How to Apply for Unemployment Benefits in the U.S.

If you are a U.S. citizen who has recently become unemployed, you may qualify for unemployment benefits.

Unemployment benefits are temporary income from the government. The Unemployment Insurance (UI) program of the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) is a federal program that provides these cash benefits. In order to receive unemployment compensation, you must meet certain eligibility requirements as determined by the DOL and your state’s UI agency.

While the DOL establishes general guidelines regarding the program’s management, each state is responsible for determining which workers meet UI eligibility requirements for benefits and how much compensation they will receive. There may be different methods of application and processes for maintaining these benefits. Therefore, it is pertinent that you learn how to apply for unemployment insurance in your state.

Most states allow you to file an unemployment claim quickly and conveniently online. However, there are states that offer various application methods, such as mail-in applications and filing a claim by phone. If you would like to apply for unemployment benefits in the U.S., read the following sections:

  • How do I apply for unemployment benefits in the U.S.?
  • Gathering Important Documentation to File an Unemployment Claim
  • Where to Apply for Unemployment Benefits in the U.S.
  • Meeting Additional Requirements to Maintain UI Benefits

How do I apply for unemployment benefits in the U.S.?

To receive unemployment compensation, you must apply for UI benefits in the state where you were previously employed. If you recently moved to another state or have worked in multiple states, your current state’s unemployment insurance agency can provide you with information on how to claim benefits in these states.

Filing an unemployment claim in the U.S. is simple and generally requires that you follow these steps:

  1. Before filing an unemployment claim with your respective state’s UI agency, be sure that you meet your state’s UI requirements. Generally, you must have lost your job due to no fault of your own and you must be willing and able to work.
  2. Gather the necessary documentation and information prior to filing your claim. To ensure that the process is not delayed and you receive your cash benefits as quickly as possible, it is important that all the information gathered is accurate.
  3. As soon as you become unemployed, file an unemployment claim with your state’s UI agency. Keep in mind that there is a mandatory waiting period after filing a claim before you can receive benefits. This typically is one week from the time you initially filed your claim.
  4. Apply for unemployment compensation online, by mail or over the phone, depending on how your state handles UI procedures.
  5. Expect to receive your cash benefits in two to three weeks.
  6. Continue to meet all the requirements to maintain UI benefits in your state.
  7. If you believe you are wrongfully denied unemployment compensation, you may appeal the decision in a designated time frame.

Gathering Important Documentation to File a UI Claim

Before you can apply for unemployment benefits in your state, you must gather the appropriate documentation and information to file a claim. While some states allow you to file an initial claim without certain documentation, you will be required to provide these items before you can receive cash benefits.

Because this can delay your UI benefits, it is recommended that you submit all required information as soon as possible. To process your claim, your UI agency may need the following:

  • Your full name, address and telephone
  • Your Social Security Number (SSN) or Alien Registration card number
  • Proof of identity and citizenship, such as your driver’s license or state ID card
  • Your contact information, such as your mailing address and phone number
  • Information about your former employment in the past 18 months, such as:
    • All employers’ names, addresses and phone numbers
    • Exact dates of your employment with each employer
    • Reason for unemployment
    • Amount of gross wage earned from your employments

Keep in mind that the documentation and information needed to process your claim may vary by state. It is important you provide information that is accurate and up-to-date to avoid a delay or denial of benefits. Your unemployment agency may contact you requesting additional documentation or information to verify the validity and authenticity of your claim.

Where to Apply for Unemployment Benefits in the U.S.

After you collect the necessary items to complete the unemployment registration process, you will be ready to apply for UI benefits in your state. If you are wondering where to file an initial claim for unemployment, each state has different methods in which you can apply for UI benefits.

Most states allow you to complete the process online through the state’s UI agency website. Although, there are some states that allow you to apply for benefits over the phone, by mail or fax. Online is typically the fastest and most convenient way to file a claim and remain up-to-date with the status of your application. If you are filing a claim over the phone, most states have designated hours and days in which you can call their toll-free numbers.

Meeting Additional Requirements to Maintain UI Benefits

After you file your initial UI benefits claim, you will need to meet additional requirements to receive your cash benefits and maintain benefits on a continuous basis. Most states require that you register for work through a local workforce center and that you file weekly or biweekly claims that prove you are meeting work search requirements. This may include participating in work search activities, such as job fairs or adding your resume to an online job board.

Certain states may request additional verification. For example, you must verify your identity in Colorado by completing a Verification of Personal Information form. Otherwise, you are generally required to report all hours worked and the amount of gross wages earned through work.

Additionally, you may be required to keep a record of job contacts. There are numerous resources that can help you find a job in the United States. In some states, such as Iowa, you will be required to make a certain amount of job contacts per week to maintain benefits. If you fail to meet work search requirements or file timely claims, you risk losing UI benefits. 

Note: You may lose or be denied UI benefits if you refuse an offer of suitable work.