What is the difference between a citation and a ticket?

A citation and a ticket are the same thing. Tickets are simply official citations issued when someone breaks the law. You'll find the term "citation" is more often used in legal situations, while "ticket" is used in other situations.

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Tonya Sisler has a Bachelor’s Degree from the University of South Carolina in Journalism and has worked for 15+ years in management. She has also completed a proofreading certification and is currently a professional writer.

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Reviewed by Brad Larsen
Licensed Auto Insurance Agent Brad Larsen

UPDATED: Apr 15, 2022

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Things to Know

  • A ticket is simply an official citation issued to someone who has broken the law
  • Citations and tickets are interchangeable terms, though “ticket” is more commonly used in general, while “citation” is often used in a legal context
  • Citations can be issued for both moving and non-moving violations

You’re driving along, perhaps a little too fast, when you see the dreaded red and blue lights in your rear-view mirror. Your heart sinks. Pulling over, you know what is to come: a ticket — and not the good kind that gets you into fun places.

In the United States, violating traffic laws results in a ticket. Sometimes you’ll even hear the word “citation” being thrown around. And for some reason, receiving a “citation” sounds way more serious than a “ticket.” But is there really a difference?

In this article, we’ll discuss citations vs. tickets, the penalties associated with them, and what you should do if you receive either one. 

Citation vs. Ticket

So then, is a citation a ticket? From a technical standpoint, there really is no difference between a ticket and a citation.

A ticket is simply an official citation issued to someone who has broken the law. A citation for such violations is usually issued by law enforcement. A citation will detail the specific law that was violated and the potential penalties that can be levied.

Citations and tickets are interchangeable terms, though “ticket” is more commonly used in general, while “citation” is often used in a legal context. The following are some instances where you might see the term “citation” in place of “ticket”:

  • Online forms requiring you to enter your citation number
  • If you must appear in court for your citation

In the same way, you will hear the term “ticket” used when:

  • A police officer issues a ticket
  • Referring to a particular traffic violation, such as a speeding ticket

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Common Types of Traffic Citations

When someone breaks traffic laws, they can receive a citation (ticket) and other penalties, including fines and jail time. 

Citations can be issued for several different violations of traffic laws. There are two types of traffic law violations: moving violations and non-moving violations. Both carry varying penalties. 

Common Moving Violations

A moving violation is any traffic violation committed by a moving vehicle, and can land you a ticket or citation if you get caught.

  • Speeding
  • Failure to signal a lane change or turn
  • Running red lights or stop signs
  • Failure to give way to vehicles with right-of-way during lane changes
  • Driving past a school bus that is loading or unloading passengers
  • Failure to give way at a crosswalk
  • Performing an illegal u-turn
  • Driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs

Common Non-Moving Violations

Citations can also be issued for non-moving violations such as illegal parking and defective equipment. While these generally carry fewer penalties, excessive or unresolved tickets could still result in jail time or hefty fines. A non-moving violation does not appear on your driving record. 

  • Violations related to parking, such as parking near fire hydrants, illegal parking, or parking in a disabled zone without a placard
  • Invalid or expired registration
  • Safety violations like excessive muffler noise, failed emissions tests, too-dark window tint, and missing license plates
  • Bad or malfunctioning equipment like a damaged taillight or windshield

Consequences of a Traffic Citation

If you get a traffic citation — don’t panic just yet. At the very least, you’ll just need to devote some time to resolve it. In general, citations are pretty easy to take care of.

Depending on the violation and state laws, you’ll have to deal with:

  • Fines 
  • An increase to insurance rates
  • Demerit points on a license 
  • Longer duration of violations on a driver’s record
  • Compulsory attendance of traffic school

Fines are the most common punishment when a person commits a traffic violation and receives a citation. They can be as little as $30 or as much as $400. The fine amount will rise significantly if the person was speeding in specific zones (such as a school or construction zone). 

Citations for serious traffic violations are almost always followed by a rise in insurance rates. For example, when you are convicted of a DWI or DUI, you are automatically categorized as high-risk and your insurance rates will go up significantly. The same applies to less serious citations, too. An analysis by Forbes Advisor has found that drivers with speeding tickets face an average increase of 24% on their car insurance rates.

Insurance companies consider drivers who have received tickets as more likely to make insurance claims (or “high risk”). As a result, their insurance rates will most definitely go up.

Some traffic tickets can stay on your record for up to 10 years. Depending on the state, more serious offenses can remain on the record for up to 75 years, while others permanently keep a record of all violations.

Some traffic violations have more significant penalties, and taking this into consideration is especially crucial when weighing the consequences. For example, drivers can face considerably longer jail time and severe criminal penalties if they flee the scene of an accident (hit-and-run) or kill someone while driving.

Resolving traffic citations: what are your options?

In most cases, drivers with traffic tickets have several options available for resolving them. Choosing the right option depends on individual circumstances. 

Paying the Citation

Paying the ticket will quickly resolve the situation. Admit your mistake and pay the fine in person or by mail. This is by far the quickest and most straightforward solution. In many states, you can even attend traffic school to avoid getting points on your license.

However, this approach has some drawbacks: you’re likely to pay the maximum fine possible, and your insurance rates will most likely increase since you’ll have a ticket on your record.

Contest the Ticket in Court

A person who wishes to plead not guilty may request a contested hearing in court. You may provide evidence or witnesses to prove your innocence. Contesting a ticket requires time and money (assuming you hire an attorney), but in most cases, having a lawyer represent you at this hearing gives you a better chance of beating the ticket. 

A contested hearing will lead to one of two outcomes: 

  1. The judge finds the driver to be innocent, thus dismissing the case and revoking the citation
  2. The judge finds the driver guilty of the offense and the entire penalty will be imposed (in addition to any court fees and attorney fees)

Request a Mitigation Hearing

Alternatively, you can appear in court or send a written statement explaining your reasons behind the violation. This is called a mitigation hearing. The difference between a contested hearing and a mitigation hearing is that you admit to committing the offense in the latter but would like to be considered for a reduction in fines.

A judge may adjust the penalty based on your explanation and driving record. Even so, since you have admitted guilt, you’re still at risk of higher insurance rates and the other consequences that come with having a ticket added to your driving record.

Before you head off to request a mitigation hearing, take note that certain traffic violations don’t apply, such as:

  • Speeding in school zones, construction areas, or playgrounds
  • Failing to yield to emergency vehicles

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What happens if a citation or ticket is ignored?

When you ignore a traffic ticket and do not respond within the date indicated on the ticket, you might receive a letter that says you’ve defaulted and have to pay late fees. Continuing to ignore a traffic ticket could lead to your license being revoked or suspended. At some point, you may even receive a warrant for your arrest. With enough serious factors, you might be looking at jail time, too.

So, ignoring a ticket is probably not the best idea. If you can’t pay a ticket, we recommend exploring other options that can set you right with the law. 

For example, you could attend traffic school. By completing traffic school, drivers can avoid fines, demerit points, and insurance rate increases. Alternatively, you can appear in court and contest the ticket (see above).

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