Medicare provides critical health coverage for millions of retirees, but knowing what age to apply for Medicare can help ensure that your benefits don't cost more than necessary. While you won't qualify for actual Medicare benefits until you turn 65, you can sign up for Medicare prior to your 65th birthday so that coverage kicks immediately as soon as you become eligible. Best of all, you can enroll in Medicare even if you're not ready to file for Social Security.

Can you get Medicare before age 65?

Though you can't use your Medicare benefits until you turn 65, you can enroll early. All eligible Medicare beneficiaries are given an initial enrollment period, and yours will begin three months prior to the month you turn 65 and end three months after the month you turn 65.

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It's in your best interest to sign up for Medicare during your initial enrollment period, even if you're not ready to start taking Social Security at the time. If you don't enroll then, your next option to do so will be during the general enrollment period, which runs every year from January 1 through March 31. But if you fail to sign up during your initial enrollment period, you'll be charged a 10% increase for your Part B premiums for every 12-month period you go without coverage.

What about Social Security recipients?

Workers are allowed to start claiming Social Security as early as age 62, and as such, many are already in the process of receiving benefits when they become eligible to sign up for Medicare. If you're currently getting Social Security and you're not yet 65, you'll most likely be enrolled in Medicare automatically. That said, all it takes is a glitch in the system for your enrollment to somehow not go through, so verify that you're all set before your initial window runs out. This will help you avoid unwanted penalties.

Don't forget Part D

Enrolling in Medicate late won't just increase your Part B premiums. If you go 63 days or more without Part D prescription drug coverage, you'll face a late enrollment penalty for that as well. This penalty is calculated as 1% of the national base beneficiary premium -- which, for 2017, is $35.63 -- times the number of months you don't have coverage. If, for example, you go for three full years without coverage, you'll pay a penalty of $12.80 per month in addition to your regular Part D premium.

And if you're still working...

Given that Social Security's full retirement age for current workers is 66 or 67 depending on your year of birth, many seniors will find themselves working as their 65th birthdays approach. If you're still working during your initial Medicare enrollment period and have access to a group health plan through your employer, you'll be eligible for a special enrollment period, and you won't be penalized for not signing up during your initial enrollment period. Your special enrollment period will last for eight months and begin either the month after you leave your job, or the month after your group health coverage ends -- whichever comes first.

Though Medicare eligibility doesn't kick in until age 65, you can, and should, sign up for Medicare before your 65th birthday. This is the best way to ensure that you'll have access to your Medicare benefits the moment you're able to use them.