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How to buy life insurance: 8 steps to finding the right policy

From determining how much coverage you need to signing your policy, we’ve simplified the life insurance shopping process with a step-by-step guide.

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Katherine MurbachEditor & Licensed Life Insurance AgentKatherine Murbach is an editor and a former licensed life insurance agent at Policygenius. Previously, she wrote about life and disability insurance for 1752 Financial, and advised over 1,500 clients on their life insurance policies as a sales associate.

Edited by

Antonio Ruiz-CamachoAntonio Ruiz-CamachoAssociate Content DirectorAntonio helps lead our life insurance and disability insurance editorial team at Policygenius. Previously, he was a senior director of content at Bankrate and, as well as a principal writer covering personal finance at CNET.

Reviewed by

Matt BurkeMatt BurkeLicensed Insurance Expert & Director of Life, DI and P&C OperationsMatt Burke is a licensed insurance expert and the director of operations for life, disability and property & casualty insurance at Policygenius. Matt has worked in the insurance and financial planning industries for more than seven years, and is a Life, Accident & Health licensed insurance agent.

Updated|6 min read

Expert reviewedExpert reviewedThis article has been reviewed by a member of ourFinancial Review Council to ensure all sources, statistics, and claims meet the highest standard for accurate and unbiased advice.Learn more about oureditorial review process.

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Life insurance is an affordable way to financially protect your loved ones in the event of your death, but finding the right policy can be confusing. We explain the process in eight steps to help you get life insurance with confidence.

Key takeaways

  • Working with an independent broker can help you compare quotes to find the most affordable life insurance policy.

  • The application process usually includes a phone call and a medical exam, but some insurance companies offer no-medical-exam life insurance.

  • Your coverage becomes active when you sign your final policy documents and pay your first premium.

  • The entire approval process can take up to four to six weeks on average.

1. Calculate how much life insurance you need

Your life insurance coverage amount should cover your family’s long-term financial needs, including the loss of your income in the event of your death, as well as debts and everyday expenses.

A common rule of thumb is to multiply your annual income by 10 to 15 to get an estimate for your total coverage. If you have multiple life insurance policies, you can count your current coverage toward the total amount you need. 

You can use our life insurance calculator to determine exactly how much coverage you need. You can also reach out to a Policygenius expert for help.

→ Learn more about how to determine how much life insurance you need

2. Decide what type of policy you need

Term life insurance

For most people, term life insurance is the best and most affordable way to provide loved ones with a financial safety net to cover any debts or loss of income. Term life insurance lasts for a set period of time — usually 10 to 30 years — and then expires. It’s designed to provide coverage when you need it the most, such as when you’re raising children or paying off a mortgage.

Permanent life insurance

You might need permanent life insurance if you’re a high-net-worth individual, or someone with a dependent who needs lifelong care. Permanent policies don’t expire and come with a cash value investment component. These types of policies are much more expensive than term life insurance, so they’re best if you have a specific need for long-term coverage, like complex investment or estate planning goals.

Whole life insurance and universal life insurance are two of the most common types of permanent life insurance policies. 

→ Learn more about the different types of life insurance

3. Compare life insurance companies & quotes

You can get a free online life insurance quote with just a few pieces of personal information, such as your location, age, gender, and basic medical history. The easiest way to compare quotes from multiple insurance companies at the same time is to work with an independent broker. This way, you can select the company that best suits your needs.

Working with a broker like Policygenius is also an easy way to compare features between insurance companies — such as add-ons called policy riders or financial strength ratings from agencies like AM Best.

The best life insurance company for you will depend on your specific profile. Our evidence-based analysis can help you get started, but a Policygenius agent can help you find the right insurer for you.

 At Policygenius, our agents are licensed in all 50 states and can walk you through the entire life insurance buying process while offering transparent, unbiased advice. Here are some of our top picks.

The 5 best life insurance companies


Policygenius rating

AM Best rating


Brighthouse Financial




Legal & General America








Lincoln Financial




Pacific Life





Why you can trust our picks

Our recommendations are based on internal and external expert analysis, as well as our Policygenius Life Insurance Price Index, which uses real-time data from leading life insurance companies to determine pricing trends. When reviewing a life insurance company, our editorial team uses a proprietary scoring rubric with five factors — price, policy details, financial strength, transparency, and customer experience — to assign an unbiased rating between one and five stars. These ratings are also taken into consideration as part of our company recommendations. We don’t get paid for our reviews

Our reviews and recommendations can help you find a reliable insurer for your family’s financial protection, but the best life insurance company for you depends on multiple factors. A licensed agent at Policygenius can support you during the application process to ensure you get the right coverage for your circumstances at the most competitive price.

