Basketball Referee Signals: Learn What Each Hand Call Means

“There are Fouls and there are Violations.” Fouls occur by cause of prohibited physical contact (holding, pushing, etc) OR impermissible actions (mainly FAKING the actions such as hitting, smacking, colliding with an opponent) OR banned verbal slang (cussing, abusing, yelling).

Whereas, Violations occur subsequently by breaking the defined basketball rules such as Jump Ball, double dribble, walking, etc.

Both fouls and violations come with penalties. The calls for these penalties are given using “Hand signals” by the referees. Apart from penalties, numerous events occur in the basketball game and thence, a unique individual “hand sign” is defined and associated with each event and a penalty occurs, given by referees when needed.

Recommended to read: How to Become a NBA Referee

Basketball Referee Signals

Why Are Hand Signals Used in Basketball? Purpose of Hand Signals

Hand Signals are the sole communication means of Referees to the Players on the court during the game. The non-verbal conveyance by the referees of the ‘foul or violation calls’ or ‘penalties’ is achieved by gestures of Hand-Signals.

The basketball court environment may get rowdy from fans cheering and music playing at times. Besides,  the loud background due to the constant announcements by the game commentators may make challenging for the referees to speak and connect to the players. Thence, Hand signals are been considered and used for years to help make communication easier.

Further, hand signals benefit the team coaches by delivering their instructions to the players during the play such as to run the types of offense or defense, position them, play a specific move, etc. It’s also adapted by the players to communicate with each other as well.

Basketball Hand Signals: Breaking Down Each Referee Signal

The kinds and usage of hand signals fall into one of 4 categories, that are:

1. Foul Signals 

2. Violation Signals

3. Time Management Signals

4. Hand Signal Indicators

Referee Foul Signals:

Referee Foul Signals

1. Player Control Foul / Charging Foul (Charge)

Occur: As a cause of excessive physical contact by the offender to redirect the defensive player in order to create space for himself to gain position or by hitting the defender using his elbow. Further, when an offensive player runs (into/over) the defensive player while he has already set his feet and established his position, the player control foul is said to be committed.

Consequence: Declare as a personal foul and will lead to a turnover. May also be outcomes in the free throws if the team finds accountability encountering exceeding the limit.

Hand Signal: The referee simply calls it by placing one hand on the back of their head and pointing in the opposite direction of the play.

Player Control Foul Charging Foul

2. Hand Check Foul

Occur: When a defensive player limits the movement/play of an offender by his hand in unallowed ways, the hand checked is called.

Hand Signal: Signaled by extending one arm in the air in front of the chest, opening the hand with fingers up, and the other hand grabbing the wrist of that arm.

Hand Check Foul

3. Holding Foul

Occur: By virtue of illegal and forceful grabbing, holding, or pulling of an offensive by a defensive player. No matter be it an on-ball or an off-ball offender.

Hand Signal: The signal of holding foul is given by the referee by extending one arm upward in the upward direction with the palm closed and grabbed by another hand.

Holding Foul

4. Pushing Foul

Occur: In the state an offensive player is being pushed by the defender. Pushes are usually made to hinder offense movement, steal passes and restrict the direction. The defender usually tries to bump into the body of the offense to achieve pushing.

Consequence: The pushes made in order to gain possession of the ball are considered Personal foul and result in the turnover of the ball.

Hand Signal: The referee extends both hands with palm facing outwardly, in a shoving motion.

Pushing Foul

5. Illegal Hand Use Foul

Occur: When a defensive player illicitly uses his hands to slap, smack or beat an offensive player usually with the ball.

Hand Signal: This type of foul is signaled by extending both arms in front of the waist in a V shape with elbows being outward and one hand grabbing the wrist of another arm by the referee.

Illegal Hand Use Foul

6. Blocking Foul

Occur: Due to the un-allowed act by the defender of blocking the way of an offensive player in a wrongful manner. Blocking the path by setting illegal screens, running into the way of the offender, making excessive physical contact, hindering the offender’s path to the basket without setting the feet, and so on may lead to a blocking foul.

