It’s not automatic, but it is usually fairly easy and can take as little as 15 minutes to fill out the online form.
"In most cases, once your application is submitted electronically, you're done," William "BJ" Jarrett said in an email from the Social Security Administration's (SSA) national press office.
But some unusual paperwork may be required and could take some digging if you have moved several times during your working life. Here’s how to be prepared:
Find your birth certificate. It's needed so infrequently for most adults, a birth certificate can be misplaced. If it's lost, the SSA may require a certified copy in cases of an age discrepancy (the SSA's list of state offices of vital records is a good place to start).
Keep your tax forms handy. You should have a copy of your W-2 form(s) and/or self-employment tax return from the previous year.
Were you in the military? You’ll want to find your military discharge papers. Retirees who served in the military before 1968 may need a copy of U.S. military service papers (such as form DD-214-Certificate of Release or Discharge from Active Duty). Special extra earnings for periods of active duty before 1968 can be added to the Social Security work record. Don't have those papers handy? The National Archives has a site with information on how to obtain replacements. The archives say most separation papers requests are sent within 10 days, but some requests can take months.
Know your bank information. The SSA will want to know where to send your money. Direct deposit to a bank account is most common. The agency will need routing information.
If you don’t have all your paperwork together, the SSA says you can still get started. It’s possible the agency can verify some information online for free through the Bureau of Vital Statistics. Or, you can turn in missing documents later.
Even though the SSA wants you to be prepared to have all the necessary documentation and information ready before applying, it's not meant to be a difficult process. In 2015, some 5.4 million eligible workers applied for and received the benefits they earned.