Social Security

How and When to Apply for Social Security Retirement Benefits

So, you’re ready to start taking your Social Security retirement benefits. Fantastic! But how, exactly, are you supposed to get them?

Adam Cecil

Published August 17th, 2020

Updated December 9th, 2020

Table of Contents

Key Takeaways

  • It’s easy and quick to apply for Social Security retirement benefits online.
  • Make sure you have all of the information and documents you need before you start.
  • Submit an application three months before you want to receive benefits.

So, you’re ready to start taking your Social Security retirement benefits. Fantastic! But how, exactly, are you supposed to get them?

Applying for Social Security is not too dissimilar from getting a driver’s license or a passport – you need to fill out some paperwork and prove your identity – but in most cases, it takes less time. The Social Security Administration estimates that claiming your benefits online will take anywhere between ten and thirty minutes.

Continue reading for more information on where to go to apply for Social Security benefits, what you’ll need to prepare before you apply, and when you should apply.

How to Apply for Social Security Retirement Benefits

There are three ways to apply for Social Security benefits:

In person. To find a Social Security Administration office near you, use their office lookup tool. Note that, as of writing, due to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, all of the SSA’s offices are closed. Use their office lookup tool to find contact information for the closest office for more information.

Over the phone. You can call the Social Security Administration at 1-800-772-1213 and complete an application with someone over the phone.

Online. Most likely the easiest and quickest way to complete your application is online. You can start your application by clicking this link.

If you’re living outside of the U.S., contact your nearest Social Security field office for more information, or write to or call the SSA headquarters.

What You’ll Need to Apply for Social Security Retirement Benefits

If you’re applying for Social Security benefits online, you’ll need to sign up for a “my Social Security” account if you haven’t already.

According to the Social Security Administration, you’ll need to provide the following information on your application:

  • Date and place of birth
  • Social Security number
  • Name, Social Security number, and date of birth of your current spouse and any former spouses, as well as dates and places of marriage, divorce, or death if applicable
  • Names of unmarried children under the age of 18, age 18-19 and in elementary or secondary school, or disabled before age 22
  • The account number and Routing Transit Number of the bank account you would like your benefits deposited into
  • Citizenship status
  • Whether or not you or anyone else has ever filed for Social Security, Medicare, or SSI on your behalf
  • Whether you’ve ever used another Social Security number
  • The month that you want your retirement benefits to begin
  • If you are within three months of age 65, whether or not you want to enroll in Medicare Part B

Additionally, you will need to provide the following information about your work history:

  • Name and address of your employer(s) for this year and last year
  • Amount of money earned this year and last year
  • If you are applying between September and December, an estimate of next year’s earnings
  • A copy of your Social Security Statement or record of your earnings (you can view this online with your “my Social Security” account)
  • Beginning and ending dates of any active U.S. military service before 1968
  • Whether you were unable to work because of illnesses, injuries, or conditions in the last fourteen months, as well the date you became unable to work if “Yes”
  • Whether you or your spouse have ever worked in the railroad industry
  • Whether you’ve earned Social Security credits from another country’s social security system
  • Whether you are qualified for or expect to receive a pension or annuity from the U.S. Federal government or a state or local government


Remember to bring the original documents to prove your identity! Photocopies are only accepted for a few types of documents.

In some cases, you may need to provide the following documents to the Social Security Administration:

Your birth certificate (more information) Proof of citizenship or lawful alien status if you were born outside of the U.S. (more information) Your U.S. military service papers if you served before 1968 (more information) Your W-2 form (more information) or self-employment tax return (more information) for last year

In most cases, the Social Security Administration will require you to send or bring original documents, though they will accept photocopies of W-2 forms, self-employment tax returns, and medical documents.

If you don’t have all of the documents you need, you can still apply and submit any documents that you do have. You can send missing documents later or your local Social Security office will help verify your information.

When to apply for Social Security retirement benefits

The Social Security Administration suggests that you apply three months before you want to start receiving benefits. But how do you know it’s time to receive retirement benefits?

You can start receiving your Social Security retirement benefits anywhere between age 62 and 70. However, if you start taking Social Security before your full retirement age – between the ages of 66 and 67, depending on when you were born – your benefits will be permanently reduced. The earlier you take your benefits, the larger the reduction.

But if you wait until after your full retirement age, you’ll earn delayed retirement credits, which increase your benefits 8% per year. You stop getting these credits when you turn 70, so there’s no point in waiting after that to retire.

We suggest waiting as long as possible to retire in order to get the largest monthly benefit possible. Social Security is a guaranteed, inflation-proof source of income that will last for your entire life, and is the bedrock of your retirement income. Continuing to work also allows you to build a larger nest egg to fund your retirement, and will also decrease the number of years you’ll need to fund.

Need help figuring out if your Social Security income is going to be enough? Get an affordable, professionally prepared retirement plan from Retirable today.

Next Steps

If you haven’t already, sign up for a “my Social Security” account today to see your latest Social Security statement. Understanding what benefit you can expect to see in retirement can help you decide when you want to retire and start taking benefits. If you want to see how Social Security fits in with your other retirement savings and income streams, build a retirement plan at Retirable. Once you’re ready to submit your application, visit your local SSA office, call the SSA at 1-800-772-1213, or start your application online.

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Adam Cecil

Writer, video maker, and podcast producer based in Brooklyn. Previously a staff writer at Policygenius, helping people find the insurance coverage they need. Find out more.

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