Consequence: If the ball handler’s team is in bonus, they get a free throw. If not, the ball is taken out-of-bounds from the sideline.

Hand Signal: The signal used to show a blocking foul has been made when the referee moves both hands, balled into fists, down against the hips.

Blocking Foul

7. Intentional Foul

Occur: An intentional foul is a purposely made foul usually played by the players while the game is ending to extend the game time by stopping the clock. Or there may be an intentional act of prohibited rules by either player of offense or defense.

Hand Signal: The upward arms above the head with crossed wrists is a sign of Intentional foul.

Intentional Foul

8. Technical Foul

Occur: Due to verbal violence by either coaches or the players. Abusing, cursing, and bad-screaming by coaches/players may sometimes encounter as a reason for a bad call by the referee. Moreover, the fight between the players on the court was also called a technical foul.

Consequence: When observed, the opposing team is awarded possession of the ball and one-free throw.

Hand Signal: “T” sign by the referee indicates a technical foul has been committed.

Technical Foul

9. Double Foul

Occur: When two players come upon the foul at the same time, be it any kind of foul.

Hand Signal: The referee balls his hands into fists and extends horizontally in the outward direction on either side.

Double Foul

Referee Violation Signals:

Referee Violation Signals

1. Traveling (Walking/ Walk) Violation

Occur: In either case, that is, If the ball dribbler stops dribbling and takes too many steps/moves his pivot foot, Or the on-ball player redundantly takes steps while dribbling. Both outcomes in a violation call of Traveling or Walking.

Consequence: Turnover, The opponent team will get possession of the ball on the referee call.

Hand Signal: The referee balls ball both their hands into fists and rotate them in the circular/rolling motion upside down, bringing them in front of their waist.

Traveling Violation

2. Double Dribble (Illegal Dribble) Violation

Occur: When the on-ball player dribbles, pauses and then dribbles again. Another cause of violation involves the on-ball handler holding or dribbling the ball using both his hands.

Consequence: A turnover for the offense.

Hand Signal: Referring to the double dribble, the referee imitates the exact act by placing his both hands right in front of his waist with palms down and performing up and down motion exhibiting dribbling.

Double Dribble violation

3. Backcourt Violation (Over and Back)

Occur: Once the offense passes the mid-court line and still dribbles or goes back over to the half-court line, the backcourt violation is said to be made. 

Consequence: Possession of the ball the offense and gain by the opposing team.

Hand Signal: Over and Back signs will be made by the referee as a violation call.

Backcourt Violation

4. Inbound Pass Violation (5-Second Violation)

Occur: When the player has to make an inbound. There is always a time restriction defined by the referee that the ball has to pass into the play, by the player, within the allotted 5 seconds. If the player fails to do so the violation whistle is blown by the referee.

Consequence: A Turnover.

Hand Signal: The sign, with all 5 fingers raised is made by the referee.

5-Second Violation

5. 10 Second Violation

Occur: In a situation, when the opponent successfully made an inbound and the other team has now 10 seconds to get the ball past half-court. If the team fails to get the ball in play and takes the time longer than defined, the team is called out for a 10-second violation commit.

Consequence: The referee will blow a play dead and the ball is awarded to the other team.

Hand Signal: Both hands up, with all 10 fingers raised.

10 Second Violation

6. 3 Second Violation

Occur: When an offensive player violates the rule by staying or being present in the Paint area for more than 3 seconds knowing it’s prohibited as per basketball rules.

Consequence: If the player is observed committing a 3-second violation the play is “blown dead” and possession of the ball is gained by another team.

Hand Signal: Signaled by the referee, by keeping one arm up with 3 fingers raised, 2 bent, and another arm straightly low.

3 Second Violation

7. Closely Guarded Violation (Does Not Apply to 1ST/2ND Grades)

Occur: When the offensive player has possession of the ball while being closely guarded by the defender the player is not allowed to hold the ball for more than 5 seconds. If the on-ball handler is observed holding/dribbling the ball for/more than 5 seconds, the call of violation will be made.

