Common Referee Hands Signals for Basketball

On-court officials ensure fair play in a basketball game based on the long set of basketball rules. To communicate with the scorer’s table, fans and players on the court, referees use a standardized set of hand signals, combined with a blow of the whistle, to quickly explain fouls or violations. Because the fouls and violations throughout the different levels of basketball are the same, referee hand signals should remain fairly consistent no matter what level you watch or play.

  • Foul Signals
  • Violation Signals
  • Other Signals

Basketball Referee Hand Signals on Offense

The two most common offensive violations involve illegal motions with the basketball.

Traveling‌, or moving both feet without dribbling the ball, is indicated by placing one forearm above and parallel to the other and the floor, then rotating your arms over one another a few times with your first clenched.

The ‌double dribble‌ occurs when a player with possession of the ball stops their dribble, then restarts it. The referee extends both arms straight out, moving one up and the other down, and alternating a few times.

Lesser violations include the three-second lane violation -- extend your middle, ring and pinky fingers while curling your thumb and index finger, hold your arm straight and sweep the arm out and back -- and the five-second violation -- hold your arm out straight with an open hand signaling five.

Offensive players can also get called for personal fouls.

A ‌charging‌ foul, or player control foul, happens when an offensive player leads with a driving forward motion, right into the chest of a defensive player who is set in position. The referee will hold up a closed fist and point towards the other end of the floor.

An ‌illegal screen‌ is called on an offensive screener when they go to set a screen for one of their teammates but is not in a stationary position when making contact with the defender.

Other Signals

Basketball officials are responsible for using hand signals to facilitate things in the game that aren’t necessarily fouls or violations.

  • To signal ‘start clock’, the referee will look at the scorer’s table and make a twirling motion with his finger
  • To signal ‘stop clock’, the referee will blow his whistle and hold one or two of his hands in the air

When a player shoots a three-pointer, a referee will hold one arm straight up in the air, and if the shot goes in, they will put the other arm straight up in the air, the same signal given for a field goal in football

Before passing the ball to a free throw shooter, the referee will stand in the middle of the lane and hold up a “1,” “2,” or “3,” with his fingers to indicate how many free throws the player is shooting

To call off a made basket, a referee will blow their whistle and wave both arms across his body, similar to a baseball umpire calling a player safe

To signal a ‌jump ball‌, a referee will extend both arms in front of their body, holding a thumbs up on both of them

Calling a Defensive Foul

Fouls are typically committed by the person defending the person with the ball, who may be in the act of shooting. In the case of a foul on a shot, the referee will blow the whistle and wait to see if the ball goes in. If it does, they will hold their arm out, bent at the elbow, with a clenched fist, and quickly pump their forearm downward so the arm straightens.

If the shot misses, simply call the foul. If the foul happened before the player began the shooting motion and the ball successfully enters the goal, the referee can call off the score as explained in the previous section.

Types of Defensive Fouls

The four main defensive fouls are the ‌hold‌, ‌push‌, ‌hand check‌ and ‌block‌.

Calling a holding foul involves bending your right arm at the elbow, fist clenched, in front of your body and grabbing your forearm with your left hand.

Pushing fouls are called by extending your arms and having your palm up and opened in front of you as if you were committing the push.

A blocking foul is called by placing your hands on your hips, elbows extended.

A holding signal can be done in various ways, but most commonly, there is some sort of grabbing one wrist with the other hand.

Prior to signaling the type of foul committed by a defender, a referee can call the play dead and indicate who committed the foul using the bird dog signal. Extend your right arm in the air with your fist clenched, then extend your left arm, with fingers straight, pointing at the defender who committed the foul.

Serious Fouls

Basketball referees can call two fouls with more serious implications. A ‌technical foul‌, indicated by the forming the letter T with your hands, is assessed when a player or coach exhibits conduct detrimental to the game.

In the college game, an ‌intentional foul‌ is called when you believe a player was going after the ball handler, and not the ball itself. This is signaled clenching your fists, raising them above your head and crossing them over your head.

In the NBA, double fouls are sometimes called if two players foul one another simultaneously; in this case, both teams get a team foul, like normal, and the referee will signal each individual call one at a time.