→ Read more about our reviews methodology

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4. Decide how you want to shop for life insurance

There are a few different ways you can go about buying your life insurance policy — two of the main options are buying through an independent broker or an affiliated agent with a specific insurer. 

  • Independent brokers like Policygenius are not affiliated with any insurer and sell policies from multiple companies. Their agents work on your behalf, and can shop around for alternatives if your original application results in a higher premium than you were quoted or is declined.

  • Affiliated agents, also called captive agents, are hired by one or more insurers to sell their products. Affiliated agents know their company’s offerings and application processing times very well, but your options will be limited because agents only sell policies from the insurers they work for. And because their pay includes commission, agents may have a financial incentive to sell you more expensive policies or more coverage than you need.

In recent years, online shopping for insurance has become more popular, too. According to a study conducted by LIMRA and Life Happens, a non-profit organization dedicated to educating consumers on life insurance, 38% of Gen Z adults and 27% of Millennials say they would prefer to buy life insurance online. [1] Brokers like Policygenius combine a seamless online experience with human expertise from agents who work for you.

5. Complete the application process

Answer questions on your life insurance application

Most questions you’ll be asked during your life insurance phone interview fall into three general categories: basic information, personal and family health, and lifestyle, habits, and hobbies.

Types of life insurance application questions

Basic information

You’ll provide your age, height, and weight to get your initial quote. Next, you’ll speak with a life insurance agent over the phone and they’ll confirm the following details. 

  • Social Security number (SSN) to confirm your identity

  • Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) to confirm your identity if you don’t have a SSN

  • Driver’s license number to evaluate your motor vehicle history and any risky behavior (such as a DUI)

  • Contact information to send your application decision and final policy documents

Personal & family health

Insurers will evaluate your medical history and family background to assess your insurance risk. Typically, the more health conditions you have and the more complex they are, the more you’ll pay in life insurance premiums. Insurance companies evaluate your family health history, too, because it can provide insight into whether or not you might develop a health condition in the future.

When you’re filling out your online application, you’ll be asked if you’ve been treated for or have taken any medication for health conditions such as asthma, cancer, cardiovascular disease, depression, diabetes, sleep apnea, or stroke.

Once you’re on the phone with an agent, they’ll ask you to provide more information about the following:

  • Previous and current medical diagnoses

  • Prescription history

  • Past surgeries

  • Family medical history

Lifestyle, habits, and hobbies

If you have a high-risk job or hobby, it could impact your life insurance rates. If you only partake in these activities infrequently, your premiums might not be affected at all. In other cases, insurers may add exclusions to your policy to offset the risk. An exclusion to your policy could mean that if you die while participating in a risky activity, your beneficiaries won’t receive the payout. Below are some of the lifestyle choices insurers may ask you about:

Designate a beneficiary

On your application, you’ll need to name your policy’s beneficiaries — they’re the people who will receive the payout if you die.

The person you list as your policy’s beneficiary should be someone that would be financially impacted by your death. This is usually a spouse or partner — but can be another trusted adult. If you have children, it’s best practice to list their legal guardian as the beneficiary and set up a trust, instead of naming them directly. Life insurance proceeds can’t be paid out to minors.

Provide additional documents

During the application process, you may be asked to verify the following information. Insurance companies don’t always request these documents, but having them accessible can help move the process along seamlessly.

  • Proof of identity, citizenship, and age. A driver’s license, Social Security Number (SSN), birth certificate, or a valid passport will work. Non-U.S. citizens can use their green card (permanent resident card), visa, or an employment authorization card.

  • Proof of income. You can use pay stubs, a letter of employment, a tax return, or an earnings statement from your bank. If you’re unemployed, an unemployment letter or monthly statement describing your unemployment benefits will work. You’ll also want to know an updated estimate of your net worth.

  • Proof of residency. For renters, that could be your signed lease or a rent receipt. For homeowners, your mortgage bill or a property tax statement will suffice. Insurers will also accept a utility bill or a postmarked envelope with your return address on it.

When you complete your application, you’ll receive an initial quote for your coverage. You’re still not buying the policy yet — the insurance company will review your information first.

Additionally, the quote you receive might differ from the final rate you’re offered. Insurers confirm how much you’ll actually pay for premiums after they review your application.

