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Rite of Passage

Applying for Social Security Benefits



There are certain days in our lives that are just a little more memorable than others.  The day we arrive on this planet and the day we leave are the two most significant I would guess.  In between there’s our first day of school, the days we get our driver’s license, graduate from school, receive our first passport, get married, and welcome our children into this world.  I have just gone through another rite of passage; one that many of us look to with great expectations.  I just received my first Social Security payment.

Social Security (or SS for short) is America’s national retirement plan.  We pay into it all our working lives and we all hope that we will live long enough to get something back.  The SS payments alone are usually not nearly enough to survive on in the US.  But for most of us living in Thailand, we can live fairly comfortably on what it pays.  This makes the day we get our first SS check a pretty important one for us.

Applying for SS while living abroad is a bit confusing and for most of us quite scary.  So I thought that spelling out the steps you need to take to navigate this greatest of American bureaucracies might be helpful to those of you preparing for your next rite of passage.   

Latest info on applying for Social Security (as of 10/10/2010)

The SSA Manila has been implementing a new procedure concerning application. They now do telephone interviews where the SSA representative will take your information by phone and put it directly in the SSA system. There is no need for filing out an application form. They would only give the paper application if the claimant does not speak English. The new steps are:

1. Contact the US Embassy/Consulate and they will get your basic information (name, SSN, date of birth, address and telephone number). The US Embassy will then send this to Manila by e-mail or mail.
2. Once SSA Manila determines that you may be qualified (based on age and your record in their system), they will contact you by phone. So it is important to give an accurate telephone number or alternative numbers (cellphone, work phone, etc). If they could not contact you, they will mail out a letter indicating you need to call them or email them.
3. If they were able to contact you, they will schedule you for a telephone appointment within that week or the next week. Depending on how much their pending work is. Some claims examiners  can do the interview the same day, provided you have all your information.
4. After the interview, they will tell you what documents you would need to send to them to complete the application. The documents will depend on the information you provide. SSA Manila can receive the original documents (via courier) or you can certify copies (for free) at the American Embassy. While you are doing that, the SSA representative will send you the summary of the application you just did over the phone so you can check if everything is accurate.
5. Once SSA Manila receives your document, they electronically sends this to the central office in Baltimore, Maryland together with your claim.
6. You will have to wait until SSA Baltimore sends you a notice if the claim is approved and when you will receive the payment.

Some shortcuts you can do:

- Instead of contacting the American Embassy/Consulate to start your application, you can actually contact SSA Manila directly. It takes a lot of patience because there are only 13 claims examiner handling the whole of Asia and the Pacific claims. But once you do get through and speak to the representative, they can immediately give you the date and time for the interview. Do not leave a message on the voice mail because you might get overlooked. Persist in calling until you get someone over the phone.

Call this number 632- 3012000 Press 5 for Social Security. The best time to call is 730-8am and from 1-3pm Mondays – Fridays. The reason for the gap is that the claims examiners usually schedule their telephone interviews from 8am-12nn.

- Have all your information ready. Nothing slows down the interview like not having your personal information on hand. The interview usually takes 10-15 minutes.

- Be there when when they call you at your scheduled time. When the representative say 8am Manila time, they will call at 8am Manila time. If you are not there, they will try 2 or 3 more times and then go to the next interview. If its already 815am and you have not received the call, call the representative directly. Each of the 13 representative have a direct line and they are open in giving this to you. Ask for the name and direct line of the representative when they contact you for the schedule.

- Be honest when you do not have your documents with you. Some of the representatives will need to look up their policy to see if they can excuse you if you do not have certain documents (for example, birth documents from certain countries is really not available – they won’t push you to get this). For US citizens born in the US, they sometimes won’t request for the birth records.

- Have an email account. Most of the representative would prefer communication via email rather than you calling them.

- Have your information ready. If the representative feels like you are not the same person as that on their record (giving out incorrect answers, hesitating, getting coached by someone else), they will terminate the interview immediately. This results in longer processing time since they will probably ask you to identify yourself personally at the Embassy or do the paper application.

Additional Info:

* Contact the US Embassy/Consulate or SSA Manila 3 months before your 62nd birthday
* Mails usually arrive 10-14 days from your country to Manila. If you are sending your documents by mail and want to make certain that the representative received it, call or email them after 15 days from the date you sent it.
* Be polite. Complaining to the supervisors will not endear you to the representative. Cases are divided by alpha (first letter of your surnames) so even if you complain, your case will not be transferred to another unit.
* The office email is 
FBU.Manila@ssa.gov
* Fax number is (632) 5221514 (available 24 hours)

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Note on spousal benefits

My wife just applied for Social Security (I have been receiving it for 2 years now) and there are a couple of things we have found out. If a spouse is eligible to receive SS on her own then he/she can apply as stated above. If his/her benefits would be less than half of what the spouse receives then they can apply as a spouse. If he/she has never worked but the spouse is receiving SS then they can apply as a spouse.  A spouse usually receives approximately 1/2 the benefits of their partner.  One thing to remember though, spouses can receive benefits (including window’s benefits) only if they have lived in the United States for a period of 5 years.  If not, they are out of luck.

 

On getting direct deposit in Thailand

Bangkok Bank (the only one I have found so far) will allow direct deposits in Thailand, even though the Social Security's website, ssa.gov, does not include Thailand on the list of countries that allow direct deposits.  Not every branch will know about this so please check with them before you do anything.  

You must open a separate special account; one with no ATM card option. The money is usually deposited promptly but to withdraw your money you may have to transfer the cash to another Bangkok Bank account first. These restrictions are probably to protect you and your money from other people accessing your direct deposit account. 

Live long and prosper.

 


 

 

 


    



 
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