How Do Bail Bonds Work

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You may not anticipate ending up in jail, let alone having to come up with the bail amount needed to get out. However, if you, or someone you know, doesn't have the financial means or collateral to pay your own bail, you may be able to turn to a bail bond company. Bail bonds are essentially loans put up on behalf of the accused, to help ensure that the accused shows up to court. An accused individual, a friend or his family can post bail to the court in exchange for freedom until trial. Bail amounts vary based on the severity of crime, and typically range from several thousand dollars to several hundred thousand dollars.

Standard Bail Agreement vs. Bail Bonds

Bail is supposed to minimize risk. In a standard bail agreement, families that have enough money or collateral to post bail give it directly to the court and may get their money returned after a case. The prospect of losing an individual's – or a relative's – money after it has been posted for bail is intended to prevent fleeing and ensure the arrestee's presence in court.

Arrestees or families that use private bail bonds pay a non-refundable amount – usually 10 percent of the bail – to a for-profit bail bond agent or company. In exchange, the bail bond agent pledges to pay the full bail amount if the arrestee doesn't appear in court. Private bail bonds can leave a family holding the bag for premiums, fees and fines regardless of the outcome of a case.

Read More: Bail Bonds Rules

Getting Bail Money Back

In certain states, bail money is refunded to the surety once the trial is over. In other states, bail is refunded only if the arrested is cleared of charges. Trials can last several weeks or even several months, and the surety may have to wait several more weeks after the trial to get bail money back from the court. Bail bond customers do not receive the non-refundable portion of their money back, even if the arrestee shows up to court or is cleared of charges. In addition to the non-refundable amount paid to the bail bond agent, loan installments and fees for the bail bond may continue after the trial.

A signature bond allows friends or family to help an arrestee as co-signers for the bond, just by signing. By signing for the bail bond and vowing to pay the bail bond company if the arrestee does not appear as promised, the signers put themselves on the hook financially for the full bail amount, each in equal parts. Signature bonds don't require collateral, such as real estate or a percentage of the bail, and may only be available to low-level offenders or arrestees with no criminal history or those considered a minimal flight risk.

Requirements in Different States

States have different regulations for bail agreements and the bail bond industry. For example, the right to bail may be denied for capital crimes or offenses that involve severe bodily injury. Massachusetts, Maine, Oregon, Illinois, Kentucky, Nebraska, Wisconsin and Washington D.C. prohibit the use of private, or commercial, bail bonds. In states where bail is allowed, but bail bond agents are not, the state may offer options to help arrestees get out of jail. For example, in Illinois, government agencies and organizations at the state and county levels can offer bail bonds. They work differently than for-profit bail bonds because they allow the arrested to get their money back – usually 10 percent paid upfront – once they appear in court.


  • An arrestee can pay bail to get out of jail. A bail bond is a type of loan for an arrestee who can't afford to cover bail. The individual or company that posts bail on an arrestee's behalf is known as the "surety."