When is Your Medicare Enrollment Period?

You are first eligible for Medicare:

  • Three months before your 65th birthday
  • The month of your birthday
  • Three months after your 65th birthday

After this time, you can make changes to your coverage during the Annual Election Period. You may also be eligible for special enrollment periods if you’re still employed or moving to a new area.

Medicare Initial Enrollment Period

The Initial Enrollment Period is the first time you can enroll in Medicare. It’s usually the best time to enroll to avoid penalty fees. This seven-month period begins three months before you turn 65, lasts the month of your birthday and the three months following your 65th birthday.

At this time, you can enroll in Original Medicare (Parts A and B) and optional parts of Medicare:

  • Part A - Hospital Coverage
  • Part B - Outpatient Medical Coverage (like seeing a doctor)
  • Part C - Medicare Advantage (optional private insurance coverage)
  • Part D - Prescription Drug Coverage

You may also enroll in Medicare Supplement Insurance (Medigap), at this time, and any time after. Medigap coverage helps pay costs Original Medicare doesn’t cover, such as deductibles and copays.

Medicare Part C (Medicare Advantage plans) offers optional plans through private insurance companies that are Medicare approved. These plans provide coverage for benefits missing from Original Medicare (Parts A and B), like vision, dental care and sometimes prescription drug coverage (Medicare Part D). This coverage replaces your Part A and Part B coverage to give you comprehensive coverage.

Medicare Part D (prescription drug benefit) is also optional and is offered by private insurance companies approved by Medicare.

Delaying Enrollment

If you’re still covered by your employer's insurance during the Initial Enrollment Period, you can delay enrollment in Medicare Part B, Part C and Part D without paying penalty fees.

You are only protected from Medicare penalty fees if you’re receiving health coverage because you are still employed. If you leave your job, you can elect Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA) health coverage to cover the gap between the end of your old insurance and the beginning of Medicare. Note: You must still enroll in Medicare during the Special Enrollment Period to avoid penalty fees for late enrollment.

The late enrollment penalty for Medicare Part B is an irreversible upcharge to your monthly payment for Medicare. Your monthly payment will increase by 10 percent for every 12 months your enrollment is late. Because you’re only able to enroll during the Annual Election Period, you can only stop the increase of fees during this period. If you don’t enroll for Medicare during your Initial Enrollment Period or the Special Enrollment Period, you must wait for the General Election Period or Annual Election Period. During these periods, you’ll be required to pay penalty fees for late enrollment.

General Enrollment Period

If you miss your Initial Enrollment Period or Special Enrollment Period, you can sign up for Parts A and B between January 1 and March 31 each year.

At this time, if you enroll in Part A, you must enroll in Part B.

Annual Election Period

The Annual Election Period (or Open Enrollment Period) is the Medicare enrollment period when you can make changes to your current plan or enroll for the first time.

If you want to add coverage, such as Medicare Advantage or Part D, you can only do so during the Annual Election Period. Note: Medigap coverage is an exception to this rule. You can apply for it at any time.

The Annual Election Period runs from October 15 to December 7 each year.

Changes made during this time will be effective January 1 of the following year. For example, if you had a Medicare Advantage plan (Part C) but chose to change back to Parts A and B during your Annual Election Period, you would have Medicare Advantage through the end of the calendar year.

Special Enrollment Period

If you delay your Medicare enrollment because you’re still employed when you turn 65, you may qualify for a Special Enrollment Period (SEP).

The Special Enrollment Period begins when your employer-sponsored insurance ends and lasts for two months. Your Medicare coverage begins the month after you enroll.

You may also be eligible for a Special Enrollment Period if you move to a new area.

How to Enroll in a Medicare Plan

Automatic Medicare Enrollment

If you’re turning 65 and already receive Social Security or Railroad Retirement benefits, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) will automatically enroll you in Medicare and mail your Medicare benefits card.

If you’re under 65 but have been receiving Social Security or Railroad Retirement disability benefits for 24 months, you may also be automatically enrolled.

If you are under 65 and have been diagnosed with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or Lou Gehrig’s disease), you will be enrolled in Medicare the same month you begin receiving disability benefits.

Manual Medicare Enrollment

If you are about to turn 65 (or are within the seven-month Initial Enrollment Period) and do not yet receive Social Security or Railroad Retirement benefits, you must manually enroll in Medicare through the Social Security Administration.

If you delay enrollment in Medicare Part B, you must contact Social Security directly to enroll, four months before your retirement.

In addition, you must manually enroll in Medicare if you’re under 65 and are eligible for Medicare because of an End-Stage Renal Disease (ESRD) diagnosis.

You can sign up for Medicare Parts A and B:

  • Online through the Social Security Administration
  • By mail
  • By phone
  • In person

Once enrolled in Medicare Parts A and B, you can sign up for additional coverage like Medicare Supplement Insurance (Medigap) or a prescription drug plan.