How Do I File for Unemployment?

How Do I File for Unemployment? article image.

For the most up-to-date information on current unemployment benefits and rules, see How Unemployment Benefits Are Changing in 2021.


Unemployment insurance can be a vital tool if you've found yourself abruptly out of work. These benefits are funded by the states and the federal government and are given to people who've lost their jobs. Each state has its own unemployment agency, so the process and requirements for filing for these benefits will vary depending on where you live.

In response to the unprecedented impact of COVID-19 (coronavirus)—which has at least temporarily shuttered many businesses and left millions of Americans out of work—the president recently signed into law the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, a $2.2 trillion economic stimulus package that, among other things, expands unemployment benefits. The new law extends the period of time Americans can receive unemployment, expands the eligibility criteria to include freelancers and gig workers, and gives an additional $600 per week to everyone who receives benefits.

Who Is Eligible for Unemployment Insurance?

Eligibility requirements differ by state, but generally you'll need to meet these three conditions in order to receive unemployment benefits:

  • You're unemployed by no fault of your own. This means if your employer laid you off for financial reasons—like downsizing, closure or general lack of work—you could be eligible for unemployment benefits. Generally, if you quit or are fired from your job, you will not be eligible for benefits.
  • You were recently employed. Your unemployment benefits are based on your past income, and to qualify, you'll need to have earned wages for a certain "base period" of time. For example, in many states, you'll need to have earned wages for around a year. If you've worked in multiple states, or earned wages for less than the required period of time, you may still be eligible under alternate programs offered by your state. Check with your state's unemployment office for full details on your wage eligibility.
  • 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. Check with your state to find out if they have additional requirements for eligibility.

In addition to initially qualifying for benefits, most states require that you continue to file for benefits on a regular basis. That means you will have to file with the employment agency every one to two weeks, during which time you'll have to report any income you've earned and any job offers you've received. Most states require unemployment benefit recipients to prove they are actively searching for a new job, which may require a report outlining their job search efforts be submitted.

As part of the CARES Act, the list of eligible workers has been temporarily expanded to include people who would not usually be able to receive benefits. This new list makes the following workers eligible to receive unemployment benefits:

  • Self-employed
  • Independent contractors
  • Furloughed workers
  • Employees of religious institutions
  • Workers and caregivers affected by the coronavirus

Steps for Applying for Unemployment

If you've lost your job and want to apply for unemployment, first contact your state's unemployment agency to see what information you'll need to provide. In most states, applications can be submitted online, over the phone and in person. Typically, you'll need to provide your Social Security number, contact information and details about your former employer.

It's recommended you apply for benefits as soon as you've lost your job. Many states have a mandatory waiting period of about a week during which you won't receive any benefits. This means if you wait to apply for unemployment, it could be several weeks before you receive your first benefits check.

After submitting your application, the unemployment office will verify your past employment information and will calculate your benefits based on past earned wages. They may contact you during this period of time to submit additional information.

How Long Can I Collect Unemployment?

In most states, people who are out of work can collect unemployment benefits for 26 weeks. Only a few exceptions exist, including Montana, which allows you to collect unemployment insurance for 28 weeks, and Idaho, Missouri, Arkansas, Alabama, Florida, South Carolina and North Carolina, which provide benefits for less than the national norm—some as briefly as 12 weeks. Check your state's unemployment office's website to see how many weeks of unemployment are available where you live.

In addition to the 26 weeks given by most states, the CARES Act extended this time period and made unemployed workers eligible for an extra 13 weeks of benefits. This extended timeline is intended to give unemployed Americans extra wiggle room as they continue to manage the impact of COVID-19.

Does Unemployment Hurt Credit?

Collecting unemployment benefits does not impact your credit scores and will not be recorded in your credit reports. In fact, your history of receiving unemployment benefits is not 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 in advance and you may be eligible for certain relief programs.

To help those who have become unemployed or had their income reduced as a result of COVID-19, Experian has put together a list of resources that may be able to help during this time.