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Handball: The Rules of the Game

Updated on September 30, 2009

Team handball is a fun and engaging sport that is something of a cross between soccer and basketball.  Also referred to as handball, Olympic handball or European handball, it is a team sport played between two teams consisting of seven players each.  The ball is passed between the players and the aim is to score a goal by throwing the ball into the opposing team’s goal.  The game is played for the duration of 60 minutes, after which time, the team with the most goals wins.

The Court

Team handball is played on a court measuring 20 meters by 40 meters with a goal at either end.  The goal opening is 2 meters by 3 meters and only the goalkeeper is allowed to stand in the goal area.  Other players may enter the goal area if they release the ball before entering it.

The Ball

The handball is similar to the basketball and soccer ball with some differences.  Made of leather, it consists of 32 panels.  Men and women handball games have different size and weight handballs.  For women, the ball weighs 325-400 grams and is 54-56 centimeters in diameter.  For men, the ball weighs 425-475 grams and is 58-60 centimeters in diameter.


Each team consists of seven players – six court players and one goalkeeper.  A maximum of twelve players may be available to participate in the game at any point.  Any number of substitutions may occur and at any time during the game as long as another player leaves the court.


Players are required to wear uniforms numbered 1-20 that are the same colour.  Only the goalkeeper is required to wear a uniform with a different coloured shirt to distinguish him or her from the rest of the team.  No player is allowed to wear jewellery as it can cause serious injuries to another player during the game.


During the game there are two referees – a court referee and a goal line referee.  They are assisted by a timer and a scorer.  All referees decisions are final.

Game Duration

The game runs for 60 minutes with two 30 minutes halves.  The half-time break is 10 minutes.  At half time, the teams swap goals.  There is an overtime period of two 5 minutes sessions.


A team is awarded a goal if the entire ball crosses the goal line inside the goal.  Goals can be scored with any type of throw, including free-throws, throw-ins, throw-offs and goal-throws.


At the start of the game, the team that takes the throw off is the one that wins the coin toss and elects to start the game with the ball.  When the game begins, each team must be in their own half of the court.  The defence must be at least 3 meters away from the ball.  When the referee blows the whistle, the ball can be passed to a teammate and the game begins.  After every goal and after half-time, there is a new throw-off.

Passive Play

Passive play is not allowed.  Passive play constitutes keeping the ball in the team’s possession without making any attempts to attack or score.  This tactic is considered stalling and a free-throw will be awarded to the other team if the referee decides a team is stalling.

During Play

Players may run with the ball for a maximum of three steps (unless they are dribbling – which is allowed, as in basketball).  They are also allowed to hold the ball for three seconds. 

Players may not endanger other players with the ball.  They may not pull, hit or punch the ball out of the hands of an opponent.  They are not allowed to contact the ball below the knee, and they are not allowed to dive onto the floor after a rolling or stationary ball.


Players are allowed to use their bodies to obstruct an opponent regardless of whether that opponent has the ball or not.  They are not allowed to use their arms or legs to block, push, hold, trip, or hit another player.  Attackers are also forbidden from charging into defensive players.


A team is given a throw-in if the ball goes out of bounds on the sideline.  The throw-in is awarded to the opposing team of the player who last touched the ball.  If it goes out of bounds over the endline after being touched by a defensive player, not including the goalkeeper, it will be awarded to the attacking team.

The player elected to perform the throw-in must stand at the spot where the ball crossed the sideline.  If the ball went over the endline, then it is taken from the nearest corner.  When performing the throw-in, the player must place one foot on the sideline, and opposing players must be at least 3 meters away from the ball.

Referee Throw

If opposing team members seize the ball at the same time, there will be a referee throw.  Referee throws also occur if both teams have been caught infringing the rules. 

The referee throws usually take place at the center of the court.  The referee stands between two opposing players and tosses the ball up into the air.  The two players then attempt to seize the ball or to tap it to a team member.  During the referee throw, all other players aside from the two players involved must stand at least 3 meters away.

Free Throw

Free throws are awarded to the opposing team in the event of a foul or violation.  For fouls or violations occurring between the goal area line and the 9-meter line, the free throw is taken at the nearest post outside the 9-meter line.  The player must either pass or shoot the ball with one foot in contact with the ground.

7-Meter Throw

The referee may award a 7-meter throw when a player commits a foul which prevents a clear shot at the goal; when the goalkeeper takes the ball back into the goal area; when a court player passes the ball to the goalkeeper in the goal area; or when a defensive player enters the goal area.

After the referee blows the whistle, the player awarded the throw has a 3 second window with which to throw the ball.  All other players must be outside the free-throw line.  The 7-meter throw may be taken by any member of the team that was awarded the throw.

Goal Throw

The goalkeeper is awarded a goal throw when the ball goes out at the endline by the attacking team, if the goalkeeper succeeds in saving the ball, or if the ball goes out over the endline off the goalkeeper.  Goal throws are taken inside the goal area.


Progressive punishments are instilled by the referee in the event that a foul requires a more severe penalty than a free throw.  The types of fouls included are actions that are directed at the opposing players, such as holding, pushing, hitting, tripping, etc.

1. Yellow Card

A player receives only one warning card for violation of the rules.  A team is allowed a maximum of three yellow cards in any game.  If more than three yellow cards are handed out, the team suffers a two minute suspension for each additional yellow card beyond the three.  The two minute suspension involves having the team whose player has been suspended play one player short for two minutes.

Two minute suspensions may also be handed out for serious or repeated offenses that violate the rules, unsportsmanlike conduct and illegal substitutions.

2. Red Card

The Red Card is handed out to players to mark disqualification or exclusion.  In the event of disqualification, the disqualified player must leave the court and can no longer return to the game.  The team is then required to play one player short for the duration of two minutes.  After the two minutes is over, another player may replace the disqualified player on the court.  In the case of an exclusion, the team must continue to play one player short for the remainder of the game.

These are just a brief overview of the rules of team handball.  The International Handball Federation has a more detailed published version of the complete rules.


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