Requirements Needed to Apply for Social Security Retirement Benefits

The Social Security system has provided benefits to retired Americans since 1940.  During their working lives, workers have a certain amount of their earnings withheld as taxes to fund the Social Security benefits of those already retired.  Then when they reach retirement age themselves, it is their turn to draw benefits.

In order to be eligible to receive Social Security retirement benefits, there are a number of requirements one must fulfill.

1.  Age

There is some flexibility in when a person may commence their Social Security retirement benefits, with pros and cons to starting early or waiting.  But the earliest benefits may start is at age 62.  One may apply up to three months before then, but the benefits wouldn’t start until age 62 at the earliest.

2.  Contributions

As noted, people pay into the system so that they may draw money out later in life.

For much of the history of Social Security, certain government workers and others were not a part of the Social Security system (typically coming under other retirement systems), but nowadays almost all workers are.

To be eligible for benefits, one must have accumulated at least 40 “credits.”  One receives a Social Security credit for certain increments of employment income, currently set at $1,120, up to four credits per year.  So if a person made at least $4,480 in 2010, that’s four credits.  One could be eligible for Social Security retirement benefits, then, with just ten years of very part time employment.

How much one pays into the system over the course of one’s working life is the main factor in what one’s benefits will be, but on the narrower question of whether a person is eligible to collect benefits at all, it’s all the same whether one has 40 credits or 140 credits.  Once a person has reached 40 credits, they’ve fulfilled this requirement.

It is also possible to fulfill this requirement if one has not had sufficient paid employment, but has worked to take care of home and family, as long as one’s spouse has accumulated sufficient Social Security credits.

3.  Application

Social Security retirement benefits are not sent automatically as soon as one retires; it is necessary to apply for them.

There are multiple ways that one may apply for benefits:

* By filling out the four-page Social Security Benefit Application online.

* By calling the Social Security Administration’s toll free phone number 800-772-1213.

* By making an appointment and going to one’s local Social Security office in person.  (Use the online Social Security Office Locator if necessary.)

* If one is overseas, by contacting the nearest Social Security international office, United States Embassy, or United States Consulate.

4.  Documentation

When a person applies for Social Security retirement benefits, they may be asked to provide one or multiple of the following:

* Social Security card.

* United States birth certificate.

* Proof other than a birth certificate of United States citizenship or lawful alien status.

* Military discharge papers.

* Most recent year’s tax return and W-2 forms.

One may either bring these to the Social Security office in person, or mail them.  They must be originals, or copies certified by the issuing office.  They will be returned.

It is also necessary to provide the relevant banking information if one wishes to receive their benefits via direct deposit rather than a physical check.

Once a person has fulfilled all of the above requirements, they are eligible to begin receiving their Social Security retirement benefits.


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

“Understanding the Benefits.” Social Security Online.

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