New claims for US unemployment insurance benefits rose slightly last week but the overall trend headed lower as the job market slowly improves,  government data released today showed.

First-time jobless claims totalled a seasonally adjusted 326,000 in the week ending January 18, the Labor Department said.

That marked an increase of 1,000 claims from the prior week's 325,000, revised down by 1,000.

The four-week moving average, which helps to smooth the volatility of the weekly numbers, fell by 3,750 claims to 331,500. A year ago, the average stood at 343,000.

After weeks of volatility largely due to seasonal factors related to the year-end holidays in November and December, the claims numbers suggested a stabilisation in the numbers. 

The total number of people claiming any unemployment benefits fell by more than a million to 3.7 million in the week ending January 4.

The sharp drop reflected the expiration of emergency unemployment benefits - that extended the standard 26-week safety net - on January 1.

The unemployment rate fell to 6.7% in December from 7% in November as people continued to drop out of the labour force.