How to Apply for a Student Loan (Federal or Private)

Student loans can help you cover the costs of college, including tuition, fees, books, room & board, and meal plans. There are several types of student loans available, but applying for them typically starts with applying for federal student loans with the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

You’ll need to submit all of your financial information with the application, as well as your personal and tax information. Apply for federal student loans, but additional private loans may be necessary for total college expenses, including grants and assistance.

In this article we’ll walk you through the entire process, from filling out the FAFSA to choosing a loan, reviewing how much you can borrow, and assessing which types of loans to pick to help cover your college costs. Plus we’ll compare federal and private student loans side-by-side so you can figure out which one is better for you.

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  • Applying for federal student loans starts with the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).
  • Federal loans are typically preferable to private loans.
  • You’ll need to provide personal and financial information in the FAFSA application, including savings account and investment account balances.
  • You’ll need to list at least one college on your FAFSA application, and information will be sent to any colleges listed.
  • Private student loans require a separate application through your chosen lender, and you qualify based on your creditworthiness.

Complete the FAFSA

The first step to applying for a student loan is to fill out the FAFSA. This application offers multiple ways to pay for college, including:

  • Financial aid programs
  • Federal student loans
  • Parent student loans

Before you sign up for a student loan, the FAFSA will help you see what financial aid programs are available, many of which are public grants that don’t require you to pay them back. This can help you save money and lower the amount you will need to borrow to pay for college.

After reviewing and signing up for assistance, you can borrow any remaining funds needed for your chosen college through federal or private student loans.

Here’s how to fill out the FAFSA to begin your student loan application process:

Apply for a student loan: Create an account

You’ll first want to create an account on the StudentAid.gov website before filling out the FAFSA. This allows you to create an FSA ID that you’ll use to save your application progress and sign your forms electronically. You can create an account at any time.

Note: If you are a dependent student, your parents will also need an FSA ID to sign FAFSA documents electronically as well.

Apply for a student loan: Gather the required documents

Once your FSA ID is created, you’ll want to gather the documents required for submitting a FAFSA application before you start filling it out. This will help expedite the application process and make sure you have everything in one place.

Here’s a list of documents you’ll need when filling out the FAFSA:

  • Social Security number (and your parents’ Social Security numbers, if you are a dependent student)
  • Driver’s license number (if you have one)
  • Alien Registration number (if not a U.S. citizen)
  • Federal tax information (including tax documents, tax returns, W-2 documents, or other requested documentation)
  • Tax return for other U.S. territories (if applicable)
  • Records of other income (not reported on tax returns)
  • Records of cash balances and investment accounts (including stocks, bonds, non-primary residence real estate, and other assets)
  • Business asset information

There is not an exhaustive list of documentation that you may need to provide but will help get you started when preparing to complete the FAFSA form.

Apply for a student loan: Fill out the FAFSA online

Once you’ve created an online account and gathered your documents, you can begin filling out the FAFSA online. You can save your progress along the way and log in at any time to continue your applications.

The earliest you can submit your FAFSA application is October 1st, the year prior to starting college.
Encourage completing the application early to arrange financing for potential college attendance and determine eligibility for federal aid programs.

Apply for a student loan: List colleges

When filling out the FAFSA, the information will be sent to colleges of your choice. You must list at least one college in the FAFSA form to complete your application. Schools will use the information from your FAFSA application to determine the type and amount of financial aid you may receive. 

It’s important to list the schools in order as requested by the state the school is in, as many state aid programs require schools to be listed in a certain order. You can add up to 10 schools to your online FAFSA application, and all schools listed will receive your FAFSA information electronically.

Note: You can list schools you haven’t been accepted to yet (there is no penalty for this). They will receive your information prior to acceptance, and this can expedite the financing process once you do get accepted.

Apply for a student loan: Provide financial information

When filling out the FAFSA, you’ll report your financial information, including recent tax returns and reports of your savings and investment balances. This information is required to determine your federal financial aid eligibility.

There is also an IRS tool that allows you to electronically submit your tax information to the FAFSA application. The IRS Data Retrieval Tool (DRT) makes it easy to share tax information without needing to attach 1040 Forms or other tax documentation.

