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Can a freelance artist claim unemployment benefits?

As a freelance artist, there are a few parts to this question. This is because the employment rights of the self-employed are different from those of the employed. But don’t worry, we’re here to help!

At a time like the pandemic, this question is super-prevalent, so here are a few things to consider:

  1. Have you registered as self-employed and paid taxes on your income?
  2. Are you a full-time freelance artist?
  3. How long have you been freelance?

Are you registered as self-employed?

Freelance artists that earn over a certain amount must declare their income to HMRC. This is the case whether you’re working on art full-time or whether it’s a side-gig.

Either way, to be eligible to claim state-provided support, you need to have been paying certain taxes for at least the previous two tax years. 

Read more about the tax year here.  

As a freelance artist, you will owe both Income Tax and National Insurance. National Insurance entitles you to state benefits such as the Job Seeker’s Allowance (JSA), but you can only qualify with certain types of National Insurance:

National Insurance typeEligible for JSA?Paid by
Class 1 National InsuranceYEmployed
Class 1A/B National InsuranceNEmployed
Class 2 National InsuranceNSelf-employed
Class 3 National InsuranceNEmployed
Class 4 National InsuranceNSelf-employed

Are you a full-time freelance artist?

If you work on art as a side-gig to full-time employment, you can absolutely apply for unemployment benefits if your situation changes. However, you must bear in mind that:

  • Your income from freelance art cannot be enough to sustain a liveable income
  • You will not need to de-register as self-employed (if you’ve previously registered for Self Assessment)
  • You will need to meet the following conditions:
    • You’re both able and available to work
    • You’re genuinely seeking employment

For full-time freelance artists, the rules are a little different. Full-time employees pay Class 1 National Insurance contributions through their salary, making them eligible for the Job Seeker’s Allowance (JSA). In comparison, the self-employed workforce pay Class 2 and 4 National Insurance which qualifies you for other state benefits, but not JSA.

You may, however, still be eligible if:

  • You’ve made voluntary Class 1 National Insurance contributions
  • You’re no longer self-employed (not by choice and not a seasonal break)
  • You’re available for full-time work
  • You work less than 16 hours a week

How long have you been self-employed?

The amount of time that you’ve been self-employed is important. You will need to have paid at least two tax years of (voluntary) Class 1 National Insurance contributions to be eligible to claim.

The tax year runs from 6th April to 5th April. 

There are three types of Jobseeker’s Allowance available. Click the links below to understand them in more detail:

  1. ‘New Style’ – based on Class 1 NI
  2. Contribution-based – based on Class 1 NI
  3. Income-based

Can I claim income-based JSA as a freelance artist?

You can potentially claim. Here’s what you need to be eligible:

  • You’re 18 or over (there are some exceptions if you’re 16 or 17 – contact Jobcentre Plus for advice)
  • You cannot be older than the State Pension age – check yours here
  • You’re not in full-time education
  • You’re residing in England, Scotland or Wales
  • You are available for work
  • You’re either not working or you work less than 16 hours per week
  • You don’t have an illness or disability that stops you from working
  • You’re either single, or have a partner who works less than 24 hours a week
  • You and your partner (together) have £16,000 or less in savings

Be aware that the income-based JSA is means tested so unfortunately, support is not guaranteed.

How much could I claim?

Every two weeks, you can claim the following amounts:

  • Claim up to £57.90 (if you’re up to 24)
  • Up to £73.10 (if you’re 25 or over)
  • Up to £114.85 (if you’re a couple and both over 18)

Is there relief during COVID-19?

Yes, there is. The UK government has provided support for self-employed workers during the months of the pandemic where many businesses faced slumps.

If you paid your 2018/19 tax bill before 23rd April 2020, you can apply for up to £6,570 in August 2020.


Read more about how the Self-employment income support scheme works here.

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