How To File for Unemployment Benefits

Your Guide for Securing Temporary Income

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Losing a job is always stressful, and trying to balance looking for work with paying the bills can be overwhelming. Fortunately, if you’ve recently been laid off, you have options when it comes to receiving unemployment benefits. Here, we break down what those options are, how the system works, and how you can make sure to get the money you deserve. 

What Is Unemployment Insurance?

Unemployment insurance was first created in 1935 by the signing of the Social Security Act. Its purpose is to offer stability to the newly unemployed while they look for work. Employers pay into the unemployment insurance program via a combination of state and federal taxes, and in most states, you can receive up to 26 weeks of benefits—though there are a few exceptions. Extensions can also be made in times of high unemployment to give you an additional 13 weeks of benefits. 

How Do Unemployment Benefits Work?

Although the unemployment insurance program is a joint state-federal operation, filing for your unemployment benefits varies by state.


Depending on where you live, you can file in person, online, or by phone. 

It’s also important to know that in most cases, you’ll need to complete your claim in the state in which you worked. For example, if you reside in Maryland but your work location was in Pennsylvania, you’ll need to file for your unemployment benefits in Pennsylvania. There may be exceptions to this rule, however, so you’ll need to check with your state for information on how and where to apply. 

Typically speaking, the time from the day you file your claim to the day you first begin receiving benefits is about two to three weeks. Keep in mind that the current situation has changed that timeline, though, and you may experience a significant delay in processing, as the number of claims remains high. 

Who’s Eligible for Unemployment?

Not everyone who loses their job is eligible for unemployment. Generally speaking, there are several criteria you’ll need to meet in order to qualify for benefits: 

  • You must have been made unemployed through no fault of your own. The meaning of this varies by state, but, for example, if you were fired rather than laid off, you likely won’t qualify. The same goes for if you quit, unless there are extenuating circumstances. 
  • You must meet the minimum requirements for time and wages earned as dictated by your state. In practice, this means that if you were unemployed for an extended period, got a job, worked for a short time, and then were laid off, you won’t qualify. 
  • Some states have additional requirements, which you can find online. 

What Do I Need To File for Unemployment Benefits?

In order to submit a claim for unemployment, you’ll need to prepare a variety of documents. Again, these vary by state, but typically you’ll need these items:

  • Identity documents: These include your driver’s license, passport, or permanent resident card.
  • Information on all your employers from the last 18 months: This is data such as company name, address, phone number, dates of employment, and your supervisor’s names. 
  • Wages earned, hours worked, and how you were paid, whether hourly, monthly, etc.

What Should I Do While Receiving Benefits?

Unemployment benefits are meant to be a stopgap, so it’s important to make sure you have a plan for moving forward. There are several things you can do to land on your feet when your benefits end.

Keep Looking for Work

Some states, such as California, require proof of job searching in order to qualify for unemployment. Many states also have a cap on the amount of benefits you can receive per month, which may be significantly lower than your regular earnings. This makes it even more important to find a new job before your benefits run out. 

Budget Conservatively

It should go without saying, but plan to spend less while you’re unemployed. Focus on keeping a budget that accounts for necessities, and lessen the amount you allot for discretionary activities like eating out. It’s smarter to save as much as you can, in case your job search doesn’t go the way you plan.  

Stay Informed

While unemployment benefits typically last for up to 26 weeks, there are times when they can be extended. An additional 13 weeks of unemployment is available in times of high unemployment, though some states have enacted a program to give you a further seven weeks beyond that extension, for a total of 20 extra weeks of benefits. 

In addition, the federal government has enacted a bill that can increase your maximum weekly unemployment pay by hundreds of dollars. The current law grants an additional $300 per week for up to 11 weeks, but there are plans to increase this to $400. Although you should automatically receive these benefits, it’s important to keep track of updated information to ensure you’re getting everything you deserve.

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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. "Unemployment Insurance Fact Sheet."

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

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

  4. U.S. Department of Labor. "How Do I File for Unemployment?"

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