How to Apply for Social Security

Social Security is one of the most important and most used government programs in the United States.  This article will help you find out whether or not you are eligible and when you should apply.  It will also discuss the documents you need to prepare and the application process as well as what happens after you apply for Social Security retirement benefits.

The purpose of Social Security

Virtually every American Citizen who has had a job and had Social Security withholdings qualifies for this government program.  Social Security is designed to help provide replacement income for retirees and their families.  Social Security will only pay a fraction of your current earnings as a benefit.  Because of this, it should be considered a part of your retirement strategy.

Who is eligible to apply

Preparing to apply for Social Security requires gathering several documents.

When you work and pay social Security taxes, you earn credits toward Social Security benefits. You need 40 credits to be eligible for benefits.  A credit is earned for each quarter you work.  Therefore, you need about 10 years of paying Social Security taxes.  You can estimate your benefits by using this calculator.

The second component of Social Security Retirement benefits is your age.  If you were born between 1943 and 1954, your Full Retirement Age (FRA) is 66.  If you were born after 1960, your FRA is age 67.

You can still get Social Security benefits as early as age 62.  However, these benefits will be reduced.  The reduction is 20 – 30% over what you would get at FRA.  This chart will show you the break down.

If you want to delay taking your benefits, you may do so up to age 70, when you will be required to take them.  However, by delaying your Social Security benefits, you may receive a larger payment each month.  At age 67, you are entitled to 100% of your Social Security benefits.  At age 70, you are entitled to 124% of your benefits, if you were born after 1960.

When should you apply

You can apply for benefits up to 4 months before you want to start receiving Social Security payments.  Benefits are paid the month following the month they are due.  So, if you are due a payment in March, it will be paid in April.

Documents needed

The following are the basic documents you will need when applying for Social Security benefits

  • Your original birth certificate or other proof of your age like vaccination records, school records or religious records.  If not the original, they must be certified copies from the issuing agency.
  • Proof of U.S. citizenship if you were not born in the U.S.  Again, these must be the original document(s) or copies certified by the agency
  • that issued them. The SSA will not accept expired, notarized, or photocopied documents.
  • A copy of your W-2 tax form(s) and/or self-employment tax return from last year. These can be photocopies.
  • A copy of your U.S. military service papers if you served before 1968. A photocopy is acceptable.

In addition to the above, you will need to provide the following:

  • Dates of current and previous marriages, and where you were married.
  • U.S. military service dates and branches.
  • Employer names and dates you worked there for the past two years. – or – Self-employment income and type of business.
  • Bank information to set up your direct deposit.

The Application Process

In person

Much of your business with SSA can now be done online. If you cannot use these online services or prefer to do things in person, your local Social Security office can help you apply.  Currently, because of COVID, SSA offices are closed to the public.  However, employees from those offices are assisting people by telephone. You can find the phone number for your local office in our Social Security Office DirectoryFor example:

You can also find driving directions, maps, office hours and additional information for your nearest Social Security Office.

By Phone

Alternately, you can conduct business with SSA by phone.  Again, because of COVID, SSA offices are closed to the public, but local employees will answer the phone to help you with your application.  Call 1-800-772-1213 (TTY 1-800-325-0778) from 8:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m., Monday through Friday, to apply by phone.  Some offices have a different number.  Use our Social Security Office Directory to find the phone number of the office nearest you.


You can also apply for Social Security benefit online.  Follow these steps:

  • To start your application, go to the Apply for Benefits page.
  • Review the Terms and Conditions and agree to continue.
  • Review the “Getting Ready” section to make sure you have the information needed to apply.
  • Select “Start A New Application.”
  • Answer a few questions
  • Then, sign into your my Social Security account or you will have the opportunity to create one.
  • Finish the application.


Social Security does their best to ensure that your privacy is protected.  One of the mechanisms they use is a timeout.  If you linger longer than 25 minutes on a page, the system will time out and you will need to start over.  This is why it is so important that you are prepared as much as possible in advance of applying for Social Security benefits.  If online doesn’t work for you, you can use one of the methods above.

After Submitting your Application

Once you’ve applied for Social Security benefits either in person, by phone or online, you can check the status of your application online through your My Social Security account or by calling 1-800-772-1213 (TTY 1-800-325-0778) from 8:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m., Monday through Friday.  Once SSA has made a decision, they will send you documents in the mail.  If you are denied benefits, you may appeal SSA’s decision.