If you’re ready to apply for Social Security benefits, you’ve probably already given some thought to things like when you want your benefits to start or what kind of documents you might need to apply. A lot of that will will of course depend on the type of benefits you’re seeking.
Applying for retirement benefits, for example, is usually less complicated than applying for disability benefits. Still, it helps to know what to expect if you plan to apply for Social Security benefits. Here, we’ll explain the application process for benefits for retirement, spousal and survivors benefits; Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), and Supplemental Security Income (SSI).
Applying for retirement benefits
The earliest you can claim retirement benefits is age 62, although you can apply for benefits as soon as you are 61 years and 8 months old if you want the benefits to start no more than four months into the future.
Whether it’s earned benefits or spousal benefits, your benefit will be larger if you wait until at least your full retirement age (between ages 65 and 67, depending on birth year) to file.
For the most part, the act of applying for retirement benefits is simple. If you’re applying online, it should only take between 10 and 30 minutes to complete the application.
Applying for survivors benefits
Survivors benefits are those that widows, widowers and other qualifying family members might be eligible for when a working spouse or family member dies. You can only apply by phone or in-person for these benefits. Typically, funeral homes contact the SSA to report a worker’s death, but you can also contact the SSA yourself.
If you were already receiving benefits based on a deceased spouse’s earnings, those benefits will automatically be switched to survivors benefits. If you’re receiving benefits based on your own work record, call the SSA to see which benefit is higher. If the survivors benefit is higher, apply to switch. If you’re not receiving any benefits, you will have to apply for survivors benefits.
Applying for SSDI
Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits are for people who are eligible for Social Security retirement benefits, but became disabled before they reached full retirement age. The number of work credits you need to qualify for SSDI depends on your age when you became disabled. The older you were, the more credits you’ll need.
You should apply for SSDI as soon as you become disabled so you don’t lose out on any benefits. It can take as long as three to five months to process your claim. Regardless, your benefits won’t begin until you’ve been disabled for six full months.
Before you apply for disability insurance, you should consult the Disability Starter Kit. The kit spells out the information you will need to apply and to prepare for your disability interview. Applying online may take between one to two hours.
Applying for SSI
The Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program provides benefits to children and adults who are blind or disabled, or at least age 65, and have very limited income or resources. Like with SSDI benefits, it’s best to apply as soon as possible.
The process to apply for SSI benefits is mostly the same as for SSDI except you can’t apply for children’s benefits online or if you’re 65 and older. In those cases, you can only apply by phone or in-person. To apply for a child, you’ll have to fill out an SSI application and a Child Disability Report. You should consult the SSI Child Disability Starter Kit before you apply.
Where to apply for retirement benefits, SSI and SSDI
Whether you apply for benefits online, by phone or in-person, will largely depend on your personal preference. The SSA, however, recommends applying online as the fastest and easiest option.
Regardless of how you apply, you’ll eventually receive a letter in the mail with the SSA’s decision on whether your benefits were approved or not.
From the SSA’s application page, you can choose to apply for retirement (including spousal) benefits and disability benefits. You can’t apply for survivors benefits or children’s benefits online.
You can only apply for SSI online if you:
- Are between the ages of 18 and 65
- Have never been married
- Are not blind
- Are a U.S. citizen living in the United States or the Northern Mariana Islands
- Have not applied for or received SSI benefits in the past, and you are applying for SSDI at the same time.
Before you start your online application, create an online account, which you can later use to track you application status and your benefits. After you’ve started the application, you’ll be given a confirmation number. Write down or print out the number. Then follow the prompts for entering your information. You don’t have to fill out the information all in one sitting. The software will save your information and remember where you left off.
After you’ve submitted your application, you may be contacted by a Social Security representative if they need more information from you to process the application.
Applying by phone
To apply for Social Security benefits by phone, call 1-800-772-1213 or 1-800-325-0778 if you are deaf or hard of hearing.
To find the office closest to you, search by zip code on the SSA’s website. Call the office and make an appointment.
Applying at an embassy or consulate
If you are outside the U.S., you’ll need to work through the SSA’s Office of Earnings and International Operations (OEIO) to file for benefits.
English speakers can call the OEIO to apply for benefits. The phone number you use will be based on the last two digits of your Social Security claim number. If you’re applying for retirement or disability benefits, you can also apply for those online the same way you would from within the U.S.
The OEIO operates with the help of the Department of State’s embassies and consulates. To find the closest embassy or consulate providing these services, visit here.
What you need to apply for retirement benefits, SSI, SSDI
The information and documents you’ll need to apply for benefits will vary by type, but there are some they all share in common. If you’re missing some of the documents, the SSA will work with you to help you get them. The information you’ll need includes:
- Your Social Security card
- Your original birth certificate or other proof of birth
- Proof of U.S. citizenship or lawful alien status if you were not born in the U.S.
- A copy of your U.S. military service papers
- A copy of your W-2 form(s) and/or self-employment tax return for last year.
- If you’re married, the name, Social Security number and date of birth or age of your current spouse and any former spouse. You should also know the dates and places of marriage and dates of divorce or death (if applicable).
- The account number and routing number for your bank account
What you’ll need to apply for SSI, SSDI
Additionally, you may need more information to apply for disability benefits, including:
- Contact information for doctors, hospitals, and clinics where you received care
- Names and dosages of your medication
- Medical records and lab results
- A summary of where you worked and the kind of work you did
When Can You Apply for Benefits
Retirement and spousal benefits
To apply for earned benefits (your own retirement benefits) or spousal benefits, you must be at least age 61 and 8 months old and planning on collecting benefits in the next four months. To receive your full benefit, wait until your full retirement age (between ages 65 and 67, depending on your birth year). For retirement benefits, your benefit increases by 8% every year you wait to claim between full retirement age and age 70.
You can claim survivors benefits at age 60 if you are a widow, widower or qualifying divorced spouse; age 50 if you are disabled; or any age if you are caring for a child under age 16 or a disabled child of the deceased worker. Full retirement age for survivors benefits is between ages 65 and 67, depending on your birth year.
There is no set age to be eligible for SSDI, but generally, you must be younger than full retirement age, but have worked long enough to have earned Social Security benefits. For example, if you’re age 23 or younger, you need 6 credits from a 3-year period ending when your disability started. If you’re between ages 31-42, you need 20 credits. For every year after that, the number of credits you need goes up by one until you reach age 62 (40 credits).
To apply for adult SSI benefits, you must be blind or disabled or at least age 65. To apply for child SSI benefits, you must be unmarried, blind or disabled, and younger than age 18 or younger than age 22 and regularly attending school.
Start your online application
The sooner you apply for benefits, the sooner your application can be processed. Take a little time to gather some of the information you’ll need and then get started.