• Many people are automatically enrolled in original Medicare around their 65th birthday.
  • Others will need to manually enroll in all or some parts of Medicare.
  • The sign-up process starts 3 months before the month you turn 65, so take advantage of that enrollment window.

Medicare is the U.S. health insurance program for people 65 years old and over or those with certain health conditions. Applying for Medicare can seem like a rite of passage or a benchmark in a lifetime.

But signing up for Medicare can also be complicated. That’s because it has several parts, and you have to remember quite a few deadlines and enrollment periods. Plus, some people are automatically enrolled, while others are not.

The good news: The process is pretty streamlined and easy to maneuver. Here, we break down how you can apply for the various parts of Medicare and when you should begin.

If you’re receiving benefits from the SSA or the Railroad Retirement Board (RRB), you don’t have to apply for Medicare. You’ll automatically be signed up for Medicare parts A and B as you near your 65th birthday.

Your Medicare card and enrollment information will be mailed to you 3 to 4 months before your birthday. But if you’d like to enroll in Part D or want to switch to Medicare Advantage (Part C), you can do this during your initial enrollment period. We’ll explain more about that later.

If you’re not automatically enrolled, you’ll need to apply for original Medicare (parts A and B) and any additional coverage you want. Your enrollment period will depend on several factors, including your employment status and the types of coverage you want.

How to enroll in original Medicare

Before you begin the process of enrolling in Medicare parts A and B, you might consider what kind of Medicare coverage you ultimately need. These steps will help you prepare:

  1. Find out if you were automatically enrolled in either Part A or Part B of original Medicare.
  2. Decide whether you want Part B or if you’d like to defer enrollment.
  3. Review the Medicare Advantage plans in your area to see if those coverage options and costs work better for you than original Medicare.
  4. If you decide to stay with original Medicare, consider your Part D options and whether a Medigap plan would be useful to you.

The SSA provides a checklist for Medicare applications that may be helpful. It lists the types of forms you’ll need for the process, including proof of military service, tax forms, and W-2s. Once you have all the information you need for applying, you can begin the process of signing up.

You have several ways to enroll in original Medicare:

  • Online. You can visit SocialSecurity.gov to begin enrollment.
  • By phone. Call SSA at 800-772-1213 (or 800-325-0718 for TTY), Monday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
  • In person. Visit your local SSA office; you can find it through the SSA office locator.
  • By mail. You can send a letter to your local SSA office with your name, your Social Security number, and the date you’d like to enroll. They will send you necessary information and any additional requests for enrolling.

If you already receive benefits from SSA or RRB, you’ll be automatically enrolled in Medicare. If you have questions or want to discuss your coverage, you can call RRB at 877-772-5772 (or 312-751-4701 for TTY), Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.

How to enroll in Medicare Advantage

Medicare Advantage, or Medicare Part C, is a private bundled health insurance plan. It offers the same coverage as parts A and B. If often provides prescription coverage as well. Some Medicare Advantage plans also cover vision, dental, and other healthcare benefits.

This plan may place a yearly cap on your out-of-pocket costs. That can be helpful if you expect to have any large healthcare expenses.

But a Medicare Advantage plan will be an additional cost on top of any premiums you pay for other parts of Medicare. Many Medicare Advantage plans will cover some or all of your Medicare Part B premium costs. Weigh your healthcare needs with the costs of coverage when deciding which parts of Medicare are right for you.

If you want to enroll in Medicare Advantage, you can sign up during your initial enrollment period. You can also change your selections during Medicare’s open enrollment period from October 15 through December 7. If you sign up outside these times, you may pay a late-enrollment fee, and your coverage won’t begin until July 1.

You have two ways to sign up for Medicare Part C:

  • Online. Shop for Part C plans with Medicare.gov’s plan finder tool.
  • With a private company. Insurance companies offer Part C plans, and you can enroll directly with them via their website or by phone.

How to enroll in Medicare Part D

Enrollment in Medicare Part D is not automatic for anyone. If you decide you want prescription drug coverage, you’ll need to select and purchase a Medicare Part D plan.

It’s important to note that you can only get a Part D plan as an add-on to original Medicare (parts A and B). If you have Medicare Advantage (Part C), you aren’t eligible for a Part D plan.

You can enroll in Medicare Part D during your initial enrollment period, a 7-month window around your 65th birthday. If you don’t enroll during that time, you’ll be able to sign up later but may have to pay a late-enrollment penalty.

You may also be able to enroll during the open enrollment period, which is from October 15 through December 7.

If you want to enroll in Medicare Part D, you have several ways to do so:

  • By phone. You can call 800-633-4227 (or 877-486-2048 for TTY).
  • Online. Use Medicare.gov’s plan finder tool to compare Part D plans available in your area.
  • Contact a private insurance company. You can also contact private insurers that offer Part D plans, via their website or by phone, and enroll directly with them.

The Medicare application on the Social Security website allows you to apply completely online. In most cases, you won’t need to sign anything or send in any supporting documents.

You can apply for Medicare online by visiting the Medicare section of the Social Security website.

The application is completely free. Once you apply, you’ll be able to check on the status of your application at any time.

If you’re planning to enroll in Medicare, you’ll need to know several enrollment deadlines and dates:

  • Initial enrollment period. This is a 7-month window around your 65th birthday during which you can sign up for Medicare. It begins 3 months before your birthday, includes the month of your birthday, and extends 3 months after your birthday. During this time, you can enroll for all parts of Medicare without a penalty.
  • Open enrollment period. Medicare’s open enrollment runs from October 15 to December 7. During this window, you can switch from original Medicare to Part C, or from Part C back to original Medicare. You can also switch Part C plans or add, remove, or change a Part D plan.
  • General enrollment period. This enrollment period runs yearly from January 1 through March 31. You can enroll in Medicare in this timeframe if you did not enroll during your initial enrollment period.
  • Special enrollment period. If you delayed Medicare enrollment because you had private health insurance from an employer, you can later enroll in Medicare during a special enrollment period. You have 8 months from the end of your coverage or the end of your employment during which to sign up without penalty.

Medicare Advantage also has a separate open enrollment period that runs from January 1 through March 31 each year. During this time, you can switch from one Part C plan to another or go back to original Medicare. But you can’t go from original Medicare to Part C during this period.

Your healthcare needs may change as you age, so make sure your Medicare coverage changes with you.

Applying for Medicare is an important step as you near your 65th birthday. It’s also one that can be filled with questions — but you don’t have to enroll alone.

Both the CMS and the SSA can be valuable resources during your enrollment period. They can help you make the right choices for your situation.

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