These diagrams illustrate how to wire a pair of three-way light switches in three different situations.

Three-way light switches control a light from two locations, such as from both ends of a staircase or hallway.

A three-way switch is built and wired a little differently than a conventional single-pole light switch. For starters, it doesn’t have “OFF” and “ON” printed on the toggle, and it doesn’t have a top and bottom. It also has one more terminal. Rather than having two terminal screws and a ground screw like a conventional single-pole light switch, a three-way switch has three terminal screws  and a ground screw.

Note: Many contemporary switches have holes for plugging-in the wires instead of screws that lock the wires in place. Nevertheless, the principle is the same.


On most 3-way switches, two of the terminals are the same color (typically silver or brass), and the third terminal, called a “common terminal,” is a different, often darker, color.

Not all three-way switches have these terminals placed in the same configuration, so you have to pay attention to their colors (and the instructions that come with the package) when wiring them.

The switch shown here has silver and gold screws opposite one another and a bronze screw in the third position. The green screw at one end is for the ground wire.

Bare light switch without face plate over a white background

When replacing an existing three-way light switch, be sure to return the wires to the proper screw terminals. Put a piece of tape on the wire that goes to the common terminal screw. The other two wires can attach to either of the identical terminals.

Refer to the illustrations below for doing the rough-in wiring for each of these situations. Note that these diagrams assume that you’re following all recommended practices for safe installation of electrical circuits.

Always turn off the power to the circuit before working with exposed wires. 

How a 3-Way Switch Works

It’s important to recognize that a light switch is designed to interrupt the “hot” wire when it’s turned off.

With this in mind, the white wire from the power source always goes uninterrupted to the light fixture and the bare grounding wires are always fastened to grounding screws.

Black and white illustration of 3-way switch wiring
Three-way Switch Wiring © Don Vandervort, HomeTips


With a three-way switch, three wires connect the pair of switches—two black “traveler” wires and a third “common” wire.

When the circuit’s power is turned on, any of these may be “hot,” depending upon how the switches are toggled.

Because “3-wire-with-ground” nonmetallic electrical cable such as Romex contains a white wire, the white wire can be painted or taped black to serve as an additional black (hot) wire when used as the connecting wire between two three-way switches.

How 3-Way Switches Are Wired

There are three basic ways three-way switches may be set up to control one or more lights. The right one for you will depend upon the placement and relationship of the switches and lights.

Please note: All switches that have a green grounding screw or wire must be grounded to the metal electrical box or to the circuit’s bare or green ground wire.

A) The wires from the power source may enter one switch box first, then travel to the light, and then terminate at the other switch.

Wiring diagram for 3-way light switches, including wire colors and power source direction
Three-way switch wiring where power connects to first switch and then the light.


B) The wires from the power source may enter the light fixture box first, then travel to one switch, and then connect that switch to the other switch.

Wiring diagram for 3-way light switches, including wire colors and power source direction
Three-way switch wiring where power goes directly to the light.

C) The wires from the power source go from switch to switch,
and then go to the light.

Wiring diagram for 3-way light switches, showing power source direction
Three-way switch wiring where power starts at one switch and goes to second switch before traveling to the light.


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About Don Vandervort
An avid builder and remodeler, Don Vandervort has developed his expertise for more than 30 years, as Building Editor for Sunset Books, Senior Editor at Home Magazine, author of more than 30 home improvement books, and writer of countless magazine articles. He appeared for 3 seasons on HGTV’s “The Fix,” and served as MSN’s home expert for several years. Don founded HomeTips in 1996. Read more about Don Vandervort