Frustrations with the FAFSA's FSA ID

In Paying for College on Jul 26, 2016

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) switched from using a four-digit PIN to a more secure FSA ID, starting in 2015. The FSA ID is an electronic signature that is used to sign the FAFSA and therefore must be more secure. However, the security changes have caused a lot of complaints from students and parents, who have found the new FSA ID process to be complicated and frustrating. The FSA ID is not user-friendly. The FSA ID is more complicated than a bank web site or ATM.

The following are some of the most common problems and solutions involving the FSA ID.

An email address can be associated with only one FSA ID. Previously, some parents would complete the FAFSA on behalf of their children. However, the FSA ID is an electronic signature and should not be shared with anybody, not even a parent or child. Accordingly, the email address associated with the student’s FSA ID should be the student’s email address. Likewise, the email address associated with the parent’s FSA ID should be the parent’s email address. But, some families have only one email address for the entire family. To work around this problem, family members can create a free email account at, or a similar service.

Some applicants have said that the FSA ID web site,, complains that their email address is invalid, even though they know that the email address is correct. Sometimes this error can be caused by a typo in the email address, such as a character insertion, deletion or transposition. The most pernicious email address errors are those that are hard to see, such as a space before, within or after the email address or an extra period. Doubled letters are also hard to see.

Although the FAFSA repeatedly reminds students and parents whose information must be provided in each section of the FAFSA, it is not uncommon for the family to swap the student and parent’s name, date of birth or Social Security number. Sometimes the parent will provide the student’s name, date of birth or Social Security Number where the FAFSA is asking for the parent’s information, or vice versa.  This can cause errors when the family tries to sign the FAFSA with the FSA ID, since the information in the FSA ID does not match the information provided on the FAFSA.  

A variation on this problem occurs when the student and parent FSA IDs are swapped. (Most often this will occur when the parent created a FSA ID for the student and got confused as to which is which.) Using the wrong FSA ID can prevent the student or parent from signing the form online, since the wrong FSA ID is being used to sign the form. The FAFSA will complain about a mismatch between the data associated with the FSA ID and the data provided on the FAFSA. This error can also cause the FAFSA to be treated as though it were the parent’s FAFSA and not the student’s FAFSA. If the parent says that they were able to login to the FAFSA using the FSA ID, but that the FAFSA won’t let them use the same FSA ID to sign the form, it is often caused by swapping the student and parent FSA ID. (This can also be caused by confusion between the “save key” and the FSA ID. The save key is a temporary password used to save work on the FAFSA and to allow a student and parent to work on the same FAFSA even if they are in different locations.) This problem can also be caused when the parent uses the wrong password to authenticate the student’s FSA ID (or vice versa), causing the FSA ID to be locked.

The information on the parent demographics page must match the parent’s FSA ID. Some people have said that the parent signing the form must be parent 1 and that they’ve been able to fix the problem by swapping parent 1 and parent 2.

The name, date of birth and Social Security Number used to create the FSA ID must match the information in the records of the Social Security Administration (SSA).The most common errors include:

  • Name mismatch. The name used with the FSA ID must match the name on your Social Security Card. That is your legal name. Using any other name, such as a nickname or your middle name instead of your first name, can lead to a database mismatch. If you got married, but never updated your name with SSA, you may have to use your maiden name instead of your current last name. Since updating your information with SSA can take some time to process, use your legal name with the FSA ID and update your information with SSA later.
  • Date of birth mismatch. This error is often caused by supplying the student’s date of birth instead of the parent’s date of birth or vice versa. However, it can also be caused by errors in the date of birth, such as swapping the month and day or digit transpositions in the year. Sometimes, people misremember the year they were born.
  • Social Security Number mismatch. Digit transpositions in the Social Security Number are the most common problem. Substituting a Taxpayer Identification Number (TIN) for a Social Security Number is another common problem. Undocumented individuals cannot currently use FSA IDs. Undocumented parents must use 000-00-0000 where the FAFSA asks for a Social Security Number and print and mail the signature page after submitting the FAFSA. Since the Social Security Number does not have error-checking digits like credit cards and the space of possible Social Security Numbers is very dense, a typo in the Social Security Number can yield someone else’s Social Security Number. So, a typo in the Social Security Number may be manifested as a name and date of birth mismatch.

