As a fast-paced and dynamic sport, basketball requires clear communication between players, coaches, and officials. Referee signals play an important role in this communication. By using these gestures, you ensure that everyone on the court is aware of important decisions and calls, resulting in a fair and smooth game.

Our goal here is to explore how basketball referee signals contribute to the overall game experience, by breaking down their meanings and significance.

Basketball Referee Signals

basketball referee signals

Violation Signals:

A violation will always be signaled by a referee blowing their whistle and raising an open hand in the air before the referee blows his whistle and signals that the violation has occurred.

A dead ball is signaled by the open hand in the air.

The referee then gives his or her signal, and the ball is then taken out of bounds in order for the game to resume.

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1. Traveling

A traveling violation occurs when a player moves his or her feet illegally.

In order to signal a traveling, the referee will move both arms in a circle in front of their faces.

2. Double Dribble

Dribbling the ball, picking it up, and dribbling it again constitutes a double dribble.

Double dribbles are signified by the referee moving his or her hands up and down alternately to indicate they have occurred.

3. Carrying the Basketball

If a player places his hand under the basketball while dribbling, then continues to dribble, it is considered a carrying violation.

The official will use one hand to signal a carry several times by flipping it from palm up to palm down.

4. Kicking

There is no such thing as intentionally kicking a basketball in basketball.

A whistle will be blown by the official if they do so.

Referees point at their feet to indicate a kick has occurred.

5. Out of Bounds

Any ball that touches a court line or anywhere outside those lines is out of bounds.

Players standing on a line or outside are also out of bounds if the ball touches them.

By pointing toward the basket of the team taking possession when the ball goes out of bounds, a referee indicates whose ball it is.

6. Jump Ball

A jump ball is played between players on both teams who possess the basketball.

Jump balls are signaled by the referee giving two thumbs up above their heads.

7. Over-and-Back [Backcourt Violation]

An over-and-back violation occurs when a team in possession of the ball in the frontcourt passes the ball into the backcourt with no defense touching it.

Referees move their hands from side to side as if they are crossing a line with their palms down.

A player has crossed the half-court line and completed an over-and-back.

8. 3-Second Violation

The closest area to the basket measures 12×16 feet, and players are allowed only three seconds in the paint.

Referees will call a 3-second violation if a player spends more than three seconds in the paint.

Referees signal this violation by pointing three fingers at their side and swiping their hand back and forth.

9. 5-Second Violation

It takes five seconds for a team to throw the ball inbounds when taking out the ball.

Refs will call 5-second violations if they take more than five seconds.

One of the referee’s hands will be extended with five fingers, as a simple signal.

10. 8-Second Violation

It takes a team 8 seconds to cross the half-court line with the ball in the backcourt.

The referee calls an 8-second violation if they take longer than that.

(Most young leagues use 10 seconds instead of 8)

An eight-finger signal is given by the referee for this violation.

11. 24-Second Violation

A shot clock will provide teams with 24 seconds on each possession in a league that uses one (some leagues use longer shot clocks).

The referee will call a 24-second violation if the team fails to shoot within this time frame.

Tap the referee’s shoulder with one hand using the same arm.

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The fouling signals are as follows:

basketball referee signals

First, a referee blows their whistle and holds up a closed hand when a foul occurs.

Unlike the open hand, which signals a violation, the closed hand indicates a foul.

An official will signal the type of foul after it occurs.

Likewise, they will go to the scorer’s table and signal the type of foul as well as tell the scorekeeper who committed the foul.

12. Elbow Foul

A player will be called for a foul if they use their elbows aggressively and connect with their opponent.

Fouls like these can sometimes be deemed flagrant, which results in two shots and the ball for the team that was elbowed.

Swinging the elbow will be the official’s signal for this type of foul.

13. Charging Foul

Charging fouls are called if an offensive player knocks a defensive player off their spot while they are in a legal guarding position.

Player-control fouls are also called this.

A referee who signals a charging foul punches the open palm of their other hand after making a fist with one hand.

14. Technical Foul

A technical foul can be called by referees if they believe a coach or player is being unsportsmanlike.

There are also two shots, plus the basketball, as a result of this foul.

Technical fouls are signaled by making a letter ‘T’ with both hands.

15. Holding Foul

The jersey or any part of another player’s body cannot be grabbed in basketball.

Holding fouls are called when this occurs.

Using one hand, the ref makes a fist and then extends his or her arm, while holding the arm out with the other.

16. Pushing Foul

It is not possible for basketball players to push their opponents.

A ref will call a foul if they see a push.

It is common for two players to foul each other when they are going after the same rebound.

Referees typically call ‘over the back’ fouls ‘pushes’ when they occur.

Two arms extended and hands making a pushing motion is the signal for pushing.

17. Blocking Foul

As a result of blocking a dribbler’s progress, a defensive player may be penalized.

Putting both hands on the hips is the referee’s signal for blocking.

18. Intentional Foul

Unintentional fouls happen frequently during games.

A referee may call an intentional foul if he or she believes a foul was done with malicious intent.

During an intentional foul, the offensive team receives two shots and the ball.

Making an ‘X’ with both arms in the air is the signal for an intentional foul.

19. Hand-Checking Foul

Ball handlers cannot be restricted from moving with their hands by defensive players.

The defender is called for hand-checking if their hands are used to limit movement.

One hand will be chopped across the wrist of the opposing player for this signal.

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Here are some other hand signals you should know:

basketball referee signals

There are times when referees make signals without indicating a violation.

Below you will find a list of these signals.

20. Timeout

A full timeout is another type of timeout.

Fists should be made with both arms straight out to the side.

21. Start the Clock

Dead balls in basketball occur when the clock is stopped.

A player on the floor must touch the clock to restart it.

It is the referee who determines when the clock should be stopped, not the timekeeper. It will take the ref a few seconds to start the clock after their hand is raised.

Referees drop their arms at that time, and the time begins.

22. No Basket

During some games, shots are taken immediately after a foul is called or after the timer expires.

The official will cross his or her arms in front of them to signal that the shot does not count.

23. Three-Point Make

There is another signal the official can use in case the three-point attempt is made.

Their arms will be straight up in the air as they place them.

24. Three-Point Attempt

Referees use a signal when players attempt three-pointers.

An attempted three-point shot is signaled by a straight arm in the air.

25. Substitution

The coach asks for a substitution when the team wants to exchange an on-court player with a bench player.

As soon as there is a dead ball, the referee makes an “X” with his or her arms to signal the substitution.

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Can referees use verbal communication alongside signals?

Yes, referees often use both verbal cues and signals to ensure everyone comprehends the calls.

Do different leagues have variations in their referee signals?

While most signals are standardized, minor variations might exist between different leagues or organizations.

Are there signals specific to signaling technical fouls?

Yes, technical fouls are usually signaled with a “T” hand gesture.

How can players learn these signals to improve their understanding of the game?

Players can study rulebooks and attend training sessions where referees explain the signals.

Are there instances where referee signals can be misinterpreted?

Misinterpretations can occur, but referees strive to make their signals clear and consistent to minimize confusion.


Basketball referee signals ensure fairness, transparency, and effective communication in the game. As the action on the court accelerates, these gestures bridge gaps and provide clarity. The intricate web of communication that keeps basketball running smoothly can be appreciated by players, coaches, and fans who understand and interpret these signals.

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David Harris is a former player and after many years of writing and testing hundreds of products associated with the game, created this website to share his tips, basketballs and gear.  I look forward to continuing to grow and build this site and sharing great content.

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