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How to get life insurance: 7 steps to buying the right policy

Shopping for life insurance coverage doesn’t have to be complicated. Learn how working with an agent makes it easy to apply online and get affordable life insurance for your family.

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Headshot of Amanda Shih


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.&Amanda ShihEditor & Licensed Life Insurance ExpertAmanda Shih is a licensed life, disability, and health insurance expert and a former editor at Policygenius, where she covered life insurance and disability insurance. Her expertise has appeared in Slate, Lifehacker, Little Spoon, and J.D. Power.

Edited by

Antonio Ruiz-CamachoAntonio Ruiz-CamachoAssociate SEO 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|12 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 creates financial protection for your loved ones if you die unexpectedly. And while getting life insurance is very important, finding the right policy can be confusing. We outlined seven easy steps below to help you make important decisions and get life insurance with ease: from determining how much coverage you need to selecting the type of policy and comparing quotes.

Key takeaways

  • Working with an independent broker can help you find the most affordable provider.

  • Underwriting usually includes a phone call and medical exam, though some insurers and products waive the medical exam.

  • The application process can be completed mostly online if you get no-medical-exam life insurance.

  • You do not officially have coverage until you sign your final policy documents and pay your first premium.

When to consider getting life insurance

Anyone who has debt or dependents should have life insurance. It’s also usually a good idea to reevaluate your life insurance when you face a significant change in your life or financial situation. Many people shop for life insurance when they’re getting married, starting a family, or buying a house, so they can make sure their financial obligations and dependents are covered. 

It’s also smart to evaluate your insurance needs if you get a new job and your income significantly changes — this will affect how much financial protection you’ll need for your loved ones. 

1. Calculate how much life insurance you need

Life insurance coverage should be customized to your family’s long-term financial needs, including projected income, debts, expenses, and the needs of your dependents. Policygenius experts suggest 10 to 15 times your annual income in life insurance coverage to support these costs for your family. 

To get a better idea of how much coverage you need, you can ask yourself:

  • Who depends on my income?

  • How long would I like to provide financial support for my spouse/dependents?

  • How much would my spouse/dependents need to cover living expenses, especially rent or a mortgage?

  • How will my loved ones pay for my end-of-life expenses?

  • How much would my spouse need to cover other financial obligations that we have?

You can use our life insurance calculator to tally up how much coverage you need or reach out to a licensed agent who can help make a recommendation.

Tally up your financial obligations

Adding up the costs below will help you get a sense of what your family will need if you’re gone. Your death benefit should encompass that entire dollar amount minus any liquid assets you already have. A typical breakdown might look like this:


National average





Total assets



National average

Annual household expenses


Cost of raising two children for 18 years


Cost of a 4-year public university for two children


End-of-life expenses


Total expenses



National average

Credit card balance


Auto loan




Total debt


The costs above are based on data compiled by Experian, the Federal Reserve, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Social Security Administration, the USDA, and Education Data and are based on median data for U.S. consumers. Numbers will vary depending on each person’s individual circumstances.

Recommended coverage example

  • Total financial obligations (Expenses + Debt): $1,446,377

  • Coverage gap (Total financial obligations - Assets): $1,269,049

  • Recommended coverage amount: $1,300,000

If you have multiple life insurance policies, how much you need may look different, and you should likely consult a financial advisor.

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

2. Decide what type of policy you need

After evaluating the amount of coverage you need, you can decide what type of life insurance is best suited for you. 

Term life insurance

Term life insurance is the best option for most people looking to protect their income and provide their family with a financial safety net to cover any debts — including a mortgage or any other types of personal loans.

Term life easy to manage and offers the most coverage for the lowest dollar amount. Once you apply, your premiums remain the same for the entire duration of the policy, and applying while you’re young is often a great way to lock in an affordable rate.

Many people buy a policy with a term length that will cover them until retirement so they’re protected for the duration of their income-earning years.

Whole life insurance

Whole life insurance is a type of permanent life insurance policy that lasts your entire life and doesn’t expire. If you’re considering purchasing life insurance as part of your investment portfolio or estate planning strategy, certain types of permanent life insurance policies, including whole life insurance or indexed universal life insurance — a type of coverage that has a cash value component — can be an option for you.

Permanent life insurance can also be a good fit if you know you will have a lifelong dependent. 

Guaranteed issue life insurance

Guaranteed life policies are exactly what they sound like — application approval is essentially guaranteed, as long as you don’t have a terminal illness. Also known as final expense insurance or burial insurance, available coverage amounts are much lower than for term or whole policies, and premiums are very expensive. A Policygenius agent can help you decide on the best policy for your budget and coverage needs.

