How to Apply for SSDI: Steps to Get It Done

Take it one step at a time, and you'll get it done.

Updated by , Attorney · UC Law San Francisco

If you can no longer work due to a medical condition, you might qualify for disability benefits through the Social Security Administration (SSA). The Social Security disability insurance (SSDI) program pays benefits to those who've worked long enough and paid enough FICA or self-employment taxes into the system to be "insured."

To be eligible for Social Security disability benefits, you must have a severe impairment that prevents you from working for at least a year.

To file for Social Security disability benefits, you'll need to provide a fair of information to the Social Security Administration (SSA). Fortunately, you don't need to submit the information all at once. You'll be able to give the SSA information online, in a phone interview, or at a Social Security field office.

This article will explain what you need to apply for SSDI and walk you through the steps to file for disability.

Should I Apply for SSDI Benefits?

It might be obvious after some sudden injuries (like a traumatic brain injury) or illnesses (like certain cancers) that you won't be able to work anymore and will need disability benefits. But sometimes, a medical condition that didn't initially prevent you from working worsens to the point that you can no longer hold down a full-time job (like arthritis or back problems can). If you're wondering whether you might qualify for benefits now, take our eligibility quiz.

If your medical condition keeps you from working enough to support yourself, you should consider filing for SSDI benefits. Social Security disability can provide the income you need when you can't work. Learn more about why you should apply for disability benefits.

When should you file for SSDI benefits? Because it can take a year or more to get approved for SSDI, Social Security recommends that you apply for disability benefits as soon as you become disabled—even if you're not sure you'll qualify. As long as your medical condition prevents you from earning more than the SSDI income limit, there's a good chance you'll meet the requirements for disability.

Learn more about the financial and medical eligibility rules for SSDI.

Preparing to File the Application

Gathering the necessary information is key to being able to complete the interview, but if you file online, you can add information to the application as you go (you can save and return to the online application as many times as you want).

You'll need documentation about your citizenship status, data about where you've worked for the last 15 years, and information about any medical diagnoses and treatment you've received. We've broken down what you need into categories so you can work on one area at a time.

Have Your Basic Contact Information Ready

The first step to filing for Social Security disability is to gather your contact information. Social Security will ask for the following information, either online, in person, or over the phone:

  • your name and any prior names used (for example, names from any previous marriages)
  • your Social Security number and any other Social Security numbers used in the past
  • your address, email address, and phone number
  • if you are or were married for ten years or more, your spouse's name, birth date, Social Security number, and the date and place of marriage
  • the date of any divorces, and
  • if you have children, the name, age, and Social Security numbers of your children.

Prepare Your Past Employment Information

Next, Social Security will ask you where you've worked in the past 15 years and what duties you performed for each job. Social Security will ask:

  • the dates of employment for each job over the last 15 years
  • your job titles and rate of pay
  • the names and contact information for up to five employers from the last 15 years
  • the type of work you performed generally, and the duties at the longest job you had
  • any dates of military service, including the type of duty and branch
  • your income for each of the last three years, and
  • the last day you worked.

Write Down Your Medical Information

Social Security will also contact doctors and hospitals that you've visited in recent years. You will need:

  • a list of doctors, their specialties, and their phone numbers and addresses
  • a list of clinic visits and surgeries pertaining to your disabilities
  • your patient identification numbers
  • a list of all medications, what they're for, and who prescribed them
  • the names and dates of medical tests and who requested the tests, and
  • the date that your medical conditions or illnesses began to affect your ability to work, and how your conditions interfere with job duties.

Know Your Education and Training Information

Social Security will want to know:

  • the highest grade you completed and the date you completed it
  • any special education and the school that provided it, and
  • any special job training, trade school, or vocational school, and the date you completed it.

Gather Necessary Documents

Social Security might ask you to provide documents to show you're eligible for SSDI benefits. These documents could include the following, depending on your circumstances:

  • if you were born in the U.S.: a birth certificate or other proof of birth (such as a religious record from before age 5)
  • if you weren't born in the U.S.: proof of U.S. citizenship or lawful alien status (such as your Permanent Resident Card number)
  • if you worked during the last 12 months: W-2 forms or self-employment tax returns (Schedule C and SE)
  • if you receive veterans, workers comp, or similar government benefits: copies of award letters or settlement agreements, and
  • a copy of your most recent Social Security earnings statement (available at The SSA will ask if you agree with the annual income on your statement.

How to Apply for SSDI Benefits

If you're relatively comfortable with email and computers, you'll probably find it most convenient to complete your application online. You can start as soon as you have your basic contact information ready.

You don't have to finish the online application in one sitting—you can save your work and come back later. But, you must keep track of the application number given to you as soon as you start the online process so you can re-access your application. (If you lose it, you'll have to start over.)

Assuming you've stopped working, it actually makes sense to start the application now, even if you haven't gathered all the information listed above, because the date you start the online application counts as your filing date. The earlier your filing date, the better, because it affects the amount of disability backpay you'll receive and can help ensure that you'll qualify for SSDI before your eligibility runs out.

Once you start an online application, you have six months to complete it, but the sooner you apply, the sooner you can get approved for benefits. If you get stuck, visit our step-by-step guidance for the online application. After you submit the application, a Social Security claims representative will contact you if any issues on your disability application need clarifying.

If you prefer not to use the online application, you can apply for SSDI by phone or in person at your local Social Security office. Both these methods allow you to get help filling out your disability application from a Social Security representative. Learn more about the pros and cons of filing for SSDI online, in person, and by phone.

Getting a Decision on Your Initial Application

Your SSA claims representative will send your application to the Disability Determination Services (DDS) agency in your state. With the help of a DDS doctor, a claims examiner at DDS will review your application, request your medical records from your doctors (and any hospitals you visited), and decide your claim.

This process usually takes four to seven months, but it can take longer if Social Security has trouble contacting you or your doctors. In a survey we did of our readers a few years ago, over a third of applicants received an initial decision in three months or less, but processing time has doubled since then.

You can check the status of your application in the Social Security portal, if you have an online Social Security account.

If Social Security Denies Your Application

Social Security will send you a decision by mail, including the reason your claim was denied. About 61% of initial claimants are denied and have to request a "reconsideration" of their claim (the first stage of appeal). You have 60 days to request a reconsideration.

You can file your request for reconsideration online. A different claims examiner at DDS will reconsider your file and make a decision. The reconsideration takes about four to six months.

Almost everyone is denied at the reconsideration stage (85% nationally), but it's a step you still have to go through to get a hearing in front of a Social Security judge.

If Social Security Denies Your Application a Second Time

If your reconsideration is denied, you have 60 days to request the hearing. You can file your request for a hearing online. It can take anywhere from 6 to 18 months to get a hearing, and during that time, you can't work a substantial amount. A few years ago, it could take 18-24 months to get a hearing date, but in 2024, the average hearing wait time is just 10 months.

Once you get to the hearing, you have a better chance of getting approved for benefits: about 45% of claimants were approved for benefits after a hearing in 2024. (For details, see our survey article on SSDI approval rates.)

If a Social Security Judge Denies Your Application Again

If the judge denies your claim after the hearing, you do have the option of filing an appeal with the Appeals Council, but very few claimants win at the Appeals Council level. Instead, most people who are still interested in pursuing disability benefits file a new disability claim at this point.

Learn more in our article on appealing a third denial of a disability claim.

More Information About Getting SSDI

If you'd like to learn more about getting Social Security disability, including what benefits you might qualify to receive, see the following articles:

Updated April 11, 2024

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