The quote usually only differs from the offer if new information is revealed when the insurance company reviews your application. This is one reason it’s important to be honest and thorough when you initially apply for life insurance.

What happens if you lie on your life insurance application?

Intentionally lying on your application is considered life insurance fraud and will likely result in application denial.

Not only will you be ineligible for coverage from the insurer you applied to, but any future applications will also note a history of insurance fraud through the Medical Information Bureau, which can jeopardize getting approved for life insurance coverage or paying affordable premiums.

6. Get a medical exam

Some applications will require an in-person medical exam — a free exam similar to a yearly physical, with an option for the medical examiner to come to your home or office. When applying through Policygenius, we help schedule your medical exam for you.

If you opt for a no-exam life insurance policy, the insurer will verify your application against your medical history instead (you’ll need to sign a HIPAA compliance waiver to give them access to your records).

Insurers use your medical information to help assign you a health classification, also called a risk classification. Your health classification helps determine your premiums.

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7. Wait for approval

Life insurance companies evaluate the risk of insuring you and how much you’ll pay for your policy through a process called underwriting. Once it’s over, the insurer will determine your final premiums.

This waiting period can take four to six weeks, but sometimes longer if parts of your application require more documentation. For example, the insurance company may request an attending physician statement (APS) from your doctor, which provides additional information about your health.

Your application can be either:

  • Approved as applied at the rate you applied for. This means your final offer will be the same as your original quote.

  • Approved better than applied at a rate cheaper than what you applied for.

  • Approved other than applied at a rate that is more expensive than your original quote, based on review of your medical records. 

When you get your offer, you’ll know exactly how much your premiums will cost, and you can always request to adjust your coverage amount based on the final offer price. 

Working with an independent broker like Policygenius can help you shop around to make sure you’re getting the best offer possible, even if you’re originally approved other than applied.

→ Learn more about life insurance rates

8. Review & buy your policy

Once the underwriting process is complete, you’ll be issued a policy offer. If you agree to its terms, all that’s left is to sign the policy documents and pay your first premium. Your policy doesn’t go into effect until you complete this step.

Depending on the insurer, your policy documents will either need to be electronically delivered or mailed back. Keep a hard copy and digital copy of your policy in a safe place and let your beneficiaries know where to find it. 

→ Read more about how life insurance works

Frequently asked questions

How much life insurance should you buy?

A common rule of thumb is to buy coverage that’s at least 10 to 15 times your annual income, or enough to cover your financial obligations, including any debts. You also want to make sure your premiums are about 1% of your annual income.

Can you purchase life insurance online?

You can get a life insurance quote online, but most life insurance policies require a phone call with an agent to get active coverage.

Is it worth it to buy life insurance?

If you have dependents or anyone who would suffer financially if you died, life insurance offers important financial protection and is well worth the cost.

How do you get approved for life insurance?

To get approved, you’ll connect with a licensed life insurance agent or broker and submit an application with information on your health profile, family background, and lifestyle choices. If you’re ineligible for traditional life insurance, you can get guaranteed issue life insurance.

What is the free look period?

The free look period is the first 10 to 30 days your life insurance policy is active. During this time, you can cancel your coverage without penalty and get a refund of the premiums you’ve paid.

Should you backdate your life insurance policy?

It may be worth it to backdate your policy if your age changed during the application process and you’d save more money by paying an extra premium upfront. The agent you’re working with can help you determine if you should consider backdating your policy.


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Policygenius uses external sources, including government data, industry studies, and reputable news organizations to supplement proprietary marketplace data and internal expertise. Learn more about how we use and vet external sources as part of oureditorial standards.

  1. LIMRA

    . "

    Younger Adults Seek a Different Buying Experience for Life Insurance

    ." Accessed November 29, 2023.


Katherine Murbach is an editor and a former licensed life insurance agent at Policygenius. Previously, she wrote about life and disability insurance for 1752 Financial, and advised over 1,500 clients on their life insurance policies as a sales associate.


Antonio helps lead our life insurance and disability insurance editorial team at Policygenius. Previously, he was a senior director of content at Bankrate and, as well as a principal writer covering personal finance at CNET.

Expert reviewer

Matt Burke is a licensed insurance expert and the director of operations for life, disability and property & casualty insurance at Policygenius. Matt has worked in the insurance and financial planning industries for more than seven years, and is a Life, Accident & Health licensed insurance agent.

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