How to Apply for Disability Benefits: Which Method’s Right for You?

Important: We updated this article with current Social Security rules and data in January 2024. If you’ve been putting off applying for Social Security disability benefits because you’re concerned the process will be difficult or expensive, we have good news for you — it’s neither. Learn how to apply for disability benefits below in a few different ways, and the great news is they are all free.

Yes, you read that correctly: It is free to apply for Social Security disability benefits, and you have many convenient options for completing the application process.

You Have Two Ways to Get Social Security Disability Benefits

Social Security pays benefits to those who qualify through two different monthly assistance programs. Knowing which one you’re most likely to qualify for can be helpful before we explain how to apply for disability benefits.

Program #1: Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) Benefits

The first program, Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), pays benefits to blind and disabled people with enough recent work history. Here’s what Social Security program rules say must describe you to start receiving benefits:

  1. You must work 5 out of 10 years in jobs where you paid Social Security taxes to qualify for SSDI. People without enough work history cannot get Social Security Disability Insurance benefits, no matter how bad their health problems.
  2. Your medical condition must stop you from working for at least 12 months in a row. If you can go back to work in less than a year, then you cannot qualify for SSDI monthly benefits. The Social Security Administration does not pay any temporary or short term disability benefits. However, some states do.
  3. You cannot qualify for SSDI if you get any other Social Security benefits at this time. This includes early retirement or regular retirement benefits.
  4. Your monthly income must be less than $1,550 to be eligible for Social Security Disability Insurance payments. The Social Security Administration calls this substantial gainful activity (SGA), but your spouse’s income will not count against you.

Important: Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) will not pay benefits for a child’s disability. If you’re filing on your disabled child’s behalf, file a Supplemental Security Income (SSI) claim instead.

Program 1: Social Security Disability Insurance Benefits

Program #2: Supplemental Security Income (SSI) Benefits

The Social Security Administration’s other program that pays benefits to disabled people is called Supplemental Security Income (SSI). You’re potentially eligible for Supplemental Security Income if all the following describe you:

  1. Your household has very limited income and resources. Supplemental Security Income pays benefits to individuals and couples based on financial need. So, you’ll need to make less than $1,600 total each month for your whole household combined in 2024. You’ll also need to own less than $2,000 in assets per person, or $3,000 for married couples. Learn more about SSI asset and income limits here.
  2. You are blind, disabled, or at least 65 years old on the date you apply for SSI benefits. Unlike SSDI, SSI benefits have no work history requirement for eligible applicants. But if you’re younger than 65, you’ll need to show your medical condition makes you unable to work for 12+ months.

Now that you know about these two programs, let’s look at how to apply for disability benefits once you’re ready.

How to Apply for Disability Benefits: Find the Option That’s Best for You

You can apply for benefits four different ways. Three options mean you’ll apply on your own without any help, and the fourth way includes professional legal assistance:

  1. Online through the Social Security Administration’s website
  2. In person at your local Social Security office
  3. Over the phone
  4. With an attorney’s help, which costs you $0 up front (but makes you almost 3x more likely to get benefits!)

It’s important to know that claims can take at least 3-5 months to review, so get started today.

Apply on Your Own for Disability Benefits

How to Apply for Disability On Your Own: You Have 3 Options

To apply for disability online, over the phone, or in person, plan ahead and assemble the specific documents you’ll need. You can expect to spend 4-5 hours, average, filling out the claim forms if you bring everything you need the same day. Required documents you’ll need to apply for disability include:

  • Your Social Security number and proof of your age
  • Names, addresses, and phone numbers of doctors, case workers, hospitals, and clinics that treated you and your visit dates
  • Names and dosages of all medications you regularly take
  • Medical records from doctors, therapists, hospitals, clinics, and case workers currently in your possession
  • Labs, blood work, and other test results from the past year
  • summary of where you worked and what kind of work you did
  • Your most recent W-2 form or, if self-employed, a copy of your federal tax return

Note: You may also need information about family members. That includes a Social Security number and proof of age for each relative who may qualify for benefits. You’ll also need proof of marriage if your spouse is applying for benefits. You may also need dates of prior marriages, if applicable.