Types of Life Insurance graph

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3. Shop around for a life insurance policy

Once you have an idea of the type of coverage you need, the next step is to decide where to buy life insurance. An overwhelming majority of people purchase their policy from an insurance agent or broker, [1] but you can also purchase it through a financial advisor, an organization, an employer, or directly from an insurance company.

Brokers represent you and tend to offer more impartial advice, while agents work directly for the insurance companies. 

Insurance rates are regulated by law, which means that no company, broker, or agent can offer you a discount on a policy. But because each insurer calculates risk differently, you’ll pay the most affordable premiums by shopping around with multiple insurers as opposed to working with just one.

According to a study conducted by LIMRA, [2] an independent research trade association, over a quarter of life insurance buyers found that working with an agent eased the life insurance shopping process, and 97% of the applicants surveyed experienced satisfactory service.

To get the best pricing and most accurate information available across multiple insurance companies, we recommend working with an independent broker. At Policygenius, our brokers are licensed in all 50 states and can walk you through the entire life insurance buying process while offering transparent, unbiased advice.

→ Read more about how life insurance works

Compare life insurance quotes and companies

You can get a free sample quote from many different insurers with just a few pieces of personal information, like your location, age, gender, and basic medical history. 

Most people pick the cheapest policy that has the coverage they need. You can also compare other features, like what riders, or supplemental coverage, a company offers, their customer service record and financial strength ratings from trusted third-party ratings agencies like A.M. Best, and whether they’re best for your particular health profile.

The best life insurance company for you will depend on your specific profile and unique needs. Here are some of our top picks:

Best life insurance companies

Methodology: How we chose the best life insurance companies of 2023

We don't get paid for our company reviews and use an extensive rubric of criteria covering policy details, price, financial confidence, third-party ratings, and customer experience to assign unbiased ratings out of five stars. Any recommendations we make are based on internal and external expert opinions and data from our Policygenius Price Index, which uses real-time rate data from leading life insurance companies to determine pricing trends.

Our ratings and reviews can help point you to an insurer you can rely on for your family’s financial protection, but the best life insurance company for you is dependent on multiple factors. A licensed agent at Policygenius can work with you through the application process so you’re getting coverage from the best insurer for your circumstances at the most competitive price.

→ Read more about our reviews methodology here

Best overall life insurance

Banner offers a competitive option for people who qualify for best rates, as well as people who may have a pre-existing condition such as diabetes or tobacco use.

They offer a competitive no-medical-exam option to people who qualify, as well as a fully underwritten option with a medical exam. Banner also has high levels of financial security. The company is rated A+ according to A.M. Best, a rating agency that analyzes insurers based on their financial strength.

Cheapest life insurance

Banner Life

Why we chose it

Banner Life has some of the most competitive rates on the market, for people both with and without pre-existing health conditions.

Best life insurance for young adults

award icon

2023 Policygenius award winner

Brighthouse Financial

Brighthouse Financial logo

Policygenius rating 

Our proprietary rating methodology takes multiple factors into account, including customer satisfaction, cost, financial strength, and policy offerings. See the "methodology" section for more details.

Full orange starFull orange starFull orange starFull orange starFull orange star


AM Best rating 

AM Best is a global credit rating agency that scores the financial strength of insurance companies on a scale from A++ (Superior) to D (Poor).



Using a mix of internal and external rate data, we grade the cost of each insurance company's premiums on a scale from least expensive ($) to most expensive ($$$$$).






No-medical-exam option

Why we chose it

Brighthouse Financial offers competitive rates, comprehensive coverage, and application decisions in as little as 24 hours, making it a great choice for people who want to get life insurance coverage without having to take the medical exam.

Pros and cons


  • Extremely affordable

  • Instant-decision applications

  • Best-in-class no-med option


  • Traditional term life not available in CA, IL, LA, ME, or NY

  • Term life applicants limited to ages 25-50

For people in their 20s, 30s, and 40s, Brighthouse Financial offers some of the most affordable and convenient coverage options on the market. The company features one of the best overall life insurance products for young adults ages 25 and up — they offer quick approvals, no-medical-exam options and affordable premiums.

Best life insurance for seniors

award icon

2023 Policygenius award winner


Prudential logo

Policygenius rating 

Our proprietary rating methodology takes multiple factors into account, including customer satisfaction, cost, financial strength, and policy offerings. See the "methodology" section for more details.

Full orange starFull orange starFull orange starFull orange starEmpty gray star


AM Best rating 

AM Best is a global credit rating agency that scores the financial strength of insurance companies on a scale from A++ (Superior) to D (Poor).



Using a mix of internal and external rate data, we grade the cost of each insurance company's premiums on a scale from least expensive ($) to most expensive ($$$$$).






All 50 states

No-medical-exam option

Why we chose it

With nearly four million policyholders and 150 years to its name, Prudential offers competitive coverage options for seniors, as well as people with some of the most common medical conditions, including asthma, depression, and fibromyalgia.

