How do I sign up for social security benefits?

Congratulations! You’ve put in your time, and you’re finally eligible to collect those social security benefits you’ve been paying toward for so long. If you’ve already blown out the candles on your 66th birthday cake, you’re probably wondering when that first check is going to show up in your mailbox. Unfortunately, even though you become eligible for your full social security benefit when you reach the normal retirement age (which is currently set at 66), your benefits will not kick in automatically. You will still have to sign up for social security to begin collecting your monthly payments. 

This is actually a good thing. It allows people to choose, to some extent, when they will begin collecting their social security benefits. Some people start collecting when they first become eligible at 62. Others wait until they turn 70 to maximize the amount of their monthly benefits.

There is no automatic trigger, and every person gets to make this choice on their own timeline; therefore, it makes sense that there would be an enrollment process in place.

Once you are ready to begin collecting your benefits, you’ll need to consider which application method is right for you. You can sign up for social security benefits using one of three methods:

  • The online application, which can be found and completed on the official Social Security website;
  • Over the phone, which can be accomplished by calling Social Security directly at 1-800-772-1213 (TTY 1-800-325-0778); or
  • In person at your local social security office. You can find the closest office to you using the Social Security Office Locator provided on the Social Security website.

Let’s take a closer look at each of these options.

Applying online

If you consider yourself to be fairly tech savvy, you may decide to apply online using the Social Security Administration’s online application process. This method can take as little as thirty minutes if you’ve prepared and gathered all of the required documentation. The convenience of this option makes it particularly attractive to those who want to get it over with quickly. Detailed information is provided to help guide you through the application. You will also be given mailing instructions for sending in original copies of any documents required to process your application. See below for a list of documents you’ll need to apply.

If you have special circumstances that may complicate the process, applying online might not be your best option. In this case, talking through the process with a Social Security employee might be the better choice. They can provide the assistance and information you need to confidently complete and submit your application.

Applying by phone

If you prefer to fill out your application with the guidance of an employee of the Social Security Administration, but you don’t want to (or are unable to) make a trip to a field office, applying by phone may be your best option. You can call Social Security’s main office at 1-800-772-1213 (TTY 1-800-325-0778) to schedule an appointment for a phone interview. You will still have to mail in some documents, so applying by phone will take longer than it would in person. If you elect to apply by phone (or online) be sure to begin the process four months prior to your desired start date. This will ensure that you can begin collecting benefits on time.

Applying in person

If you are reluctant to part with your original documents, such as your birth certificate, marriage license, or immigration documents, applying in person at your local social security office may be the option for you. This method is also ideal if you know that your circumstances might complicate the application process. It also gives you the opportunity to get answers to any lingering questions you have. If you’ve ever visited a social security office before, you’re probably well aware that there are often long lines and wait times.

Your document checklist

Regardless of which method you choose, you will be required to provide certain information and documents in order to complete your application. Here is a quick checklist of the documentation you will need to provide to Social Security:

  • Your social security card (or a record of your social security number);
  • Your original birth certificate (or a certified copy from the agency that issued it);
  • 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 paper(s) if you had active military service before 1968; and
  • A copy of your W-2 form(s) and/or self-employment tax return for last year.

Missing one or more of these documents?

Do not delay signing up for social security benefits, even if you are missing one or more of the documents listed above. To avoid losing any of the benefits you are entitled to by enrolling late, you can submit your application with the documents you do have and provide the additional documents at a later time. The Social Security Administration may even be able to assist you in obtaining these documents or verifying your information.

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