.  Find out how to get an FSA ID and what to do if you forgot your FSA ID.


Woman smiling from behind computer

Getting an FSA ID before you begin the FAFSA could prevent processing delays, and it only takes a few minutes to apply.

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Gathering the Documents Needed to Apply

The FAFSA asks for information about you (your name, date of birth, address, etc.) and about your financial situation. Depending on your circumstances (for instance, when you filed taxes or what tax form you used), you might need the following information or documents as you fill out the FAFSA:

  • Your Social Security number (it’s important that you enter it correctly on the FAFSA!)
  • Your parents’ Social Security numbers if you are a dependent student
  • Your driver’s license number if you have one
  • Your Alien Registration number if you are not a U.S. citizen
  • Federal tax information or tax returns including IRS W-2 information, for you (and your spouse, if you are married), and for your parents if you are a dependent student:
    • IRS 1040, 1040A, 1040EZ
    • Foreign tax return and/or
    • Tax return for Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, the U.S. Virgin Islands, the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, or Palau
  • Records of your untaxed income, such as child support received, interest income, and veterans noneducation benefits, for you, and for your parents if you are a dependent student
  • Information on cash; savings and checking account balances; investments, including stocks and bonds and real estate but not including the home in which you live; and business and farm assets for you, and for your parents if you are a dependent student

Keep these records! You may need them again. Do not mail your records to us.

Learn more about reporting tax information on your FAFSA.

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Keyboards and Laptops

One thing you don’t need for the FAFSA is money! The FAFSA is FREE, so if a website asks you to pay to fill it out, you’re not dealing with the official FAFSA site. Remember, the FAFSA comes from the government, so it’s on a .gov site: fafsa.gov.


Getting Help

If you need help filling out the FAFSA, use these free tools:

  • Read the “Help and Hints” located on the right side of any FAFSA entry page. (The hints change depending on what question you’re on.)
  • Click “Need Help?” at the bottom of any FAFSA entry page (in other words, any page where you’re entering information into the application).
  • Chat (in English or Spanish) with live technical support staff by clicking the “Help” icon with the big question mark at the top of any FAFSA entry page, and then selecting "Contact Us" below "Browse FAQs."
  • Contact the financial aid office at the college or career school you plan to attend.
  • For details about the purpose of FAFSA questions and how information should be reported in some unusual cases, try our guide called Completing the FAFSA.

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Woman with headphones on a computer

Although the FAFSA is compatible with Macintosh, Mac users will have a slightly different experience on fafsa.gov than PC users.


Starting Your FAFSA® and Providing Your Basic Personal Information

If you are starting a FAFSA for the first time, go to fafsa.gov and click on "Start A New FAFSA." As you start your FAFSA, keep the following in mind:

  • Your name and Social Security number must match those on your Social Security card.
  • If you’re concerned about providing your personal information on the login page, choose the virtual keyboard option for additional security.
  • Near the beginning of the application, you’ll create a “save key,” which you’ll use if you start your FAFSA, save it without finishing it, then want to open it again later to finish it. (One benefit of the save key is that students and parents can use this function to pass the FAFSA back and forth if they are completing the FAFSA in separate locations.)
  • If you are applying for a summer session, contact the financial aid office at your college to find out which school year you should select when you complete your FAFSA.

If you filled out a FAFSA last year and want to renew it, click “Login” on the home page, and be sure to select “FAFSA Renewal” once given the option. That way, many of the (nonfinancial) questions will be pre-filled for you. Just be sure to update any information that has changed since last year.

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Listing Colleges and/or Career Schools

While completing the FAFSA, you must list at least one college to receive your information. The schools you list will use your FAFSA information to determine the types and amounts of aid you may receive.

For purposes of federal student aid, it does not matter in what order you list the schools. However, to be considered for state aid, several states require you to list a state school first. Therefore, if you plan to list a state school in your state of residence as one of the schools in this section, you might want to list it first. After the first school, you may wish to list additional schools in alphabetical order.

