We tend to think of Social Security as a guaranteed source of income in retirement. While millions of Americans receive benefits, there are others who never see a dime from the program.

If you want to claim benefits someday, there's certain criteria you must fulfill. Below, we'll take a look at some of the different ways you can qualify for Social Security.

You need 40 work credits to qualify for benefits

In order to qualify for Social Security based on your own work history, you must work long enough to earn 40 credits. The definition of a credit varies from one year to the next. In 2022, one credit is $1,510 in earnings, and you're only able to earn a maximum of four credits in a year.

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That means if you earned more than $6,040 in 2022, you've earned your four credits for the year. You must earn 36 others in at least nine additional years in order to qualify for retirement benefits once you turn 62.

Since the definition of a Social Security credit changes every year, it's not always easy to know if you've done enough to qualify. Fortunately, you can find out by creating a my Social Security account.

You'll need to answer some identity-verification questions at first to set up your account. Then, you can view lots of information about your Social Security benefit, including how many work credits you've earned so far. This will tell you whether you've already qualified for Social Security or whether you need to work longer to do so.

Immigrants from certain countries may not need 40 credits

Legal immigrants may qualify for Social Security, even if they haven't earned 40 credits. It depends on where they've immigrated from and how much they worked in their previous country. 

The United States has totalization agreements with the following 30 countries:

  • Australia
  • Austria
  • Belgium
  • Brazil
  • Canada
  • Chile
  • Czech Republic
  • Denmark
  • Finland
  • France
  • Germany
  • Greece
  • Hungary
  • Iceland
  • Ireland
  • Italy
  • Japan
  • Luxembourg
  • Netherlands
  • Norway
  • Poland
  • Portugal
  • Slovak Republic
  • Slovenia
  • South Korea
  • Spain
  • Sweden
  • Switzerland
  • United Kingdom
  • Uruguay

These agreements mean that the United States will count some of the work credits that immigrants earned while in the countries above. But these agreements are complex, and rules vary from one country to another. Anyone with questions about how these agreements affect their Social Security eligibility should reach out directly to the Social Security Administration.

Spouses of qualifying workers don't need to work at all

Those who haven't worked long enough to qualify for Social Security on their own work records may still claim a spousal benefit if they're married to a qualifying worker. But there are a few catches. 

First, you can't claim a spousal benefit until your partner signs up for benefits. Second, you'll only get up to half of the benefit they qualify for at their full retirement age (FRA), which is anywhere from 66 to 67 for today's workers. So you may not get as much from the program as you'd hoped for if you claim a spousal benefit instead of a benefit based on your work history. 

If you plan to claim a spousal benefit, coordinate with your spouse to decide when each person will sign up for benefits. This way, your household can get the most out of the program. 

Unless you're sure you've already qualified for Social Security, it's worth taking the time to think about what you have to do to qualify. If you haven't worked long enough yet, try to remain in the workforce a bit longer so you can count on regular Social Security checks in retirement.