Understanding the FAFSA

Financial Aid Basics

To apply for federal student aid, you must complete the FAFSA. Completing the FAFSA is free, and it gives you access to the largest source of financial aid to pay for your college journey! You may also need the FAFSA to determine your eligibility for state and school aid, as well as some private scholarships. Your FAFSA is an annual requirement for CARE.

Get free assistance and answers to your FAFSA questions at www.fafsa.ed.gov or 1-800-433-3243.

Overview of Steps to Completing the FAFSA

Complete the FAFSA at fafsa.ed.gov. You can file a FAFSA as early as October 1, 2016. We recommend you complete the FAFSA as close to October 1st as possible! Financial aid is typically awarded on a first come, first served basis so apply as early as possible to be considered for the most, and best aid.

  • Create an FSA ID at the Federal Student Aid’s FSA ID site. Follow the instructions on the site. An FSA ID gives you access to Federal Student Aid’s online systems and can serve as your legal signature. If you’re a dependent student, your parents must also obtain an FSA ID.
  • Go to FAFSA on the Web. Follow the instructions on the site.
  • List Florida State University and the FSU Federal School Code (001489) as a school choice in Step Six of the FAFSA.
  • Sign your FAFSA. Students can sign electronically using their FSA ID. Parents of dependent students may sign electronically but must first obtain their own FSA ID.
  • Don’t forget to reapply each year, financial aid is not renewed automatically.


The FSA ID is your electronic passport to federal student aid online. You and your parent(s) are required to use an FSA ID, made up of a username and password, to access certain U.S. Department of Education websites, including the FAFSA. Your FSA ID is used to confirm your identity when accessing your financial aid information and is the way you will sign your FAFSA and other federal aid documents. Create an FSA ID at https://fsaid.ed.gov. Remember, both you and your parent need an FSA ID to sign the FAFSA!

  • What is an FSA ID?

    • Your FSA ID is used to sign legally binding documents electronically. It has the same legal status as a written signature. Don't give your FSA ID to anyone—not even to someone helping you fill out the FAFSA. Sharing your FSA ID could put you at risk of identity theft!
  • How do I get an FSA ID?

    • You can create an FSA ID when logging into certain ED websites, including this one. Create an FSA ID now.

    • The FSA ID process consists of three main steps:

      1. Enter your log-in information.

        • Provide your e-mail address, a unique username, and password, and verify that you are at least 13 years old.

      2. Enter your personal information.

        • Provide your Social Security number, name, and date of birth.

        • Include your mailing address, e-mail address, telephone number, and language preference.

        • For security purposes, provide answers to five challenge questions.

      3. Submit your FSA ID information.

        • Agree to the terms and conditions.

        • Verify your e-mail address. (This is optional, but helpful. By verifying your e-mail address, you can use your e-mail address as your username when logging into certain ED websites. This verification also allows you to retrieve your username or reset your password without answering challenge questions.)

  • Do parents need FSA IDs?

    • Yes, a dependent student will need to have one of his or her legal parents sign the student’s FAFSA, so the parent needs an FSA ID as well. It’s important to understand that the student and the parent may not share an FSA ID: Your FSA ID is your signature, so it has to be unique to you.

  • What do I do if I get a message saying my FSA ID is locked?

    • An FSA ID is locked after three unsuccessful authentication attempts. There are two possible solutions. You can either have a secure code sent to your e-mail address or you can answer your challenge questions. If you have received the message, "Your FSA ID is locked. To unlock it, use one of the following options," start with these two steps, and then choose one of the options described below.

      • Click on the black "Log In" button at the top of this page and select "Create or retrieve your FSA ID now."

      • Once you have attempted to log in, you will be taken to a page that says, "Your FSA ID is locked." You will be given two options to unlock your FSA ID—e-mail or challenge questions. 

      • Option 1: E-mail 

        1. Click the e-mail button. 

        2. You will be taken to a page that says "Unlock Your FSA ID – Using Email."

        3. A secure code will be sent to your e-mail address that's on record with your FSA ID.

        4. Once you receive the e-mail, within 10 minutes you must enter the secure code in the box that says "Secure Code" and click on the submit button (The secure code expires after 10 minutes).

