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Student loans can help with paying for college, but there’s some planning that goes into getting them. You’ll need to apply, get approved, then have the loans disbursed—it’s not instant cash flow.
It can take several weeks to several months to get federal student loans and longer still for any leftover funds to be paid out to you. Private student loans can be faster, though they lack some of the perks federal student loans offer. So you may only consider them as a last resort if you need to borrow to pay for school.
If you believe you’ll need student loans to pay for school it’s important to understand what kind of timeline you might be dealing with.
In this guide:
- How long does it take to get federal student loans?
- How long does it take to get private student loans?
- Can I check the status of my student loan?
- How far before the school year should I apply for a student loan?
How long does it take to get federal student loans?
The timing for getting federal student loans is different for everyone. Generally, it can take a few weeks to a few months to go from the application stage to loan disbursement.
The process can take longer if you’re a first-time borrower and first-time undergraduate. In that case, you may have to wait until 30 days after the start of the enrollment period before the school can disburse student loan funds. Your school may recommend applying for federal student loans at least four to six weeks before you’ll need the funding to cover your costs for attendance.
Understanding the steps in the process can make it easier to determine how long it takes to get federal student loans.
1. Applying for federal student loans
Time estimate: 1 hour or less
You’ll need to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to start the process. Completing the FAFSA can take an hour or so, and you can speed things up by organizing key documents beforehand. Some of the information you’ll need to provide includes:
- Estimated net worth
- Number of people in your household
- Number of people in the household who are attending school
If you’re a dependent student, you’ll need to provide financial information for yourself and your parents. You won’t need to share any information about debts or credit history, though a credit check is required for graduate PLUS loans and Parent PLUS loans.
Be aware that colleges and states can impose their own deadlines for applying. Getting your application in early may not fast-track the approval process, but it can allow you to receive priority consideration for student loan funding.
2. FAFSA processing
Time estimate: 3 to 10 days
If you submit your FAFSA online, processing can take three to five days. If you mail in a paper FAFSA application, processing can take seven to 10 days once it’s received.
After processing, you’ll receive a Student Aid Report (SAR). This report includes details from your FAFSA, along with your Expected Family Contribution (EFC). The EFC determines your eligibility for federal aid, including student loans and Pell grants.
3. Financial aid award
Time estimate: Depends on the school
Your school receives a copy of the SAR and reviews it to determine how much aid to offer. The amount of time this step takes can vary based on the school. But it may be a month or longer before you receive a formal award letter.
If you decide to accept the award as-is, you can move on to the next step. But if the amount of aid received is not enough, you may decide to appeal your financial aid award. The amount of time it takes for your school to process an appeal may be several weeks or several months.
You can contact your school’s financial aid office if you have questions about how long it will take to put your award package together or how to appeal. The school should also be able to advise you on any additional steps you may need to take to complete your application.
4. Entrance counseling
Time estimate: 30 minutes
The Department of Education requires undergraduate and graduate borrowers to complete entrance counseling as a condition of receiving federal student loans. Counseling can be completed online and takes about 30 minutes.
PLUS credit counseling is required for parents of dependent undergraduates and graduate or professional students who take out PLUS loans, have an adverse credit history, and have:
- Obtained an endorser, or
- Documented extenuating circumstances to the satisfaction of the U.S. Department of Education
PLUS credit counseling can be completed online in 20 to 30 minutes.
5. Promissory note
Time estimate: 10 minutes or less
The final step in obtaining federal student loans is signing the Master Promissory Note. This is a legally binding document in which you acknowledge your responsibility for repaying federal student loans.
Each school has its own process for signing the Master Promissory Note. You can contact your school’s financial aid office to ask about how to sign this document, either electronically or in person.
How long does it take to get a federal student loan disbursement?
Whether you’re applying for undergraduate or graduate student loans, the school will not disburse funds until you’ve completed entrance counseling. The school first applies your loan funds to tuition, fees, and room and board if you live on campus. Any remaining funds can be disbursed to you directly.
Again, you may have to wait up to 30 days after the start of the term to get a student loan refund if you’re a first-time borrower and first-time student. If your parents take out PLUS loans on your behalf to pay for undergraduate study, they can opt to have any leftover funds disbursed to you.
How long does it take to get private student loans?
Federal loans are attractive, since they offer low, fixed interest rates and flexible repayment terms. But if federal loans alone are insufficient to cover your education costs, you may consider filling the gap with private student loans.
