You start down the road to eligibility by working and paying Social Security taxes, either through payroll deductions (required by the Federal Insurance Contributions Act, or FICA) or through income tax filings if you are self-employed (required by the Self-Employed Contributions Act, or SECA).
You qualify for Social Security by compiling credits when you pay Social Security tax on your earnings. You can earn up to four credits per year. Workers qualify for Social Security retirement benefits when they reach 40 lifetime credits.
In 2021, $1,470 in income from “covered” employment — work in which you paid Social Security taxes — equals one work credit. You can reach your four-credit maximum by earning at least $5,880 for the year. The credit amounts are adjusted annually for inflation.
You become eligible to collect Social Security retirement benefits at age 62. You can check on your eligibility, earnings history and estimated future benefits on the Social Security statement at your online My Social Security account.
Keep in mind
- While you can start collecting retirement benefits at age 62, your payments are reduced if you claim them before reaching full retirement age. The full retirement age was 65 for many years, but it is currently 66 years and 2 months and is gradually going up to 67. If you file for Social Security at full retirement age, you qualify for 100 percent of the benefit calculated from your lifetime earnings. You can further increase your retirement benefit by filing as late as age 70.
- Retirement benefits are just one type of Social Security benefit. There are also survivor benefits, spousal benefits and disability benefits, all of which have their own qualification criteria. To find out more about eligibility for those programs, you can use Social Security’s Benefit Eligibility Screening Tool.
Updated December 23, 2020
Find the answers to the most common Social Security questions such as when to claim, how to maximize your retirement benefits and more.