How to File for Unemployment Benefits

by Team eLocal
Unemployment benefits application

Losing your job is a shock and can throw a major wrench into your financial and personal plans. Unplanned job loss may leave you wondering how to pay the bills and what to do next.

Finding out how to file for unemployment benefits is a smart first step.

Who Qualifies for Unemployment?

Unemployment benefits are available in every state to help qualifying workers and are generally available to people who lose a job through no fault of their own. For example, you may be eligible for unemployment if your employer terminates your position due to budget cuts or reduced need for workers.

Employees fired due to misconduct — such as repeatedly missing work or stealing from their company — don't qualify for unemployment. Employees who quit their jobs also aren't eligible for unemployment benefits. However, there are a few exceptions. Constructive termination can happen if an employer substantially changes the job requirements or compensation, fails to meet payment obligations or creates an unsafe work environment. In these situations, a worker who quits may still qualify for benefits.

Employment History Requirements

A person must have adequate employment history to qualify for benefits. Historically, you needed to have been an employee of a company, not a contract worker. However, new federal laws make benefits available to some independent contractors and self-employed persons.

Additional qualification requirements often include:

  • Having recently worked in the state where applying for benefits
  • Meeting the state's base period conditions, which require beneficiaries to have earned a set amount of wages or worked a certain number of hours within the state
  • Actively seeking new employment

These guidelines ensure benefits go to people who have recently completed significant work within the state and are looking for new employment. Some jurisdictions may impose additional requirements.

Federal Unemployment Benefits

Federal unemployment benefits are available to certain federal employees and ex-service members. The requirements for these benefits are similar to those for other unemployment benefits.

How Do You File for Unemployment?

Generally, you should apply for unemployment as soon as possible after losing your job. Depending on your state, you may be able to file in person, online or by telephone.

Where Do I File?

Unemployment applications need to be filed with the unemployment office in the state where you worked. If you no longer live in that state, worked in more than one place or aren't sure where to file, you can contact your local unemployment office for help. The Department of Labor provides a list of state unemployment offices, phone numbers and other contact information. The state office will have information on where to send your application or a link to apply online.

Filling Out the Application

Whether you apply online, by paper or over the phone, you'll need to provide information about the job you lost. Required information includes:

  • Your contact information
  • Contact information for the employer
  • Type of work you did
  • Reason for termination
  • Dates of employment
  • Wage information
  • Legal information about the employer

Many applications will include space to provide additional information or explain your answer to a question. All applications must be signed or affirmed under penalty of perjury.


Many times, unemployment claims are straightforward and will be approved without trouble. Other times, an employer might contest an unemployment claim, alleging that you quit or were fired for cause. And in some cases, the unemployment office might determine that you haven't met eligibility requirements.

If you disagree, you have the option to file an appeal. Information on filing an appeal is available from your state unemployment office. Occasionally, a hearing will be needed to determine whether you can receive benefits.

How Much Compensation Will I Receive?

Most states have unemployment benefits equal to around 50% of a person's average weekly wage during a 12-month period. However, states also cap the amount, and this cap can vary significantly. For example, Colorado benefits max out at $700 per week while California maxes out at $450 per week.

Beneficiaries are usually permitted to work part-time and still receive benefits, so long as they're searching for full-time work. However, states may reduce benefits by the amount earned at a part-time job.

When Will I Receive Benefits?

Unemployment compensation is paid once a claim is approved, which can take three to six weeks. Payments are usually made every week or every two weeks.

Unemployment is only temporary income while you look for a new job. Payments usually continue for 26 weeks or until you're employed more than 32 hours per week, whichever happens first.

Do I Owe Taxes on Unemployment Benefits?

Yes, you must pay both state and federal income tax on your benefits. Most states automatically withhold state taxes and offer the option to have federal income taxes withheld as well. If you don't have taxes withheld, you must be prepared to pay them when you file the applicable tax return.

Some Other Things to Know About the Unemployment Filing Process

Federal law requires all states to participate in an unemployment insurance program. Unemployment benefits are handled jointly between the Department of Labor and individual states, but each state can set many of its own guidelines and processes. Therefore, it's crucial for applicants to check the application requirements for the state in which they're applying for benefits.

Also, be aware that you'll be required to look for new full-time employment to continue receiving approved benefits. Because unemployment is meant to be a temporary benefit while you find new work, the state will require you to make job search efforts while receiving benefits. Many states require you to keep a log of your job search efforts and periodically provide it to the unemployment office.


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