How Long Do You Have to Pay Off Student Loans?

By Kayla McCormack · October 16, 2023 · 9 minute read

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How Long Do You Have to Pay Off Student Loans?

The standard time to pay off federal student loans is 10 years, but terms can range from five to more than 20 years depending on the type of loan and repayment program. Your situation will also determine how long it takes to pay off student loans, including how much you owe in student loans and how much of a payment you can afford to make each month.

Paying Back Student Loans

You need to start paying back student loans after you graduate from college, withdraw, or drop below half-time enrollment. Most federal loans, including Direct Subsidized and Direct Unsubsidized Loans, and many private loans, come with a six-month grace period, meaning your payments won’t actually be due for six months until leaving school.

When it comes time to pay back your student loans, one of the most important things you can do is make sure your payments are on time each month. Making late student loan payments or failing to make your payments can have serious consequences, including student loan default.

How Long to Pay Off Student Loans

Once your loans become due, you’ll have the option of choosing a student loan repayment plan. Options for federal student loans include the Standard Repayment Plan, Extended Repayment Plan, Graduated Repayment Plan, and income-driven repayment (IDR) plans. These various repayment options come with their own pros and cons, so it’s important to understand your needs and which one makes the most financial sense.

If you don’t make a choice, your federal loans will automatically be enrolled in the Standard Repayment Plan. Here, the length of your repayment period is set to 10 years.

If you have private student loans, your repayment period is what you agreed to when you signed the loan. These will vary by lender and your personal situation. Those that can make larger monthly payments are typically able to pay off their loans in a shorter amount of time, assuming the debt loads are similar.

💡 Quick Tip: Get flexible terms and competitive rates when you refinance your student loan with SoFi.

Standard Repayment Plan: 10 Years

You have 10 years to pay off your student loans under the Standard Repayment Plan. You’ll pay a set amount every month (minimum $50) and may pay less overall for the student loan because of the relatively short loan term. (Many income-driven repayment plans, for comparison, can have terms of up to 25 years!)

For most federal student loans, the standard repayment option includes a six-month grace period that allows recent graduates to get a head start on finding a job. The clock starts ticking the moment you graduate, leave school, or fall below half-time enrollment. Loans that offer a student loan grace period include:

•  Direct Subsidized Loans

•  Direct Unsubsidized Loans

•  Subsidized Federal Stafford Loans

•  Unsubsidized Federal Stafford Loans

While having extra time before making your first payment sounds nice, be aware that interest continues to accrue during those months on unsubsidized loans and will be added back into the loan, increasing the principal. Direct Subsidized Loans do not accrue interest during the grace period.

Public Service Loan Forgiveness

Standard Repayment Plans might not be a good choice for you if you’re trying to qualify for Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF). Borrowers pursuing this program agree to work in underserved areas for a government entity or certain nonprofits and must meet rigorous requirements to have their loan forgiven after 120 qualifying payments. To qualify for this program, you’ll have to change to an income-driven repayment plan as opposed to the Standard Repayment Plan.

Direct Loan Consolidation

Combining your federal student loans on the Standard Repayment Plan into a Direct Consolidation Loan could open up several repayment options. Consolidation combines your federal loans into one loan with a single interest rate, which could simplify the repayment process. The interest rate is the weighted average of the loans you are consolidating, rounded up to the nearest one-eighth of a percentage.

Your loan term will depend on the amount of student loan debt that you have, ranging from 10 to 30 years. Extending your loan term may lower your monthly payment, but keep in mind that you’ll most likely end up paying more in interest over the life of the loan.

Recommended: Student Loan Repayment Calculator

Graduated and Extended Plans

Graduated Repayment Plans: 10 Years Standard; Up to 30 Years Consolidated

Generally, all federal loan borrowers can opt for the Graduated Repayment Plan. This plan could be an option for borrowers who expect their income to rise over time. It starts off with low monthly payments that gradually increase at two-year intervals. The idea is that recent graduates’ salaries at entry-level positions may start off low, but will rise over 10 years via promotions or new jobs.

The downsides of the Graduated Repayment Plan are that you could be paying more over the life of the loan, and if your salary doesn’t increase as anticipated, the later payments can become burdensome. The bright side — you could switch to an income-driven plan or the Extended Repayment Plan (below) which may make loan payments more affordable.

So how long do you have to pay back your student loan under the Graduated Repayment Plan? Borrowers have between 10 and 30 years to pay off the loan.

Extended Repayment Plans: Up to 25 Years

Like the Graduated Repayment Plan, the Extended Repayment Plan allows qualified applicants to extend the term of the loan, making monthly payments smaller. Borrowers may end up paying more in interest the longer the loan term, but there are options for a fixed monthly payment or a graduated payment that will rise throughout the term.

Extended Repayment Plans are geared toward borrowers who owe sizable sums. To qualify, you must owe $30,000 or more in federal student loan debt.

Neither Graduated Repayment Plans nor Extended Repayment Plans qualify for Public Service Loan Forgiveness.

Income-Driven Repayment Plans

Income-driven repayment plans are designed to make repayment easier if you can prove that paying back your student loans is a significant financial burden. This is based on factors including your discretionary income and family size. However, the longer terms mean you could easily pay more in interest over the life of the loan.

How long do you have to pay back student loans under income-driven repayment plans? Each of the following four plans has a different payback period. Under all four plans, remaining balances on eligible student loans are forgiven after making a certain number of qualifying on-time payments.

