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How to Apply for SSI and What to Expect

The fifth in a five-part series: Social Security for Young Blind Adults Series.

This month, the Free Bridges Helpdesk Transition Tip Tuesdays explores the potential impact of Social Security benefits on young blind/low vision adults. In this last installment of this five-part series, we set forth the process of applying for SSI benefits and what you can expect along the way.

Make Sure You are Financially Eligible

As noted in the past two Transition Tips [“Income Limits for SSI Eligibility and “Limitations on Resources for SSI Eligibility”, an individual must meet strict financial requirements in order to qualify for SSI. If you have too many resources to qualify, it might make sense to look into ways to legally transfer those resources (ABLE accounts, which will be discussed in April’s Transition Tips, are one legal way to transfer resources and retain SSI eligibility).

Please reach out to the Free Bridges Transition Helpdesk for more information.

Before You Start

Social Security number needed

In order to apply for SSI benefits, you need to have a Social Security number. Many individuals get this number soon after they are born or become U.S. citizens. (Note: Legal residents who are non-citizens may receive Social Security cards, but they might not be eligible for SSI.) If you are unsure whether you have a Social Security number, ask your parent or guardian for help.

If you do not have a Social Security number or have misplaced your Social Security card, you may request a new or replacement Social Security card by completing this application and sending it to the Social Security Administration.

Direct deposit bank account needed

SSI payments are only made electronically, so you must have an electronic means to receive your SSI benefits. There is an option to have your benefits loaded onto a special debit card, but bank accounts provide more options and flexibility. Given SSI eligibility limitations on resources [see Limitations on Resources for SSI Eligibility], it is best to have the bank account for your SSI benefits in your own name alone. You may use an existing bank account or open a new one. For the SSI application process, you’ll need to bank’s routing number and your account number.

Create a my Social Security account online

If you apply online, you will need to create this account. Even if you do not apply online, you can use this account to monitor your application status, request a replacement Social Security card, and more. Follow this link to set up your my Social Security account.

When and How to Apply

When are you eligible?

Apply as soon as you are eligible to do so. If you are under 18 years old and your parents’ income and resources meet SSI guidelines, apply as soon as you can. If you are intending to apply as an adult, you may call to set up a telephone appointment before your 18th birthday. However, the appointment, itself, will not take place until after your 18th birthday. If you are 18 years old or older and meet the income and resource eligibility requirements for SSI, you may apply any time.

Why should I apply so soon?

SSI benefits can only be paid as far back as your date of application. They might not be paid that far back if other factors (such as deeming parental income, being over income or resource limits, etc.) apply.

Telephone applications

Individuals may apply for SSI in several ways. Application by telephone [1-800-772-1213 (TTY 1-800-325-0778) from 8:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m., Monday through Friday] allows you to communicate directly with an employee, but it can be time-consuming. Both the application itself and the waiting time for an employee to be available to answer the phone can take quite a long period of time.

In-person applications

In person applications have not been permitted since March 17, 2020, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As of the date of publication (March 30, 2021), local offices have not yet reopened, and there is not an option of applying for SSI in person.

Online applications

Applying for SSI online is often convenient, but certain requirements must be met. The applicant must be between the ages of 18 and 64, must be a U.S. citizen residing in the U.S., must have never been married, and have never applied for or received SSI benefits in the past.  

Please note that, in the past, you could NOT use the online method of applying for SSI under the disability of blindness (legal blindness). This prohibition is still noted on some areas of the Social Security Administration website but not on others. Thus, it is unclear whether blind individuals may apply online. It is clear that all people applying for SSI may apply by phone or in person (which is not available right now due to the COVID-19 pandemic).

If your disability is something other than blindness and you meet the other requirements, you may apply online. However, remember that the eligibility criteria are different for individuals who are not legally blind [see “Disability Eligibility for SSI.”]

Information needed for the application process

Your legal name and address, your social security number, any employment history you have, whether you are or have been married, names and birthdates of any children you have, and your employment history (if any). You also need to indicate the disability (or disabilities) under which you are applying for SSI and share the names and contact information for all of your medical providers (even if not directly related to your SSI disability). You may be asked to provide documentation, so it’s good to have your Social Security card, birth certificate, state-issued identification card, and relevant medical records available.

What Comes Next?

Eligibility determination

While you apply for SSI with the Social Security Administration, that office does not review your records. Instead, the office sends your file to an agency in your state to evaluate whether you are entitled to SSI based on your disability. In Maryland this office, “Disability Determination Services” (DDS) is part of the Division of Rehabilitation Services (DORS).

DDS will review the records you provide and may contact your doctors and medical providers. The DDS may determine that it needs a medical examination to confirm your blindness (or other disability). If it does, it will set up the appointment, pay for the appointment, and pay for you to go to the appointment. You need to go to the appointment and perform the required tests; if you do not, your claim can be rejected.

Substantial gainful activity (SGA) not a factor for blindness

The DDS might also send you a questionnaire seeking information about what kind of work you can do. This information is not required if you meet the definition “legal blindness” [see “Disability Eligibility for SSI.”] If you believe that your eye condition constitutes “legal blindness,” you might want to put off completing the SGA worksheet until the DDS determines your eligibility based only on blindness. If you think you might not meet the definition of “legal blindness,” you might want to complete the SGA worksheet so other disabilities may be considered. Regardless, if you are legally blind, your ability to engage in SGA cannot be used to deny you SSI.

Be Prepared to Wait

SSI determinations are not quick. They usually take three to five months to complete. Eligibility determinations can take even longer in the pandemic environment, especially if the DDS requires you to take a medical examination for eligibility determination purposes.

During this time period, you will not receive SSI benefits (there are certain, limited exceptions). Instead, if you are found to be eligible, you will receive “back pay” for the months you were eligible during the determination process. This back pay is dependent on your financial eligibility each month, and it cannot go back further than your application date. While the “back pay” often is an amount greater than the resource limits of SSI, you are given nine months to spend your back pay before that pay will be counted as a resource.

During the evaluation time period, you may or may not qualify for additional benefits [see “More Than Just Money: Additional Benefits of Getting SSI.”]

Please reach out to the Free Bridges Transition Helpdesk for more information.

April brings the “ABLE Accounts—Are They for Me? Series” to Tuesday Transition Tips from the Free Bridges Helpdesk.

Contact us

Follow the Bridges Helpdesk Facebook page for more transition tips, and please contact the Free Helpdesk for Maryland Blind/Low Vision Transition Students, Families, and Educators anytime using:

This unique project is being coordinated through The IMAGE Center of Maryland, a center for independent living in Towson, and it is funded by a grant from the Maryland Department of Education Division of Special Education/Early Intervention Services.

Social Security for Young Blind Adults Series

Part 1: Disability Eligibility for SSI (March 2)

Part 2: Income Limits for SSI Eligibility (March 9)

Part 3: Limitations on Resources for SSI Eligibility (March 16)

Part 4: More Than Just Money: Additional Benefits of Getting SSI (March 23)

Part 5: How to Apply for SSI and What to Expect (March 30)

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