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Published: Jan 18, 2023 14 min read
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If you’re arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs you probably have questions about the difference between a DWI and a DUI, which is worse, and what comes after.

This guide will help you understand all you need to know about DUIs and DWIs in case you are ever involved in either. Learn the consequences of each and how they will affect your insurance, so you know what steps to take to protect yourself.

DUI vs. DWI — what's the difference?

DUI and DWI refer to driving a vehicle while affected by alcohol or drugs. DUI stands for “driving under the influence,” while DWI stands for “driving while intoxicated” or “driving while impaired.” These sound very similar but could have different interpretations depending on your location.

In some states, the meaning of DUI and DWI are legally the same while in other states they are defined differently and have different consequences.

In states that define the two terms differently, a DWI is often the more severe offense, but this is not always the case. For example, in Maryland, a DUI is more serious than a DWI and comes with stricter penalties.

What does DUI mean?

DUI refers to driving a vehicle while impaired by a mind-altering substance. Depending on state laws, a DUI could refer to driving after using alcohol, drugs or both. Some states define a DUI by the driver's blood alcohol content (BAC).

In others, police can charge you with a DUI based on your behavior and the results of field sobriety tests, such as walking in a straight line, even if your BAC is below the legal limit.

How will a DUI change my insurance?

Drivers who are convicted of a DUI typically see an increase in their auto insurance rates. Even after a first DUI offense, the state will almost always suspend your license for a period of time — usually between several months to a year — and the DUI will go on your driving record.

Most states require that you file an SR-22 form, also known as a certificate of financial responsibility, to get your license reinstated after a suspension. Your insurance company provides the SR-22 to the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) so they can verify that you have the minimum required insurance to reinstate your license.

By filing an SR-22, insurance companies might also designate you as a high-risk driver, raising premiums as a result.

What are the consequences?

The consequences of a first-offense DUI vary depending on where you live. In almost every state your license will be suspended, with suspension time established by each state. You will also have to pay fines anywhere between hundreds to thousands of dollars, though that depends on where you live and if you have prior charges.

In some states, you will need to have an ignition interlock device (IID) installed before you can resume driving. The interlock device is a breathalyzer installed in your vehicle that prevents it from operating if you have alcohol in your system. Some states have mandatory jail sentences for first-time offenders and almost all states require jail time for a subsequent offense.

How long does a DUI stay on your record?

This varies by state. In most states, DUIs stay on your driving record for three to five years, although it is longer in a number of states. DUIs are criminal charges that also appear on your criminal record, indefinitely in some cases.

Several states have an expungement process allowing you to have your record cleared after a predetermined period. Expunging your record is often expensive, and you may need the help of an attorney.

What does DWI mean?

DWI can stand for either “driving while intoxicated” or “driving while impaired”, depending on where you live. Many states use DWI and DUI interchangeably while others define DWI strictly as driving while affected by alcohol — as opposed to drugs — or driving with a blood alcohol concentration above the legal limit. The exact definition varies by location.

How does a DWI change my insurance?

A DWI will cause your insurance premiums to increase. It will be reported to your state's Department of Motor Vehicles, and you will likely have your license suspended and need an SR-22 to have it reinstated. The amount your insurance rates increase will vary based on where you live and your insurance provider.

What are the consequences of a DWI?

The consequences of a DWI may be the same or similar to those of a DUI, including how much a DWI costs. If you live in a state that regards a DWI as a more serious offense than a DUI, you may face a longer license suspension, higher fines and possibly more time in jail. With each subsequent offense, the penalties become more severe.

How long does it remain on your record?

How long a DWI stays on your record depends on where you live. The charge remains on your driving record for three to five years in most states. Insurance companies will almost certainly charge you higher premiums during this time.

What's the legal limit of alcohol while driving a motor vehicle?

The federal legal limit for alcohol while operating a motor vehicle is a BAC of 0.08%. Every state has a zero-tolerance legal limit that applies to drivers under the age of 21, with BAC limits ranging from 0% to 0.02%, depending on the state.

Many states also have enhanced penalty BAC levels that have more severe consequences. These levels range from 0.15% to 0.20%. Some states also hold commercial drivers to stricter BAC limits.

Will a drunk driving charge land you in jail?

In many cases, a drunk driving charge could land you in jail, with several states enacting mandatory jail sentences for DUIs and DWIs. While you may be able to avoid jail time as a first-time drunk driver in some jurisdictions, subsequent offenses almost always carry a mandatory sentence. Mandatory sentences vary by state, ranging from days or months to years.

Can you still get car insurance post-DUI?

Getting car insurance after a DUI can be challenging, but it is possible. Many of the best car insurance companies will continue to insure drivers after a first-time DUI or DWI as long as there are no other high-risk factors on their driving record such as multiple prior accidents.

If your insurance provider does drop you, try applying for coverage through other companies as each provider has its own underwriting guidelines. You may want to shop around anyway since your rates will increase and you could save money by comparing quotes from different companies.

If all traditional insurance providers have denied you coverage, you will still be able to get insurance through your state's assigned risk pool. The state will assign an insurance company to provide you with coverage. This should be your last option, as you will pay very high premiums, and you may only be able to get the minimum coverage required by your state.

How do the laws and charges vary by state?