Consequence: Ball being awarded to another team.

Hand Signal: The referee motioned his one arm from the horizontal up to the vertical down position, back and forth.

Closely Guarded Violation

8. Carrying or Palming The Ball Violation

Occur: Simply when the player tries to carry/hold the ball in the palm or scoop underneath it instead of dribbling correctly. The carrying violation is called.

Consequence: Turnover for the offense.

Hand Signal: Carrying is signaled when the referee flipped over from palm up to palm down.

Carrying or Palming The Ball Violation

9. Kickball (Kicking) Violation

Occur: As a result of the kick(usually intentional) by the offender either with his foot or leg.

Consequence: The defense gets a chance for an out-of-bounds throw-in by being awarded the ball by the referee. and you can read the basketball defense guide to know more about defense techniques and rules.

Hand Signal: The signal for a kicking violation is the same as the kicking act. That is, the referee raises one leg slightly up and performs the kicking motion.

Kicking Violation

10. Out of Bounds Violation

Occur: When during the gameplay, the ball or the player with possession of the ball goes out-of-bounds (i.e the sidelines/boundary lines).

Hand Signal: The referee simply points at the exact out-of-bound location/spot with the index finger.

Out of Bounds Violation

Time Management Signals

1. Jump Ball (Also Called Tie Up or Held Ball)

Occur: In a situation when the two players from either team have handed over the ball at the same time. In such conditions, the referee uses the possession arrow to determine who gets the ball or the two exact players play the jump ball in order to decide who will be awarded the ball possession. The decision of the ball awarding however depends from league to league rules.

Hand Signal: The two thumps up of the referee indicate the call that the jump ball has occurred.

Jump Ball

2. Timeout (Full and Thirty Second)

Occur: When either of the team requests a call for timeout which can be either 30 seconds or another, named full timeout.

Hand Signal: The signal designated for 30 seconds timeout is the referee posturing by putting both his hands over his shoulder, while the sign of “T” full timeout.

Timeout (Full and Thirty Second)

3. Start Clock/Stop Clock

Occur: On the official’s call that he’s ready to start the clock(hence start clock executes). While the clock has to be stopped on the referee’s call when he instructs(thence stop call executes).

Hand Signal: For starting the clock, the official raises one hand up and brings it down quickly. Further, For stopping the clock, the referee raises one arm up with their palm outwardly and stands immobile.

Start Clock

4. Substitution

Occur: Simply when an outside player needs to enter the game in the substitution of another player. 

Hand Signal: The referee will raise one hand to the timekeeper in a “stop” motion and wave the other hand to the player to be substituted to enter the court for the play.


Hand Signal Indicators: Personal Foul Penalties

1. Shooting Foul (2 Point Shot)

Occur: In the scenario when the player gets ‘free throws to shoot’ as a cause of getting “fouled” while shooting. In the case, that the shot is already made by the player, he gets to shoot 1 free throw, on contrary, if the shot hasn’t been made yet and a foul is called, the player gets to shoot 2 free throws.

Hand Signals: The referee extends one arm parallel to the floor and points with two fingers.

2 Point Shot

2. Shooting Foul (3 Point Shot)

Occur: When the player gets “fouled” during a 3-point shot. If it’s after a shot is made, the player is awarded 1 free throw otherwise the player gets 3 free throws to shoot.

Hand Signal: The referee holds up three fingers in the air to give a signal for the 3-point shot.

3 Point Shot

3. Basket Counts/Doesn’t Count

Occur: When a successful basket is made(usually after a foul), the basket is counted. Else wise the shot doesn’t count as an outcome of the failed basket.

Hand Signal: For the basket being counted, the signal of balling up the hand and then punching downwards is made. In an uncounted bucket, the referees “wave off” the shot by placing one arm over the other in the air, elbow being outward, and hands out directly towards the side.

Doesn’t Count


Though these hand signals are difficult to remember at times because of being numerous in numbers but being the constant player or viewer of the basketball, they are eventually memorized. However, can be trickier for a casual fan or spectator.

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