How to Apply for Social Security Retirement Benefits

When you decide you are ready to apply for Social Security retirement benefits, there are multiple ways to do so.

One way is to fill out the four page Social Security Benefit Application form online.  You may also call the Social Security Administration’s toll free number 800-772-1213.  Another option is to make an appointment and go to your local Social Security office in person.  If you’re not sure where the closest office is to you, use the Social Security Office Locator.

If you are out of the country and wish to apply, you can contact the nearest Social Security international office, United States Embassy, or United States Consulate.

Before you can start receiving benefits, as a part of the application process you may be asked to supply certain documents, either by mail or in person at a Social Security office.  These documents may include your Social Security card, your birth certificate, proof of United States citizenship or lawful alien status if you were born in a different country, your military discharge papers if you served in the military prior to 1968, and/or your most recent year’s tax return and W-2 forms showing your income.  These need to be originals, or copies certified by the issuing office.  (They will be returned to you.)

You will also need to supply your banking information if you wish to receive your benefits as a direct deposit rather than as a check mailed to you.

If you cannot come up with one or more necessary documents, you should still apply for benefits.  The people at the Social Security office will either obtain the information themselves from your state’s Vital Records department, or will advise you on how you can obtain the information to provide to them.

You may start receiving Social Security retirement benefits any time between when you turn 62 and when you turn 70.  If all of your documents are in order, you may be able to start your benefits the same month you apply, or you may apply up to four months in advance.

If you can, it’s better to apply in advance to be on the safe side.

Of course, the fact that the rules allow you to request your Social Security retirement benefits to start as soon as you turn 62 doesn’t mean that you necessarily should.  The sooner you start your benefits, the less you will receive per month, so it may be advantageous to wait.

But that decision will come down to numerous factors.  The greater your life expectancy, the better off you are waiting to start your benefits.  The more likely it is you will earn significant money working between age 62 and your full retirement age (currently 65, gradually increasing to 67), the better off you are waiting to start your benefits.  The greater rate of return you’re getting on your other assets, the better off you are starting your benefits early.

There are many other factors as well that you’ll want to consider.  The question of when to start your benefits is a far more complex one, with the answer far more dependent on your individual circumstances, than the question of how to start them.


Thomas M. Dalton, “Retirement at 62: Is Receiving Social Security Early Worth It?” The CPA Journal.

Eva Rosenberg, “Taking Social Security Early Can Be Expensive.” Wall Street Journal.

“How to Apply for Benefits.” Social Security Online.

“What Documents Will You Need When You Apply?” Social Security Online.