Medicare is the federal health insurance program for Americans 65 and over. (It also covers younger Americans with certain disabilities and illnesses, like end-stage renal disease.)
Medicare consists of four different parts. Part A is insurance for hospital care and Part B covers doctors and outpatient care — combined, these are referred to as Original Medicare Part C, called Medicare Advantage, is an alternative to parts A and B that is provided by private health insurers. Medicare prescription drug coverage comes from Part D.
Enrolling in Medicare is different for each part. If you already receive Social Security benefits, you can get automatically enrolled in Medicare parts A and B. Other times you will have to fill out an application and sign up yourself.
You can begin to apply for Medicare three months before you turn 65 years old. If you decide not to enroll in Medicare when you are first eligible, you will have to wait for another enrollment period to do so. You may also face a penalty for late enrollment for some parts of Medicare depending on your circumstances.
Applying for Medicare
Certain people are automatically enrolled in Original Medicare:
People 65 and older who are receiving Social Security benefits or Railroad Retirement Board (RRB) benefits
Younger individuals under 65 who receive federal disability benefits, like Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI)
If you’re automatically enrolled, you will receive your Medicare card or a “Welcome to Medicare” packet with further instructions three months before your coverage begins.
Some people decide to delay receiving their federal retirement benefits. If you’re one of them, you’ll need to enroll in Medicare yourself through the Social Security Administration in one of a few ways:
Visit your local Social Security Office. Search for a nearby location here.
Call the Social Security Administration at 1-800-772-1213. (If you are deaf or hard of hearing, you can call the TTY number 1-800-325-0778.) The hours are 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., Monday through Friday.
Call the Railroad Retirement Board at 1-877-772-5772 if you worked for a railroad.
Apply online at ssa.gov — the Social Security Administration website. We’ll walk you through the process next.
Applying for Medicare is fairly straightforward — you just need to provide personal information, like your Social Security number, date and place of birth, and information about your current employment and health insurance plan.
Applying for Medicare online
Medicare is run by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), but you apply online through the Social Security Administration’s website. Here’s how:
Visit the Medicare benefits section of the SSA website.
Click on the blue “Apply for Medicare Only” button.
Complete the application. This typically takes 10 to 30 minutes, but you don’t have to fill it out in one sitting. Once you start an application, you’ll get a re-entry number so you can take a break and log back in to finish without losing any information.
Review and submit your application.You’ll see a receipt on screen that includes your application number, which you can print out. You can use your application number to track the status of your application.
The online application is available during the following times:
Monday through Friday: 5 a.m. to 1 a.m. EST
Saturday and holidays: 5 a.m. to 11 p.m EST
Sunday: 8 a.m. until 10 p.m. EST
Once you submit your application, the SSA will review it and contact you if it needs more information or documents. If not, they will mail you a decision letter and your Medicare card.
Enrollment periods: when to apply for Medicare
You cannot sign up for Medicare at any time. Medicare has several enrollment periods. They are all different and depend on what part you are applying for and what type of health coverage you might already have.
Newly eligible Medicare beneficiaries get a seven-month initial enrollment period to enroll in Medicare. It begins three months before the month in which you turn 65 and ends three months after (on the last day of that month.) If your birthday is July 10, your enrollment period begins in April and ends Oct. 31.
Coverage begins generally the month you turn 65 years old, but the start date may be delayed depending on how long you wait before signing up.
Here's an overview of the Medicare enrollment periods.
Open enrollment (annual election period)
Medicare Advantage disenrollment
Newly eligible beneficiaries
Current Medicare beneficiaries
People who missed initial enrollment
Medicare Part C beneficiaries
People who qualify after a life event
When is it?
3 months before the month you turn 65 to 3 months after that month
Oct. 15 to Dec. 7
Jan. 1 to Mar. 31
Jan. 1 to Feb. 14
What can you do?
