On April 1, 2016, the FAA implemented a new process for getting a student pilot certificate. Students apply through the FAA’s IACRA system; a Certified Flight Instructor (CFI) can approve the application. I’ve only processed two so far (May 2016), but my students received their certificates in 9 and 10 days respectively from the day we finished the process.
Students must have both a medical and student certificate prior to solo. I recommend that students apply for the student pilot certificate as soon as they start their flight training.
You first need to register for a new account at http://iacra.faa.gov (register link near the upper right). After you have registered, you’ll be assigned an FTN. You will need your FTN, username, and password later in the process
After you have registered, you will need to log in and start a new application, accepting the TOS (terms of service) as an applicant and pressing the “Start New Application” button. From there, Type of Application: Pilot; Pilot Certifications: Student Pilot then click the “Start Application” button. When filling out the application, be careful to avoid any data entry errors. I recommend that students put “DO NOT USE” in the field for SSN.
Once you have completed the entry, be sure to submit the application and let your instructor know. You will need to finalize the application together (this is when you will need your FTN, username, and password); you’ll need to show the CFI an ID such as a passport or driver’s license (this is a separate process from showing proof of citizenship before starting flight training).
Previously, students would receive a student pilot certificate from an Aviation Medical Examiner when they received for their medical certificate (it was the same document). The new process requires two separate processes – using IACRA for applying for the student pilot certificate and using MedExpress and visiting an Aviation Medical Examiner for the medical certificate.