Option #1: Here’s How to Apply for Disability Online

The Social Security Administration offers an online application you can complete at your convenience. Apply from the comfort of your home or any location whenever you have enough time. To apply online, simply visit and follow the instructions there.

Option #2: Here’s How to Apply for Disability By Phone

Call Social Security’s toll-free number at 1-800-772-1213 anytime Monday through Friday, 8am-7pm EST. If you are deaf or hard of hearing, you can call the SSA toll-free at TTY 1-800-325-0778.  You should only apply online or over the phone if you already have all your medical records and doctors’ contact info lined up and ready to go. Having all these documents on hand when you’re learning how to apply for disability will help speed things up.

Option #3: Here’s How to Apply for Disability in Person

You can visit your local Social Security office to ask how apply for disability benefits in person. Most importantly, if you want to apply in person, please call and make an appointment before your visit. To locate the nearest office, visit the Social Security Office Locator and enter your zip code. You can also call 1-800-772-1213 toll free to receive office location information over the phone.

Apply for Disability Benefits In Person

Success Tips for Those Who Decide to Apply for Disability On Their Own

After you decide how to apply for Social Security disability, here are the things you’ll need to do if you’re filing on your own:

  1. Gather strong, recent medical evidence needed to support your disability claim. This means paying for copies of your complete medical records from every doctor you saw during the last 2-3 years. The free records, receipts, and lab test results you get in the mail aren’t enough to prove your claim.
  2. Fill out every claim form completely and honestly before giving it to the SSA. Don’t leave anything blank that says it’s required, or the SSA can reject your claim for a “technical error.” Make sure your writing is neat and easy to read, too!
  3. Communicate with the SSA that you’re going to apply for Social Security disability, then follow up regularly to check your claim’s status. Disability Determination Services in each state usually takes 3-5 months to review each claim, on average. It’s important to check your claim’s status often to ensure the SSA has everything they need and no paperwork got lost during the process. If anything is missing in your application, you must provide more documents in a timely manner. Otherwise, you may have to start the application process all over again from scratch.
  4. Attend all medical exams, court hearings, and SSA office appointments as requested. The SSA prefers to communicate via U.S. mail, and may schedule exams and court hearings months in advance. You must attend all appointments yourself, since you don’t have an attorney to do it for you. Missing a single appointment may result in your claim’s denial.

Finally, you can get free expert help filing your claim correctly the first time. Why? Well, all disability attorneys work on contingency, and none charge fees until (and unless) you win benefits. Then, they can only charge a one-time fee from your back pay. Also, federal law states that attorneys can’t charge you more than $7,200 or 25% of your back pay. People that qualify through typically get $13,800+ in back pay at once, on average.

Get Free Professional Legal Assistance

So now that you know how to apply for disability, would you like a professional to help you file for free? Luckily, an attorney charges $0 for filing your claim. No matter where you are in the process, a lawyer can get you paid the most benefits you’re owed faster. But if a lawyer doesn’t help you get benefits, you won’t pay a dime in legal fees — ever. But if a lawyer does help you win, then you’ll only pay one small fee. In 2023, we helped more than 270,000 people qualify for monthly payments!

The lawyers in our network offer free, confidential phone calls to anyone with questions about how to apply for disability benefits. Click the button below to start your free disability benefits evaluation now and see if you may qualify:

Get Your Free Benefits Evaluation

Laura Schaefer is the author of The Teashop Girls, The Secret Ingredient, and Littler Women: A Modern Retelling. She is also an active co-author or ghostwriter of several nonfiction books on personal and business development. Laura currently lives in Windermere, Florida with her husband and daughter and works with clients all over the world. Visit her online at and