If you paid into Social Security while working for at least 10 years and have accumulated the necessary 40 quarters of work time throughout your career, then you will most likely qualify to receive Social Security benefits. There are three phases for claiming Social Security benefits: early retirement, full retirement, and delayed retirement.

Early retirement
Age 62 is the earliest possible time at which you would be able to claim Social Security benefits. But doing so comes at a cost because early retirement benefits are permanently reduced. This reduction will generally mean a 25% reduction in lifetime benefits, which often makes early retirement one of the least desirable claiming options.

Full retirement
The full retirement age set by the government varies and will depend on the year you were born. The younger you are, the higher your full retirement age will be:

Eligible age to receive full Social Security benefits

Birth year

Full Retirement Age




66 and 2 months


66 and 4 months


66 and 6 months


66 and 8 months


66 and 10 months

1960 and later


The good thing about claiming at full retirement age is that your benefits won't be reduced, as in the case of early retirement. But that isn't to say you can't increase your individual benefits from there. Delaying collection of benefits once your reach full retirement age will result in an automatic increase in benefits each year until you reach age 70. For those born in 1943 or later, this benefit increase can come out to 8% per year.

Delayed retirement
If you were to delay your benefits claim beyond your full retirement age, you would have secured a significant increase in guaranteed monthly income for the rest of your life. The downside is that you would have to go without claiming benefits for eight years. Note that in some cases, delaying retirement can affect your Medicare coverage with delayed services and increased costs. That's why it is important to enroll in Medicare when you reach 65 if you decide to delay your retirement for whatever reason.

Decision to retire
You can use the Social Security Administration's Retirement Estimator as an online tool to help you determine the best plan of action. This would involve inputting information on your earnings and years you worked throughout your career.

Every individual will have to make a decision based on one's unique life circumstances, including what you expect your life expectancy to be. As a financial planner, I believe that when all else is equal, you should strive to maximize your Social Security benefits. The prevailing thought among financial-planning and retirement professionals is that to have a comfortable retirement, you would need roughly 70%-80% of your pre-retirement income. This is a very important decision that will affect you and your family for the rest of your life, so choose wisely.

Application process
When applying for Social Security benefits you can do so in person, by telephone, or online. If you live outside the U.S., you can contact the U.S. Embassy in your local area or one of the Social Security Administration's foreign offices for guidance on submitting an application.

To apply for retirement benefits you must be at least 61 years and 9 months of age. You should also apply for benefits at least four months before the date you wish to start collecting. Things you should have handy when applying include any kind of identification (i.e., birth certificate, driver's license, passport), proof of U.S. citizenship or resident status if you are foreign born, any service papers if you served in the military, and a copy of your latest employment tax return (i.e., a W-2 form).

If you wish to apply over the phone, simply call (800) 722-1213. For in-person applications, you can find a local office near you by using the SSA Office Locator and schedule an appointment. For online applications, you can visit the SSA's online application center to begin filling out an application. While the online application will usually take no more than 30 minutes, you don't have to fill out your application all in one sitting and can save it for later.