Each state defines DUIs and DWIs differently. Some even use entirely different terminology such as Maine’s OUI (operating under the influence), and Ohio’s OVI (operating a vehicle under the influence) or DWAI (driving while ability impaired).

States can't set legal BAC levels higher than the federal level of 0.08%, but they can set them lower. In Utah, you can be charged with a DUI if you have a BAC of 0.05%. In New York, the DWI limit is 0.08%, but you can be charged with a DWAI for a BAC between 0.05 and 0.07%.

Each state sets its own laws regarding DUI and DWI penalties, including mandatory license suspension, jail time, treatment requirements and ignition interlock devices.

The table below illustrates differences among states in their BAC legal limits, zero-tolerance BAC limits for drivers under age 21 and increased penalty limits. It also shows the differences in mandatory license suspension times for first offenses.

State BAC Legal Limit Zero-Tolerance BAC Increased Penalty BAC Minimum License Suspension
Alabama 0.08% 0.02% N/A 90 days
Alaska 0.08% 0.00% 0.15% 90 days
Arizona 0.08% 0.00% 0.15% 90 days
Arkansas 0.08% 0.02% 0.15% 6 months
California 0.08% 0.02% 0.16% 4 months
Colorado 0.08% 0.02% 0.17% 90 days
Connecticut 0.08% 0.02% 0.16% 45 days
Delaware 0.08% 0.02% 0.15% 12 months
District of Columbia 0.08% 0.00% 0.15% 6 months
Florida 0.08% 0.02% 0.15% 180 days
Georgia 0.08% 0.02% 0.15% 12 months
Hawaii 0.08% 0.02% 0.15% 90 days
Idaho 0.08% 0.02% 0.20% 90 days
Illinois 0.08% 0.00% 0.16% 6 months
Indiana 0.08% 0.02% 0.15% 180 days
Iowa 0.08% 0.02% 0.15% 180 days
Kansas 0.08% 0.02% 0.15% 30 days
Kentucky 0.08% 0.02% 0.18% 4 months with IID, 6 months without
Louisiana 0.08% 0.02% 0.15% 90 days
Maine 0.08% 0.00% 0.15% 150 days
Maryland 0.08% 0.02% N/A 6 months
Massachusetts 0.08% 0.02% 0.20% 1 year
Michigan 0.08% 0.02% 0.17% 30 days
Minnesota 0.08% 0.00% 0.16% 90 days
Mississippi 0.08% 0.02% N/A 120 days or IID license
Missouri 0.08% 0.02% 0.15% 30 days
Montana 0.08% 0.02% N/A 6 months
Nebraska 0.08% 0.02% 0.15% 6 months
Nevada 0.08% 0.02% 0.18% 90 days
New Hampshire 0.08% 0.02% 0.18% 6 months
New Jersey 0.08% 0.01% 0.10% 3 months
New Mexico 0.08% 0.02% 0.16% 6 months
New York 0.08% 0.02% 0.18% 6 months
North Carolina 0.08% 0.00% 0.15% 1 year
North Dakota 0.08% 0.02% 0.18% 90 days
Ohio 0.08% 0.02% 0.17% 1 year
Oklahoma 0.08% 0.02% 0.17% 180 days
Oregon 0.08% 0.00% N/A 90 days
Pennsylvania 0.08% 0.02% 0.16% N/A
Rhode Island 0.08% 0.02% 0.15% 30 days
South Carolina 0.08% 0.02% 0.16% 6 months
South Dakota 0.08% 0.02% 0.17% 30 days
Tennessee 0.08% 0.02% 0.20% 1 year
Texas 0.08% 0.02% 0.15% 90 days
Utah 0.05% 0.02% 0.16% 120 days
Vermont 0.08% 0.02% N/A 90 days
Virginia 0.08% 0.02% 0.15% 1 year
Washington 0.08% 0.02% 0.15% 90 days
West Virginia 0.08% 0.02% 0.15% 15 days with IID, 6 months without
Wisconsin 0.08% 0.02% 0.15% 6 months
Wyoming 0.08% 0.02% 0.15% 90 days

Is an SR-22 necessary post-DUI?

You will almost always be required to have an SR-22 after a conviction for driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Many states require it after a DUI or DWI and the judge overseeing your case can also mandate it.

An SR-22 is not insurance. It is a certificate proving that you carry the minimum insurance required by your state. Even if you don't have a vehicle, your state may require you to carry non-owner SR-22 insurance.

If you receive a letter stating that you need an SR-22, you must inform your auto insurance provider about the requirement. They will file the form with the state that is requiring it, since you cannot file an SR-22 yourself. Your insurance company will charge you for the filing cost, usually about $25. Your insurance premiums are likely to increase significantly after filing as you are deemed a high-risk driver.

The length of time you are required to have an SR-22 depends on the state you live in and the circumstances of your case. Most states require an SR-22 for three years following a first offense. With multiple offenses, the state may require you have an SR-22 for life.

Know your DUI laws to avoid issues in the future

DUI laws are complicated. They vary from state to state and change over time. Being familiar with your state's current laws can help you avoid issues if you are ever charged with driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Knowing how to find a car accident lawyer is crucial if you are involved in an accident due to drug or alcohol use. You should also be familiar with how to find a personal injury lawyer and how to find a criminal lawyer familiar with drunk driving laws. Consult with an attorney immediately if you receive a DUI or DWI charge.