How To File for Unemployment Benefits

Man working on computer
Photo: Hill Street Studios / Getty Images

If you’ve been laid off from your job, the chances are high that you will qualify to file for unemployment benefits.

In most states, unemployed workers can apply online, over the phone, or, in some cases, by mailing a form. Many states provide information for applicants in numerous languages, including Spanish.

Here's information on filing for unemployment, the information you need to apply, how to file a claim, when you'll receive benefits, and what to do if you have questions.

Key Takeaways

  • Unemployment insurance provides benefits to workers who are unemployed through no fault of their own.
  • Eligibility for unemployment, benefit amounts, and the length of time that benefits are available, are determined by state law.
  • To file a claim, contact your state unemployment department. In most states, claims can be filed online or by phone, fax, or mail.

What Is Unemployment Insurance?

Unemployment insurance is compensation provided to eligible workers who lose their jobs through no fault of their own, providing monetary payments for a specific period of time or until the worker finds a new job.

Benefits are provided by state unemployment insurance programs within guidelines established by federal law. Eligibility for unemployment insurance, benefit amounts, and the length of time that benefits are available, are determined by laws in your state.

Applying online is the quickest and easiest way to file for unemployment. Claims are generally processed much more quickly, so you stand to start receiving benefits sooner than applying by phone or mail.

Who Is Eligible to Receive Unemployment Compensation?

Your state establishes eligibility requirements for unemployment insurance coverage, with primary requirements including having worked for a certain period of time and your job having been lost through circumstances beyond your control, typically a layoff or a furlough.

Typically, you must be considered an employee—as opposed to an independent contractor—at a company that pays into the unemployment insurance fund for your state. Check with your state department of labor for information on qualifying.

Information Needed To Apply for Unemployment

Before you file, check with your state unemployment office to determine the best way to open a claim. Requirements may vary from state to state, but here’s a sampling of the information you will need when filing for unemployment:

  • Your Social Security number.
  • Your driver's license or state ID card number (if you have one).
  • Your complete mailing address, including street, city, state, and zip code.
  • A telephone number where you can be contacted during business hours.
  • If you are not a U.S. citizen, your alien registration card number (if you have a card).
  • The full company names and addresses of all employers that you worked for in the last two years, including employers located in another state.
  • The Employer Registration Number or Federal Employer Identification Number (FEIN) of your most recent employer (if you have either).
  • If you were a federal employee, copies of forms SF8 and SF50 if you had federal employment within the last 18 months.
  • If you’re a service or ex-service member claiming benefits based on your military service, a copy of your most recent separation form DD 214.
  • If you’re unable to print a confirmation of your unemployment claim, have a pen and paper available to write down your claim information.
  • For states allowing (or requiring) direct deposit of your weekly unemployment benefits into your bank account, you must have a check available in order to enter your bank routing and checking account numbers.
  • In states where debit cards are used to provide unemployment benefits, you’ll receive information on the card, how it works, and when you will receive it.

Questions You May Be Asked

  • The unemployment office will want to know the reason you left the job. The primary criteria for unemployment eligibility is being out of work through no fault of your own.
  • You may be asked if you want taxes withheld from your unemployment check.
  • You may also be asked if you’re owed any vacation or holiday pay.

If you quit or if there are questions about your termination, the application process may be more complicated. However, if your claim is denied, there is an appeals process.

File for unemployment online

Colleen Tighe / The Balance

How To File for Unemployment Benefits Online

Filing for unemployment varies by state, but you should be able to file online. In New York, for example, filing for unemployment benefits is relatively simple. Unemployed workers can visit the Unemployment Benefits website to submit a new unemployment claim, claim weekly benefits, or check on the status of an existing unemployment compensation claim. Filing by phone is also an option.

In California, workers can also file an unemployment insurance claim by completing an online form. The site also features a form that can be printed out, completed, and mailed or faxed, as well as a toll-free number you can call to file for unemployment.

Most states have similar options, and each has a website with details on how to apply for unemployment benefits.

How to find your state unemployment office:

  • These sites can be found by searching for "your state name unemployment" via your favorite search engine.
  • Claimants will be asked to create a username and/or password in order to log in to their account to file for unemployment benefits.
  • Carefully follow the instructions for filing in your state to avoid claim delays. You'll receive a confirmation of your claim once your application is processed.

Note

You can visit CareerOneStop to access a directory of state unemployment websites.

Unemployment Waiting Periods

Unemployment insurance waiting periods are 100% state-driven. Many states have what is known as a "waiting period," otherwise referred to as a "waiting week," as part of their unemployment insurance laws.

For example, in New York State, you must serve an unpaid waiting period equivalent to one full week of unemployment benefits before you receive payments. Minnesota has a non-payable waiting week before benefits can be collected. In some locations, the waiting week benefits will be paid, but you will have to wait until the end of the claim period in order to collect those funds.

