Your 65th birthday is a significant milestone. Not only does it proclaim your 65th trip around the sun (no small feat!), but it also marks the time when most people apply for Medicare.
Luckily, there are three ways to apply for Original Medicare (also known as Part A and Part B). All three methods are relatively straightforward once you know the steps. Which one you choose is basically up to what you are most comfortable with (or how complicated your situation is).
3 ways to apply for Medicare
Here’s what we will cover:
- How to apply for Medicare: the basics
- When to apply for Medicare Part A and Part B
- Before you apply for Medicare: what you’ll need
- After you apply for Medicare
- How to qualify for automatic enrollment
- How to get more out of your Medicare coverage
Original Medicare is made up of two parts: Part A and Part B.
Part A is known as hospital insurance and covers services like a room, meals, nursing services, and treatment in a hospital or skilled nursing facility. Most people do not have to pay premiums for Part A because of the payroll taxes paid during their working career.
Part B is known as medical insurance and covers services like tests, services performed by doctors (such as surgery), preventive services like flu shots, and much more. Part B is covered by a monthly premium, set by law each year.
Although Medicare is its own entity, all applications for Original Medicare go through the United States Social Security Administration. You can apply for Medicare in one of three ways:
- Online: This method is the easiest and quickest way to apply, taking ten to thirty minutes.
- By telephone: If you want to talk to a human but from the convenience of your home.
- In person: If your situation is complicated, you don’t wish to mail important documents, or you prefer speaking to someone face-to-face.
Although an online application is the most convenient for many, there are reasons you may not want to apply online, including any of the following scenarios:
- You don’t want to send precious documents, like your original birth certificate, through the mail.
- You have questions surrounding Medicare.
- You live outside the US, in which case online enrollment isn’t an option.
- You want to sign up for Part A, but you wish to postpone your Part B coverage (most often because you have health insurance through your employer). You can explain this better in person, and you want to make sure you’ve crossed your t’s and dotted your i’s for delaying Part B coverage.
There may be other reasons why applying online may not be best for you. The point is, if your situation is complicated, perhaps it’s better to go with one of your other two options.
- Call 1-800-772-1213 (TTY 1-800-325-0778).
- Follow the menu instructions. You will need to navigate the automated menu by saying “Medicare” and then entering identifying information about yourself such as your Social Security number.
- Make an appointment for a phone interview at a convenient time.
- Prepare the necessary documents/information about yourself (see below in the “what you’ll need” section).
- Answer the phone at your appointment time and answer all the questions.
- Mail in or drop off the requested documents at the Social Security office.
- Check the status of your application online.
If you apply over the phone, you will need to send in documents such as your original birth certificate to verify your identity. If this makes you nervous, applying in person is probably your best bet.
Although applying in person is not as convenient as applying online or over the phone, it has an advantage over the other methods: you can bring your precious documents to the office, where they’ll stay securely with you the whole time.
This is the best option for some folks, like legal permanent residents, for example. Foreign birth certificates or immigration documents are not only costly but also difficult to replace, and the Social Security Administration even asks you not to mail them.
If you want to apply in person, here’s what the process looks like for you:
- Find your local Social Security office.
- (Optional) Call in and make an appointment 1-800-772-1213 (TTY 1-800-325-0778). This helps you avoid waiting in line, but it is not necessary.
- Bring your documents.
- Talk with the representative and answer their questions.
- Check the status of your application online.
The Initial Enrollment Period (IEP) is usually the first time you can apply for Medicare. There are a few special circumstances that might allow you to enroll earlier (due to a disability, for example). But in general, people apply for Medicare within their seven-month IEP.
Here’s what the Initial Enrollment Period looks like:
- Three full months before your 65th birthday month
- The entire month in which you turn 65
- Three full months after your birthday month
If you miss your sign-up window for Medicare Part A and Part B during your Initial Enrollment Period, there is also a General Enrollment Period every year from January 1 to March 31. And if you defer your Part B coverage (or even Part A coverage if you’re contributing to an HSA), there is a Special Enrollment Period.
As a word of caution, if you’re signing up for Medicare outside of your IEP, there are some pitfalls that are easily stepped into. You can read more about enrollment periods here.
Before applying by any of these methods, it’s handy to have personal information and identifying documents ready.1 Which documents you need depends on your situation, so there is no one-size-fits-all answer. You may be asked to physically provide any of the following documents:
- Your original birth certificate or certified copy: This provides proof of your age.
- Proof of US citizenship or lawful alien status (if not born in the US): You can do this with a US passport, Certificate of Citizenship, Green Card, etc.
- Copy of your US military service papers (for pre-1968 military service): The most commonly used is the DD Form 214.
- Copy of your W-2 form: A copy from the previous year is sufficient. This verifies the wages you received from your employer.
No matter how you applied, once your application is complete, the Social Security office will send you a copy of the information it has on record regarding your application. Be sure to double-check this document for any mistakes, as this is your chance to correct it.
Some time later, you’ll get your Medicare card via mail, so be on the lookout for envelopes from the Social Security office.
Some people don’t have to follow any of the above steps and are enrolled in Original Medicare automatically. If any of the following situations apply to you, you’ll automatically be enrolled in Original Medicare, and you’ll get your card in the mail:
- If you’re already receiving retirement benefits from Social Security or the Railroad Retirement Board (RRB), and you’re approaching 65
- If your employer benefits allow you to delay Medicare past 65, but you decide to draw retirement benefits through Social Security or the RRB
- If you have a disability that qualifies you for Medicare, even if you’re under 65
We covered the basics of how to apply for Medicare Part A and Part B, but of course that’s not all there is to Medicare.
- Medicare Part D covers prescription medications.
- Medicare Advantage offers Original Medicare plus additional benefits, provided by private insurers.
- Medicare Supplement plans cover the costs Original Medicare won’t with an additional monthly premium.
No matter your need, there is no shortage of options when it comes to Medicare. We’re here to help you navigate those options so you can find the best plan.
Check out our Medicare Guide if you’re looking for a more comprehensive explanation of your Medicare benefits.