How to Claim Unemployment Benefits

Step-by-step guide to collecting unemployment

Businessman laid off from a job
Photo: sesame / Getty Images

If you've lost your job, you may be eligible to collect unemployment benefits. Unemployment insurance provides workers who are unemployed through no fault of their own with monetary payments for a specific period or until they find new jobs.

Collecting Unemployment Benefits

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 benefits are available are determined by state law.

How to File a Claim for Unemployment

You may be able to file for unemployment online or over the phone. Review the information you will need to open a claim, then visit your state unemployment office to determine the best way to open a claim and begin collecting unemployment.

In general, to file a claim, you will need:

  • Social Security Number
  • Alien Registration Card if you're not a U.S. citizen
  • Driver's license or State ID card number
  • Mailing address including zip code
  • Phone number
  • Names, addresses, and dates of employment for all employers for the last two years

It generally takes a few weeks after your claim to receive your first benefit check, direct deposit, or debit card. Some states require a one-week waiting period; therefore, the second week claimed is the first week of payment.

Once your claim is approved, you should be able to file your weekly claims online, by phone or mail.

State Unemployment Benefits

Details on eligibility for state unemployment compensation are available on the state unemployment office website where you live.

Regular unemployment benefits are paid for up to a maximum of 26 weeks (less in some states). In many states, the compensation will be half your earnings, up to a maximum amount. The maximum varies by location. Benefits are subject to federal income taxes and must be reported on your federal income tax return.

The compensation you receive will depend upon the amount you earned while working, and you also may be required to have worked a certain number of weeks.

Extended Unemployment Benefits

During periods of high unemployment, additional weeks of unemployment benefits may be available. Benefits are provided through the state unemployment offices, and eligibility information will be posted and updated online regularly. If you qualify, you will be advised on how to collect when your regular unemployment benefits end.


You can file for unemployment benefits online. Your state unemployment office will have information on how to start a claim and collect regular and extended benefits.

Unemployment Eligibility Requirements

To receive unemployment compensation, you must meet the unemployment eligibility requirements for wages earned or time worked during an established period.

You may be able to collect partial unemployment benefits if your work schedule is cut back. Also, in either case, you must be determined to be unemployed through no fault of your own.

If you are an unemployed former civilian federal employee, you may be eligible for benefits under the Unemployment Compensation for Federal Employees (UCFE) program. You can file a claim if you have been separated from your public sector job, placed into a non-paid status, or transferred to a different payroll office.

This illustration describes why you may not qualify for unemployment benefits including "Quit without good cause," "Were fired for misconduct," "Resigned because of illness (check on disability benefits)," "Left to get married," "Are/were involved in a labor dispute," and "Are attending school."
The Balance / Maddy Price

Disqualification From Benefits

The following circumstances may disqualify you from collecting unemployment benefits, depending on state law:

  • Quit without good cause
  • Fired for misconduct
  • Resigned because of illness (check on disability benefits)
  • Left to get married
  • Self-employed
  • Involved in a labor dispute
  • Attending school

State Requirements for Collecting Benefits

Registering with the state job service and actively seeking work is a requirement while collecting unemployment. You must be ready, willing, available and able to work. The job service may require job seekers to apply for jobs, submit resumes, and not turn down a position if it meets specific standards.


Some of the requirements for collecting benefits have been waived due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Your state job service offices can be excellent resources to assist with a job search. Many free services are offered, including job listings, career counseling, resume and cover letter writing help, and training. Take advantage of the help they can give you; it will make your job search easier.

Suitable Employment Requirements

The definition of suitable employment varies from state to state. However, it generally refers to a job that offers wages comparable to your recent employment and duties that fit your education level and work experience. Other factors include commuting time, as well as any potential health or safety risks to the job.

Some states define suitable work as anything related to any secondary skill you have, even if the work is not directly related to your previous experience. For example, in New York, suitable work is defined as a job within one hour's transportation, within 80% of the claimant’s previous earnings, and where the pay is the prevailing rate for that work.

Also, suitable work in New York is defined as a job for which you are reasonably fitted by training or experience. A new job doesn’t need to fit the duties of your previous one perfectly.

Other states consider even more factors when defining suitable pay. In California, the unemployment office also considers “the degree of risk involved” in the job, as well as factors such as the person’s physical fitness, experience, prior earnings, and length of unemployment.


After a certain amount of benefit weeks, some states expand the definition of suitable work.

For example, after a specified period of looking, suitable work might become more loosely defined as any work you can perform—even if you have no experience or training (so long as some training is provided to you).

Here's more information on whether you can turn down a job offer when you're unemployed.

How to Contact an Unemployment Office

To find your local unemployment office and other helpful information, visit your state unemployment agency website.

It can be hard to get through to an unemployment office on the phone. Most states want claimants to file online, and it can be difficult to locate a phone number if you have a question or need to talk to a representative about your claim.

However, in some situations, the only way to get a definitive answer or clarification is to talk to an actual person. The FAQ sections of most state unemployment websites don't cover all circumstances, and unemployment claims can be complicated.


Phone numbers are usually listed in the "Contact Us" section of your state unemployment office website.

A quick and easy way to find a telephone number or email address for your unemployment office is to search Google using your state's name, unemployment office, and phone number. For example, searching Google for "New York unemployment phone" brings you directly to the contact information page for the NYS Department of Labor's Unemployment Insurance contact page.

If English is not your first language, some states have telephone claims lines in other languages. California provides separate phone numbers for English, Spanish, Cantonese, Mandarin, and Vietnamese. If available, information on alternative phone numbers also will be listed on the contact page for the unemployment office.

The information contained in this article is not legal advice and is not a substitute for such advice. State and federal laws change frequently, and the information in this article may not reflect your own state’s laws or the most recent changes to the law.

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  1. CareerOneStop. "How Do I Apply?"

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

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

  4. New York State Department of Labor. "Work Search: Frequently Asked Questions."

  5. California Employment Development Department. "Suitable Work."

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