the rules of european handball

What Are The Rules of European Handball?

What Are The Rules of European Handball?

European handball is played in teams of 7 players. Handball’s objective is to score more goals than the opposing team. Two teams play against each other on a court at a time. The team with the highest number of scored goals wins the game.

The fast-paced sport seems like organized chaos, but European handball has a few simple rules which allow teams to fight each other in scoring the most goals, conceding fewer goals and keeping the players physically safe.

The rules of handball can be summarized as follows from basics such as the length of the game to the qualifying system of international competitions.


  • Is played in 2 halves of 30 minutes
  • The higher score at the end of the time wins the game
  • Up to 2 X 5 minutes of overtime can be awarded if the game ends in a tie
  • If the score is still tied after the overtime, teams go into a penalty shootout
  • Indoor court shoes are worn by handball players
  • Cleats are not allowed on the court
european handball rules - goal crease photo
According to European Handball rules, players are not allowed to step inside the goal crease area.

Court size in European handball

  • A handball court is 40 meters long and 20 meters wide
  • The goal is 3-meters by 2-meters wide
  • The 2 substitution lines are 4.5m away from the centerline
  • The goal crease is a 6m radius around the goal
  • Only the goalkeeper is allowed to stand in the goal crease area
  • A goal is disallowed if scored while stepping into the goal crease area
  • The penalty line is 7 meters away from the center of the goal
  • The free-throw line is a 9m radius around the goal
  • The ball must completely cross the goal line for the goal to count
  • A half line equally divides the court into two halves

The number of players in handball

  • There are 7 players in handball team
  • 1 X goalkeeper, 1 X left wingman, 1 X pivot, 1 X right wingman, 1 X left backcourt, 1 X center backcourt, and 1 X right backcourt
  • There are 7 substitutes on the bench
  • There’s an unlimited number of substitutions
  • Substitutions can be made at any time of the game


  • Attacks are carried out with all field players
  • 3 attack waves can be used to score
  • The 1st attack wave is carried out without defensive players
  • The 2nd attack wave is carried out with the help of defending players
  • The 3rd attack wave, defenders close the gaps around the goal crease and use standardized attack strategies
  • Defending is usually made in two lines
  • Other defensive strategies involve the 3:2:1 formation where attacking players remain further up the court

Ball handling

  • Players can only run with the ball for 3 steps
  • Players are not allowed to hit the ball from an opponent’s hand to make a recovery
  • Players can dribble the ball an unlimited number of times
  • A player can only hold the ball for 5 seconds while not moving
  • Players can use any part of the body above the knee to intercept the ball
  • Touching the ball is only permitted for 2 times before making a pass or throwing the ball


  • Steps are considered when a player runs for more than 3 steps
  • Steps are considered even when a player catches the ball on both feet only to then lift one foot and put the same foot down again. As multiple handball rules, this one encourages a fast pace of play
  • Steps are considered when a player catches the ball while standing on one foot and then places the second foot down

Attacking in European handball

  • All players make a collective or individual effort to move the ball up the court to score
  • Passive play can be dictated by the referee when the teams fail to shoot on target and the ball is awarded to the opposing team
  • 7m throws are awarded against the defending team if an attacking player is incorrectly stopped from scoring
  • At the 7m line, the player only gets to shoot once against the defending goalkeeper
  • A player cannot dribble, stop and then dribble again. The ball is awarded to the other team in this case and it’s called a dribble fault

Defending in European handball

  • The defending team tries to block the attacking team with their hands and arms
  • Defending systems include forming walls around the goal crease
  • Successful defending is considered when the players force errors from the attacking team
  • Defending players can’t pull the ball from the opponent’s hands
  • Defending players cannot push or jump into their opponents in their defensive efforts
  • A free throw is awarded to the attacking team for the two infractions above
  • While defending, players are not allowed to step into the goal crease area
  • If a defender steps into the goal crease area to stop an attacking opponent, a 7m throw is awarded to the opposing team
  • When committing faults, a yellow card can be awarded by the referee (similarly to football/soccer)
  • A re-offense is made a 2-minute suspension from the game is awarded by the referee (similarly to ice hockey rules)
  • A third fault is followed by another 2-minute suspension from the game
  • Handball players committing the 4th fault are shown the red card and get eliminated from the game
  • A red card can also be shown directly for serious offenses
  • A blue card can follow the red card whenever there’s a case for a written report for further games suspension

Throws in European handball

  • Throws define handball and much of its appeal. Referees award throws.
  • A throw-off takes place at the middle of the court at the beginning of the two halves and whenever resuming the game after a scored goal
  • A throw-in is awarded to the team which did not touch the ball whenever the ball leaves the play area
  • A goalkeeper throw is awarded to the goalkeeper whenever the ball crosses the outer goal line
  • A free-throw is awarded when the game is resumed after a referee interruption
  • A 7m throw is awarded when a goal-scoring opportunity is illegally prevented
European handball rules on the 7m throw
European Handball rules only allow the thrower and the defending goalkeeper inside the 9m line.

Referees in European handball

  • There are 2 referees in handball
  • One court referee and one goal-line referee ensure rules are abided during the game

Earning match points 

  • 3 points are awarded for a handball win in official games
  • 1 point is awarded in case of a draw
  • 0 points are awarded to the losing team
  • Final group and league standings are normally set by the number of points
  • In case two teams have the same number of points, the winner between these two teams in their previous direct game takes the higher position
  • In case teams can’t be separated by these criteria, the number of scored goals is taken into consideration for the final group or league table standings

Domestic competitions in handball

  • Domestic handball competitions are set by national handball federations

International competitions in handball

  • World championships are held for both men and women every 2 years
  • Handball competitions are held at the Olympics, every 4 years
  • Continental competitions are held for national and club teams
  • Youth handball competitions follow the same principles
  • Beach handball competitions are organized with similar rules

Unwritten rules for handball players

If you like the rules of European handball and want to get into the sport, there are specific skills that can make you successful on the court.


  • It is often believed a good goalkeeper can win a handball game
  • Goalkeepers can expect an average of 40-50 throws per game
  • The best handball teams have 2 goalkeepers of similar value
  • There is no set standard for the physical characteristics of a goalkeeper
  • Some handball goalkeepers are short while others are tall


  • The left wingman and the right wingman are fast players
  • Wingman has most goal tries
  • Wingman score most from a distance
  • The wingman looks to score while also ensuring better positions for their teammates
  • Wingman mostly throw while jumping, over the defending players
  • Wingman is usually tall

Circle runner/pivot

  • The circle runner or the pivot is always in contact with the opposing defense
  • It is recommended for a pivot to have great balance in physical contact
  • A pivot fights both for the ball and to create scoring space for teammates
  • As a result, the pivot is the most fouled player on the court

Centre backcourt

  • Often seen as the coaches’ representative on the court
  • This position suits creative minds
  • The center backcourt can start multiple attacking plays
  • The center backcourt has plenty of movement freedom
  • The center backcourt needs to deeply understand handball
  • The center back needs to highlight his/her teammates’ strengths



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