        5. You will then be taken to a page that says, "Success!"

        6. Once your FSA ID is unlocked, you will need to reset the password for your FSA ID. Select the "Forgot My Password" option on the "Edit My FSA ID" tab, and follow the instructions to reset your password.

      • Option 2: Challenge Questions

        • Your other option for unlocking your FSA ID is to use your challenge questions:

          1. Click the "challenge questions" button.

          2. You will be taken to a page that says "Unlock Your FSA ID – Using Challenge Questions."

          3. You will be taken to a page that will ask you three of your five challenge questions.

          4. You will need to answer all three questions and then click on the verify button.

          5. If you answer your challenge questions correctly, you will be taken to a page that says, "Success!"

          6. Once your FSA ID is unlocked, you will need to reset the password for your FSA ID. Select the "Forgot My Password" option on the "Edit My FSA ID" tab, and follow the instructions to reset your password.


Documents Needed for the FAFSA

The FAFSA asks for information about you (your name, date of birth, address, etc.) and about your financial situation. Depending on your circumstances (for instance, whether you’re a U.S. citizen or what tax form you used), you might need the following information or documents as you fill out the FAFSA:

  • Your Social Security number (it’s important that you enter it correctly on the FAFSA!)
  • Your parents’ Social Security numbers if you are a dependent student
  • Your driver’s license number if you have one
  • Your Alien Registration number if you are not a U.S. citizen
  • Federal tax information* or tax returns including IRS W-2 information, for you (and your spouse, if you are married), and for your parents if you are a dependent student:
    • IRS 1040, 1040A, 1040EZ
    • Foreign tax return and/or
    • Tax return for Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, the U.S. Virgin Islands, the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, or Palau
  • Records of your untaxed income, such as child support received, interest income, and veterans non-education benefits, for you, and for your parents if you are a dependent student
  • Information on cash; savings and checking account balances; investments, including stocks and bonds and real estate but not including the home in which you live; and business and farm assets for you, and for your parents if you are a dependent student

Keep these records! You may need them again. Do not mail your records to us.

*You may be able to have your tax information imported automatically from the IRS into your FAFSA. Learn more about reporting tax information on your FAFSA.


Providing Financial Information on the FAFSA

The FAFSA asks for information about you (your name, date of birth, address, etc.) and about your financial situation. Depending on your circumstances (for instance, whether you’re a U.S. citizen or what tax form you used), you might need the following information or documents as you fill out the FAFSA:

  • The FAFSA asks for financial information, including balances of savings and checking accounts and information from tax forms.

  • If you are filling out the 2016–17 FAFSA, you will need 2015 tax information.
  • If you are filling out the 2017–18 FAFSA, you will also need 2015 tax information. Starting with the 2017–18 FAFSA, you'll need to report income information from the tax year two years prior to the academic year. Learn more about the 2017–18 FAFSA.

Determining When Tax Information Will Be Available Via the IRS Data Retrieval Tool (IRS DRT)

The IRS has provided the following guidance to help you determine when you should be able to access your tax data using the IRS DRT. You have to wait until your tax form is processed by the IRS. For most FAFSA filers, this won’t be a problem since your taxes are due in April and the FAFSA launches nearly six months later, on Oct. 1. But people who get a tax filing extension might not have filed yet by the time the FAFSA launches, so the information in this section is for them.

The IRS tax return processing times and the availability of the IRS DRT reflected in the chart below are merely guides to help tax filers estimate when they will be able to retrieve their IRS tax return information using the IRS DRT. Specific questions related to the processing of your IRS tax return should be directed to the IRS at 1-800-829-1040.

Using the IRS DRT saves you time and effort:

You don’t have to find your tax records. You don’t have to worry about making mistakes entering your tax information on your FAFSA. If you use the IRS DRT and don’t change any of the retrieved information in your FAFSA (other than that listed in step 3 above), you won’t need to provide tax transcripts if you’re selected for verification.