You can list up to 10 schools on the online FAFSA or up to four schools on a paper FAFSA. (You can add more schools to your FAFSA later.) Schools you list on your FAFSA will automatically receive your FAFSA results electronically.

The information you report on the FAFSA (including the names of the schools you list on the application) is sent to each school you list. OPTIONAL: If it’s important to you that schools not see each other listed, you can submit the FAFSA listing one school (let’s call it School A). Then, after the application is processed (which will take a day or two), go back in to the FAFSA, delete School A, and add School B. School B will then have access to your information but won’t see that you previously listed School A. Repeat this process as many times as you need to, depending on how many schools you want to send your FAFSA information to, and how important it is to you that they not know what other schools you’re listing.

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Determining Your Dependency Status

The FAFSA asks a series of questions that determine whether you are a dependent or independent student for purposes of applying for federal student aid. If you are a dependent student, you must report parent information, as well as your own information, on your FAFSA. If you’re curious, you can find out now whether you’re a dependent student.

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Reporting Parents’ Information

If you’re a dependent student, you’ll need to report parent information on your FAFSA. Visit our page on reporting parent information to find out who counts as your parent, what to do if you don’t live with your parents, and what to do if you don’t have access to your parents’ financial information. 

Open notebook with phone on top

Your FAFSA information is safe with us! Is it safe with you? Read Student Aid and Identity Theft to learn how we safeguard the personal information you report on your online FAFSA. We've also included some tips on what you can do (at home, online, or in the dorm) to keep your identity from being stolen.

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Providing Financial Information (Before or After Filing Taxes)

The FAFSA asks for financial information, including balances of savings and checking accounts and information from tax forms.

  • Use income records for the tax year prior to the academic year for which you are applying: for instance, if you are filling out the 2015–16 FAFSA, you will need 2014 tax information.
  • If you haven’t done your taxes by the time you fill out your FAFSA, it’s okay to estimate the amounts. You might want to base your estimates on last year’s tax return. If your income changed drastically since last year’s tax return, you may click on “Income Estimator” on the FAFSA page that asks for income information. The Income Estimator will help you estimate adjusted gross income (AGI). After you file your taxes, you’ll need to log back in to the FAFSA and must correct any estimated information that was wrong.
  • If you have done your taxes before filling out your FAFSA, be sure to consider the option the FAFSA offers you to use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool (IRS DRT). You may be able to use the tool if you filed your taxes electronically at least two weeks ago or if you filed on paper at least eight weeks ago. Find out when your tax return information will likely be available using the IRS DRT. Here’s how the IRS DRT process works:
      1. The IRS DRT takes you to the IRS website, where you’ll need to log in by providing your name and other information exactly as you provided it on your tax return.
      2. At the IRS site, you can preview your information before agreeing to have it transferred to your FAFSA.
      3. When you return to the FAFSA, you’ll see that questions that are populated with tax information will be marked with “Transferred from the IRS.” Don’t make any changes to those answers (except where Individual Retirement Account or pension rollovers are involved), or you’ll invalidate the information you retrieved.
      4. If you or your parents are married and you’ve used IRS DRT to transfer information into your FAFSA, you’ll see that a value for Income Earned from Work is transferred. Refer to the guidance about Income Earned from Work for student and spouse and guidance about Income Earned from Work for parents in the help topics on the FAFSA site to correctly document this value.

Using the IRS DRT saves you time and effort:

  • You don’t have to find your tax records.
  • You don’t have to worry about making mistakes entering your tax information on your FAFSA.
  • If you use the IRS DRT and don’t change any of the retrieved information in your FAFSA (other than that listed in step 3 above), you won’t need to provide tax transcripts if you’re selected for verification.

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Determining When Tax Information Will Be Available Via the IRS Data Retrieval Tool (IRS DRT)

The IRS has provided the following guidance to help you determine when you should be able to access your tax data using the IRS DRT.

