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Step 1. Lock in the earliest date.

It is advisable to start the application process for Social Security benefits as soon as it appears that a physical or mental health condition, or a combination of physical and mental conditions, prevents you from working.

As will be explained further in the remaining steps, you start the process on the phone or by going to a Social Security office without an appointment. Either the day of the phone call or the day your show up, whichever is earliest, becomes the date the process starts. This is known as the "filing date." 

With SSI, the filing date sets the earliest date for payment of benefits.

If it is determined that you are not sufficiently disabled for Social Security purposes, you can file an appeal if your situation changes or if you gather more supporting information. Most likely, your original filing date will set the date for payments to begin if your appeal is successful. If your appeal is unsuccessful, you can always reapply later when you believe your case is stronger.

Even if you are not ready to apply for disability now, you may find it worthwhile to start getting the necessary information in order now in case you don't feel well later.

It is advisable not to let the following steps unduly delay starting the process, particularly if you are considering starting the process at the end of a month. 

Step 2. Decide whether you want to handle the process yourself or appoint a "Representative" to do it for you.

If you want someone to help you, such as a family member, caseworker or other representative, that person may contact Social Security on your behalf.

You can appoint that person as your representative by completing Social Security's Form SSA-1696-U4 (4-95) Appointment of Representative. (available at: offsite link).

Alternatively, you may wish to consider hiring someone to represent you. See Hiring a Representative.   

Step 3. Locate a "friendly" office if possible.

All Social Security offices are not alike. It's worth taking a few minutes to contact your local disease specific, nonprofit organization or friends or support group members who have gone through a similar situation to find out if they can steer you to offices that are better for SSI claims in general and for people with your health condition in particular. (Don't take so much time finding an office that you delay calling for several days. As noted above, it's in your interest to lock in the date for the start of the process as soon as possible).

When locating your preferred office, find out which offices have a check-writing capability (all Field Offices and some Branch Offices). An office with check writing capability can provide you with an Emergency Advance Payment if you are deemed to have a "presumptive disability."

To locate the Social Security office nearest you, see: offsite link.

Step 4. Decide whether to apply in person or by mail.

You can apply for SSI at a Social Security office or by mail. You cannot apply online.

We suggest applying in person if you can because:

  • It is always helpful to work with someone face to face. (See: How To Make A Friend With The People At Social Security.)
  • If forms are missing, you will know immediately what you need to correct the situation. Also, if there are minor errors such as a missing date or a ZIP code for a doctor, you will be able to correct them on the spot without the form having to go back and forth through the mail.
  • You will be able to get a written receipt for everything you submit.
  • You will get to keep the original documents you take in once the representative has seen and photocopied them.

Step 5. Contact Social Security.

To start the process, you can either call to set an appointment or go to a local Social Security office.

To avoid starting an application with a Social Security interviewer on days when the office is particularly busy and the person may be feeling rushed, it is preferable to set an appointment or show up on a day other than:

  • A Monday or Friday.
  • The first week of the month.
  • The day before or just after a holiday.

If you call

  • The toll free number to call is: 800.772.1213.
  • Let the person who answers the phone know that you want to set an appointment to apply for disability benefits.
  • You will be asked whether you want to set an appointment to go to the office in person or set an appointment to have a person from the Social Security office call you to arrange applying by mail.
  • When you tell the person on the phone whether you want to apply by mail or in person, you can also tell him or her if you have a preference about a particular Social Security office. Otherwise you will be assigned to the office closest to where you live. You can also state your preference for a day or days for the appointment.
  • If you have no source of income or have very limited income, consider telling the scheduler that you wish to apply for Presumptive Disability. Ask for a list of what you need to take to the appointment to complete the Presumptive application. Usually it is everything listed below for the regular SSI application, plus a doctor's statement.
  • To be sure there are no slip ups, it is advisable to ask the person making the appointment for a letter confirming the date of the call as well as the appointment date and time. Keep the letter with your SSI file.
  • NOTE: You can start the processing by calling your local office directly if you can obtain the phone number. Neither the Social Security website nor the telephone directory list local phone numbers. Hopefully, your local disease specific nonprofit organization will be able to provide the local phone number. You can locate your local Social Security office at offsite link.

If you go in person without an appointment

  • You can go to the local Social Security office in person without an appointment and wait your turn. This will take more time at the office than if you show up with an appointment. However, you will be able to start the application process immediately. The sooner you start the process, the sooner you can receive your first check.
  • If you choose this method:
    • Read the list of the items and information Social Security will need so you can take everything required and your application won't be held-up while you obtain additional information. (See: What To Take With You To Your Social Security Interview).
    • Conventional advice is to go early in the morning and be prepared to wait.