Pros and cons


  • Good for people over 60

  • More flexible income requirements than some other insurers

  • Considers applicants with a variety of immigration statuses (visas and green cards)


  • Younger applicants will likely find better prices elsewhere

  • No-med option can end up requiring a medical exam most of the time

Prudential offers the most flexibility for people with health conditions associated with older age. Individuals with osteoporosis or other aging-related health issues, for example, can qualify for lower premiums with Prudential than with other insurers. The company also offers more flexible income requirements than other insurers, making it easier for retirees to get the amount of coverage they need.

Best life insurance for people with pre-existing conditions

Banner Life

Why we chose it

Banner Life has favorable guidelines for a number of health conditions. They also offer competitive premiums in general, meaning that even if you get approved at a slightly higher health classification, you will still pay less than if you were approved at that same health classification with a different insurer.

Summary of the best life insurance companies of 2023


Policygenius rating

Best for

Brighthouse Financial


No-medical-exam, young adults




Banner Life


Overall, term, pre-existing conditions, cheapest

Lincoln Financial


Marijuana users, depression

Pacific Life


Customer satisfaction



Families, anxiety, sleep apnea



Visa & green card holders



Whole, AM Best ratings







Collapse table

Not sure which company is the best fit for you? A licensed Policygenius agent can talk you through the options, help you compare quotes, and walk you through the application process so you can find the company — and policy — that works for you.

→ Learn more about the best life insurance companies

4. Complete the application process

When you apply for life insurance through Policygenius, you’ll be asked about your health history and lifestyle. Insurers want to know about your medical background, your family history, and any risky lifestyle choices you make — such as if you’re a pilot.

The phone interview will confirm the answers you provided in your online application. Because your conversation with a life insurance agent will be more personalized, the phone interview will dig deeper into your background and ask supplemental questions.

Designating a beneficiary

The initial life insurance application won’t require a beneficiary designation, but once you’re on the phone with an agent, you’ll need to name your policy’s beneficiaries.

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. You won’t be able to list someone that wouldn’t be financially affected and should refrain from naming your children as your policy’s beneficiaries.

Even though they’ll likely need the most financial support, life insurance money cannot be paid out to minors. Instead, you can set up a trust and list their legal guardian as the beneficiary.

→ Learn more about life insurance beneficiaries

Life insurance application questions

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.

Life insurance application question types

Basic information questions

In the online application, you’ll be asked about your age, height, and weight to get your initial quote — life insurance quotes are based on an analysis of your overall risk of dying during the term of the policy. Once you hop on the phone with a life insurance agent, you’ll typically be asked to provide some additional information:

  • Social Security number to confirm your identity

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

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

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

Personal and family health questions

Insurers will also want to evaluate your medical history and family background. The less healthy you are, the likelier it is you will end up paying higher life insurance premiums. Your family history can come under scrutiny too because it can indicate to insurers how likely you might get ill.

When you’re filling out your online application, you’ll be asked if you have ever been treated for or have taken any medication for 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 to confirm the information you provided on your application

  • Past surgeries

  • Family medical history to determine any illnesses you may be genetically predisposed to

Your medical history paints a complete picture of your health to insurers. Depending on your background and the type of life insurance policy you’re applying for, you may also be asked to provide previous medical records.

Lifestyle, habits, and hobbies

What you do for work or fun impacts your life insurance application. If it’s risky enough, and if insurers think that there’s even a small chance it will impact the length of your life, you may end up paying higher premiums or adding an exclusion to your policy. Below are some of the lifestyle choices insurers look at critically:

High risk activities don’t always mean higher premiums or that you’re ineligible for coverage. If you're not taking part in the activity frequently you may not see any difference in your premiums at all. But for some applicants, 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 death benefit.

Once you submit all of this information, you’ll receive an initial quote for your coverage. You’re not locked into these rates — if you end up needing to postpone your application, you can re-apply again later.

Additionally, the quote you receive might differ from the rate you are ultimately offered. Insurers confirm how much you’ll actually pay for premiums after you go through the underwriting process.

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.

Through the MIB, insurers can check your life insurance application history for any issues — like if you’ve ever been declined for coverage — and confirm what you reported in your medical history.

→ Learn more about the different types of life insurance fraud

What documents you’ll need

You can make the application process as seamless as possible by having important information on hand before you apply for life insurance. Some examples of life insurance requirements include two forms of identification, your permanent address, and your income information.

Having the following documents on hand may help speed up the initial phone call.

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

  • 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.

Insurance companies do not collect any of the documents listed above, but having them in front of you will save time for you and the insurer.

5. Get a medical exam

Some applications will require an in-person medical exam. The life insurance medical exam is 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-medical-exam life insurance policy, then the insurer will continue to look into your medical history (you’ll need to sign a HIPAA compliance waiver to give them access to your records) and reach out once they’ve decided on your policy.

