When and Where to Apply for Social Security Benefits

By Jonathan Peterson

Copyright © 2015 AARP

Applying for Social Security benefits can seem like a daunting task. Knowing a few basics and when and where you should apply can help make the process a little simpler.

When to apply for Social Security benefits

The Social Security Administration (SSA) generally recommends that you apply for a benefit three months before you want to receive it. Applying for Social Security can be a process rather than a quick event.

Starting your application without having all your supporting documentation assembled is perfectly normal. Plus, keep in mind that the SSA already may have some of the information it needs, if an application involves someone who’s already in the system (such as in the case of a survivor’s benefit involving a retiree who dies).

If you’re already receiving Social Security benefits, the SSA may make certain adjustments to your benefit without your having to file a new application.

For example, it will automatically switch an individual getting disability benefits to retirement benefits, when that person reaches his or her full retirement age. If you’re getting a spousal benefit and the breadwinner dies, the SSA will adjust your status to a survivor’s benefit, after you’ve reported the death.

Benefits for retirees who are older than their full retirement age, the disabled, and certain dependents may be retroactive — that is, applicants may get some back payments for months prior to when they applied for benefits.

Where to apply for Social Security benefits

Depending on the type of benefit you’re applying for, you may have three options for staking your claim: in person, on the phone, or online. Each method has its pros and cons, and one may fit your needs better than another. Whichever method you choose, an application can move swiftly — in theory, as fast as a day — but it may take months if you have to track down supporting evidence.

In person

The upside to applying for Social Security benefits in person is easy, two-way communication. The downside is the time involved: It may take a while for you to get to the SSA office, and you could have a lengthy wait after you arrive. Typical waiting times in an SSA office, measured from when you take a number to when the interview begins, are around 20 minutes, but if you walk in at the wrong moment, you could wait more than an hour.

You can cut down your waiting time by making an appointment over the phone in advance. Call 800-772-1213 to make an appointment at the SSA office nearest you. If you want to save even more time, keep in mind that the SSA phone line is busiest in the morning, early in the week, and early in the month.

The SSA offers an online tool to help you find the office nearest you. Just go to ssa.gov, click on “Contact Us,” and then click on “Find an Office.” Then enter your zip code, and you’ll be given the address of the nearest office, along with that office’s hours of operation.

By phone

If you prefer to talk with a representative over the phone, you can call the SSA toll free at 800-772-1213 (TTY 800-325-0778). The phone lines are staffed Monday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. If you call outside those hours, you can still get information about popular topics, such as benefits, eligibility, and online services.

Online

You can apply online for some Social Security benefits, but not all of them. Gather the information you need, and then go to ssa.gov to begin your application. The online application system is available Monday through Friday, 5 a.m. to 1 a.m.; Saturday and holidays, 5 a.m. to 11 p.m.; and Sunday, 8 a.m. to 11:30 p.m.

You don’t have to complete an application in one session. If you’ve started an application for benefits, but you need to stop and come back later, just make sure that you follow the instructions to save the pages you’ve worked on. When you’re ready to get back to it, you’ll need your application number to retrieve your unfinished application.

If about 25 minutes pass without any action on a page, you’ll get a warning, and you’ll have the chance to extend your time. You get three warnings. At that point, if you don’t continue working (or sign out), you’ll lose all work on that page.

Filling out an online application without the personal guidance of an SSA representative can lead to errors, which will require the SSA to check back with you. If you have concerns about accurately filling out your application, you may want to apply by phone or in person instead.

You can have a friend or relative guide you through an online benefit ­application. In fact, your helper can fill out the entire online application form for you, and the SSA will mail the application to you to sign. Your helper just has to indicate (by checking a box on the first page of the online application) that he or she is filling out the application on your behalf and whether you’re present while the application is being filled out.

After you submit your online application, you can’t just delete it. If you’ve changed your mind about applying, or realize you made a mistake on your application, you need to contact the SSA. You may call the office that is processing your application (that information should appear on the “What’s Next” page, which is part of your application) or call the SSA at 800-722-1213 (TTY 800-325-0778).

By filing online, you don’t have to mail in or drop off an application, but you may still have to deliver supporting documents.

You can check the status of your Social Security online application starting five days after you apply. Just click “Check the status of your application.” You’ll need to provide your Social Security number and the confirmation number you were assigned when you applied.