As you enter or approach retirement age, it’s natural to wonder when and how to sign up for Medicare. Signing up for Medicare is easier than you might imagine; read this guide to find out what you need to do to get covered.

When can I first sign up for Medicare?

If you have a qualifying work history, which is generally 10 years of employment during which time you paid Medicare taxes, you can sign up for Medicare and begin using your benefits once you turn 65.

Some people may be able to sign up for Medicare before their 65th birthday, including those with qualifying disabilities and end-stage renal disease (ESRD).

Most people who receive Social Security benefits or Railroad Retirement benefits qualify for premium-free Part A, but it’s important to remember when you’re signing up for Medicare that you will have to pay a monthly premium for Part B.

Can you explain how to sign up for Medicare?

Many people are enrolled automatically—they don’t have to do anything but look for their red, white, and blue Medicare cards to arrive in the mail. If you are already receiving Social Security or Railroad Retirement benefits before your 65th birthday, you’ll most likely be automatically enrolled.

If you’re still working, or you’ve postponed your Social Security benefits, you’ll have to sign up for Medicare, either online at the Social Security website or by visiting your local Social Security office. You’ll also have to manually apply if you’re under age 65 and have a disability or ESRD.

Most people enroll in premium-free Part A as soon as they become eligible, but you may decide to delay your enrollment in Part B, especially if you have group health insurance through your own or a spouse’s employer. If you’re retired and get health benefits from TRICARE or the VA, you’ll need to enroll in both Part A and Part B when you’re first eligible to keep your existing benefits.

If you live in Puerto Rico and get Social Security benefits, you’ll automatically be enrolled in Part A on your 65th birthday, but you’ll need to manually sign up for Part B if you want coverage.

When are the enrollment periods to sign up for Medicare if I’m not enrolled automatically?

Most people should sign up for Medicare when they first become eligible during  their Initial  Enrollment Period. The Initial  Enrollment Period begins three months before the month you turn 65, includes your birthday month, and extends for three months after your birthday month. If you don’t enroll in Part B during this seven-month period, and you decide you want it later, you may pay a late enrollment penalty with your Part B premium, unless you meet the conditions for a Special Enrollment Period.

If you didn’t enroll when you were first eligible and you don’t qualify for a Special Enrollment Period, you can sign up for Medicare in the General Enrollment Period between January 1 to March 31 each year, with a July 1 effective date of coverage.

What are my options when I sign up for Medicare?

If you choose to enroll in Original Medicare (Part A and Part B), you may also want to enroll in a Medicare Supplement Plan, or Medigap, at the same time. If you sign up when you are first eligible, you can’t be turned down for the coverage you want and you can’t be forced to pay a higher premium due to your health status. If you wait and apply for Medigap later, you may have to go through medical underwriting, which means your Medicare Supplement company can consider your health status when deciding whether or not to cover you, and what to charge you for your plan.

You can also choose to sign up for a Medicare Part D Prescription Drug Plan at the same time you’re signing up for Medicare. Generally speaking, it’s a good idea to do so, because if you don’t enroll into Part D coverage for prescription drugs when you’re first eligible, you’ll pay a late-enrollment penalty, unless you have prescription drug coverage through another source that is at least as good as Part D. You’ll also have to wait until the Annual Election Period each year (October 15 through December 7) before you can sign up for Medicare Part D coverage.

If you’re interested in Medicare Advantage, you can choose a Medicare Advantage plan during your Initial Enrollment Period, or, if you sign up for Medicare Part A and Part B and later decide you want a Medicare Advantage plan, you can switch during the Annual Election Period each year. You can also switch from Medicare Advantage to Original Medicare during the Annual Election Period.

Need more information about how to sign up for Medicare?

I am happy to help you find the information you need; you can schedule a phone call or request an email by clicking on the buttons below. You can also find out about Medicare plan options in your area by clicking the Compare Plans button.