What's the difference between a paper or PDF FAFSA and FAFSA on the Web?

FAFSA on the Web (FOTW) is the online version of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Electronic filing of the FAFSA is faster and more accurate than filing a paper or PDF version of the FAFSA.

The online version of the FAFSA includes intelligent skip logic to omit irrelevant questions, thus, saving time. Applicants may be able to use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool (IRS DRT) to transfer data from their federal income tax returns into the FAFSA.

Submitting the online version of the FAFSA is also more accurate. It avoids scanning errors that can occur with a paper or PDF version of the FAFSA. The online FAFSA can also detect and correct the most common types of errors through internal consistency tests called “edit checks” and through real-time comparisons of FAFSA data with data from other federal agencies.

The paper and PDF versions of the FAFSA must be mailed to the application processor, which can add delays until the form is received. The online FAFSA avoids the cost of postage and leads to quicker processing of the form.

Submitting the FAFSA online can cut 1-2 weeks off of the FAFSA processing time.

  • If the student and parents file the FAFSA online, use PINs to sign the form electronically and the student supplied a valid email address, the student will receive a Student Aid Report (SAR) by email within 3-5 days. (If the student did not supply a valid email address, a paper SAR will arrive within 7-10 days.) The colleges listed on the FAFSA will receive the Institutional Student Information Record (ISIR), which contains the same information as the SAR, at about the same time.
  • If the student and parents file a paper FAFSA and the student provided a valid email address, the SAR should arrive within 2 weeks. (Processing of FAFSA on the Web can also take 2 weeks if the student and/or parents printed and mailed a signature page instead of signing the form electronically with a PIN.) If the student did not provide a valid email address, a paper SAR will arrive within 3 weeks.