What Is a 3-Way Switch?

three way switch

Claire Cohen

A three-way switch is used to control ceiling light fixtures or other fixtures and comes in three types. Most common is the single-pole switch, the type of electrical switch used to control a light fixture from a single location. The next most common is the three-way switch. When used in combination with another type of switch—the four-way switch—you can arrange switches to control light fixtures from three or more locations.

What Is a Three-Way Wall Switch?

Three-way switches are commonly used to control one light fixture from two different locations. For example, a long hallway or stairway might use a three-way switch at each end so that lights can be turned on when approaching one end of the hall or stairway, then shut off from the other end.

When both toggles are up or both are down, the circuit is complete and the light fixture will be illuminated. When the toggles are in opposite positions, the circuit is interrupted and the light fixture turns off. This allows either switch to control the on-off function of the light fixture at any time.

How do you you know if you have a three-way switch? There are two clear giveaways that identify a switch as being a three-way type:

  • There are no ON/OFF markings on the switch toggle. Such markings are not needed with this type of switch, as they are with a single-pole switch. A three-way switch does not have markings on it since there's no true ON or OFF position.
  • There are three screw terminals on the body of the switch, in addition to the green grounding screw. One screw, known as the common, is a darker color than the others. The other two screws, usually a lighter brass color, are known as the traveler terminals. 

Watch Now: 5 Main Types of Electrical Switches Explained

Parts of a Three-Way Switch

A three-way switch has four different screw terminals on its body:

The green screw attached to the metal strap of the switch is always for the ground wire (this is the bare copper or green insulated wire within the circuit). Grounding screws on switches were not always required, so if you are replacing an old three-way switch, you may find one without the grounding screw.

The two lighter, brass-colored screws are called the traveler screws. The travel wires connected to these screws will offer two different pathways for power to travel from one switch to the other.

The last screw is the common terminal. It is a darker color than the travelers, usually dark brass, copper, or black. This screw serves one of two purposes depending on where it is positioned in the circuit run: Either it accepts the incoming black (hot) wire from the power source, or it connects to the black (hot) wire that leads onward to the light fixture.

parts of a three-way switch illustration

Illustration: The Spruce / Jaime Knoth

The Grounding Screw Terminal

For safety, always install a three-way switch that has a grounding screw. It is connected directly to the metal strap of the switch, and it may be located on the bottom of the switch, as shown here, or it may be on the side or another location. If you run across an older switch without a grounding screw, it should be replaced with a newer, grounded switch. 

Three-way switch connection
Timothy Thiele

Three-Way Switch Wiring

Three-way switches can be wired in a number of different ways, depending on where they are located relative to the light fixture in the circuit cable runs. For example, they can be arranged so that the feed cable runs to the first three-way switch, then to the light fixture box, then to the second three-way switch. 

Or, as shown here, they can be wired so that the cables run through both three-way switches, then to the light fixture. This is a relatively common configuration, in which the wiring connections are done in this manner: 

  • At the first switch location, the feeder wire from the power source is a 2-wire cable with ground. This means that there is a black hot wire, a white neutral wire, and a bare copper grounding wire. At this first switch, the black feed wire is connected to the common screw on the switch. The grounding wire is connected both to the switch using a pigtail wire, and to the second cable run passing onward to the next switch. If the switch box is metal, it also must be pigtailed to the grounding wires. 
  • The cable run linking the two switches is made with three-wire cable. The black and red wires are "travelers" and are connected to the traveler screw terminals on the two switches. This provides two alternate pathways for hot current to flow between the switches—this is what allows the switches to turn the lights on and off in a flexible manner. 
  • Because switches do not have white-colored neutral wire connections, the neutral wires at the switch boxes are simply joined together so they pass through, onward to the light fixture box. 
  • At the second switch box location, the wiring is similar to the first switch, with the traveler terminals connected to the traveler wires coming from the first switch. However, at this second switch, the common screw terminal is connected to a black hot wire that leads onward to the light fixture. Once again, the white neutral wires are simply joined together, and the grounding wires are joined together with pigtails connecting the switch and to the box, if it is metal. 
  • The cable run from the light fixture requires a 2-wire cable with ground. At the light fixture, completing the wiring is simply a matter of connecting the black and white circuit wires to the matching wire leads on the light fixture. The ground wire is connected to the light fixture lead and is pigtailed to the box, if it is metal. 
A photo of a three-way switch diagram.
Timothy Thiele

Note that wiring configurations can vary greatly depending on how the circuit is arranged. But if you keep in mind the path of electrical flow, and remember that traveler wires must connect the two switches, it should be easy enough to correctly wire a light fixture controlled by two three-way switches.

  • Can I use a three-way switch as a regular switch?

    Yes. You just won't have the ON/OFF markings. If you're installing a three-way as a single pole, it will also need to be wired to the correct two contacts.

  • Can any switch be a three-way?

    If you want a light to work off of a three-way switching system, it's best to switch out the single pole and install a set of true three-way switches.

  • What happens if a three-way switch is wired wrong?

    If your three-way switch is wired wrong your light will not work from both locations. It will only work from one location.