How to file for unemployment benefits

Woman sitting at home, using her computer to look up how to file for unemploymentImage: 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.
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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.

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).

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.

While there are some exceptions, unemployment benefits are generally subject to federal income tax.

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 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.

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 in Wilmington. In those roles,… Read more.