Many people have fear that they may end up in prison for not paying their credit card debt. Many collection agencies are intimidating debtors with threats provided by agents such as

“if you don’t pay off your debt, then be ready to go to jail.”

I will attempt to organize and present the information, which I have analyzed, which would help you understand and choose what best suits your case.

This article and the comments below it are full of useful information about penalty of non-payment of your creditors.  So take your time to review this post and feel free leave questions or comments.


Non-payments on debt is not considered a crime in the U.S. The U.S. hasn’t make use of a debtor’s prison since the 50’s. Some countries have strict policy against default and can place a debtor in prison for failing to make payments. However, the U.S. government has a vested interest in making debt a desirable fact, therefore debt is not criminalized. In order to go to prison you must be proven guilty of criminal behavior. Different states have different Laws regarding these issues.

If you are defaulting, then the following would be your options:

  1. Pay/Settle your debt (If you already have some cash).
  2. File bankruptcy (an often nightmare).
  3. Ignore and possibly end up in jail for contempt of court order (Happens rarely).
  4. Start payment of full amount.
  5. Exit U.S.

What will probably happen?

According to my knowledge and expertise, your creditor can take you to civil court and obtain judgment against you claiming that you owe him debt.  Through the judgment the collector can then get liens against your property and/or garnish your wages. But getting to this point of wage payment or holding your property is time consuming and usually never occurs.  This is because the collector has to go through a process that is explained later in this article.

Going to jail for contempt wasn’t something that I thought could occur, but then recently I’ve read some articles, which have made me realize that in some rare cases an arrest warrant can be issued for (in cases where there is contempt of court). I think that is related to your not showing up in court, but from what I’ve read; these arrest warrants are very uncommon.

In general, the negative consequences (negative credit reporting, wage garnishment, liens, or jail) often depends on the amount of money involved and the aggressiveness of the creditor.  The more money involved (in excess of $1,000) the more likely the creditor or collection agency will pursue legal action against the debtor.

Generally these guidelines are followed in this course of action:

When you default (on your payments), your credit collection division calls you (almost everyday) to convince you into making a payment.  Usually they give up the phone calls and letters within 1 to 2 years.  They can’t get you to pay so they (usually another collection agency, not the original creditor) sue you in civil court.

This can also happen while you are involved with the “debt settlement program”.  Normally, they won’t bother to sue you, because it’s a time consuming process. So, unless they are certain that they can get some money out of you, they don’t sue.

Keep in mind that there are rules that collection agencies must follow according to the “Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.”  If they are not following these rules, then you can also file a suit against them. For example, if they have your cellular/phone number, they are not permitted to call your family, friends, or company (if you ask them not to).  Also, you can write a cease and desist letter which instructs them to only communicate with you via U.S. post/snail mail.

These are some of the scenarios that you should serious consider:


You don’t show up in the court and the judge rules in favor of the creditor.  This ruling is an acknowledgement that you owe the money.  I’ve read that around 80% to 90% of judgments are never collected!  This is because the judgment is usually just an acknowledgement that you owe the money, and that’s all.  But for collection, another court date must be assigned to perform a ‘writ of execution’.  If they call you for this, and you don’t show up, then they may issue a bench warrant for your arrest.

A writ of execution is a general court order approved by a court in an attempt to satisfy a ruling obtained by applicant. Court normally will order a sheriff or other similar authorized person to levy assets owned by a judgment debtor. Such assets will often then be sold in sheriff’s sale, and the proceeds compensated to the claimant in partial or full satisfaction of the verdict. It is generally considered preferable for the sheriff simply to take possession of money from the defendant’s bank account. If the judgment debtor owns real property, the judgment creditor can record the implementation to “freeze” the title until the implementation is satisfied.

Not showing up on this one would automatically mean Contempt of Court.  This is the part of the procedure where the specifics will be carefully looked at.  This is where they get your employment information for wage garnishment or asset information for liens.  But do keep this in mind that most collections will hardly get to this point.  It totally depends on how aggressive they are on your particular case.  Many people are in fact in a position where they cannot be collected on.  If incase you are disabled and/or on limited income, chances are that they can get a judgment but will never be able to collect the debt.  There is also a Federal minimum wage pay per week (around 30 hours), which if you make below, they cannot collect.  For example, if you make a minimum wage of $5.80 per hour, times 30 hours, comes to $174 per week or $702 /month.  If you make equal to that or less they cannot lay a hand on you.  Money that is in IRA’s, custodial accounts, trusts, annuities, and insurance contracts are often untouchable.


Defending yourself against the creditor. Here, you give details as to why you do not owe the money or are unable to pay, due to particular reasons.  The judge may or may not rule in your favor.  My advice is that if you seriously can’t pay or don’t owe the money then just walk into the court and try and defend yourself and hopefully (90% of the times) things will work out your way.

