Student Loan Forbearance or Deferment: How to Choose

Need a break from student loan payments? You have options.

College student signs a student loan application during registration

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When you have student loans, the last thing you want to do is fall into default because you can’t afford the payments. A default can impact your credit and have other effects on your long-term financial future. If you’re facing financial difficulty, or have some other issue, there are two options that allow you to hit the pause button on your federal student loan payments: forbearance and deferment.

Deciding between forbearance and deferment for your student loans can be a tough decision, but here’s the information you need to make the right choice for your situation.

On March 20, 2020, the Education Department announced that anyone with a federally held student loan could request an administrative forbearance until at least May 12, 2020, in response to the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic. Any of the 35.3 million people with eligible loans can call their student loan servicer to request forbearance.

Forbearance and Deferment: What’s the Difference?

In general, forbearance is often best for those who know their situation is temporary—and they don’t qualify for deferment. Deferment can work better for those who have some subsidized student loans and want to avoid interest accrual or those who aren’t sure how long their financial difficulties will last.

Here’s a general comparison of forbearance and deferment for student loans.

  Forbearance Deferment
Length of time Up to 12 months at a time Depends on the type of deferment, but can be up to three years
How to apply Submit a general forbearance form or call your servicer to receive forbearance approval over the phone Contact your servicer and find out which form to submit
Who qualifies? Show you meet the financial hardship criteria set by your servicer Usually tied to a specific event, such as going back to school or losing your job
How interest accrues Interest continues to accrue during the forbearance term Interest doesn’t accrue on subsidized debt, but continues to accrue on unsubsidized loans
Does it impact credit? No No

It’s important to understand that if you don’t make required interest payments—whether you choose forbearance or deferral—all of the accrued interest will be summed up at the end of the period and added to your loan balance. Both of these programs can increase the total amount that you owe. You will not, however, be responsible for interest that accrues on subsidized loans in deferment.

The majority of federal student loans are not accruing interest for 60 days—from March 13, 2020, to May 12, 2020—as part of financial relief measures for people affected by the novel coronavirus outbreak.

Who Qualifies for Student Loan Forbearance and Deferment

First of all, if you want to qualify for either program, you can’t be in default. As soon as you realize you might not be able to make payments, contact your servicer to discuss your options. Whether you choose forbearance or deferment, you need your servicer to help you, and you need to keep making your payments until you’re approved. The main exception is if you go back to school and are enrolled at least part-time. In many cases, your servicer will automatically place you in deferment.

Requesting Forbearance

When you can’t make payments in a temporary situation, you can ask your servicer to pause your payments for up to 12 months at a time. Qualifying circumstances include:

  • Medical costs
  • Financial problems
  • Employment issues

Your servicer might also be willing to grant you forbearance in other situations as well. In many cases, you might be required to submit documentation proving you need the forbearance. There are also times when servicers are required to grant you a forbearance if you qualify for certain forgiveness programs or you’re in a medical or dental internship.

Requesting Deferment

While forbearance is mostly handled at the servicer’s discretion, student loan deferment is another story. If you meet the criteria, a servicer is required to grant you deferment. Here are some of the qualifying events that can lead to deferment:

  • Enrolled at least half-time in a qualified education program
  • Enrolled in an approved graduate fellowship program
  • Active duty military service during certain times of conflict or emergency
  • Unemployed and unable to find full-time employment
  • Serving in the Peace Corps
  • Experiencing economic hardship
  • Enrolled in an approved training or rehabilitation program aimed at the disabled

Each of these situations comes with its own deferment request form, so make sure you understand the reason you’re applying for deferment and get help from your servicer to make sure you submit the correct form.

Which One Is Right for You?

For the most part, if you qualify for a deferment, it likely makes more sense than forbearance—especially if a portion of your federal loans are subsidized or you have Perkins loans. You could save money on interest by using deferment if you qualify. 

Deferment can also last longer: up to three years. With forbearance, you have to re-apply after 12 months. There are only very rare instances where you receive forbearance for longer than a year at a time. Additionally, your servicer can decide to grant you a shorter forbearance term, so you might be stuck re-applying more often.

Forbearance is generally best for those who are in a temporary bind and don’t qualify for deferment. With your student loan payments paused, you can put that money toward other expenses and bills, and once things improve, you can resume your student loan payments.

What About Income-Driven Repayment?

Rather than trying to decide between forbearance and deferment for student loans, it might actually make more sense to see if you can get on an income-driven repayment plan

Depending on your situation, you might qualify for $0 payments, and each payment continues to count as qualifying for Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF). Deferment and forbearance pause your ability to make qualifying payments.

On top of that, even if you don’t get PSLF, your balance on an income-driven plan might be forgiven after 20 or 25 years. If you’re struggling with regular income issues and need a lower payment, this might be a better option than forbearance or deferment.