When and How to Apply for Social Security

To start receiving federal retirement benefits, you’ll need to know how to apply for Social Security.
Taryn Phaneuf
By Taryn Phaneuf 
Edited by Laura McMullen

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Social Security could be a significant part of your retirement plan. But it doesn't kick in automatically. To start receiving your Social Security retirement benefits, you'll need to figure out when you want them to start and then submit an application.

Learn how to apply for Social Security, according to the Social Security Administration website.

When to apply for Social Security

Timing is critical when it comes to planning your retirement income. How much you'll receive from Social Security depends partly on when you enroll. But before we get into that, let's talk about timing your application.

You can apply for Social Security retirement benefits up to four months before you want them to begin. This provides enough lead time for your application to be processed. However, keep in mind that Social Security payments lag by a month. That means your Social Security benefits for September arrive in October.

You're eligible for benefits at age 62, although the Social Security Administration considers that early retirement. You'll receive reduced benefits if you begin receiving them before the full retirement age, which is 67.

You'll receive your full retirement benefit if you wait until the full retirement age. If you wait even longer, your retirement benefit will continue to increase until you turn 70.

Just like you should think twice about applying for Social Security retirement benefits when you turn 62, don't assume delaying until age 70 is the right move. A financial advisor can help you determine the best time to initiate Social Security benefits based on your retirement plans.

If you decide to tap Social Security sooner rather than later, the earliest you can start receiving retirement benefits is when you're 62 years and 1 month old. If you turn 62 on the first or second day of the month, you could apply for benefits to begin the same month as your birthday. That's because your first payment will arrive a month after they're due. For example, if you turn 62 on Oct. 2 and apply for benefits to begin in October, your first payment will arrive in November. By that time, you'll meet the age requirement.

If your birthday falls after the second day of the month, you'd need to wait to initiate your benefits until the next month. So, for example, if you turn 62 on Oct. 10, you'd apply for benefits to begin in November, which means your first payment arrives in December.

How to apply for Social Security

You can apply for Social Security benefits through the Social Security website, ssa.gov. You'll find separate applications for each Social Security benefit, including retirement, spouse's, disability and Medicare.

You also can call the Social Security Administration at 800-772-1213 or visit a local office. Scheduling an appointment before going into the office might be worthwhile to minimize the time you spend waiting. The busiest times are typically Mondays, the morning after a federal holiday and the first week of the month, according to the Social Security Administration.

What you'll need to apply for Social Security

To apply for Social Security retirement benefits, you'll need to be prepared with information about yourself and your work history.

Some items on the list of personal information resemble what you'd use to fill out a job or loan application, but there's also certain information you'll need to compile.

  • About you: Your date and place of birth and Social Security number (including if you've used a different Social Security number); your citizenship status; your original birth certificate or other proof of birth; and proof of U.S. citizenship or authorization to work in the U.S.

  • About your current and/or former spouse: Names, Social Security numbers, dates of birth or ages, dates and places of marriage and dates of divorce or death (if applicable).

  • About your children: Names of any unmarried children under 18, or under 19 and in elementary, middle or high school, or children with disabilities that started before age 22.

  • Previous Social Security applications: If you or someone else filed for Social Security benefits, Medicare or Supplemental Security Income on your behalf, you'll need to provide additional information.

  • Where benefits should be directed: Routing and account information for your bank or other financial institution.

  • When benefits begin: You'll need to indicate which month you want your retirement benefits to kick in. Also, if you're within three months of turning 65, you'll need to indicate whether you wish to enroll in Medicare Part B to get medical insurance coverage.

Did you know...

Medicare Part B is the portion of Medicare that covers most doctor visits and other outpatient medical services. It also covers durable medical equipment and preventive services.

The Social Security retirement benefits application also will ask for information about your work history.

  • Your employer: Name and address of your employer (or employers) for the current year and last year.

  • Your earnings: The amount of money earned last year and this year. You may be asked for copies of any W-2 forms or self-employment tax returns for the past year. You'll also need to provide a copy of your Social Security statement or a record of your earnings. You can find your Social Security statement online by creating an account with the Social Security Administration. If you don't have a record of your earnings, you should still fill out the application.

  • Special work or benefits history: You'll be asked for the start and end dates of any U.S. military service from before 1968 and a copy of your military service papers; whether you or your spouse ever worked for the railroad industry; and whether you'll get a pension or annuity because you held a job with the federal government. You'll also be asked if you earned Social Security credits under another country's social security system.

  • Your ability to work: You'll need to say if you were unable to work because of illnesses, injuries or conditions within 14 months of your application. If you couldn't work during that period, you'll need to provide the date you became unable to work.

You can find a list of what you need to apply for spouse's or disability benefits on the Social Security Administration's website.

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