How to File for Unemployment

Quick Answer

You can usually file for unemployment online, over the phone or in person. The specific steps will depend on which state you live in. But, if you qualify, you can expect to answer questions about yourself, your employment history and why you’re out of work.

Woman researching unemployment assistance

If you lose your job, unemployment benefits can give you extra money for necessities while you look for work. Every state has its own unemployment agency, requirements and application process. But they're often similar enough that the following overview will give you a good idea of what to expect.

Am I Eligible for Unemployment?

Unemployment eligibility requirements differ by state. However, at a minimum, you may need to meet several conditions to qualify for unemployment benefits:

  • You're unemployed by no fault of your own. Often, this means that your employer laid you off for financial reasons, like downsizing, closure or a lack of work. You might not be eligible for benefits if you quit or are fired, but there may be exceptions if you had a good cause for quitting or were fired in the absence of any misconduct on your part.
  • You were recently employed. Depending on your state requirements, you may need to have worked enough hours or earned enough money during a "base period" of time—often, the first four of the last five completed months. Sometimes there are alternative or extended base periods for people who don't qualify based on the standard eligibility requirements.
  • You meet additional state requirements. Some states will have additional criteria that you'll need to meet before you can be approved for unemployment benefits. For example, many states require you to prove that you can work and are actively searching for a new job. Check with your state to find out if they have additional requirements for eligibility.

In addition to initially qualifying for benefits, most states require you to check in or submit status reports every one to two weeks to request additional benefits.

How to Apply for Unemployment

The application and requirements for filing an initial unemployment claim will depend on where you live, but the overall process is often similar. If you worked in a different state from where you're currently living, or worked in more than one state, you'll want to start with the state where you live now.

Some state unemployment insurance agencies have video walkthroughs, guides and FAQs that you can use. But here's what you can generally expect:

  1. Review your state's eligibility requirements. Choose your state from the map on to see the link to your state's unemployment agency. Look over your state's eligibility requirements to see if you'll likely qualify.
  2. Gather the required information. Look over your state's specific requirements to see what information you'll need to provide. Typically, this includes your Social Security number, contact information, the reason you're not working and details about your recent employment and employers.
  3. Apply quickly and wait to hear back. In most states, you can apply online, over the phone or in person. You may want to apply as soon as you've lost your job as the unemployment office needs to review your application and calculate your benefit amount before you can be approved. You may be contacted for additional information during this process. After approval, many states have a mandatory waiting period of about a week before you receive benefits. This means if you wait to apply, it could be several weeks before you receive benefits.
  4. Start looking for work. You may have to actively look for work and document your job search to remain eligible for unemployment benefits. Your state may require you to register for its job search website and offer templates or guides for documenting your search.
  5. Submit follow-up claims. Once approved, you may have to submit weekly or biweekly claims to continue receiving unemployment benefits. In addition to sharing proof that you're searching for work, you may need to answer questions about your current eligibility and any recent income you earned.

How Long Can I Collect Unemployment?

In most states, you can collect unemployment benefits for up to 26 weeks. But there are a few exceptions.

Massachusetts and Montana offer residents a potentially longer benefits period, 30 and 28 weeks, respectively. There are also 12 states that have shorter periods—Florida, North Carolina and Kentucky have the shortest at 12 weeks.

You can check your state's unemployment office website to see how many weeks of unemployment are available where you live. States may also change the number based on the unemployment rate in the state and federal programs, such as the benefits expansion in response to the pandemic. And, in some states, your timeline for benefits might be lower than the state's maximum based on your previous earnings.

Does Unemployment Affect Credit?

Your credit report doesn't contain information about your income or employment status, and collecting unemployment benefits does not impact your credit scores. In fact, your history of receiving unemployment benefits isn't a public record and can only be disclosed in certain situations.

Being unemployed, however, may mean a reduction in income, which can make it difficult to cover all of your debt payments. Late and missed payments can negatively impact credit scores, so it's important to do everything you can to pay your bills on time.

If you think you may miss a payment, contact your creditors to see if they can offer you a hardship or relief program. You can also look for other types of financial assistance, such as help paying utility bills, that might free up money for loan or credit card payments.

The Bottom Line

Looking for a new job is rarely fun, but you can navigate the process by preparing your resume and starting to browse jobs. You can also get free copies of your credit reports if you're unemployed and looking for work. And Experian offers everyone a free credit report, credit score and ongoing credit monitoring.

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