How Do I Apply for Social Security Benefits?

The easiest way to apply for retirement benefits is online.

Person presenting Social Security card as a form of identification for benefits
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There are a few ways you can apply for retirement Social Security benefits: Online at ssa.gov, in person at your local Social Security office, or over the phone by calling 1-800-772-1213.

If you're ready to retire and start receiving a Social Security check, first make sure that you're eligible to apply for benefits. You must be a maximum of three months away from your 62nd birthday, and you must also be ready to start taking your benefits within the next four months.

Key Takeaways

  • The easiest way to apply for retirement benefits is to go to the Social Security website, click on the "Retirement" section, and then navigate to "Apply for Benefits."
  • Have all of the information you need before going online, including bank account numbers and details on any marriages or divorces.
  • If you need to submit any documentation, the Social Security Administration will give you detailed instructions about what to send and where to send it.

Applying Online

If you have access to a computer, then the easiest way to apply for retirement Social Security benefits is online.

Visit ssa.gov, and click on the "Retirement" section on the main screen, then "Apply for Retirement Benefits." The system will walk you through the application process, asking you for personal information, beginning with your name, address, and Social Security number.

The Social Security Administration (SSA) takes every precaution to safeguard your personal information online.

As soon as you have entered the initial information, the system will give you an application number. Make a note of it, because you'll need it later if you want to finish your claim later or check the status of your completed claim.

If you stop the application process in the middle, you can start again at any time without losing your work. When you want to access it again, revisit the Retirement Benefits section of the SSA website, and choose "Return to a Saved Application." You can also visit the same website to check on the status of your benefits after you've filed the application. Just choose "Check Application Status."

With each item on the online application, there is a "​More Info" button you can click on for help if you're unclear about what a question means or how to proceed.

Information Needed to Apply

The application process should not take long, but you'll need to have certain information on hand to make sure it goes smoothly, including the following when applicable:

  • Date and place of birth
  • Marriage and divorce information
  • Names and birthdays of children who are disabled, unmarried, and/or 18 or younger, or 18 or 19 and attending school full-time
  • U.S. military service information if applicable
  • Employer or self-employment details for the current year and prior two years 
  • Bank direct-deposit information

The form will also ask about additional income and whether you have previously applied for SSI, other Social Security benefits, or Medicare.

If you're married, your spouse may qualify for spousal benefits from Social Security as well. You'll also need your spouse's Social Security number, birth date, and other pertinent information when you apply. If your spouse signs up for Social Security benefits, he or she will have to provide the same information about you, too. If you are divorced, you may have to include your ex-spouse's information.

Selecting a Benefit Start Date

The application will also ask you what date you want your benefits to start. A benefits estimator is built into the application to help you decide.

The SSA pays out benefits the month after the start date you request. For example, if you indicate that you want your benefits to start in September, you'll receive your first check in October.

Keep in mind that the amount of your benefit checks will depend on the age when you start collecting. The longer you can wait to start taking your payments, the more you will get each month. However, you must begin receiving benefits by age 70.

Submitting Your Application

You can sign the application electronically and submit it online, so you don't need to mail it in. However, you may have to send backup documents, such as proof of birth, a Social Security card or other proof of U.S. citizenship, and copies of your most recent W-2s or self-employment forms. If so, you will get an address and specific instructions on how to do so.

Even if you don't have the documents, the Social Security Administration may be able to help you obtain them, and it cautions that you should not delay signing up.

Many fields in the online application don't accept punctuation or special characters of any kind. If you get an error message when you try to move to the next page, check all fields and remove punctuation.

Once you sign the application online, keep a copy for your files by printing it out or saving it electronically. If the SSA has any additional questions, a representative will contact you directly. You can always call with questions of your own at 800-772-1213. You can also check your account status online by using the application number you received during your application process.