Abstract We present a symmetric finite element method for solving fluid-structure interaction problems. The formulation uses velocity potentials and a hydrostatic pressure as unknowns in each fluid region, and displacements as unknowns in the solid. The hydrostatic pressure is an unknown variable at only one node per fluid region. A C matrix (multiplied by time derivatives of the nodal variables, but not a damping matrix) enforces the coupling between the variables. The resulting matrix equations are banded and symmetric, making them easy to incorporate in standard displacement-based finite element codes. Several test cases indicate that this approach works well for static, transient, and frequency analyses.