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.

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 name, address, and Social Security number.

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

As soon as you have logged in the initial information, the system will give you an application number. Make a note of this number, 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. That includes the following, when applicable:

  • Date and place of birth
  • Marriage and divorce information
  • Names and birthdays of children who are disabled, unmarried and 18 or younger, or 18 or 19 and attending school full-time
  • U.S. Military service information
  • 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, 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, they'll have to provide the same information about you, too. If you are divorced, you may have to include your ex-spouse's information as well.

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 differ depending on the age you start collecting. You'll get more money each month the longer you can wait to start taking your payments. 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 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 cautions that you should not delay signing up. The office may be able to help you obtain them.

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

Article Sources

  1. Social Security Administration. "Apply for Social Security Benefits." Accessed Feb. 27, 2020.

  2. Social Security Administration. "Retirement Benefits." Accessed Feb. 27, 2020.

  3. Social Security Administration. "Apply for Retirement Benefits." Accessed March 1, 2020.

  4. Social Security Administration. "Checklist for Online Medicare, Retirement,

    & Spouses Applications." Accessed March 1, 2020.

  5. Social Security Administration. "Benefits Planner: Retirement." Accessed March 1, 2020.