What is the difference between theft, robbery and burglary?

In reports about crimes where money or property are taken, “theft”, “burglary” and “robbery” are terms often used interchangeably. There are, however, very clear differences between these offences.

Put very simply, someone is guilty of robbery if he steals from a person using force or makes them think force will be used. Theft means taking someone’s property but does not involve the use of force. Burglary means illegally entering a property in order to steal property from it.

Below is a summary of each offence and what it involves.


In legislation “a person is guilty of theft if he dishonestly appropriates property belonging to another with the intention of permanently depriving the other of it.” This could mean someone stealing from a shop, picking someone’s pocket, stealing a bicycle or car, an employee stealing from their workplace or a guest stealing something from a house during a party.

The maximum sentence for theft is seven years.


The definition as set out in legislation is as follows: “A person is guilty of robbery if he steals, and immediately before or at the time of doing so, and in order to do so, he uses force on any person or puts or seeks to put any person of being then and there subjected to force”.

This can include a street mugging or robbery of a shop, business or security vehicle.

Due to the violent nature of robbery, it is treated as being more serious than theft and the maximum sentence is life.


Burglary is committed when an offender either:

  1. a) as a trespasser enters a building intending to steal, inflict grievous bodily harm or do unlawful damage; or,
  2. b) having entered as a trespasser steals or attempts to steal, or inflicts or attempts to inflict grievous bodily harm.

There are three types of burglary recognised in law. These are:

Domestic burglary – Burglary of a dwelling

This type of burglary occurs when an offender enters, as per the definition above, a building which people live in. This generally refers to houses or flats. It also includes boats and vehicles in which people live, such as caravans, and can include domestic outhouses or garages if they are linked to a house.

The maximum sentence is 14 years.


Non-domestic burglary – Burglary of premises other than a dwelling – Theft Act 1968 (s9)

This type of burglary relates to buildings which are not lived in, such as shops or offices.
The maximum sentence is 10 years.


Burglary can be committed when a person is permitted to enter a home or other premises but then goes to a room or area where they are not permitted to be and steals something.  For example, if person steals from items on display in a shop that would be theft, but if they go into a storeroom and steal something, that would be burglary.


Aggravated burglary

This offence is committed when, at the time of a burglary, the offender has with him any firearm or imitation firearm, any weapon of offence or any explosive.

Where a weapon is used to attack someone at the property in the course of the burglary the offender would also normally be charged with an assault offence, or alternatively they could be charged with robbery.

The maximum sentence for aggravated burglary is life.