The Ultimate FAFSA Guide – Application Help, Deadlines, Phone Numbers, More

NOTE: The FAFSA for the 2020-2021 school year is now available and should be filled out ASAP to meet deadlines set by your state or colleges of choice.

What is the FAFSA?

FAFSA stands for Free Application for Federal Student Aid. It is a form you must fill out in order to be eligible for financial aid from the U.S. government as well as to be eligible for various money awards given directly from states or specific universities.

The FAFSA is used by all public state universities and some private universities as well. (If you are applying at a private university, check to see if you need to fill out the FAFSA and/or a different application such as the CSS Profile.)

Money given may be in the form of grants, student loans, and work-study opportunities. The information you provide on the FAFSA, mostly about your family’s finances, helps determine how much aid the student is eligible for and what type of aid will be offered.

The FAFSA application process is administered by Federal Student Aid, an office of the U.S. Department of Education. The U.S. government is the largest provider of financial aid in the country. About 20 million FAFSA applications are submitted each year.

What is the deadline to submit the FAFSA?

The FAFSA is made available in early fall, usually October 1. You want to complete your FAFSA as soon as possible once the form is available. Technically, the deadline for federal purposes is around the end of the student’s first year at school, but do not wait this long! Many states and individual schools have much earlier deadlines for scholarships and other aid options. Financial aid is often given on a first-come first-served basis until funds have been depleted, so you want your application in while the most money is still available!

  • For the 2020-2021 school year, the Federal Deadline for the FAFSA is June 30, 2021. But you want to have your FAFSA completed much sooner! Contact schools where you may apply to find out their deadlines. And see this page for information on deadlines by state.

How do I fill out the FAFSA?

The easiest way to complete the FAFSA is to do it online. It is highly recommended you use the online option, because it is easier to correct errors if there are any problems with your application. (However, you can choose to send in a paper application or printed PDF.)

Assuming you are completing the FAFSA online, the first thing to do is to get your FSA ID, which is a fancy name for a username and password to access the system. To get your FSA ID:

  • Go to and click the “Create an FSA ID now” link on that page.
  • You will create an FSA ID for yourself only! If you are a student headed to college or career school but you are still a dependent of your parents, you still must get an FSA ID for yourself. Your parent or parents will get a separate FSA ID.

Now, go to the FAFSA online application and log in:

  • You’ll see that you can log in with the student’s FSA ID here, OR start filling out the form as the parent.
  • If logging in as the student, use a permanent e-mail address, not a current student e-mail or other address that you may not have access to in the near future.

The “Save Key”

Once you have begun the FAFSA online, you will get a “save key,” which is a temporary password that allows you to go back to a FAFSA you have started and not completed. This is also useful if the parent and child both need to work on the FAFSA but are in two different locations. So, save your Save Key!

Key Information to Understand While Filling Out the FAFSA

  • You can choose up to 10 schools that will receive your FAFSA.
  • When choosing schools, you will be given options for housing — on-campus, off-campus, commuter/live with parents. These will help a school understand how much aid you might need. If you’re not sure what your plans are, it makes sense to choose “on-campus.” (Some schools require non-commuters to live on campus.)
  • You will be asked about “dependency.” Most people entering college are dependent students, meaning they live with one or both of their parents and are not the head of the household. Assuming you are a dependent, your parents’ income and assets will be used to help determine your financial aid. Independent students are usually older students who are financially responsible for themselves, or those who do not have their parents in their lives for whatever reason. (Go here if you need to understand more about this.)

Using the IRS Data Retrieval Tool

You will be asked for tax return information on the FAFSA. You have the option to have the IRS (Internal Revenue Service) add your tax return information automatically on to the FAFSA, using the IRS Data Retrieval Tool. (Exceptions: Tax returns from Puerto Rico or outside the U.S. can not be retrieved by the IRS online.)

Note that when the information is added to your FAFSA from the IRS, you will not see the actual numbers in the form. This is for security reasons. You should see a message that says something like “Transferred from the IRS” in the space where the tax information would be added.

Note that for the school year 2020-2021, you will use your 2018 tax return on the FAFSA.

After Submitting the Application

After you submit the FAFSA, you will see some preliminary estimates on your screen of how much financial aid you may receive, as well as an estimate of how much your family may be expected to contribute to school costs. This Student Aid Report is interesting but your eventual financial aid award will be determined by each school that you are considering, so don’t assume these numbers are the final decision.

Follow Up: Your FAFSA should be automatically directed to each school you listed on the application. However, don’t just assume that everything worked perfectly. Follow up with the schools you listed on the FAFSA to be sure they got your application, perhaps two weeks after you have submitted. All you have to do is find the phone number of the financial aid office at each school and give them a call. You would hate to wait around for a school to contact you only to find that something went wrong and they never got your FAFSA.

FAFSA Phone Numbers

If you are still having trouble getting your FAFSA completed, call the Federal Student Aid Information Center at 1-800-433-3243.

International callers can phone 1-334-523-2691. TTY calls, use 1-800-730-8913.

Good luck!