Need to defer your student loan payment due to coronavirus? Here’s how

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Students and recent grads breathed a sigh of relief last week when the government announced it would suspend federally held student loans as a result of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. But to take advantage of the 60-day suspension, you’ll have to take a few steps.

The Department of Education has dropped the interest rate on student loans to 0% for at least the next 60 days.

That’s good news, since it means you won’t accrue additional debt if you do obtain a forbearance. And, given the government action, skipping a few payments won’t hurt your credit score, if you follow the proper procedure.

Government-held student loans

Step one is reaching out to your lender. The Department of Education has contact numbers for servicers of federally held loans listed on its website. If you’re not sure who holds your loan, call the Federal Student Aid Information Center (FSAIC) at 1-800-433-3243 or visit

Once you’ve found the right lender, ask them for an administrative forbearance. That will allow you to stop making payments without being marked delinquent. You won’t have to worry about extending that forbearance if the government extends the loan suspension program, either. That will be done automatically once you’ve called.

After the suspension lifts, though, you will have to resume making payments. If you use auto-debit payments, you’ll need to restart those. They will not automatically resume.

Already behind on your debts? There’s good news there. If you were at least 31 days behind on your payment as of March 13, 2020, or become more than 31 days delinquent after that date, you’ll automatically be placed in administrative forbearance.

Privately held student loans

It’s critical to note that last week’s announcement has no authority over privately held loans, such as those held by Sallie Mae or Citi Student Loan Corp.

You can still request a forbearance to temporarily postpone or reduce your payments, but as of now, you could still face late fees, and interest will accrue. And a payment might be required to obtain the forbearance.

(Sally Mae, in a statement to Fortune, said “customers facing financial difficulties due to the pandemic are encouraged to contact us for assistance, which includes a three-month suspension of student loan payments, that does not impact their credit standing.”)

Still, if you face penalties with your private lender, it’s still better than defaulting on the loans.

More than 44 million Americans have $1.5 trillion in outstanding student loan debt at present. It’s one of the largest consumer debt categories. That’s a 33% increase from 2014.

Some 69% of the class of 2018 took out student loans. They graduated with an average debt of $29,800 per student.

More coronavirus coverage from Fortune:

—Will ‘The Great Cessation’ be worse than the Great Recession?
The U.S. needs more ventilators. Why can’t it make them in time?
Which stores are open—and closed—during the coronavirus pandemic in the U.S.?
College students struggle to find housing as the coronavirus pushes them off campus
—How to upgrade the background of your video chats
—IBM and The Weather Channel debut coronavirus map
—Listen to Leadership Next, a Fortune podcast examining the evolving role of CEOs
—WATCH: World leaders and health experts on how to stop the spread of COVID-19

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