Student loans can help with paying for college, but getting them. requires planning. You must apply, get approved, and wait for the loan to disburse—it’s not instant cash flow.
It can take several weeks to months to get federal student loans and longer for the school to pay any leftover funds to you. Private student loans can be faster, but they lack many of the perks federal student loans offer. So you may only consider them 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 the timeline.
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 of federal student loans is different for everyone. It can take a few weeks to a few months to go from application to loan disbursement.
The process can take longer if you’re a first-time borrower and 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 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. Apply for federal student loans
Time estimate: 1 hour or less
To start the process, you must complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Completing the FAFSA can take an hour or so, and you can speed it up by organizing key documents beforehand. 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 must provide financial information for yourself and your parents. You won’t need to share any information about debts or credit history, but 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 get a Student Aid Report (SAR). This report includes details from your FAFSA and 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 gets a copy of the SAR and reviews it to determine how much aid to offer. The time this step takes can vary based on the school. But it may be a month or longer before you get your formal award letter.
If you accept the award as is, you can move on to the next step. But if the aid in the letter is insufficient, you may appeal your financial aid award. The time it takes for your school to process an appeal may be several weeks or months.
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. You can complete counseling online in 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 one of the following:
- Obtained an endorser
- Documented extenuating circumstances to the satisfaction of the U.S. Department of Education
You can complete PLUS credit counseling 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 legally binding document acknowledges your responsibility for repaying federal student loans.
Each school has its own process for signing the master promissory note. Contact your school’s financial aid office to ask how to sign this document—online or in person.
How long does it take to get a federal student loan disbursement?
Whether you apply for undergraduate or graduate student loans, the school will not disburse funds until you complete entrance counseling. If you live on campus, the school first applies your loan funds to tuition, fees, and room and board, then disburses the remaining funds to you.
You may need 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 leftover funds disbursed to you.
How long does it take to get private student loans?
Federal loans are attractive because 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? You might get approved faster than with federal loans—the same day or within a few business days rather than weeks.
There’s no specific deadline for applying for private student loans, and most lenders disburse funds to your school within 10 days of the start of the term, but that isn’t a reason to take on private loans instead of federal loans. 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 online. After researching the options and selecting a lender, you can submit an application. The information you’ll need to apply often 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. Remember: If you’re applying for private student loans with a cosigner, you must add their personal and financial information.
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 loan eligibility. The 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, it’s wise to review the loan terms so you know what you’re borrowing. It’s also important to understand your responsibility for repayment, when payments begin, and what penalties you might face for missed payments or default.
4. School certification
Time estimate: Up to 10 days
After you accept private student loans, your school will certify the funds by working 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 are certified, the final step is disbursement: The lender sends the money to your school to apply to your costs of attendance.
The school sets the disbursement date. Private student loans are typically disbursed within 10 days of the start of term.
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 it will apply loan funds.
|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, 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. Once certification is complete, you must check with the school to determine when loan funds will be disbursed.
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. The window for applying for federal student loans and submitting the FAFSA runs from October 1 through June 30. Completing and submitting the FAFSA online can take less than an hour, so there’s no reason to procrastinate.
With private student loans, there’s no firm application deadline, but keeping the timing for when you’ll need funding in mind is important. For instance, if you’re submitting an application during a busier period when many students seek private loans, 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 wise 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 late 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 shave off time 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. If you need a cosigner, begin identifying individuals you trust and discussing this with them as soon as possible. In addition, responding promptly to requests from the lender for documentation or additional information can also help avoid speed bumps during the loan application process.