The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, is a critical document for any student planning to attend college. This form is used by the federal government to determine your eligibility for federal student aid, both for incoming and returning students. It is also used by many colleges and universities to make decisions about need-based financial aid.

Completing the FAFSA is a necessary step for every student who will need financial aid in order to attend college, as it is the ticket to obtaining federal student loans—which are typically viewed as more beneficial than private student loans—as well as aid from colleges and universities.

Of course, knowing that you need to complete the FAFSA doesn’t make it any less intimidating. It can be daunting to know that you need to submit a large packet of paperwork each year in order to qualify for financial aid but the process does not have to be stressful. 

By learning about what the FAFSA is and how you can prepare for it, you can get it done more quickly—and take the anxiety out of the FAFSA.

How Long Does It Take to Complete the FAFSA?

According to the U.S. Department of Education, it should take less than 30 minutes to file a FAFSA. However, most students take approximately an hour to complete the FAFSA.

To complete the FAFSA, you will need the following information: Social Security number; alien registration number (if you are not a U.S. citizen); federal income tax returns, W-2s, and other records of money earned; bank statements and records of investments (if applicable); records of untaxed income (if applicable); and a FSA ID to sign electronically.

If you are filing as a dependent student, you will also need to gather this information for your parents as well.

Why Might It Take Longer for Some Borrowers to File the FAFSA?

Some students choose not to file the FAFSA via the online filing system available through the Department of Education’s website. For these students, filling out the paper version of the FAFSA will take an average of three hours, including the time that it takes to read the instructions and gather the necessary information.

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How Can You File the FAFSA Faster?

There are ways to reduce the time that it takes to file your FAFSA. One of the easiest ways to do so is to use the built-in tool through the FAFSA platform, the IRS Data Retrieval Tool. Using the data retrieval tool will allow you to transfer information from your family’s prior year federal income tax returns to the FAFSA if your family is eligible to use this tool.

Before you start the FAFSA process, make sure that you have your FSA (Federal Student Aid) ID ready. It may take a few days for this ID number to be ready, so create yours in advance so that it is ready to go.

Next, have a list of schools ready to put down. You will be asked where you are applying, so have a list—you can always edit it later—to fill in this question. Finally, gather all of your documentation so that you have everything that you need in one place. That will make it easier for you to work your way through the FAFSA without going off to look up information that you need.

Avoiding FAFSA Scams

While filing the FAFSA can be time-consuming and a bit confusing, it doesn’t cost you anything. There are companies out there that prey on students and families who are overwhelmed by the process and offer to submit applications for you—for a fee. Avoid those companies, and be sure to only work through the Department of Education’s website.