Citation vs Ticket: Understand the Difference

Every driver dreads the day they see the telltale lights of a police vehicle in their rearview. Maybe you were going a couple miles over the speed limit, or perhaps your tail light is out. Either way, you have a police officer knocking on your driver's side window.

But when that happens, do they hand you a "ticket" or a "citation"? And what is the difference between the two? Here is a rundown on how these legal documents work and their potential consequences.

Citation vs Ticket: What's the Difference?

A citation and a ticket are the same thing and are often used interchangeably. "Ticket" is the casual way we refer to them. But for legal purposes, the slip you receive from law enforcement personnel is called a "citation."

You may receive them in the form of a small piece of paper on your windshield. Or, these days, you may receive an e-citation instead. In this situation, you sign the slip electronically using an officer's tablet, which then gets sent to your email.

Traffic Citation Types

So, a citation and a ticket are the same thing – but what actually are they? They're a form of documentation recording a traffic violation you committed. In other words, you violated traffic laws. This legal document comes with a unique citation number and describes the reason you received it. That includes the traffic laws you broke, the legal consequences, how you can respond, and how much time you have to do so. If you fail to follow through within the timeline, then there are more consequences.

Traffic violations vary between locations, though. And they come in three different forms. Here are the main types of traffic citations.


Sometimes, law enforcement officers will cut you a break. Depending on what you did, the circumstances, and how severe the violation is, they may only write a warning. In which case, you don't have to pay a fine, and it won't hurt your auto insurance rate.

Depending on what you did, the circumstances, and how severe the violation is, the police officer may only write a warning.

Generally, you're more likely to get a warning if it's your first time receiving a traffic violation. But a severe traffic violation will probably earn you more, even if you have a clean motor vehicle record (MVR).

Your driving record doesn't include verbal warnings. However, occasionally, written warnings will show up on your driving record. That can increase your chances of getting a written ticket in the future.

Fines and Penalties

Basic moving violations, like running a red light, earn you a ticket that includes penalties and fines. These tickets are for infractions that rarely or cannot lead to incarceration or criminal charges. However, that doesn't mean they don't have unpleasant consequences. Along with the fines, they usually result in higher car insurance rates.

Basic moving violations, like running a red light, earn you a ticket that includes penalties and fines.

Most non-moving violations, where the car is parked, fall into this category as well. For instance, an expired tag or parking illegally.

Misdemeanors and Felonies

Misdemeanors and felonies receive their own category of tickets. You have to commit a serious traffic violation, like a DUI or a hit-and-run, to earn this type. They often lead to jail time, suspension of your driver's license, and fines.

Like the fines and penalties tickets, you'll also face a spike in auto insurance rates.

Speeding Tickets Explained

Speeding tickets generally fit into the second category: fines and penalties. The exact amount you pay in fines depends on how much you exceed the speed limit and in which state. For example, you have to pay $25 for exceeding the speed limit by a maximum of five miles in Georgia. You'll also likely receive demerit points on your driving record. Speeding through specific areas, such as a school zone, may lead to even greater fines and demerit points, though.

You can also go to jail for speeding. Extreme speeds, repeat offenses, property damage, reckless driving, and failing to show up in court after you get the ticket can all result in incarceration, depending on the state.

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What To Do if You Get a Traffic Citation and A Ticket

It's definitely nerve-wracking when you get pulled over for a moving violation or speeding. But walking yourself through what you need to do will help you handle the stress.

First, do your best to keep a level head. The officer will likely ask for your driver's license, registration, and proof of insurance. Do your best to answer any questions clearly and politely. Try to record every detail of the violation and police interaction while you still remember everything.

In some cases, you will need to make a court appearance after you receive the citation. Less severe offenses take place in traffic court, whereas more severe offenses take place in criminal court. The traffic ticket itself will likely dictate the specific reason and the court date. Failing to show up can result in significant fines, a misdemeanor, or even jail time. So, avoid it at all costs.

