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Student Loans

How Long Does It Take to Get a Student Loan?

Getting a student loan requires planning. The process involves applying, getting approved, and waiting for disbursement—it’s not instant cash flow.

Federal student loans can take several weeks to months to process, and it may take even longer for your school to disburse any leftover funds. Private student loans can be faster but lack many of the perks of federal loans, making them a last resort. Understanding this timeline is crucial if you need student loans to pay for school.

How long does it take to get a federal student loan?

The timing of federal student loans varies from person to person. It can take a few weeks to a few months 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
  2. FAFSA processing
  3. Financial aid award
  4. Entrance counseling
  5. Promissory note

Here’s more about each step.

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:

  • Income
  • Assets
  • 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.

You can submit your application online through the StudentAid website beginning October 1. The deadline for submitting the FAFSA is June 30 of the following year.

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 FAFSA Submission Summary (FSS). This report includes details from your FAFSA and your Student Aid Index (SAI). The SAI 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 FSS 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:

  1. Obtained an endorser
  2. 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 to repay 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?

The timeline for receiving federal student loan disbursement varies. Generally, once you complete entrance counseling and sign the Master Promissory Note (MPN), the school will disburse funds at the beginning of each term.

For first-time borrowers and first-time students, disbursement may occur up to 30 days after the start of the term. The school first applies loan funds to tuition, fees, and on-campus room and board, with any remaining funds disbursed to you as a refund. If your parents take out PLUS loans, they can choose to have leftover funds disbursed to you or returned to them.

How long does it take to get a private student loan?

You might get approved for private loans faster than federal loans—the same day or within a few business days rather than weeks.

Federal loans are attractive because they offer 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.

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 timeApproval time
College Ave3 minutesInstant decision
Sallie Mae15 minutes or lessWithin 15 minutes
Earnest15 minutes or lessUp to 72 hours

Can I check the status of my student loan?

If you applied for federal student loans, you can check the status by logging in to the FAFSA website. 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 long does it take to get approved for a student loan?

The approval timeline for student loans varies depending on whether you are applying for federal or private loans.

Federal student loan approval

For federal student loans, the approval process begins with completing the FAFSA. Once submitted, the FAFSA is processed within three to five days if filed online or seven to 10 days if filed by mail.

After processing, you will get a FAFSA Submission Summary, including your SAI and estimated federal student aid eligibility. Schools then use this information to create your financial aid package, which can take a few additional weeks, depending on the school’s timeline

Private student loan approval

Private student loans tend to have a faster approval process than federal loans. Once you submit your application to a private lender, you can expect a decision within a few business days. Some lenders may even offer instant approvals if you meet their credit and income criteria.

After approval, the disbursement of funds can take several weeks as the lender coordinates with your school to certify your enrollment and the loan amount

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 runs from October 1 before your school year begins through June 30. (So for example, for the 2024 – 2025 school year, the FAFSA application window opened on October 1, 2023, and the deadline to submit the FAFSA is June 30, 2025.)

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 we’d recommend submitting the FAFSA or applying 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.

Learn more about how to get a student loan.