Automatically Filling in Your Tax Information Using the IRS Data Retrieval Tool 

Be sure to consider the option the FAFSA offers you to use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool (IRS DRT). If you got an extension on filing your taxes and didn’t file until September or October, find out when your tax return information will likely be available using the IRS DRT. Here’s how the IRS DRT process works:

  • The IRS DRT takes you to the IRS website, where you’ll need to log in by providing your name and other information exactly as you provided it on your tax return. At the IRS site, you can preview your information before agreeing to have it transferred to your FAFSA.
  • When you return to the FAFSA, you’ll see that questions that are populated with tax information will be marked with “Transferred from the IRS.” Don’t make any changes to those answers (except where Individual Retirement Account or pension rollovers are involved), or you’ll invalidate the information you retrieved.
  • If you or your parents are married and you’ve used the IRS DRT to transfer information into your FAFSA, you’ll see that a value for Income Earned from Work is transferred. Refer to the guidance about Income Earned from Work for student and spouse and guidance about Income Earned from Work for parents in the help topics on the FAFSA site to correctly document this value.

Dependency Information on the FAFSA

Your dependency status determines whose information you must report on the FAFSA.

  • If you’re a dependent student, you will report your and your parents’ information.
  • If you’re an independent student, you will report your own information (and, if you’re married, your spouse’s).

The federal student aid programs are based on the concept that it is primarily your and your family’s responsibility to pay for your education. And because a dependent student is assumed to have the support of parents, the parents’ information has to be assessed along with the student’s, in order to get a full picture of the family’s financial strength. If you’re a dependent student, it doesn’t mean your parents are required to pay anything toward your education; this is just a way of looking at everyone in a consistent manner.

Am I dependent or independent?

Your answers to questions on the FAFSA determine whether you are considered a dependent or independent student. The questions change a little from one year’s FAFSA to the next year’s; for instance, the 2016–17 FAFSA asks whether you were born before Jan. 1, 1993, while the 2017–18 FAFSA asks whether you were born before Jan. 1, 1994. Click Here for a picture of the questions that determine your dependency status.

  • If you answered “YES” to any of the dependency questions, then for federal student aid purposes, you’re considered to be an independent student and will not provide information about your parents on the FAFSA.
  • If you answered “NO” to all of the dependency questions, then for federal student aid purposes, you’re considered to be a dependent student, and you must provide information about your parents on the FAFSA.
  • Not living with parents or not being claimed by them on tax forms does not make you an independent student for purposes of applying for federal student aid. In this case, you may have to do a Dependency Override (see below).

Which parent’s information should I report on the FAFSA?

If your legal parents are married to each other, or are not married to each other and live together, you should report information about both of them on your FAFSA. Your legal parents are your biological or adoptive parents, or your parents as determined by the state (for example, if the parent is listed on your birth certificate). However, there are many situations that are a little more complicated, so you can view the Federal Student Aid information on how to figure out which parent(s) should provide information on the FAFSA.


Independent Status & Dependency Overrides

In some situations, you may be able to submit your FAFSA without parent information. View below for information on various situations which may allow you to be declared Independent, as well as the Dependency Override process.

Emancipation and legal guardianship

Students are independent if they are, or were upon reaching the age of majority, emancipated minors (released from control of their parent or guardian) or in legal guardianship, both as adjudicated by a court of competent jurisdiction in the state of the students’ legal residence at the time of the adjudication. The emancipation must be determined by a court, not by an attorney.

Orphan, foster child, or ward of the court

A student who was an orphan—both parents were deceased—when 13 or older is independent even if they were subsequently adopted. Also, a student who was at any time since the age of 13 a foster child or a ward of the court is independent even if the status changed later.

If a student was adopted prior to the age of 13, they are required to use the adoptive parent’s information on the FAFSA.

For students who indicate that they were in foster care since turning 13, the following are examples of acceptable documents that could attest to the student’s foster youth status:

  • A copy of a court order
  • Statement of a state or county welfare agency
  • Statement of a private provider agency that delivers child welfare services; or
  • Statement from an attorney, guardian ad litem, or court appointed special advocate documenting the person’s relationship to the student as well as the student’s foster youth status

Unaccompanied homeless youth

A student is independent if at any time on or after July 1, 2015 (regardless of whether he is currently homeless or at risk thereof), they are determined to be an unaccompanied youth who is homeless or is self-supporting and at risk of being homeless. This determination can be made by a school district homeless liaison, the director (or designee) of an emergency shelter or transitional housing program funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, or the director (or designee) of a runaway or homeless youth basic center or transitional living program.