Overall, you want to get your citation resolved as soon as possible. That might require showing up in court or paying off the ticket fine. But if you feel like you were incorrectly ticketed, then you can dispute it in court.

Traffic Citation and A Ticket FAQ

Does a Citation Go On Your Driving Record?

Generally, citations do go on your driving record. This means they will be reported on your driving history. They typically stay there for an average of three years for first-time offenses in most states. However, repeat offenses may remain on your record for longer. In some cases, they may last between five and ten years or, in zero-tolerance states, permanently.

How Much Is a Traffic Citation?

The average cost of a first offense traffic citation in the U.S. is often quoted as $150. However, the cost for a traffic citation varies from state to state. For example, in Pennsylvania, you can earn a $45 fine for driving 45 mph in a 35 mph zone. Or, if they drive 11 mph or above in a construction and maintenance area, they will lose their license for 15 days. However, in New Jersey, a speeding ticket costs between $85 and $260, depending on how far over the speed limit you drive.

Remember: fines aren't the only price you pay. The spike in your average insurance premiums can also be costly.

Can You Pay a Citation Without Going To Court?

Yes, it is possible to pay a citation without going to court. In this case, you plead guilty to the offense and waive your rights. Typically, there is a place on the back of the traffic ticket to do this. Then you mail it and the fine payment, as well as potential court costs, to the court. Or, alternatively, you can sign it and pay the fine directly at the Court clerk's office. You must do this prior to the court date.

However, you generally can't do this if you're involved in an accident or charged with a misdemeanor or felony.

If you fail to show up to court or pay the fine, the court may issue a warrant for your arrest. Thus, resulting in additional charges.

How Long Does it Take To Complete Traffic School After a Traffic Violation?

Traffic school can be an easy way to reduce points on your driver's license and avoid potential auto insurance spikes. But the length of traffic school tends to vary between states. For example, you'll find courses in Nevada are a minimum of five hours for two or fewer violations within a set timeframe. Three or more violations result in an eight-hour course.

Or, in Idaho, the minimum is a six-hour course. Both can reduce up to three points from your driving record and come with certain eligibility requirements.

Can You Take Traffic School Online for Traffic Violations?

It depends. For instance, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation doesn't regulate online traffic school. A judge may still allow you in this case, but you have to ask permission.

Look for schools and courses that are state-approved.

How Does a Citation or a Ticket Impact Your Car Insurance Premiums?

Unfortunately, there's a lot to dislike about getting speeding tickets or traffic violations. And one of the ways they affect you most is by hitting your car insurance policy. After earning one, insurance companies increase the cost of auto insurance coverage. Therefore, you'll likely have to start paying a higher auto insurance rates. Although, the extent of the impact will depend on your car insurance company and its rating system.

Some insurance companies keep your auto insurance premium for first-time traffic citations, particularly if you're a young driver. But certain types of offenses can lead to a rise in auto insurance rates by several hundred dollars. Some auto insurance companies may even decide not to renew your auto policy.

But you don't have to panic just because you have a few traffic citations on your record. You can still search for a new auto insurance company with more favorable auto insurance premiums or forgiveness policies. Several insurance companies offer policies targeted specifically at higher-risk drivers. Or, you can complete state-approved driving courses to help reduce costs in some states.

Car Insurance for Less Than Perfect Drivers

No one wants to get a citation: It results in potentially high fine costs, demerits on your driving record, and increased car insurance costs.

The best solution is to avoid reckless driving from the start. That way, you minimize your chances of consequences involving law enforcement. But most drivers in the U.S. have their license for years and years; you're bound to receive a citation at some point.

Once again, safe driving will likely reduce the overall consequences. But actively addressing the issue can help soften the impact. Pay your fines on time, show up in court, and take classes if necessary – you'll be better for it.

If you want to see if you can find an insurer who can offer you a better rate than the one you have now, you can get a free quote by just entering your zip code below and answering a few questions.

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