You can file a claim for Social Security benefits at your local Social Security office, by phone, or through the Social Security Administration's website (www.ssa.gov). However, most benefit claims require at least one visit to a Social Security office to complete.
Most sizable cities have at least one Social Security office; in major urban areas, there will be several. You can find the address and telephone number of the office closest to you in your telephone directory under the listing for U.S. Government, Social Security Administration, or sometimes under U.S. Government, Department of Health and Human Services, Social Security Administration.
If you have trouble finding an office nearby, call the Social Security Administration at 800-772-1213 or visit its website at www.ssa.gov.
Expect to be asked for various documents to support your claim. For retirement benefits, for example, you will need your:
Your Social Security retirement benefits will vary depending on when you claim them: at age 62, at your full retirement age (65-67, depending on the year you were born), or at age 70. The longer you wait to start receiving payments, the higher your benefit amount will be.
If you need to receive benefit payments at the youngest eligibility age, file your claim three months before the birthday on which you will become eligible. This will give Social Security time to process your claim so that you will receive the benefits on time.
If you file a claim later, you cannot get benefits retroactively for months during which you were eligible but before you applied.
To determine whether you are eligible to receive Social Security benefits, and to get an estimate of those benefits, see Nolo's article Social Security: Checking Your Earnings and Benefits.
Anyone who is eligible for Social Security benefits is also eligible for Medicare coverage at age 65. (For more information about Medicare, see the Nolo's article Medicare FAQ.)
Even if you are not going to claim Social Security benefits at full retirement age (generally because your benefit amount will be higher if you wait), you should sign up for Medicare coverage three months before your 65th birthday. There is no reason to delay signing up for Medicare, and waiting until after your birthday will delay coverage.
For comprehensive practical information abut how and when to claim Social Security benefits, get Social Security, Medicare & Government Pensions, by Joseph Matthews with Dorothy Matthews Berman (Nolo).