Saving On A Valuable Education (SAVE) — 10 to 25 Years

This is the newest IDR plan that replaced the Revised Pay As You Earn (REPAYE) program. Currently under SAVE, monthly payments are capped at 10% of your discretionary income. In July of 2024, that threshold will fall to 5% for borrowers with undergraduate loans. Graduate borrowers will pay a weighted average between 5% and 10% of their discretionary income.

Also starting next year, borrowers with original principal loan balances of $12,000 or less can have their remaining balances forgiven after 10 years of payments. For each additional $1,000 borrowed above $12,000, you’ll continue to make payments for another year, up to 20 or 25 years, depending on the degree.

Pays As You Earn (PAYE) — 20 Years

Your monthly payment is roughly 10% of your discretionary income and you’ll make 20 years of payments.

Income-Based Repayment (IBR) — 20 or 25 Years

Again, your monthly payment will be about 10% of your discretionary income. You’ll have 20 years to pay back the loan if you’re a new borrower on or after July 1, 2014. If you borrowed before that date, you will have 25 years to finish making payments.

Income-Contingent Repayment (ICR) — 25 Years

Under ICR, your monthly payment amount will be either 20% of your discretionary income, or the amount you would pay on a repayment plan with a fixed payment over 12 years, whichever is less. Any remaining balance is forgiven after 25 years.

💡 Quick Tip: Refinancing could be a great choice for working graduates who have higher-interest graduate PLUS loans, Direct Unsubsidized Loans, and/or private loans

Which Repayment Plan Is Right for You?

Choosing a student loan repayment plan is a personal decision that will depend on factors such as the amount of student loan debt you have, the industry you work in, your current income and expenses, your estimated future income, and your career goals. For example, if you plan to work in the nonprofit industry and are pursuing PSLF, switching to an income-driven repayment plan may make the most sense.

Are Repayment Terms the Same for Private Student Loans?

Private student loans are not required to offer the same benefits or repayment plans as federal student loans. The term and repayment plan available to you will be determined by the private lender at the time you borrow the loan. This is based on your credit profile and debt-to-income ratio, among other factors. If you have private student loans and have questions about your loan term, contact your lender directly.

Can You Shorten Your Student Loan Repayment Term?

It is possible to shorten your loan term. Borrowers can do this by refinancing their student loans and selecting a shorter term. Shortening the loan term can also decrease the total amount spent on interest over the life of the loan, especially if you qualify for a lower interest rate, too.

However, keep in mind that refinancing federal loans means you are no longer eligible for federal protections or payment plans. If you’re interested in using federal benefits like an income-driven repayment option or student loan forgiveness, refinancing may not make sense.

You can also indirectly shorten your student loan repayment term by making extra payments toward your loan, either monthly or as you can. Before making an extra payment, make sure to contact your lender and have them apply the extra payment to the principal amount. If you don’t do this, the payment may go toward your next month’s payment, which would include interest.

The Takeaway

How long you have to pay off student loans depends on the types of loans you have, the student loan repayment option you choose, and how large of monthly payments you can make.

Options for paying off student loans include the Standard Repayment Plan, Extended Repayment Plan, Graduated Repayment Plan, and income-based repayment plans. You can also choose to consolidate your federal loans into one loan with one monthly payment or refinance federal and/or private student loans into a new loan with a new interest rate.

If you choose to refinance your student loans, the benefits include the potential of a lower interest rate or a lower monthly payment. If you choose a shorter loan term, your monthly payment will be higher but you’ll most likely pay less in interest over the life of the loan. A longer loan term will get you a lower monthly payment, but you’ll pay more in interest overall.

Looking to lower your monthly student loan payment? Refinancing may be one way to do it — by extending your loan term, getting a lower interest rate than what you currently have, or both. (Please note that refinancing federal loans makes them ineligible for federal forgiveness and protections. Also, lengthening your loan term may mean paying more in interest over the life of the loan.) SoFi student loan refinancing offers flexible terms that fit your budget.

With SoFi, refinancing is fast, easy, and all online. We offer competitive fixed and variable rates.


Is there a time limit to pay off student loans?

There is a time limit for paying off student loans. This is determined by the loan term and repayment plan selected by the borrower. For example, under the Standard Repayment Plan, borrowers repay their student loans over a period of 10 years. On some income-driven repayment plans, the repayment period is extended up to 25 years.

Do student loans go away after 25 years?

For borrowers enrolled in an income-driven repayment plan, the remaining balance is forgiven or canceled at the end of the loan term, which may be 20 or 25 years. This forgiven balance may be considered taxable income by the IRS, so be sure to understand if that is the case for you.

Are student loans forgiven after 7 years?

No, student loans do not go away after seven years. There are no federal programs offering loan forgiveness after seven years.

SoFi Student Loan Refinance
If you are a federal student loan borrower, you should consider all of your repayment opportunities including the opportunity to refinance your student loan debt at a lower APR or to extend your term to achieve a lower monthly payment. Please note that once you refinance federal student loans you will no longer be eligible for current or future flexible payment options available to federal loan borrowers, including but not limited to income-based repayment plans or extended repayment plans.

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Non affiliation: SoFi isn’t affiliated with any of the companies highlighted in this article.

Financial Tips & Strategies: The tips provided on this website are of a general nature and do not take into account your specific objectives, financial situation, and needs. You should always consider their appropriateness given your own circumstances.


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