How to apply for Social Security

If you’re eligible for retirement benefits, you’ll need to claim them.



Elissa Suh

Elissa Suh

Senior Editor & Disability Insurance Expert

Elissa Suh is a disability insurance expert and a former senior editor at Policygenius, where she also covered wills, trusts, and advance planning. Her work has appeared in MarketWatch, CNBC, PBS, Inverse, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and more.

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Key takeaways

  • Social Security pays retirement, disability, and survivors benefits

  • You can apply online, by phone, or in person to receive Social Security benefits

  • Retirement benefits can increase or decrease based on when you decide to claim them. If you were born in 1960 or later, full retirement age is 67

  • The SSA also administers Medicare, which can be applied for on the same site

Social Security consists of retirement, disability, and survivors benefits. Most Social Security benefits are paid out to retired Americans — nearly 75% — but they can also be paid to spouses of workers, disabled workers (Social Security Disability Insurance), disabled individuals (Supplemental Security Income), and widows and widowers.

You are automatically eligible to receive Social Security retirement benefits if you've been working and paying taxes for at least 10 years. However, you will have to claim the benefits on your own when you’re getting close to retirement. Depending on how old you are when you claim Social Security, you may receive a full, reduced, or increased benefit. In 2021, the average monthly payment for all retired workers is $1,543.

You can apply for any of these Social Security benefits (retirement, disability, survivors) through the Social Security Administration, which is in charge of these programs. The SSA also administers Medicare, the federal health insurance program for retirement age Americans, so you will use the same platform

What is Social Security?

Social Security can help reduce a portion of your income when you retire. This might be anywhere from 30% for higher income earners to as much as 75% for lower income earners. It also depends on whether you start to receive your benefits before “full retirement age.”

If you have worked in the U.S., you will have noticed that you are required to pay certain payroll taxes, including for Social Security and Medicare. These wage taxes, called FICA taxes, are used to fund their respective programs. The amount of tax you pay is based on your earnings, with 6.2% of your pay being withheld for Social Security tax. Your employer also matches your contribution.

The funds that go into Social Security are not only used to pay retirement benefits, but also disability benefits (SSDI), and survivors benefits to spouses and dependents of workers who have died.

Who is eligible for Social Security?

Typically you need to have worked and paid taxes for at least 10 years to be eligible to apply for Social Security retirement benefits. You may need fewer working years to receive Social Security disability benefits, or survivors benefits.

You will not receive Social Security benefits if you receive Railroad Retirement Board benefits. Additionally, U.S. citizens can still get benefits if they live abroad.

How much are Social Security benefits?

How much of a retirement benefit you receive depends on two things:

  • How much money you made when you worked

  • When you choose to receive the benefits.

You receive higher Social Security benefits for working more years or if you have a higher salary, because you pay more in Social Security taxes during your career.

If you receive Social Security Benefits starting at your full retirement age, then you will receive the full benefit. Full retirement age is 67 years old for anyone born in 1960 or later. Use the chart below to find out your full retirement age.

Birth yearFull retirement age
1943 to 195466
195566 and 2 months
195666 and 4 months
195766 and 6 months
195866 and 8 months
195966 and 10 months
1960 or later67

If you choose to receive benefits before your full retirement age, then you will get a reduced benefit. The earliest age you can get benefits is 62.

If you delay receiving Social Security, then the amount of your benefit will increase. It increases by a certain percentage each month from your full retirement age until you start taking benefits or reach age 70, whichever comes first.

How do I apply for Social Security?

There are a few ways you can apply for Social Security benefits:

  1. Complete an online application form on the SSA website

  2. Apply by phone. Call 1-800-722-1213 or 1-800-325-0778 if you are dear or hard of hearing.

  3. Apply in person. Visit your local SSA office to apply in person.

You will need to provide personal information, like your date and place of birth and Social Security number, as well as any information about your spouse, employer, and military service. If you’re applying for children’s benefits, you’ll need to provide their information as well.

What documents do you need?

It will be helpful to have the following documents on hand when applying:

  • Social Security card

  • Birth certificate

  • Proof of citizenship or lawful immigration status, like a permanent resident card

  • Driver’s license

  • W-2 or self-employment tax return

  • Military discharge papers

  • Marriage certificate, if you’re signing up for your spousal benefits

  • Children’s birth certificates and Social Security numbers if you’re applying for children’s benefits

You might also want to have your bank account number as well if you wish to set up direct deposit to receive your benefit payments. Social Security payments can only be sent electronically. If you don’t have a bank account, you can choose to receive your benefit payments on a prepaid debit card.

How long does it take to apply for Social Security?

The online application process takes about 30 minutes. After you apply, you will be contacted if more information is needed. You will be informed if you can receive benefits through someone else, like your spouse, and if other family members can receive benefits through you.

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