Based on the state-by-state differential, it's best to check with your state unemployment office website as soon as you lose your job for information regarding the unemployment waiting period in your location.

Unemployment Claim Dates

The state unemployment department will determine your eligibility based on the information received from you and your former employer. The unemployment claim date, or "effective date," is the day on which you are eligible to start receiving benefits against your claim.

This date is used to determine the number of weeks that you are eligible to receive benefits and the start date of your eligibility. 

Filing for Weekly Benefits

Once you’ve filed your initial claim for unemployment benefits, you can access your account each week and apply for benefits, check on the status of the claim to see when payment was made, and review how much unemployment compensation is left in your account.

Mark your calendar with the day you need to file. Payment won't be made unless you file for benefits each week for which you're eligible.

Note

While receiving unemployment, you must be actively willing to work and actively looking for work. The definitions of actively willing to work and actively looking for work also vary by state.

Receiving Unemployment Payments

Unemployment compensation benefits are based on a percentage of your earnings over a recent 52-week period, and each state sets a maximum amount.

Depending on your state, unemployment benefits are paid via check, debit card, or direct deposit. When you file for unemployment, you’ll be able to review and select an option for payments. Payments are made weekly or bi-weekly.

How quickly you'll receive payment depends on your state. In New York, for example, the first payment is typically made in two to three weeks from the time the claim is processed.

Where To File When You Worked in a Different State

If you live in one state and worked in another, or if you have moved, you should generally file your unemployment claim with the state where you worked in.

Note

If you worked in a state other than the one where you live or if you worked in multiple states, the state unemployment office where you now live can provide information about how to file your claim with other states.

Do I Need to Meet with Anyone in Person?

Some states require unemployed workers to meet with the unemployment department representatives to receive help with their job search and/or re-employment assistance.

In many cases, it's a routine meeting designed to assist with your job search, not to put you or your job search under a microscope. 

Your meeting may be an individual meeting or a group meeting with other unemployed workers. It's important to remember to bring records of your work search if you are required to apply for a certain number of jobs each week.

Taxes on Unemployment Benefits

The Internal Revenue Service counts unemployment insurance benefits as income, so your check is taxable. Some states also tax unemployment compensation.

Depending on the state, state and federal income tax can be withheld from your check. Keep all paperwork in order and make sure that you file income taxes, even if you were unemployed for all or most of the year.

Avoid Unemployment Filing Scams

Unemployment benefit scams typically involve websites offering to file for unemployment benefits on your behalf. The sites provide a form for unemployed workers to fill out to supposedly collect unemployment compensation. In other cases, phone calls or emails may be used to solicit personal information from unemployed workers.

However, a third party cannot file for unemployment for you. You’re the only person who can apply for unemployment and your claim has to be filed directly with your state unemployment office. Make sure you're applying directly on your state's unemployment website (the URL of the website will include .gov) before entering any personal information.

Have a Question or Need More Information?

Still have questions about your application or benefits? Contact your state unemployment office. You may find the information you need on the website by accessing the frequently asked questions (FAQ) section or exercising a search option to look for answers to your questions. You can also call the phone number listed on the website for assistance.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What are the reasons an unemployment can claim be rejected?

Some of the reasons that a claim for unemployment might not be approved include voluntarily leaving a job without good cause, being terminated for misconduct, not being able or available to work, refusing an offer of suitable work, or making false statements during the application process.

Can you appeal an unemployment claim denial?

If your claim is turned down by your state’s unemployment insurance department or contested by your employer, you have the right to appeal the denial of your unemployment claim. The process of appealing a claim varies, so check with your state department of labor for guidelines on what to do when your unemployment claim is denied.

Was this page helpful?
Sources
The Balance uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. U.S. Department of Labor. "How Do I File for Unemployment Insurance?"

  2. U.S. Department of Labor. "State Unemployment Insurance Benefits."

  3. CareerOneStop. "Unemployment Benefits."

  4. NYS Department of Labor. "File Your First Claim for Benefits."

  5. U.S. Department of Labor. "Unemployment Compensation for Federal Employees."

  6. U.S. Department of Labor. "Unemployment Compensation for Ex-Service Members."

  7. CA.gov. "Filing an Unemployment Claim."

  8. NYS Department of Labor. "After You've Applied For Unemployment Frequently Asked Questions."

  9. Minnesota Unemployment Insurance. "Your First Payment."

  10. Internal Revenue Service. "Topic No. 418 Unemployment Compensation."

  11. U.S. Department of Justice. "Justice Department Warns About Fake Unemployment Benefit Websites."

  12. CareerOneStop. "What If I'm Denied?"

Related Articles