The insurer will use your medical information to assign you a health classification — in general, the better classification you’re assigned, the better your rates will be. The life insurance company will in turn use your health classification to set your premiums.

→ Learn more about how the life insurance medical exam works

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6. Wait for the underwriting results

The hard part is over — now all you have to do is be patient. Underwriting, which encapsulates the application, phone call, and medical exam, is how the life insurance company evaluates the risk of insuring you and how much you’ll pay for your policy.

Once it’s over, an underwriter will determine your health classification and final premiums.

This process can take five to six weeks, but sometimes longer if parts of your application require any supplemental documentation. For example, you may be asked to authorize your doctor to share your health information with the life insurance company, known as an attending physician statement (APS).

If you need to provide your insurer with an APS, it doesn’t mean you’re ineligible for life insurance or will necessarily have to pay higher premiums. But it does add an extra step to the buying process and lengthens the time it takes to complete your life insurance application.

You’re not committed to accepting a policy until you receive your final offer. If you’re considering life insurance, but aren't sure yet if it'll fit into your budget, it’s smart to apply in the meantime.

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 know exactly how much you can pay, and you can always request to adjust your coverage amount, too, 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

7. Sign the documents and pay for 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 for you to sign the policy documents and pay your first premium. Your policy isn’t in force until you do so: a policy offer from the insurer doesn’t mean you have coverage.

What to do with your policy documents

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. If your beneficiaries don’t know about the policy, they won’t know how to claim the death benefit.

Getting life insurance can feel overwhelming, but if you know what to expect and work with a knowledgeable broker, you can get the coverage you need quickly and efficiently.

Buying life insurance from a broker vs. an agent

Sometimes “agent” and “broker” are used interchangeably, but it’s important to distinguish them. Knowing the pros and cons of purchasing life insurance through each will help you navigate the application process.

  • Independent brokers like Policygenius are not affiliated with any insurer and sell policies from multiple companies. They work on your behalf, following your application throughout the entire underwriting process, and shopping around for alternatives if your original application results in a higher premium than you were quoted or a decline. Working with a broker might take longer because they’ll have to compare quotes across different companies, especially if you present several risk factors for a life insurer to consider.

  • Affiliated agents, also called captive agents, are hired by one or more insurers to sell their products. You might feel more comfortable dealing with a local agent, especially if you’ve previously worked with them on other insurance products. Agents know their company's offerings and application processing times very well. 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.

Other ways to buy life insurance

There are other ways to purchase life insurance, which may only be available to you if you’re affiliated with a specific organization. Unless your organization offers multiple provider options — a rarity — the same advantages and disadvantages of buying directly from an insurance company apply.

  • Directly from an insurance company: Some insurance companies allow you to apply to their plans directly, but you’ll have limited options to choose from and you won’t get unbiased advice.

  • Through a financial advisor: Working with a financial advisor can help ensure that you choose a policy that fits your budget and your financial goals.

  • From an organization: Many employers or other organizations, like credit unions, offer group life insurance, in some cases at no cost. Group policies usually offer limited protection, so you’ll probably need to purchase your own policy to meet your coverage needs.

Frequently asked questions

How much life insurance should you buy?

Your life insurance coverage should be at least 10 to 15 times your income and enough to cover your debts. Another good guideline when it comes to budget is 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, at the minimum, to get active coverage.

What is the best life insurance to buy?

Most people only need a term life insurance policy, but some individuals with long-term dependents or a high net worth are better off with a whole life insurance policy. An agent or broker can guide you toward the right type of policy for your needs.

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.

Where do I start with life insurance?

A licensed agent can help you determine how much coverage you need and what type of life insurance policy is best. They can also compare quotes across companies and even submit your application for you.

How long does a life insurance application take?

The online life insurance application for an insurer offered through Policygenius takes under 10 minutes. After you receive your initial quote, you hop on the phone with an insurance adviser to review your options.

How do you get approved for life insurance?

Approval for life insurance coverage involves a thorough evaluation of your medical history, health profile, family background, and lifestyle choices. If one of these factors makes you ineligible for traditional life insurance approval, you can get guaranteed issue life insurance.


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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. Insurance Information Institute

    . "

    2021 Insurance Fact Book

    ." Accessed April 29, 2022.

  2. LIMRA

    . "

    COVID-19 Drives Consumers to Seek Hybrid Experience When Buying Life Insurance

    ." Accessed April 29, 2022.


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.

Amanda Shih is a licensed life, disability, and health insurance expert and a former editor at Policygenius, where she covered life insurance and disability insurance. Her expertise has appeared in Slate, Lifehacker, Little Spoon, and J.D. Power.


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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