Enroll in Medicare
Make changes to existing Medicare plans
Enroll in Medicare (May pay a penalty)
Leave Part C and return to parts A and B; buy Part D
Enroll in Medicare with no penalty
No more than 3 months after enrolling
January 1 of the next year
July 1 of that year
Day 1 of the next year
Applying for Medicare during a special enrollment period usually requires a major qualifying life event, most notably the loss of health insurance from another source, like an employer.
Medicare open enrollment starts Oct. 15. Read more about Medicare open enrollment.
How to apply for Medicare Part A
You can apply during the following times:
Your initial enrollment period
A special enrollment period
Medicare’s general enrollment period — Jan. 1 to March 31 each year
Medicare Part A might be free if you’re eligible for or receiving federal retirement benefits. If you must pay for Part A and don't sign up when you're first eligible (during initial enrollment), you’ll face a late enrollment penalty. You can avoid the late enrollment penalty if you meet the conditions for a special enrollment period.
Part A includes hospice care and inpatient care at a skilled nursing facility. Learn more about Medicare Part A.
How to apply for Medicare Part B
When you apply for Medicare, you’ll be asked if you want to enroll in Medicare Part B. You don’t have to enroll in Medicare Part B (there is a premium). Part B covers outpatient care, like doctors’ office visits and preventive care.
If you’re 65 and still working, you might have a group health plan through a current employer or spouse’s employer. If that’s the case, you might not need Part B coverage or want to pay the premiums; you can delay enrolling in this part of Medicare. When you decide to leave work and lose your employer-sponsored health coverage, you might qualify for a special enrollment period — which will allow you to sign up for Medicare Part B without a penalty.
If you don’t qualify for a special enrollment period and didn’t sign up for Part B when you were first eligible, you’ll pay a late enrollment penalty. You’ll also have to wait until the general enrollment period (Jan. 1 to March 31) to sign up.
Learn more about Medicare Part B.
How to apply for Medicare Part C
Medicare Part C plans, more commonly known as Medicare Advantage plans, are offered by federally approved private insurers as alternatives to Original Medicare (parts A and B).
In order to get a Part C plan, you must first enroll — and stay enrolled — in Original Medicare. You can compare Medicare Advantage plans on the Medicare website and then purchase one directly from the insurer. You can do this during your initial enrollment, special enrollment, and open enrollment period (the annual election period) in the fall.
If you decide you want to return to Original Medicare coverage, you can drop Part C during Medicare Advantage disenrollment, which runs Jan. 1 to Feb. 14 every year.
Learn more about Medicare Part C.
How to apply for Medicare Part D
Medicare Part D plans are also sold through government-approved private health insurance companies, and only cover prescription drugs. Similar to Medicare Part C, you must enroll in Original Medicare first to buy Medicare Part D.
You can sign up during your initial enrollment period, during general enrollment when signing up for Part B for the first time, or during open enrollment (annual election) in the fall when you can make changes to your existing Medicare plans.
Keep in mind that you have to pay a late penalty if you go 63 days or more without prescription drug coverage. (This is largely related to the fact that Original Medicare doesn’t cover medication.)
Learn more about Medicare Part D.
How do I apply for Medicare Supplement Insurance (Medigap)?
Original Medicare beneficiaries can purchase a Medigap plan — or Medicare Supplement Insurance — to help pay for the out-of-pocket costs associated with Part A and B.
Medigap plans are offered by private insurance companies. You can shop during the Medigap open enrollment period — a six-month window that begins when you enroll in Medicare Part B. Depending on your state, you may not be able to find a Medigap plan outside of this period.
Learn more about Medicare supplement insurance.
Applying for Medicare savings programs
Low-income Medicare beneficiaries are eligible for programs that help cover out-of-pocket costs. The Medicare Savings Programs provides premium assistance for Medicare Parts A and B. The program is administered through the state governments, so you have to apply through your state's Medicaid office.
The Medicare Extra Help program provides financial assistance for prescription drug coverage. You can apply for Extra Help on the Social Security Administration’s Medicare benefits page.