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Can I go to prison for debt?

A lot of people who contact us are worried that not paying their debts could mean going to jail. In almost all cases, the answer to this is no.

A century ago prison was a real risk for many types of ordinary household debt. In modern times, there’s no possible way you could go to prison for non-payment of most types of debt.

What types of debt could lead to imprisonment?

Some types of priority debt could result in you going to prison if you don’t pay, for example:

  • Criminal fines
  • Council tax
  • Business rates
  • Child maintenance arrears owed to the CSA

Even with these types of debt, prison is normally only possible as a last resort if you’ve ignored the debt or refused to pay.

If you’re struggling with these debts, don’t ignore them. We offer free debt advice.

For the majority of common debts you can’t be sent to prison for not paying. The debts include:

  • overdrafts
  • credit cards
  • loans
  • catalogues
  • mortgage or rent arrears
  • utility arrears
  • hire purchase debts

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Are there any situations where other debts could lead to prison?

There are also some situations where you could be arrested and taken to court, or sent to jail after a creditor has taken you to court. This is very rare and would only happen as a last resort if you’ve not cooperated with the court. 

For example, if you live in England or Wales and you’ve not paid a County Court judgment (CCJ), a creditor could apply to take money from your wages using an attachment of earnings.

If you repeatedly ignore the letters the court sends you about this, a bailiff could be sent to take you to court, and you could be fined or sent to prison for up to 14 days.  The fine or prison is a punishment for disobeying the court’s instructions, not for the debt itself.

However, in the past we’ve seen some examples of misleading letters from creditors referring to this. Other than some priority debts mentioned above, any suggestion by a creditor that you could be sent to prison for not paying a debt is simply not true, and if they threaten this you should consider making a complaint.

60-second debt test: try our debt checker

If you're worried about debts you can’t pay, you may need help with your finances. By answering a few simple questions we'll be able to tell you if you need debt advice.

Answer the questions below and we'll help you understand how close you are to having a debt problem and suggest what your next steps could be.

Helping you become debt free...

“I wish to thank your staff for all the great help they gave me when I was in so much debt.
They were a pillar of support to me.” (Leslie, Essex)

Foundation for Credit Counselling Wade House, Merrion Centre, Leeds, LS2 8NG trading as StepChange Debt Charity and StepChange Debt Charity Scotland. A registered charity no.1016630 and SC046263. It is a limited company registered in England and Wales (company no:2757055). Authorised and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority.

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*This is the average rating of our service based on the StepChange reviews on Feefo by DMP and DRO clients three months into their solution.

© StepChange Debt Charity 2018