So how long does it take to get a private student loan? It’s possible that you may receive approval much quicker than you could with federal loans. Rather than waiting weeks, you may get a decision the same day or within a few business days.
There’s no specific deadline for applying for private student loans and funds are typically disbursed to your school within 10 days of the start of term. That alone isn’t a reason to take on private loans, however. It’s important to consider the interest rates and fees you might pay to borrow from student lenders.
Here’s a look at how long it can take to get private student loans.
1. Complete the loan application
Time estimate: 1 hour or less
Private student lenders make it easy to apply for loans online. After you’ve researched the options and selected a lender, you can submit an application. The kind of information you’ll need to apply includes:
- Your name, date of birth, and Social Security number
- Contact information
- School name and expected graduation date
- Estimated cost of attendance
- Requested loan amount
- Household income
The application process can take under an hour to complete. Keep in mind that if you’re applying for private student loans with a cosigner, you’ll need to add their personal and financial information as well.
2. Application processing
Time estimate: A few minutes to a few days
Once you submit your application, the lender will review it to determine your eligibility for loans. The length of time to get a decision can vary by lender and be as little as a few minutes or up to several business days. The lender may request additional information from you before finalizing their approval decision, which can extend the process.
If you’re approved, you can move on to the next step. If you’re denied a private student loan you can try reapplying with a cosigner or looking for a new lender.
3. Loan acceptance
Time estimate: 1 hour or less
Assuming you’re approved for private student loans, your lender will send you all the paperwork you need to sign to accept the loan. You may be able to sign electronically, which can take just a few minutes.
Before signing, however, it’s a good idea to review the terms of the loan so you know what you’re borrowing. It’s also important to understand your responsibility for repaying the loan, when payments begin, and what kind of penalties you might face for missing payments or defaulting.
4. School certification
Time estimate: Up to 10 days
After you’ve accepted private student loans, your school will need to certify the funds. Essentially, the school works with the lender to confirm the details of your enrollment and cost of attendance.
Certification can take a couple of weeks but there’s nothing you need to do during this time unless the lender or the school reaches out for more information.
5. Loan disbursement
Time estimate: Varies
If your loans have been certified, the final step is disbursement. This is when the lender sends the money to your school so it can be applied to your costs of attendance.
The school sets the disbursement date. As previously mentioned, private student loans are typically disbursed within 10 days of the start of term.
You can contact your lender to ask about the timing for disbursement. Your school’s financial aid office should be able to tell you in what order loan funds will be applied.
|Application Time||Approval Time|
|College Ave||3 minutes||Instant decision|
|Sallie Mae||15 minutes or less||Within 15 minutes|
|Earnest||15 minutes or less||Up to 72 hours|
|Discover||15 minutes or less||Up to 5 business days|
Can I check the status of my student loan?
If you applied for federal student loans, you can check the status by logging into FAFSA.gov. The status of your loans is listed on the “My FAFSA” page.
You can also check the status of your FAFSA by contacting the Federal Student Aid Information Center at 1-800-4-FED-AID (1-800-433-3243). If you need to know when your loans will be disbursed, you’ll need to contact your school’s financial aid office.
If you applied for private student loans, the process for checking the status can vary by lender. You may be able to log in to your online account, for instance, or contact the lender by phone or email. You’ll need to check with the school to find out when loan funds are scheduled to be disbursed once certification is complete.
How far before the school year should I apply for a student loan?
The earlier you apply for student loans, the better, if you hope to get priority consideration. Remember that the window for applying for federal student loans and submitting the FAFSA runs from October 1 through June 30. It can take less than an hour to complete and submit the FAFSA online so there’s no reason to procrastinate.
With private student loans, there’s no firm deadline for applying but it’s important to keep the timing for when you’ll need funding in mind. If you’re submitting an application during a busier period when lots of students are seeking private loans, for instance, that could mean a longer wait for approval. You may also need to allow more time to find a qualified cosigner before applying.
It can be a good idea to start the process at least a few months before you plan to attend school. So, if tuition is due in August, the latest you might want to submit the FAFSA or apply for private student loans is before the end of June.
Is there any way to speed up the process?
The best way to speed up the federal student loan process is to submit the FAFSA as early as possible. If you’re applying for private student loans you may be able to shave some time off by choosing a lender that offers an instant or near-instant approval decision.
Applying with a creditworthy cosigner could also help if it makes you a more attractive borrower in a lender’s eyes. Responding promptly to requests for documentation or additional information can also help with avoiding speed bumps during the loan application process.
Author: Rebecca Lake