Depending on the district, these authorities may only make this determination if the student is receiving their programs’ services or if, in the case of a school district homeless liaison, the student is in high school.

As defined in section 725 of the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act (42 U.S.C. 11434a), a student is considered homeless if he lacks fixed, regular, and adequate housing.

  • This is broader than just living “on the street.”
  • It includes the following:
    • temporarily living with other people because the student had nowhere else to go
    • living in substandard housing (if it doesn’t meet local building codes or the utilities are turned off, it is generally not adequate)
    • living in emergency or transitional shelters (for example, living in motels, camping grounds, cars, parks, abandoned buildings, bus or train stations, or any public or private place not designed for humans to live in).
  • It also includes living in the school dorm/residence hall if the student would otherwise be homeless.

Dependency Override

If you would normally be required to complete parent information on the FAFSA, but believe you have exceptional circumstances that justify applying as an independent student, you may submit a Dependency Override Application to the Financial Aid Office for review. Overrides are largely discretionary in nature.

The following circumstances DO NOT merit a dependency override:

  • Parents refuse to contribute to student’s education;
  • Parents are unwilling to provide information on the application or for verification;
  • Parents do not claim the student as a dependent for income tax purposes;
  • Parents are not citizens of the U.S. or live out of the country
  • Student demonstrates total self-sufficiency (pays all bills and claims themselves on taxes).

If you have been previously approved for a Dependency Override by the FSU Office of Financial Aid, you are required to submit a Dependency Override Renewal Application.


Signing & Submitting the FAFSA

Before your FAFSA can be processed, you’ll need to sign and submit it. Here are some tips as you finish your FAFSA:

  • Be sure to sign with your FSA ID (your username and password) so your FAFSA will be processed as quickly as possible.
  • Once you see your confirmation page, you’ll know you’ve successfully submitted your FAFSA. If you provided an email address on your FAFSA, you’ll automatically receive the confirmation page by email. There are a few differences between the emailed confirmation and the one you’ll see in the FAFSA before exiting the application, so consider printing or saving your confirmation page before you exit. For example, the emailed confirmation won’t include the college graduation, retention, and transfer rates for schools you listed on your FAFSA.
  • When you fill out the FAFSA, you’re also automatically applying for certain state financial aid. In some cases, the state requires an additional application in order to determine your eligibility for state aid. There are some states that have a partnership with the FAFSA that allows you to transfer your information directly into your state aid application, so if you see a link on your FAFSA confirmation page to your state financial aid application, you should click on it. (Please note that the link won't appear on the emailed confirmation page, so be sure to take advantage of it while you're still at the original confirmation page.)
  • Your confirmation page offers the option for the parent information in your FAFSA to be transferred automatically into another student’s FAFSA. So if you have a sibling who needs to fill out a FAFSA, be sure to use this option when you see your confirmation page. Please note that the link won't appear on the emailed confirmation page, so be sure to take advantage of it while you're still at the original confirmation page.

Tax Return Transcripts

Tax transcripts may be requested by the Office of Financial Aid. View below on how to obtain a Tax Return Transcript.

If you or your parents were not required to file a tax return, you should still report any income earned from work. The W-2 form and other records of work earnings should be used to determine these amounts. The Financial Aid Office may ask that you submit a copy of your W-2 and a Non-Filer Student or Non-Filer Parent Statement (see Special Circumstances for these documents).


Getting Help

If you need help filling out the FAFSA, use these free tools:

  • Read the “Help and Hints” located on the right side of any FAFSA entry page. The hints change depending on what question you’re on.
  • Click “Need Help?” at the bottom of any FAFSA entry page (in other words, any page where you’re entering information into the application).
  • Chat (in English or Spanish) with live technical support staff by clicking the “Help” icon with the big question mark at the top of any FAFSA entry page, and then selecting "Contact Us," "Federal Student Aid Information Center," and then "Chat With Us." Note: The "Chat With Us" option isn't visible outside of business hours, which are listed on the Federal Student Aid Information Center contact page.
  • Contact the financial aid office at the college or career school you plan to attend.
  • For details about the purpose of FAFSA questions and how information should be reported in some unusual cases, try our guide called Completing the FAFSA.