What are Social Security Credits?

To determine who is eligible for various benefits, the Social Security Administration (SSA) uses a system of credits that establish whether minimum work requirements have been met. Credits are based on the amount of time someone spends in the workforce and, to a lesser extent, on compensation.

Key Takeaways

  • Social Security credits are used to determine eligibility and benefit amounts for retirement and disability benefits.
  • A minimum of 40 credits is required to be eligible for retirement benefits, which takes a minimum of 10 years to earn.
  • Credits for disability benefits vary by age.

How Social Security Credits Work

Typically, the number of credits required in order to be eligible for retirement benefits is 40. Because you can’t earn more than four credits per year, it takes a minimum of 10 years in the workforce to accrue the credits necessary to apply for benefits. 

The SSA assigns “credits” to your paid taxes. For 2021, you earn one credit for every $1,470 in earnings. It is possible to earn all four annual credits in a short amount of time. Once you have earned $5,880 in taxable income, you have acquired the maximum number of credits for the year.

Because the credit limit applies to everyone, regardless of income, the system levels the playing field somewhat, so that those who have very large incomes are not able to take advantage of benefits earlier than those with more meager earnings.

Credit Requirements for Disability Benefits

There are some situations in which benefits may be granted when the standard 40-credit threshold has not been met. One such scenario applies to the payment of disability benefits, known as Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI). While the 40-credit rule holds for those aged 62 or older, if you become disabled at a younger age, you may qualify for disability benefits with fewer credits.

If you become disabled before age 24, for example, you can apply for benefits with only six credits, as long as they were earned within the three years prior to your disability. For those who are between 24 and 31, eligible applicants must have credit for working half the number of years between age 21 and the age at which they became disabled. This means that if you become disabled at age 29, you will need to have worked for four years, or 16 total credits, within the eight years since you turned 21.

For those over the age of 31 who become disabled, credit requirements vary by age, from as few as 20 up to the maximum requirement of 40. You can see the specific amounts for each age on the Social Security Administration’s website. Unless you are legally blind, at least 20 of these credits must have been earned in the 10 years leading up to your disability. 

The SSA's definition of “disabled” is quite strict. You only qualify for Social Security disability benefits if you are severely disabled with a condition that entirely prevents your working—and is expected to last a year or longer or result in your death.

Credit Requirements for Survivor Benefits

Even if you have not met the 40-credit minimum, your family may be eligible to collect survivor benefits on your account in the event of your untimely death. Benefits may be payable to your children and your spouse who cares for them if you have acquired six credits within the three years preceding your death.

Applying for Social Security

Depending on the type of benefits for which you are eligible, you may be able to apply online at the SSA website, over the phone, or by making an appointment at your local Social Security office. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, you can only visit a local office if you have made an appointment first.

The SSA website also has updated information about credit requirements for disability benefits, as well as online calculators to help you estimate your potential benefit amount.