How to file for unemployment benefits

Woman sitting at home, using her computer to look up how to file for unemployment Image: Woman sitting at home, using her computer to look up how to file for unemployment

In a Nutshell

If you’re out of work through no fault of your own, you can file a claim for unemployment benefits. Each state sets its own rules for who qualifies and how to apply, but they follow general federal guidelines.

Editorial Note: Credit Karma receives compensation from third-party advertisers, but that doesn’t affect our editors’ opinions. Our marketing partners don’t review, approve or endorse our editorial content. It’s accurate to the best of our knowledge when posted. Availability of products, features and discounts may vary by state or territory. Read our Editorial Guidelines to learn more about our team.
Advertiser Disclosure

We think it's important for you to understand how we make money. It's pretty simple, actually. The offers for financial products you see on our platform come from companies who pay us. The money we make helps us give you access to free credit scores and reports and helps us create our other great tools and educational materials.

Compensation may factor into how and where products appear on our platform (and in what order). But since we generally make money when you find an offer you like and get, we try to show you offers we think are a good match for you. That's why we provide features like your Approval Odds and savings estimates.

Of course, the offers on our platform don't represent all financial products out there, but our goal is to show you as many great options as we can.

Unemployment insurance benefits can help people make ends meet when they suddenly lose their jobs.

But you have to meet certain qualifications to get unemployment benefits. Whether you’re eligible for benefits, how much you might get and how long those payments will last all depend on the law in the state where you file for unemployment.

Let’s explore how unemployment insurance works, how to file for it and what you can expect during the process.

Learn how the coronavirus pandemic has affected unemployment benefits.



How does unemployment work?

Unemployment insurance is a joint program between the federal government and individual state governments. It’s intended to help people get through temporary financial hardship by providing cash benefits if they lose their jobs through no fault of their own.

Employers pay a federal tax to fund the unemployment insurance program. And workers in Alaska, New Jersey and Pennsylvania also pay state taxes to fund it. The federal government establishes general guidelines for the states and manages the unemployment trust fund that states draw from to fund their unemployment programs.

States are responsible for …

  • Assessing and collecting the taxes for the federal trust fund
  • Deciding qualifications for benefits
  • Determining benefit amounts
  • Receiving and processing claims
  • Determining applicant eligibility
  • Issuing payments

Generally, unemployed workers who qualify for benefits receive payments equal to a percentage of their earnings over the last 52 weeks. Unemployment insurance covers pretty much everyone in the U.S. who earns a wage or salary, though railroad workers, civilian federal employees and military service members are covered under different programs.

Can I qualify for unemployment?

Whether you can qualify for unemployment depends on multiple factors, and the criteria vary by state. While states make their own rules for who’s eligible to receive unemployment benefits, there are usually a few general qualifications.

  • You’re out of work through no fault of your own. In most states, you must be unemployed because of a lack of work. Generally, if you were fired for cause or quit on your own, you probably won’t qualify for benefits — though some states will still allow you to receive benefits if you can show a good reason for quitting.
  • You meet your state’s wage and work requirements. States generally have qualification requirements for how long you must have worked and how much you earned before losing your job. Most states consider the first four out of the last five calendar quarters before you became unemployed as your “base period” for benefits.

Many states have additional eligibility requirements that can vary widely. But generally, states require you to be able and available for work — and you also must be actively seeking work to qualify for benefits. But these work requirements can be waived under certain circumstances. And in all states, if you’re denied benefits, you have the right to know why and to appeal the denial.

How much unemployment benefit might I get?

States calculate unemployment insurance benefits based on how much you earned during your base period — which is the last 52 weeks — up to a maximum amount established by the state. Generally, your benefit is per week and based on a percentage of your highest quarterly earnings during your base period.

Here’s an example of how unemployment compensation calculations can work. Say you earned a salary of $50,000 per year for the last five years, before taxes and other deductions. That means each quarter, you earned $12,500.

And let’s say you worked in a state where weekly benefit amounts are 4% of your highest earning quarter. Provided you met your state’s qualifications for receiving benefits, your weekly unemployment payment would be $500 (12,500 x 0.04 = 500).

But each state caps its maximum weekly benefit payment. In January 2020, caps ranged from a low of $235 (Mississippi) to a high of $1,234 (Massachusetts). Similarly, there’s a minimum benefit that also varies, from a low of $5 (Hawaii) to a high of $188 (Washington state).

Workers generally qualify for unemployment benefits for up to 26 weeks, though they may last longer during periods of high unemployment rates. And some states extend benefits for other specific reasons.

Benefits are often issued through a debit card, but some states may allow direct deposit into a bank account.

How do I apply for unemployment benefits?

To apply, you’ll need to file an unemployment claim with your state’s unemployment insurance program. You can find a link to your state’s program at careeronestop.org. You may be able to file your claim online, by phone or in person.

The application will generally ask you for the addresses of your former places of employment and the time periods you worked there. You’ll likely also need to provide your Social Security number and other personal information as part of your unemployment insurance benefits claim.

You should file a claim as soon as you’re out of work. But you may not receive benefits during the first week after you apply. There may be a waiting period before you receive benefits that can be as short as a week or as long as two to three weeks.

Some information on filing in certain states

Check out these Credit Karma articles to learn more about applying for unemployment in certain states.     

What requirements do I have to meet?

If you qualify for unemployment benefits and start receiving them, you’ll usually be required to take certain actions to continue receiving payments.

These can include …

  • Filing claims weekly or every other week
  • Reporting any job offers received or declined each week
  • Showing up at an unemployment insurance office or job center at a scheduled day and time
  • Registering with a state employment service to help you find work
  • Reporting any earnings you receive

Bottom line

The federal government created the unemployment insurance program after the Great Depression of the early 1930s left millions of Americans without jobs. Without incomes, unemployed people couldn’t buy the things they needed, and businesses suffered because fewer people could afford their products and services.

If you’re out of work, unemployment insurance can help you stay afloat financially until you find a new job. And providing unemployed people financial help benefits everyone — not only job seekers, but also their communities, states and countries — by helping stabilize economies.


How the coronavirus pandemic has affected unemployment benefits

The federal government has allowed states to change their unemployment insurance policies to adapt to the current economic crisis brought on by the coronavirus. In general, these changes have made it easier for people to qualify for unemployment benefits because of temporary business closures brought on by COVID-19.

You may be eligible for unemployment benefits if you …

  • Were laid off when your place of work temporarily shut down to curb the spread of the virus
  • Were quarantined after falling sick
  • Left work to avoid exposure
  • Left work to care for an infected family member

The new federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act adds an additional $600 per week in unemployment benefits on top of what states pay. That additional amount ended in July, and it’s unclear if or how federal unemployment benefits may be extended.

The CARES Act also allows self-employed workers to be eligible for unemployment and extends benefits to a maximum of 39 weeks.

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to unfold, the federal government could make more changes to unemployment insurance benefits. Keep tabs on your state’s unemployment program to make sure you’re receiving the benefits you’re eligible for.


About the author: Andrew Dunn is a veteran journalist with more than a decade of experience as a reporter and editor at North Carolina news organizations, including the Charlotte Observer and the StarNews… Read more.