How Do I Apply for Social Security Benefits?

Social security card
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The U.S. Social Security program was developed to provide benefits to help make the "golden years" of retirement easier, offer funds for living expenses in case of disability, and provide some income to survivors such as a widow or dependents.

It's been performing these supportive financial functions for many individuals for over 80 years. At the time of publication, the average monthly Social Security check ranges from about $1,391 for a retired worker, to $2,664 per month for a widow with two dependent children.

If you're ready to retire and start receiving your Social Security check, first make sure that you are eligible to apply for Social Security retirement 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. Find out more about when to apply for your Social Security benefits by visiting the Social Security website, SocialSecurity.gov.

Where to Start

If you are eligible for Social Security retirement benefits, you have several ways to apply for benefits, depending on which method works best for you. Go in person, by appointment only, at your local Social Security office.

You can handle the process over the phone at 1-800-772-1213, or use your computer to sign up online via the Social Security website. The Social Security Administration (SSA) recommends going online as the best and easiest way to apply.

Submit Your Application Online

Visit www.socialsecurity.gov, and click on the Retirement section on the main screen, then Apply for Retirement. The system will walk you through the application process, asking you for personal information beginning with name, address, and Social Security number. The SSA says it takes every precaution to safeguard this information online, so you can be fairly certain this information is secure.

As soon as you have logged in the initial information, the system will give you an Application Number. Make note of this number, because you'll need it later if you want to check the status of your claim online.

If you stop the application process in the middle, you can start again at any time without losing your work, as long as you have your Application Number. When you want to take a break, You can use the same number to check on the status of your benefits after you've filed the application.

With each item on the online application, there is a ​More Info button. If you are unclear what a question means or how to proceed, you can click on this button for help.

Have Your Information Ready

The application process should take about 15 minutes, but you will need to have certain information on hand. This includes recent employment information, self-employment details, or military service or foreign employment information. If there are any discrepancies in your recent Social Security statements, you can make adjustments.

The form will also ask about additional income, whether you have previously applied for SSI, other Social Security benefits, or Medicare. In addition to your personal information, you will need your spouse's Social Security number, birthdate, and other pertinent information.

When your spouse signs up for Social Security benefits, he or she will have to provide the same information about you. Your spouse may qualify for spousal benefits from Social Security. If you are divorced, you may have to include your ex-spouse's information as well.

You will also be asked what date you want your benefits to start. Consider carefully how your benefits will be affected depending on the age you start collecting​ since you'll get more money each month the longer you can wait to start taking your payments. A benefits estimator is built into the application to help you decide.

Submit 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 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.

Even if you don't have the documents, the Social Security Administration cautions that you should not delay signing up. The office may be able to help you with the documents, and in the meantime, you do not want to delay your claim and possibly lose some benefits.

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 1-800-772-1213. You can also check your account status online using the Application Number you received during your application process.