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How federal Direct Unsubsidized Loans work

What to expect from this popular undergraduate and graduate loan program.

Federal Direct Subsidized Loans are one of the most common types of student loans out there.

You can use them to pay for undergraduate and graduate programs. Your credit score doesn’t matter and there’s no need for you to demonstrate financial need. But annual and lifetime limits might mean they come up short in covering your full degree.

How do federal Direct Unsubsidized Loans work?

A part of the William D. Ford Federal Direct Loan Program, federal Direct Unsubsidized Loans provide relatively affordable financing to eligible undergraduate and graduate students — regardless of your financial history.

These unsubsidized loans come with the same rates and fees for every student, which are set by Congress each year. You can apply for one by completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

How much can I borrow?

How much you can borrow depends on two factors: your year in school and whether the Department of Education (DoE) considers you a dependent or independent student. While it’s unnecessary to prove financial need, there are annual and lifetime limits to how much you can borrow.

Year in schoolDependent limitIndependent limit
First-year undergraduate$5,500$9,500
Second-year undergraduate$6,500$10,500
Third-year and beyond undergraduate$7,500$12,500
Graduate or professional studentN/A$20,500
Undergraduate lifetime limit$31,000 (or $57,500 if your parent can’t qualify for a Parent PLUS Loan)$57,500
Graduate or professional student lifetime limitN/A$138,500

How much does it cost?

There are two main costs to consider with the Direct Unsubsidized Loan: interest and fees.

  • Undergraduate interest rate: 2.75%
  • Graduate and professional student interest rate: 4.3%
  • Origination fee: 1.059%

The interest rate is the percentage of the unpaid loan balance you pay over one year. Undergraduate students get the same on both Direct Subsidized and Unsubsidized Loans. Graduate rates are slightly higher.

The origination fee is deducted from your loan before it’s disbursed. This means your loan balance will be slightly higher than the amount your school receives.

Congress sets both the interest rates and fees each year on July 1.

Case study: Anna’s experience

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Anna Serio

I managed to swing a free ride for my undergraduate degree, but wasn’t so lucky in grad school. I got my master’s from the American University of Beirut, where federal loans were available to US citizens. I took out Direct Unsubsidized Loans, and for the first few semesters, I returned all extra funds. But because I couldn’t legally work in Lebanon, money got tight and I borrowed more.

I ended up graduating with $37,000 in federal loan debt. Because I had such a low-paying job in Beirut and was paid in cash, the graduated extended repayment plan was the only option I could afford. I’d be on track to repay more than I borrowed if I didn’t start making extra repayments.

Am I eligible for a Direct Unsubsidized Loan?

To qualify for a Direct Unsubsidized Loan, you need to meet the following criteria:

Can I get a Direct Unsubsidized Loan with bad credit?

You can. In fact, the DoE doesn’t consider your credit when processing Direct Subsidized or Unsubsidized Loan applications. This also means you can qualify on your own even without a credit history.

What are my repayment options with a Direct Unsubsidized Loan?

With Direct Unsubsidized Loans, you can wait to make any payments until six months after you graduate, leave school or drop below half time. After that, your repayment plan kicks in. Direct Unsubsidized Loan holders are eligible for almost all repayment plans offered for federal loans except the Income-Sensitive Repayment Plan — that’s only available on FFEL Loans.

Repayment programTermsHow it worksEligible for federal forgiveness?
Standard Repayment Plan10 yearsMake the same fixed repayment each month.
  • Teacher Loan Forgiveness
Graduated Repayment Plan10 yearsMake repayments that increase over time — usually every 2 years.
  • Teacher Loan Forgiveness
Extended Repayment Plan25 yearsMake either fixed repayments or repayments that increase over time — usually every 2 years.
  • Teacher Loan Forgiveness
Revised Pay as You Earn (REPAYE) Repayment Plan
  • 20 years for undergraduate loans
  • 25 years for graduate or professional loans
Make monthly repayments of 10% of your income until the loan term is up. The DoE forgives the remaining balance after the term is up.
  • Teacher Loan Forgiveness
  • REPAYE forgiveness
  • Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF)
Pay As you Earn (PAYE) Repayment Plan20 yearsMake monthly repayments of 10% of your income or what you’d pay on a Standard Repayment Plan — whichever is less. The DoE forgives the remaining balance after the term is up.
  • Teacher Loan Forgiveness
  • PAYE forgiveness
  • PSLF
Income-Based Repayment (IBR) Plan20 yearsMake monthly repayments of 10% of your income or what you’d pay on a Standard Repayment Plan — whichever is less. The DoE forgives any remaining balance after the term is up.
  • Teacher Loan Forgiveness
  • IBR forgiveness
  • PSLF
Income-Contingent Repayment (ICR) Plan25 yearsMake monthly repayments of 20% of your income or what you’d pay on a 12-year plan with fixed repayments — whichever is less. The DoE forgives any remaining balance after the term is up.
  • Teacher Loan Forgiveness
  • ICR forgiveness
  • PSLF

Federal student loan repayment plans explained

Does the Direct Unsubsidized Loan program offer deferment or forbearance?

It does. Direct Unsubsidized Loans are eligible for all types of deferment and forbearance available to federal loans, with the exception of Parent PLUS forbearance. This allows you to place your student loan repayments on hold if you hit a temporary financial roadblock, such as going back to school or losing your job.

How student loan deferment and forbearance works

Is interest capitalized during deferment and my grace period?

Yes. Unlike with Direct Subsidized Loans, you’re responsible for paying any interest that adds up during deferment and forbearance, including while you’re in school and during the six-month grace period after you graduate.

This means any interest that adds up while you’re in school gets added to your loan balance. Since interest payments are based on your loan balance, interest capitalization means you’re effectively paying interest on interest.

Can I qualify for forgiveness with a Direct Unsubsidized Loan?

You can, though having a Direct Unsubsidized Loan isn’t enough to qualify you on your own. Most federal forgiveness programs are only available to certain professions and require a service commitment. You can also qualify for forgiveness by signing up for one of the income-based repayment plans after your term is up.

10+ student loan forgiveness programs explained

Federal loans fall short? Cover the gap with private student loans

Name Product APR Min. Credit Score Loan amount Loan Term
EDvestinU Private Student Loans
4.092% to 8.609% with autopay
$1,000 - $200,000
7 to 20 years
Straightforward student loans for undergraduate and graduate students.
CommonBond Private Student Loans
3.74% to 10.74%
$5,000 - $500,000
5 to 15 years
Finance your college education through this lender with a strong social mission and terms that fit your budget.
Edvisors Private Student Loan Marketplace
Varies by lender
Varies by lender
Varies by lender
Varies by lender
Quickly compare private lenders for your school and apply for the right student loan.
Credible Labs Inc. (Student Loan Platform)
Starting at 0.99% with autopay
Good to excellent credit
Starting at $1,000
5 to 20 years
Get prequalified rates from private lenders offering student loans with no origination or prepayment fees.

Compare up to 4 providers

Bottom line

Direct Unsubsidized Loans have fewer restrictions than unsubsidized loans, but more competitive rates than the PLUS Loan program. However, with annual caps on how much you can borrow, they might not be able to cover your entire cost of attendance.

If that’s the case, explore your other options with our guide to student loans.

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