International Students and the FAFSA

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is used by USA citizens and permanent residents to apply for financial aid from the USA federal and state governments. Colleges and universities also use the information submitted on the FAFSA for computing need-based awards. International students are not eligible for the USA government aid programs (Pell Grant, SEOG Grant, Stafford Loan, Perkins Loan, PLUS Loan, and Federal Work-Study). However, many schools will ask international students to submit a FAFSA so that they may use the data for assessing financial need.

Before filing a FAFSA, international students should ask the schools to which they are applying what procedure they should use to apply for institutional aid.

Some schools require students to file a FAFSA as part of their application for institutional aid. However, if a international student submits a FAFSA without supplying a Social Security Number (SSN) or Alien Registration Number (ARN), the FAFSA will be rejected and the data will not be processed. Even if the international student supplies a SSN, the FAFSA will be rejected when they check option 3 (“No, neither of the above.”) in the answer to question 15-16 (“Are you a USA citizen?”).

At first glance, it seems that there is no way to work around this problem. The FAFSA is not intended to be used by schools for processing institutional aid applications submitted by international students. Only USA citizens and eligible noncitizens may receive federal student financial aid. USA citizens have SSNs, eligible noncitizens have ARNs, and international students have neither. According to the 1992 reauthorization of the Higher Education Act of 1965, every applicant must have a social security number in order to apply for federal student financial aid. Since the primary purpose of the FAFSA is to apply for federal student financial aid, a FAFSA submitted without a social security number will be rejected.

Nevertheless, it turns out that since a social security number is not considered proof of USA citizenship, some international students may be able to apply for and receive a social security number. (This may depend on the type of visa; it isn’t clear.) If a international student receives a social security number, the card is stamped so that there is no mistaking it for citizenship. They can then use this number to complete their FAFSA. (They can also use the social security number to open a bank account or get a driver’s license.)

When a international student with a social security number submits a FAFSA, they should supply their social security number in the answer to question 8, and check option 3 (“No, neither of the above.”) in the answer to question 15-16 (“Are you a USA citizen?”) to indicate that they are not eligible for federal student financial aid.

Even though the FAFSA will still be rejected, according to a contact at the USA Department of Education, the data is still there and can be drawn down by the financial aid office and used to make institutional awards.

Before applying for a social security number and filing a FAFSA, however, international students should ask the school whether they should submit a FAFSA, and if so, where it should be submitted. Many schools that use the FAFSA for processing foreign student aid applications require the students to submit the FAFSA directly to the school, and not to the federal processor. This bypasses the entire need for a Social Security Number.

International students should be careful to not supply another nine-digit number in the Social Security Number field. The FAFSA will get processed if they do this, but it will be flagged for verification because the Social Security Number will not produce a positive match.

  • Many schools issue student ID cards using a nine-digit identification number that is the same as the student’s Social Security Number. Since the Social Security Administration has not issued Social Security Numbers beginning with the number 8 or 9, many schools use identification numbers beginning with those digits for international students. For example, it is common for schools to issue international students a number that begins 888 or 700. These student ID numbers are NOT social security numbers, and should NOT be used on the FAFSA.
  • Canadian students have a SIN number that looks very similar to the SSN. The SIN is not a social security number, and should NOT be used on the FAFSA.