If your financial situation has drastically changed since your last tax return, you can directly contact your college's admission office to report the update. This allows you to explore new federal aid opportunities.

Apply for a student loan: Submit the application

Once you’ve completed the FAFSA, you can use your FSA ID to sign and submit your FAFSA application. You’ll receive a confirmation email once the form has been successfully submitted. In some states, you can also transfer your FAFSA information to state aid programs.

Note: If your parents are submitting multiple FAFSA forms, there is an option to transfer their information to another form (say, for your sibling).

Student loan application form with pencil and paperclip: Guide on how to apply for a student loan.

Types of Federal Student Loans

Once your FAFSA is submitted and reviewed, you’ll have access to federal student loan options. Here are the types of federal loans available for student loan borrowers, each of which is subject to different interest rates:

  • Direct subsidized loans. Unsubsidized loans pay for your interest while you’re in school and up to six months after graduation. You can have up to $23,000 in subsidized loans for a four-year degree. Subsidized loans have a fixed 5.50% APR interest rate.
  • Direct unsubsidized loans. Unsubsidized loans accrue interest while in school and during payment deferment and grace periods, but you can borrow more. You can get up to $31,000 in unsubsidized loans for a four-year degree (if you’re a dependent student), or up to $57,000 if you’re not a dependent student. Unsubsidized loans have a fixed 7.05% APR interest rate.
  • Direct PLUS loans. PLUS loans are for graduate students professionals, and parents of students. In total (between undergraduate and graduate school) you can borrow up to $138,500, with no more than $65,500 in subsidized loans. Direct PLUS loans have a fixed 8.05% APR interest rate. 
  • Direct Consolidation loans. Direct Consolidation loans let you combine several federal loans into one balance and payment. You can extend your payment terms and lower your monthly payment, and it won’t count against any forgiveness programs.

Related: How do student loans work?

How much can I borrow?

When you apply for federal student loan programs, there are limits on how much you can borrow. The limits are available on a “per year” basis, and total loan limits apply to each type of federal loan. Loan limits are also based on your dependency status.

Here are the current limits (as of 2023):

YearDependent Students Independent Students
First-Year Undergraduate Annual Loan Limit$5,500 (Up to $3,500 in subsidized loans)$9,500 (Up to $3,500 in subsidized loans)
Second-Year Undergraduate Annual Loan Limit$6,500 (Up to $4,500 in subsidized loans)$10,500 (Up to $4,500 in subsidized loans)
Third-Year and Beyond Undergraduate Annual Loan Limit$7,500 per year (Up to $5,500 in subsidized loans)$12,500 per year (Up to $5,500 in subsidized loans)
Graduate or Professional Student Annual Loan LimitNot Applicable$20,500 (unsubsidized only)
Subsidized and Unsubsidized Aggregate Loan Limit$31,000 (Up to $23,000 in subsidized loans)$57,500 for undergraduates (Up to $23,000 in subsidized loans)
$138,500 for graduate or professional students  (Up to $65,500 in subsidized loans)*

*Note: Graduate aggregate limit includes all federal loans received for undergraduate study

When it comes to private student loans, the loan limits are typically up to 100% of the costs of education, including tuition, fees, room & board, and other costs. Some private lenders limit borrowing to $200,000 or more, depending on the college program and borrower creditworthiness.

Federal loans vs private loans

Federal student loans are typically preferred to private student loans for a variety of reasons. Federal student loans typically offer more competitive interest rates that are fixed, while private student loans may charge higher rates based on your creditworthiness. Federal loans also have more borrower protections, including income-based repayment, longer grace periods, forgiveness options, and student loan payments can be paused by the federal government.

Most federal student loans don’t require a credit check, while most private student loans do, making it easier for students with limited credit history or income to qualify for a federal student loan. However, private student loans typically have more loan term options and higher loan amounts available for qualified borrowers.

Related: Federal Vs. Private Student Loans: What’s The Difference?