The wage garnishment depends on many factors such as: your income level, your spouse’s income may also be taken into consideration, and the number of dependents you have.

Possibility of airport arrest in U.S?

Many people are concerned about this question. Families moved away from the U.S (to some other country) and they have a massive debt that they’ve left behind.  Now they plan on returning to the U.S. for a family visit or vacation and they are worried sick about outstanding arrest warrant related to the debt.

If you are worried about this risk try performing an information search on yourself at a site like this one .  You can also take precautionary measures and avoid entering the state where you used to reside.  Now, if you have an arrest warrant for fraud (related to your debt) the likelihood that arrest may be carried out will be a bit more, since this is a criminal, not civil arrest warrant.

Committing Fraud

Also, if you acquired debt by committing fraud, you can go to jail. For example, let’s assume that just moved into a new apartment. Mail for the previous tenant is still arriving at your apartment. A credit card offer comes in the mail for the previous tenant and you fill out the application and mail it in. Now, if you get the card and start using this new credit card, which is in someone else’s name then this is fraud and if convicted, you could end up in jail. Once, this happened to my cousin. My cousin moved out of her apartment and the incoming tenant received her mail and ran up thousands of dollars in retail charges. My cousin had to get a lawyer involved and it took years to get this completely removed from her credit report.

Perhaps you ‘borrow’ your brother’s credit card and go out spending a couple of grand without him knowing about it. Then you could be fined and or also imprisoned for fraud. This type of conduct is also considered fraud and criminal in nature.

You could also end up in prison if you ran up debt worth thousands of dollars on credit cards with intent of not paying back. Recently the federal government changed the law on the subject of filing bankruptcy for credit card debt. The new regulation makes it hard to erase the debts you owe to credit card companies. Before this rule went into effect, bankruptcy courts received a record number of new filings. Broke citizens were all trying to file in bankruptcy before the law came into effect.

Back then, I had an colleague who had in fact, filed bankruptcy on debts to various creditors, worth over $75,000. We were discussing the new law and he suggested that he had tens of thousands of dollars in credit card debt. When the bills came unpaid he would simply file bankruptcy, before the new law took effect. jail

Many citizens do exactly that. But, if the credit card company can prove that this was intentional in court, then most judges would find you guilty of fraud (for intentionally taking out loans that you did not plan on repaying). However, it is always difficult to prove that someone had no intention of repaying. For example, if you applied for five credit cards, reached the limits for a total of $12,500, and then never made a payment, you could end up in trouble. It would be very  clear that your intention was criminal.

So, if it is proved that you had received money or goods by misleading means, you may be eligible for a criminal conviction.

You could also be put away for the following:

  • If you disobey a court ruling (a ruling against you to pay child support).
  • If you are found guilty of deliberately failing to pay your income tax to the government.
  • If you are attempting to hide property or income to avoid non-payment (of debt), for which there is a verdict against you.

Criminal penalties (Bankruptcy related acts) include:

  • If you take advantage of tenants (fraud).
  • If you falsify a insolvency adjudicators signature
  • If you commit lying under oath during the creditor’s meeting

Do keep this in mind that there is a difference in a judgment (civil court decision in cases where you owe money to another party), and a verdict (criminal court conviction of an offense). In a civil court case the outcome will largely depend on the judge and his understanding of the situation.

Simply failing to pay on your debt is not a crime

If simply non-payment of your debts was a crime then half the people you know would be in jail. Even the author of this article J, although my debt is caught up now and ill soon pay it off in full. Due to debt, many people have lost their jobs, assets and had unexpected medical issues that forced serious changes to their lifestyle. Collection agencies and collectors will often scare you with statements. But, like I said earlier, collection agencies will do anything they can to persuade you to pay the debt but you cannot go to jail for simply failing payment. This is why we have debt settlement, bankruptcy, and ruined credit scores.

List of negative consequences that you may be eligible for:

  • Collection Agents and Agencies may bother you by calling over and over again.
  • They may also call your place of employment and ask for your whereabouts.
  • They can also call your neighbors and ask them if they know where you are.
  • They can take legal action against you in civil court for the outstanding debt.
  • They can win a judgment in civil court against you for the debt owed.
  • Through the ruling they can garnish wages from your paycheck.
  • Through the judgment they can garnish your banking accounts.
  • In some states, they can get a lien against your property (house) and sell it to pay off the debt.
  • They can also report the collection information to credit bureaus which lowers one’s credit score.

In short the answer is NO

You can’t go be behind bars for simply not paying your debts, unless you are in contempt of court. But the fact is that creditors and collection agencies will try and make your life a living hell. So it’s in your best interest to get this situation handled in a manner that suits you.

