When and How to Apply for Medicare

Should you apply for Medicare if you are still working at 65?

Doctor checking patient who applied for Medicare.
Most should apply for Medicare at 65. MartinBarraud/OJOImages/GettyImages

If you are already receiving Social Security benefits when you reach age 65 you are automatically enrolled in Medicare. But what if you haven't started Social Security yet? What if you're still covered by your employer's health plan?

The guidelines below will help you figure out when and how you should apply for Medicare no matter what your situation may be.

When Should You Apply for Medicare?

The basic rule is to apply for Medicare when you turn 65.

There is an open enrollment period which starts three months before the month you reach age 65 and extends three months past the month you turn 65 (a seven-month window). Medicare can impose hefty penalties if you apply late. Best to make sure you enroll when you are supposed to! Here's how enrollment works depending on whether you are already receiving Social Security or not.

If you already receive Social Security benefits

If you already receive Social Security benefits or benefits from the Railroad Retirement system, then you will be automatically enrolled in Medicare (both part A and part B) starting the first day of the month you turn age 65. Your Medicare card is mailed to you about three months before your 65th birthday. It is sent to the address on record with Social Security.

You will automatically receive a package which contains important information about the decisions you need to make.

For example, although eligible, you do not have to enroll in Part B, which requires you to pay a monthly premium. You need to take the time to learn about Medicare Part B to determine if you should sign up; if you don’t sign up initially it may cost you more to sign up later.

You should also check out the Medicare Enrollment Booklet which contains clear, concise information about both Medicare Part A and B, and can help you make a decision as to whether you should remain enrolled in Medicare Part B.

If you are not yet receiving Social Security benefits

If you are not yet receiving Social Security benefits or benefits from the Railroad Retirement system, you are eligible to sign up for Medicare three months before the month you turn 65, but your enrollment will not happen automatically. You must call or apply online - details below. It is to your benefit to sign up for Medicare Part A as soon as you are eligible, even if you still have coverage through a group health plan.

Although eligible, you do not have to enroll in Part B, which requires you to pay a monthly premium. You need to take the time to learn about Medicare Part B to determine if you should sign up; if you don’t sign up initially it may cost you more to sign up later. The links in the section below contain information that can help you make this decision.

How to Apply for Medicare

You can apply online or sign up by calling Social Security at 1-800-772-1213. If you're still working at 65, read on to find out how it works.

If you are still working, age 65 or older, and covered by group health insurance

Most group health plans require that you sign up for Medicare at age 65. If you aren't sure, check with your benefits department.

Your group health plan usually becomes secondary at this point, with Medicare paying first, then your group plan paying second. At age 65, unless your benefits department specifically tells you otherwise, you should apply for Medicare Part A even if you are still working. If you did not apply for Medicare yet, do so as soon as possible. 

For those who did not sign up at 65, Medicare has an open enrollment period each year from January 1 - March 31. If you apply for Medicare during this time your benefits take effect July 1.

Once you are over 65, there is a Special Enrollment Period provided to allow you to add Medicare Part B at such time as your group health plan benefits subside or go away. This situation may occur if you terminate employment after you reach the age of 65.

If you have Medicare Part A, and now need to start Part B

At 65 you may have signed up for Part A, but not Part B. This occurs most often with someone who is still working and has access to a group health plan. Once you retire, you'll need to add Part B within eight months of the earliest of either the end of your employment or end of your group health coverage. This enrollment option falls under one of the Special Enrollment Period offerings.