The number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment benefits unexpectedly fell last week, a hopeful sign for the labor market recovery.

Initial claims for state unemployment benefits dropped 23,000 to a seasonally adjusted 298,000, declining for a third straight week, the Labor Department said on Thursday.

Claims for the prior week were revised to show 5,000 more applications received than previously reported.

Economists polled by Reuters had expected first-time applications to rise to 325,000 last week.

The four-week moving average for new claims, which irons out week-to-week volatility, fell 10,750 to 322,250.

A Labor Department analyst said no states had been estimated and there were no special factors influencing the report. However, he noted that adjusting the data for seasonal fluctuations around this time of the year remained a challenge.

Last week's report covered the Thanksgiving holiday, which could have had some impact on the reading.

The claims report has no bearing on November's employment report as it falls outside the survey period. Coming on the heels of a report on Wednesday showing a pickup in private sector hiring, it bodes well for the labor market.

The government is expected to report on Friday that nonfarm payrolls increased 180,000 last month and the unemployment rate fell to 7.2 percent from 7.3 percent, according to a Reuters survey of economists.

The claims report showed the number of people still receiving benefits under regular state programs after an initial week of aid fell 21,000 to 2.74 million in the week ended Nov. 16. That was the lowest level since December 2007.