The figures will increase the pressure on George Osborne, the finance minister, to take measures to boost growth and jobs when he presents his 2012/13 budget next week, at a time when t he economy is struggling to show sustainable recovery.
The Office for National Statistics said that the number of people claiming jobless benefit rose by 7,200 - slightly more than economists had forecast - to a 1.612 million in February, the highest since November 2009.
Unemployment slipped to 2.666 million for the November-January period from 2.671 million in the the three months to December, but the overall rate held at 8.4%, the highest since late 1995.
Britain's rate is slightly lower than the EU-27 unemployment rate, which stood at 10.1 % in January compared with 10.0 % in December 2011, according to Eurstat. The jobless rate was 9.5 % in January 2011.
Osborne is all but certain next week to stick to his five-year austerity programme which aims to largely eliminate Britain's budget deficit.
A major plank of this involves reducing the level of public sector employment, and hoping that the private sector will take up the slack.
Separate government figures released on Wednesday showed that this was being partially successful. Public sector employment in the fourth quarter fell by 37,000 to 5.942 million, its lowest since June 2003. Total public sector employment is 270,000 lower than a year earlier, compared to a 226,000 increase in private sector jobs over the fourth quarter of last year.
The politically sensitive number of young people without a job rose to 1.042 million in the three months to January, taking the unemployment rate for 16- to 24-year-olds to 22.5%, the highest since record began in 1992.
Across the EU, 5.507 million people under 25 were unemployed in January, the Eurstat figures show, for a rate of 22.4%. The lowest youth jobless rates were in Germany (7.8 %), Austria (8.9 %) and the Netherlands (9.0 %) and the highest in Spain (49.9 %), Greece (48.1 % in November) and Slovakia (36.0 %).
The government has been relying on private firms to create enough employment to make up for the estimated 700,000 jobs it is cutting in the public sector as part of its austerity programme, aimed at erasing the country's huge budget deficit over the next five years.