You’re about to turn 65. Congrats! Now it’s time to sign up for Medicare. But what’s that, exactly? How do you go about getting it? Do you need to prove your eligibility somehow? If so, how do you go about proving it? Are there other hoops you must jump through to get signed up for Medicare? Are there any hidden costs associated with signing up for Medicare as soon as possible or are there any benefits of waiting a little longer before joining? We’ll answer all those questions and more.

What Is Medicare?

Medicare is a federal health insurance program for people 65 years of age or older, for people who became permanently disabled at any point in their life, and for people diagnosed with end-stage renal disease (permanent kidney failure). Medicare is also available to people who have become eligible for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or SSI and have received that benefit for at least two years.

It replaces or supplements the health insurance you might have had while working. It has two parts: Part A and Part B. You should know that Medicare Part B is not free — you pay a monthly premium to receive it. However, once you become eligible, you can sign up for Medicare Part A with no copay or monthly premium.

How to Sign Up for Medicare

The first thing you need to know about signing up for Medicare is that it’s not like signing up for any other type of insurance. There is no application process or official sign-up date. Instead, once you turn 65, you are automatically enrolled in Medicare. If you want to sign up for Medicare sooner than the day you turn 65, you can do so online or over the phone. There is no official form to fill out — you just need to provide the necessary information.

Medicare is offered through many insurance companies; like any health insurance, each plan offers different benefits. While you can do it over the phone or online, Medicare enrollment is best done with a knowledgeable agent who can review all your plan options and help you choose the best plan for your needs.

When and Why to Sign up for Medicare Right Away

The only catch is that you must enroll in it within eight weeks of your 65th birthday. If you don’t, you could face a fine. The fine for not signing up for Medicare when you are eligible is an additional 10% for each year you could have signed up per month. You’ll pay that fine for as long as you have Part B.

One big reason to sign up for Medicare as soon as you are eligible is significant cost reduction. Remember that Medicare Part A (which covers hospital stays) is a necessary expense. However, Part B (which covers doctor visits, lab work, and other outpatient care) is not.

When and Why to Hold Off on Signing up for Medicare

There are very few reasons to hold off on signing up for Medicare. One big reason to hold off on signing up for Medicare is if you are still working and your employer offers health insurance coverage. You also may want to hold off on signing up for Medicare if you have access to affordable health insurance through your spouse. There may be other cases where holding off makes sense, but it is best to speak with a professional to avoid an unnecessary fine for not signing up.

How to Prove You’re Eligible for Medicare

There are two ways to go about proving you’re eligible for Medicare. The first way is to wait until you receive your Medicare card. This can take a few weeks after you have signed up for Medicare. If it has been more than eight weeks and you have not received your card, you can call the number on the back of your Social Security card to find out what the problem is.

The second way to prove you’re eligible is to show your health insurance card. If you have signed up for Parts A and B, you should have received a card with the letters “A” and “B” printed. If you have these cards, you can show them to any medical provider to prove you are eligible for Medicare. Keep in mind, however, that if you are receiving assistance from the government, you may still have to show your Medicare card.

As you can see, signing up for Medicare is not as confusing or difficult as it may seem initially. Still, you should sign up for Medicare as soon as you are eligible — not only for the significant cost reduction but also because it’s important to start taking advantage of your health insurance as soon as possible. After all, the sooner you start, the sooner you can begin reaping the benefits of Medicare.