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Conditions for offering signing bonus

Hi all,

I am curious about under what circumstances firms offer signing bonus or agree to add signing bonus. My guess is it is used for:

1) a substitute for a higher salary

2) an extra motivation to the job seeker for accepting offer from firm A instead of B when he/she is in high demand

Are there other situations? Or is it a quite usual now for big four to offer a signing bonus that goes with an offer?

Also, if I am unemployed (between the jobs) when receiving an offer, will I still have a chance to get a signing bonus? Or I shouldn't bother to ask for it at all?

Thanks for your input! I really appreciate it.