Always remember

Some collectors will try and scare by any means they can to force you to pay up. My advice is that you should educate yourself about your options and avoid taking debt if you can. Get acquainted with “debt and collection” articles, facts and findings. Please leave your opinions, testimonials, questions and queries in the comment field.

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Rana Mansoor Akbar Khan

Rana Mansoor Akbar Khan

Financial Blogger. Tech Journalist. Freelance web developer.


  1. […] Can you end up in Jail for non-payment of your Credit Card Debt … […]

  2. April 29, 2009 at 6:20 am

    A very nice article and very informative… this is what im really looking cause I also fear of going to jail because of unpaid credit card debts.

  3. […] In Jail for non-payment of your Credit Card Debt? […]

  4. Rita Henry
    June 6, 2009 at 3:03 am

    How about ignoring hospital bills? My relative does this continuously…..goes to emergency room to get services and pills since she has no insurance. Will it ever catch up to her? She has no assets and the lowest credit score in history. Doesn’t matter to her. Minimum wage worker and very irratic work history.

  5. Ashu
    August 10, 2009 at 7:59 am

    What about people of other countries ? They come ……enjoy Hospitals, Rent Cars, Operations etc……….Leave US and went back home………..Is this under any Law ?

  6. kat
    September 1, 2009 at 2:52 pm

    what possible civil case that a collection agent or credit card company may file against a debtor for non-payment of the latter’s credit card? Is there a leading case to that?


  7. atif
    September 19, 2009 at 4:34 am

    my question is that what can happen next if i exit the country without telling my creditors?? banks can launch criminal proceedings against me for that?

  8. September 19, 2009 at 1:24 pm

    I think keeping quite is cheaper for banks than filing a law suit. (that is in case of debt lower than $5000 )

  9. Francisco M
    September 22, 2009 at 1:33 am

    I lost my job in the Middle East and was repatriated to Philippines.. What will happen now that i dont have the capacity to pay the credit card dues/bills

  10. jORGE
    November 21, 2009 at 12:00 am


  11. pau
    November 22, 2009 at 5:25 am

    You are nuts, I’ve read that around 80% to 90% of judgments are never collected, that statement is way stinky, the courts are jammed with lawyers getting writs of execution to garnish wages. Go to jail, there is no debtor prisons. But for collection, another court date must be assigned to perform a ‘writ of execution’. If they call you for this, and you don’t show up, then they may issue a bench warrant for your arrest. WHAT they dont call you for that proceeding, if they did everyone would empty there accounts. They can also call your neighbors and ask them if they know where you are. This is against FDCA rules and punishable by a $1,000 fine. You do have some good info here but you need to do way more research regarding this matter. If I stumbled onto this not knowing what I do,it would have scared me to death.

    • November 22, 2009 at 2:23 pm

      This is quite an old article of this blog. All of assertion you have made are really true and make good sense. would you like to write for our blog occasionally as a guest writer?

  12. pau
    November 22, 2009 at 5:31 am

    I think keeping quite is cheaper for banks than filing a law suit. (that is in case of debt lower than $5000 ) WOW what a sad comment, they will sell debt to a collection agency for pennies on the dollar, then the CA will hound you relentlessly, and maybe get a judgement against you.

  13. Brenda
    January 8, 2010 at 12:33 pm

    I am terrified of th Debt Collectors – a Law Firm, who told me that I am going to jail if I don’t pay my debt. Now I feel a little better, knowing that I can go to jail only if I am in contempt of court. Thank you very much.

  14. January 25, 2010 at 7:19 pm

    Good Information, Now I can sleep at night, I hate all these threats about taking me in to prison, Blah Blah..I feel for those who like me don’t owe this debt and still getting harassed. But overall you did educate me :0)

  15. Alisha
    May 17, 2010 at 12:29 pm

    I have a court date in 3 days from Capital One Credit card.. I owe $1200, I plan on going to court.. I have 3 children, no job and no money in the bank.. I’m married, but seperated at this point. Is there anything they can do to me? I dont have any property in my name either.. Thanks

  16. Gori
    May 27, 2010 at 2:05 am

    I’m some credit card customer,I’m in 2 years out of USA,and didn’t make any payment sinc september 2008..lost all my jobs,and havn’t any income sinc I planing come back to the USA…I made phone call to the credit card office,and there said my case was filled in court, when I will be back probably in octomber I will be start make payment, I owen about $2000.00 with fees and panalties. what happens with me? what desicion can make court? and it’s possible make some deal with credit card office?
    Thank you.

  17. Cathy
    June 21, 2010 at 6:48 pm

    I just received a call from a collection agency and was informed that if I didn’t pay or make arrangements to pay, they would file fraud charges and I would go to jail. I live on SSDI and told the woman that I don’t get a check until next month, and can’t pay anythring right now. She told me she was posting my account that I “refused to pay”. I don’t dispute the bill, but can she actually file fraud charges for $102.00 that I owe to Avon?

