Burglary vs. Robbery

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Confused about the difference between burglary and robbery? You’re not alone. Here’s the definitive guide to sorting out what makes a robbery different from a burglary.

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What’s the difference between burglary and robbery?

The difference between a robbery and a burglary comes down to two simple things: the crime classification and the presence of a person.

Burglary is classified as a property crime. It doesn’t matter if anyone is home or if the house is vacant. As long as someone enters your property unlawfully, it’s a burglary.

Robbery is classified as a violent crime, and another person (the victim) needs to be part of the act. Think of things like mugging or purse snatching (if force is involved). If a person is harmed or threatened as part of the crime, it’s a robbery.

And then there’s theft. This is also considered a property crime. Theft happens when something is stolen without entry into a structure or a person being involved. If you left your phone on a bench and someone swiped it when you walked away, that would be theft.

States and local jurisdictions get even more specific when it comes to how these crimes are classified. State criminal code may have slightly different definitions for what constitutes a burglary charge, robbery charge, petty theft, or other type of theft-related crime.

Depending on how your state, city, or county handles these crimes, they could be classified as a felony or a misdemeanor. Whether a crime is considered a misdemeanor or a felony speaks to the seriousness of the charges and the severity of the penalty.

Burglary definition

The FBI defines burglary as “the unlawful entry of a structure to commit a felony or theft. To classify an offense as a burglary, the use of force to gain entry need not have occurred.”

What can be burgled?

The FBI’s current definition is an updated version of burglary, which used to cover only unlawful entry into a house. Law enforcement expanded the definition to include any kind of structure.

The FBI even lays out a helpful list of structures (other than a house) that could be burgled:

  • Apartment
  • Barn or stable
  • Office
  • House trailer
  • Houseboat (if used as a permanent dwelling)
  • Railroad car (but not a motor vehicle)
  • A “vessel” (e.g. a ship)

Burglary from a motor vehicle is excluded by the FBI because motor vehicle theft has its own classification. Local jurisdictions and states may classify a car break-in as a burglary charge.

Burglary classifications

Now that you know that your railroad car or stable could be burgled, there are three different ways a burglary could occur.

The FBI uses three types of burglary classifications: forcible entry, attempted forcible entry, and unlawful entry without force. Let’s take a closer look at what each one means.

Forcible entry

If physical force or threats of force are used in the course of a burglary, it’s classified as a forcible entry burglary.

Evidence of force could be a broken window or door. It’s also considered force if the burglar uses violence or threats of violence to enter the home or obtain items once inside.

If the occupants are forced out of the home by the burglar, that also counts as forcible entry.

Attempted forcible entry

This is pretty much what it sounds like. If someone tries to force their way into a structure—but they don’t succeed—it’s called attempted forcible entry.

Unlawful entry without force 

This is the opposite of forcible entry. If the burglar gained entry through an unlocked door or open window, it is considered unlawful entry without force.

If the perpetrator walks in through an unlocked door and then threatens the occupants or forces them outside, the classification would change to forcible entry.

Robbery definition

The FBI defines robbery as “the taking or attempting to take anything of value from the care, custody, or control of a person or persons by force or threat of force or violence and/or by putting the victim in fear.”

Does a weapon need to be used in a robbery?

A weapon may or may not be used in the commission of a robbery. If a weapon is used, the FBI tracks the types of weapons involved.

Here’s a look at the types of weapons reported during armed robberies in 2018, and how often each was used:

  • Strong-arm tactics were used in 43% of robberies where a weapon was involved.
  • Firearms were used in 38.2% of armed robberies.
  • Knives (or other cutting instruments) were used in 8.3%.
  • 10.4% of armed robberies used “another dangerous weapon.”

Where do robberies happen? 

The FBI also keeps of track of where robberies happen:

  • 36.9% of robberies happen on the street or a highway.
  • 15.9% happen at a residence.
  • 16.0% of robberies are reported from commercial property.
  • Almost 7% of robberies are at convenience stores—about half as many (3.1%) occur at stand-alone gas stations.
  • 1.6% occur at a bank.
  • Nearly 20% of robberies are in locations that are considered “miscellaneous.”

What about theft?

Theft is another term that gets bandied around interchangeably with burglary and robbery.

Broadly, theft is a more general term that refers to someone taking something that doesn’t belong to them. Both robbery and burglary involve theft.

Legally, it gets a bit trickier.

The FBI UCR only tracks larceny-theft, which refers to things like bike theft, shoplifting, and pickpocketing. The FBI classifies larceny-theft by type and by value.

City and state jurisdictions may have different ways to classify a theft crime, so it’s best to check your local laws for specifics. The value of items stolen may also impact the severity of any theft charge, particularly differences between being charged with a misdemeanor versus a felony.

Burglary vs. robbery: The stats

In our 2020 State of Safety survey, Americans named burglary as their number one property crime fear. Being robbed on the street was the second most common violent crime fear, tied with falling victim to a mass shooting.

When it comes to the crimes people feel they’re most likely to fall victim to, robbery comes out on top for violent crime, and burglary remains number one for property crime.

But those aren’t the most common crimes that really do happen.

How often do burglaries occur?

According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) for 2018 (the most current data available), this is the state of burglary in the US:

  • One burglary happens every 25.7 seconds.¹
  • In 2018, there were 1.2 million burglaries nationwide, down nearly 12% from the previous year.
  • Burglaries were the second most common property crime in the US, accounting for 17.1% of all property crime.
  • Most burglaries (65.5%) in 2018 happened at residential properties.
  • The average burglary results in monetary loss of $2,799 (more than the average loss per robbery).

How often do robberies occur?

Here’s a look at how prevalent robbery is across the country, according to the FBI’s 2018 UCR data.

  • A robbery happens every 1.9 minutes.¹
  • There were over 282,000 robberies reported in 2018. That’s a 12% decrease from 2017.
  • Robbery was the second most common violent crime in the US, adding up to 23% of all violent crime.
  • The average dollar value of a robbery is $2,119 (less than the average loss of a burglary).
  • Residential robberies resulted in the most loss—costing $4,600 on average per incident.

Most larceny-thefts result in loss of more than $200. Interestingly, the next most common value for a larceny-theft is under $50, which could include something like stealing coins from a parking meter.

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Rebecca Edwards
Written by
Rebecca Edwards
Rebecca is the lead safety reporter and in-house expert for SafeWise.com. She has been a journalist and blogger for over 25 years, with a focus on home and community safety for the past decade. Rebecca spends dozens of hours every month poring over crime and safety reports and spotting trends. Her expertise is sought after by publications, broadcast journalists, non-profit organizations, podcasts, and more. You can find her expert advice and analysis in places like NPR, TechCrunch, The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, The Miami Herald, HGTV, MSN, Reader's Digest, Real Simple, and an ever-growing library of podcast, radio and TV clips in the US and abroad.

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