When Will My Tax Return Information Be Available Using the IRS DRT?

The IRS tax return processing times and the availability of the IRS DRT reflected in the chart below are merely guides to help tax filers estimate when they will be able to retrieve their IRS tax return information using the IRS DRT. Specific questions related to the processing of your IRS tax return should be directed to the IRS at 1-800-829-1040.

When a tax return filer who...

If Tax Return Filed Electronically

If Paper Tax Return Filed

At the time his or her tax return was submitted to the IRS, has no amount owed or has an expected refund

  • Generally tax returns are accepted by the IRS within a day or two of the return having been electronically filed with the IRS.
  • In most cases, the IRS DRT is available within two–three weeks after the return has been accepted by the IRS.
  • Generally tax returns are accepted by the IRS when the tax return is received by the IRS.
  • In most cases, the IRS DRT is available within eight–11 weeks after the tax return has been accepted by the IRS.

At the time his or her tax return was submitted to the IRS, has an amount owed and makes a full payment on that amount

  • Generally tax returns are accepted by the IRS within a day or two of the return having been electronically filed with the IRS.
  • In most cases, the IRS DRT is available within two–three weeks after the return has been accepted by the IRS.
  • IRS will process the tax return in June.
  • In most cases, the IRS DRT is available within two–three weeks after the tax return has been processed by the IRS.

Has an amount owed and subsequent to submitting his or her tax return to the IRS, pays the full amount due

  • Generally tax returns are accepted by the IRS within a day or two of the return having been electronically filed with the IRS.
  • In most cases, the IRS DRT is available within three–four weeks after full payment is made.
  • IRS will process the tax return in June.
  • In most cases, the IRS DRT is available within two–three weeks after the tax return has been processed by the IRS.

At the time his or her tax return was submitted to the IRS, has an amount owed and has not paid in full

  • Generally tax returns are accepted by the IRS within a day or two of the return having been electronically filed with the IRS. However, IRS will not process the return until May.
  • In most cases, the IRS DRT is available within two–three weeks after the return has been processed in May.
  • IRS will process the tax return in June.
  • In most cases, the IRS DRT is available within two–three weeks after the tax return has been processed by the IRS.

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Signing and Submitting the FAFSA

Before your FAFSA can be processed, you’ll need to sign and submit it. Here are some tips as you finish your FAFSA:

  • Be sure to sign with your FSA ID (your username and password) so your FAFSA will be processed as quickly as possible.
  • Once you see your confirmation page, you’ll know you’ve successfully submitted your FAFSA. If you provided an e-mail address on your FAFSA, you’ll automatically receive the confirmation page by e-mail. There are a few differences between the e-mailed confirmation and the one you’ll see in the FAFSA before exiting the application, so consider printing or saving your confirmation page before you exit. For example, the e-mailed confirmation won’t include the college graduation, retention, and transfer rates for schools you listed on your FAFSA.
  • When you fill out the FAFSA, you’re also automatically applying for certain state financial aid. In some cases, the state requires an additional application in order to determine your eligibility for state aid. There are some states that have a partnership with the FAFSA that allows you to transfer your information directly into your state aid application, so if you see a link on your FAFSA confirmation page to your state financial aid application, you should click on it.  (Please note that the link won't appear on the e-mailed confirmation page, so be sure to take advantage of it while you're still at the original confirmation page.)
  • Your confirmation page offers the option for the parent information in your FAFSA to be transferred automatically into another student’s FAFSA. So if you have a sibling who needs to fill out a FAFSA, be sure to use this option when you see your confirmation page. (Please note that the link won't appear on the e-mailed confirmation page, so be sure to take advantage of it while you're still at the original confirmation page.)

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Taking the Next Steps

Once you’ve completed your FAFSA, there are more steps you have to take before you receive financial aid. Make sure you know what happens after you submit your FAFSA.

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