  18. September 23, 2010 at 12:08 am

    My partner and I came here since this blog site has been tweeted by a young lady I had been following and am pleased I made it here.

  19. kavya
    July 25, 2011 at 11:01 am

    I have a car loan of 3 lakhs since last 5.5 yrs.i had payed them 1.5 lakhs till this date but the tottal amount was considered as interest by the they are asking me to pay 3 lakhs more.I am away from my home and bank people doesnt have any contacts with me .Wat all actions they can take against me.Pls advice.I am jobless and dont have any idea how to pay it back.i dont have anything in my name except tat car.Kindly advice.

  20. Kat
    September 16, 2011 at 7:47 am

    What about credit card companies who are targeting the ederly and disabled? I have a family member who is mentally challenged and somehow managed to rack up over 20k in credit cards. One company even gave her two accounts with the same department store? She receives Social Security so I wonder whose math skills were off that day? If they would have properly verified her income I dont believe she would be in the mess she is in today. She has received threatening calls, letters, etc. We contacted a lawyer who said in her case bankruptcy is the answer because she does not own anything. But still? Why are these companies allowed to use the excuse of not discriminating? This is why our country is financially flawed because we are allowing these big banks to make unethical decisions and then they try to point the finger somewhere else. GE Money, you make unethical business decisions and I hope you go down financially. GE Money you take advantage of ederly and disabled persons. SHAME ON YOU.

  21. Travis
    December 7, 2011 at 3:22 am

    Thank you so much this helped me out and took stress off me :)

  22. ML
    December 20, 2011 at 3:15 am

    As a specialy foreign worker, I was laid off in early 2009 and this has affected my repayments for debts. I have sold everything and paid as much credit card debts then had to leave the US but I am fearful that if I ever want to visit US, my past will haunt me. After the layoffs, I could’nt pay some credit card on time till it was cancelled by the company. When I return to my home country, I did called up the company to pay up my debts. From what they claim, I do not owe but I have seen cases whereby they charge fees into your account despite paying in full. Although, I have paid up the debts, how would I know that it is truly paid for? Is it true after 7 years, your debt history will be erased? Could a person mend their tragic debt history and restore it??? I just hope no one has to go through this nightmarish event! I lost sleep and was so stress up about it!

  23. allannah
    January 30, 2012 at 6:08 pm

    i was just threatened that i am under investigation with a credit card company by a specialist. They said that i had the intent not to pay back the debt, and i simply told them i am currently on assitstance and a single mother. i told them i can pay 25$ a month and they hung up on me. Can i go to jail?????

  24. James
    February 19, 2012 at 11:30 pm

    I find it amazing that banks threaten to default on their debts, threaten to upset the world of finance if they dont get their hands on taxpayer money, indeed in Greece, the banks are forcing them to put untold numbers into misery to get their money from taxpayers, but wont in turn cut the taxpayer any slack. The banks, through the government, are ruining the lives of millions. Hounding people who cant pay their debts, that were fed to them by the banks, creating misery around the world is unforgiveable. Given the expense of living today, some people cant survive without credit cards. The banks are no better than mafia collectors. I only hope that God does exist as their existence in the after life will be awful.

  25. ella
    February 27, 2012 at 7:10 pm

    I owed thru HSBC about Php8K sometime in 2008 and ws not able to pay it for the company we worked with stopped its operation, thenceforth we have been earning not even enough for daily needs. this debt is the last priority considering the family daily needs are most important to survive. there had been many collectors urging us to pay and avail the amnesty, because the debt reached to 85,000 with the interest accumulated. But even so, we could not pay it. how i wished to grab the amnesty amount of 6k, yet we could not pay it… all that we earned would go for the daily breads for my kids.

    Now, i am far from my family working to survive, a caller from collection law firm disturbs me saying if i don’t pay the i will be sued if not settled out of court. this threatens me again and disturbs my sanity. my husband has no work for he has the ailments and could not go farther with a vehicle , so he has limited income and not even stable.

    the caller told me to come to their office and settle. which i don’t feel like going there for i have nothing yet to promise. but if ever i would have a better earning, of course i will pay for peace even if it is this much with the accumulation of interests.

    She said they will push the case to court. this really threatens me… do i really get behind jail?

    Please counsel me otherwise i will go insane of this debt which is impossible for me to pay this moment. HOping soon in the future with God’s blessings.

    thanks for your counsels..please do it for me. thanks

    ella (Philippines)

  26. paul
    February 28, 2012 at 4:39 am

    The best thing to always do when dealing with creditors and collection agencies is to not answer the phone, get an answering machine and screen calls. The less that you say the better that you are, you can’t be found guilty of fraud unless it can be proven that it was your intention, or you admit to it.