If the student has not previously created a FSA ID, but gets a warning that their Social Security Number is already in use, that may be caused by a parent creating a FSA ID for the student and failing to tell the student about it. It can also be a sign of identity theft. The student may need to call the U.S. Department of Education to resolve the problem.

To use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool, the information associated with the FSA ID must match the information on the taxpayer’s federal income tax return. In particular, the address associated with the FSA ID must match the address on the federal income tax return. There are also many other reasons why a taxpayer might not be able to use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool, such as a change in the taxpayer’s marital status.

The color scheme on the FSA ID web site is difficult for people with low vision to read because of the use of gray and white text on a gray background. The FSA ID web site does not comply with the federal government’s standards concerning accessibility and has not been tested with low vision individuals. Some web browsers will allow users to override the colors used on a web page. Sometimes, using Select All (CTRL-A on some web browsers) will make the text more readable by inverting the color scheme.

It is very easy for students and parents to forget their username and password. The challenge questions sometimes don’t help, because they are different than the typical challenge questions. The problem with better security is that it often blocks legitimate users from accessing their accounts. The FSA ID is used only once a year, so it is easy for the student and/or parent to forget their username and password. Even email addresses may have changed, making password recovery more challenging. The password also automatically expires after 18 months. To address this problem, write down the FSA ID username, email address and password on a piece of paper and keep it somewhere safe. If you have a smartphone, take a picture of the piece of paper with your smartphone’s camera.

Three unsuccessful login attempts are enough to lock the FSA ID, preventing it from being used until the owner unlocks the FSA ID and changes their password. The FSA ID will be locked if the student or parent supplies the wrong password, as can happen when the student and parent FSA IDs are swapped. (If the same password is used for both student and parent FSA IDs, it suggests that the FSA IDs were created by one person, and will cause both FSA IDs to be invalidated.) The FSA ID will be locked if the information associated with the FSA ID fails a database match with SSA. A typo in the password can cause the FSA ID to be locked.

The process for unlocking a FSA ID also causes problems. You can unlock the FSA ID with a secure code sent to your email address or by answering the challenge questions. However, the secure code must be entered within 10 minutes or it will expire. Check your spam or junk mail folder for this email message if it hasn’t been received within 15 minutes. The time limits on email can be problematic if the student or parent has limited access to email or is using a public computer to file the FAFSA. There is a 30-minute delay before the FSA ID can be used, if the FSA ID was unlocked using the challenge questions. Unlocking the FSA ID is not enough. The password must also be reset (changed) after the FSA ID is unlocked. The FSA ID will be immediately relocked if the student or parent tries to use their FSA ID after unlocking it without changing the password. Changing the password without unlocking the FSA ID will also be unsuccessful. (Yes, this is ridiculously bureaucratic.) To change your password, click on Edit My FSA ID, then select “Forgot My Password” and follow the instructions to change your password.

Unfortunately, you cannot use your name, date of birth and Social Security Number to recover your FSA ID, even though that information was used to create the FSA ID. The FSA ID also does not have the ability to text a reset code to your cell phone.

If you are having problems with your FSA ID, call 1-800-557-7394 (TTY 1-800-730-8913). Students have reported long phone wait times and being disconnected while on hold. The U.S. Department of Education claims that that average wait time is less than 40 seconds. But wait times can be longer during peak periods, such as the day before a state deadline.

You can send email to with general questions, but do not include personally identifiable information in the email message. Alternately, use the web chat on the web site by clicking on Help, then Contact Us and then on the LIVE HELP button. Finally, if all else fails, call the Federal Student Aid Information Center at 1-800-4-FED-AID (1-800-433-3243).

The last option is to submit the FAFSA without an electronic signature. Instead, you will need to print and mail a signature page. This will take longer to process, but will give you the priority of the date when the FAFSA was filed.

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