Social Security and How it Works

Social Security and How it Works

What’s Social Security?

Social Security is a federal government program that provides a source of income for you or your legal dependents (spouse, children, or parents) if you qualify for benefits. You also need a Social Security number to get a job.

Find how to apply to get a Social Security number or to replace your Social Security card.

How Do Benefits Work and How Can I Qualify?

While you work, you pay Social Security taxes. This tax money goes into a trust fund that pays benefits to those who are currently retired, to people with disabilities, and to the surviving spouses and children of workers who have died. Each year you work, you’ll get credits to help you become eligible for benefits when it’s time for you to retire. Find all the benefits Social Security Administration (SSA) offers.

There are four main types of benefits that the SSA offers:

How to Open a “my Social Security” Account

If you receive or will receive Social Security benefits, you may want to open a “my Social Security” account. This online account is a service from the SSA that allows you to keep track of and manage your SSA benefits, and allows you to make changes to your Social Security record.

How to Find More Help

If you have specific questions about your Social Security benefits, you can review the Social Security Administration’s frequently asked questions or contact Social Security Administration directly.

Social Security Retirement Benefits Planner

How much Social Security income you’ll receive depends on your earnings over your lifetime, the age at which you’ll begin receiving benefits, and whether you’ll be eligible to receive a spouse’s benefit instead of your own.

You can use Social Security’s retirement benefits planner to:

  • Estimate your benefits at each age, from 62 (the earliest you can receive them) to 70 (when you hit your maximum amount)
  • Apply for retirement benefits
  • Learn about earning limits if you plan to work while receiving Social Security benefits.

Get, Replace, or Correct a Social Security Card

What is a Social Security Card?

Your Social Security card is an important piece of identification that you’ll need to get a job and collect Social Security and other government benefits.

When you apply for a Social Security number (SSN), the Social Security Administration (SSA) will assign you a nine-digit number, which is the same number printed on the Social Security card that SSA will issue you. If you change your name, you will need to get a corrected card.

How to Get a Social Security Card

  1. Gather your documentsLearn what documents you’ll need to get an original, replacement, or corrected Social Security card, whether it’s for a child or adult, U.S. citizen or noncitizen.
  2. Complete your applicationRead the instructions for and fill out an application (PDF, Download Adobe Reader) for a new, replacement, or corrected card.
  3. Mail your application—Print your application and find out where to take it in person or mail it.

Getting a Social Security Number for a New Baby

When to Get a Social Security Number for Your Child

The easiest way to get a Social Security number for your child is at the hospital after they are born and when you give information for your child’s birth certificate.

If you wait to apply for a number at a Social Security office, there may be delays while SSA verifies your child’s birth certificate. Processing times average about two weeks. See SSA’s frequently asked questions for an estimate for your state. Learn more with the Social Security Numbers for Children publication (PDF, Download Adobe Reader).

If you want to claim your child as a dependent on your income tax return, open a bank account in their name, get medical coverage for them, or apply for government services for them, they will need their own Social Security number.

Apply for a Replacement Social Security Card Online

A new feature on the SSA website allows you to apply for a replacement Social Security card online via your my Social Security account.

To apply for a replacement card online, you must:

  • Be a U.S. citizen age 18 or older with a U.S. mailing address (this includes APO, FPO and DPO addresses)
  • Not be requesting a name change or any other change to your card
  • Have a valid driver’s license or a state-issued identification card from one of the following:
    • Arizona (driver’s license only)
    • Arkansas
    • California
    • Delaware (driver’s license only)
    • District of Columbia (driver’s license only)
    • Florida
    • Idaho (driver’s license only)
    • Illinois
    • Indiana
    • Iowa
    • Kentucky
    • Maine
    • Maryland
    • Massachusetts
    • Michigan
    • Mississippi
    • Nebraska
    • New Mexico
    • North Dakota (driver’s license only)
    • Pennsylvania
    • South Dakota
    • Texas
    • Virginia
    • Washington
    • Wisconsin (driver’s license only)

Follow these instructions if you want to change or correct your Social Security card.

Prevent Identify Theft

Keep your Social Security card in a safe place to protect yourself from identity theft if it’s lost or stolen. You are limited to three replacement cards in a year and 10 during your lifetime.

Contact SSA

For more information, contact SSA. If you live outside the U.S., SSA’s Office of International Operations may be able to help you.

SSA Benefits for U.S. Citizens Overseas

Getting SSA Benefits While Living Overseas

U.S. citizens can travel to or live in most, but not all, foreign countries and still receive their Social Security benefits. To find out if you can receive benefits in the country you’ll be living in or visiting, use the Social Security Administration’s (SSA) payment verification tool and pick the country from the drop-down menu options.

If I Work Overseas, Does it Count Toward My Social Security Record?

If you do not have enough credits from your work in the United States to qualify for retirement benefits, you may be able to count your work credits from another country. The SSA has agreements with 24 countries. If you earned credits in one of those countries, they can help you qualify for U.S. benefits.

Get Proof of Social Security Income

How to Get Proof of Income

You can get either type of Social Security verification online:

Reasons to Prove Your Social Security Income

You may need to provide proof of your Social Security income if you’re:

  • Applying for energy benefits or other assistance programs
  • Moving into a new rental house or apartment
  • Applying for a bank loan for a large purchase
  • Filing a tax return and lost or didn’t receive your SSA-1099/1042S form in the mail

You can also contact the Social Security Administration (SSA) to schedule an appointment with your local office.

Government Checks and Payments

Lost, Missing, Stolen, or Expired Federal Payments

Report your lost, missing, stolen, or expired federal check or direct deposit to the agency that issued the payment. You can get contact information from the A-Z Index of U.S. Government Departments and Agencies.

To get an update on your claim, contact the Bureau of the Fiscal Service’s Check Claims office.

If You’re Not Sure Why You Received a Payment

Contact the authorizing agency directly to find out why they sent the payment.

If you’re unsure which agency authorized the payment, call the Treasury Regional Financial Center (RFC) that issued your check. They can help you determine which government agency you need to contact. To find which RFC you need to call, look for its city and state at the top center of the check.

Make Payments to the Federal Government

Learn how to use to make secure, electronic payments to government agencies from your checking or savings account. You can use the online service for VA medical care copayments, U.S. District Court tickets, USCG Merchant Mariner user fee payments, and more.

If you need help, contact customer service.

Report the Death of a Social Security or Medicare Beneficiary

The Social Security Administration (SSA) processes death reports for both Social Security and Medicare recipients.

What You Need to Do

To report a death:

Social Security Checks Stop Payment

The SSA can’t pay benefits for the month of a recipient’s death. That means if the person died in July, the check received in August (which is payment for July) must be returned.

If the payment is by direct deposit, notify the financial institution as soon as possible so it can return any payments received after death.

Family members may be eligible for Social Security survivors benefits when a person getting benefits dies. Visit the SSA’s Survivors Benefits page to learn more.

Set Up Direct Deposit for Your Federal Benefits

How to Receive Federal Benefits

To begin receiving your federal benefits, like Social Security or veterans benefits, you must sign up for electronic payments with direct deposit.

If You Have a Bank or Credit Union Account:

If You Don’t have a Bank or Credit Union Account:

Make Changes to an Existing Direct Deposit Account:

Learn how to make changes to an existing direct deposit account. You also may contact the federal agency that pays your benefit for help with your enrollment.

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