Here’s how federal student loans and private student loans compare:

Federal Student LoansPrivate Student Loans
Interest ratesFixed rates between 5.50% to 8.05%Variable or fixed rates from 5% to 20% APR (or higher), depending on credit score and qualifications
Loan terms10 years5 to 20 years, depending on the loan
Maximum loan amount$31,000 for dependents
$57,000 for independent undergraduate
$138,500 for graduate program
Up to the total cost of attendance
Loan benefitsSubsidies available, income-driven repayment, grace period available, forgiveness options available, hardship assistance optionsFlexible loan terms may have lower rates
Consolidation and refinancingLoans can be consolidated into a Direct Consolidation LoanCan only be refinanced
Loan forgivenessMultiple optionsTypically not available
Best for?Most student borrowersBorrowing amounts not covered by federal loans, or borrowers with great credit can lower their interest rates

Applying for private student loans

Applying for a private student loan has similar requirements to applying for a federal student loan. You’ll need to submit an online application with your personal information, as well as your financial information, but you shouldn't have to disclose any business or investment assets, as you are not applying for financial aid.

The first step with most private student loan lenders is to complete a “pre-qualification” application, which only requires basic information. The tool will then do a “soft” credit check first and will show you your potential rates and loan terms before completing a full application.

Once you’ve selected your loan terms and completed your application, funding will be sent directly to your chosen school. 

Related: How to consolidate student loans (Federal and Private)

FAQs

How do you qualify for a student loan?

To qualify for a federal student loan, you don’t need great credit or income, but you will need to complete the FAFSA application to be eligible for federal loans. You’ll need to submit your personal and financial information, and may need to submit your parents’ financial information if you are still a dependent. Qualification for a private student loan is based on your credit history, income, and other financial factors.

Can I apply for my own student loans?

Yes, you can apply for your own federal student loans if you are not claimed as a dependent by your parents. But if you are a dependent, your parents will need to submit their personal and financial information on the FAFSA form along with yours. For private lenders, you can apply for your own student loans, but you must be able to qualify based on the lender’s financial requirements and credit score minimums.

Is it hard to get approved for student loans?

It is not hard to be approved for federal student loans, as you don’t have to have a minimum credit score or income to qualify. But when applying for private student loans, it can be hard to qualify if you don’t have an established credit history, or don’t make enough money.

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I'm an award-winning lawyer and personal finance expert featured in Inc. Magazine, CNBC, the Today Show, Business Insider and more. My mission is to make personal finance accessible for everyone. As the largest financial influencer in the world, I'm connected to a community of over 20 million followers across TikTok, Instagram, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. I'm also the host of the podcast Erika Taught Me. You might recognize me from my viral tagline, "I read the fine print so you don't have to!"

I'm a graduate of Georgetown Law, where I founded the Georgetown Law Entrepreneurship Club, and the University of Notre Dame. I discovered my passion for personal finance after realizing I was drowning in over $200,000 of student debt and needed to take action-ultimately paying off my student loans in under 2 years. I then spent years as a corporate lawyer representing Fortune 500 companies, but I quit because I realized I wanted to have an impact; I wanted to help real people and teach them that you can create a financial future for yourself.

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Our aim is to help you make financial decisions with confidence through our objective article content and reviews. Erika.com is part of an affiliate sales network and receives compensation for sending traffic to partner sites, such as MileValue.com. This compensation may impact how and where links appear on this site. This site does not include all financial companies or all available financial offers. This in no way affects our recommendations or article content.

Advertiser Disclosure

Our aim is to help you make financial decisions with confidence through our objective article content and reviews. Erika.com is part of an affiliate sales network and receives compensation for sending traffic to partner sites, such as MileValue.com. This compensation may impact how and where links appear on this site. This site does not include all financial companies or all available financial offers. This in no way affects our recommendations or article content.

Advertiser Disclosure

Our aim is to help you make financial decisions with confidence through our objective article content and reviews. Erika.com is part of an affiliate sales network and receives compensation for sending traffic to partner sites, such as MileValue.com. This compensation may impact how and where links appear on this site. This site does not include all financial companies or all available financial offers. This in no way affects our recommendations or article content.