What is the Difference Between Closed and Open Circuits?

Electricity flows along a circuit, and circuits can be controlled by opening and closing as required.

But sometimes, the current flow might get interrupted, or a short circuit might be created. Also, there are ways we can intentionally control a circuit to make it open or closed. To understand all this, we need to know the difference between an open and closed circuit.

The difference between an open and closed circuit is that a circuit is open when there is a break somewhere along its path, which prevents an electric charge from flowing. It only flows when there is no such break, i.e., when the circuit is completely closed. We can open or close a circuit using a switch or a protector, such as a fuse or a circuit breaker.

I will explain this difference in detail with examples and illustrations before also pointing out more differences for detailed insight.

What is an Open and Closed Circuit?

An Open Circuit

In an open circuit, electrical current is prevented from flowing through it.

Unlike a closed circuit, this type of circuit has an incomplete path that is interrupted or broken. The discontinuity makes the current unable to flow.

A Closed Circuit

In a closed circuit, electrical current is allowed to flow through it.

Unlike an open circuit, this type of circuit has a complete path without interruption or break. The continuity makes it possible for the current to flow.


In diagrams of electrical circuits, we usually indicate an open and closed part of the circuit by curved brackets and a thick dot, as shown in the picture below.

diagrams of electrical circuits

How a Closed Circuit Opens, and Vice Versa

A closed circuit can become open, or vice versa, for an open circuit to become closed.

How a Closed Circuit Can Become Open

If the current flowing through a closed circuit is interrupted, it becomes an open circuit.

A closed circuit can become open accidentally if, for instance, there is a break somewhere along the circuit due to a broken wire. But opening a closed circuit can also be managed intentionally or by design using switches, fuses, and circuit breakers.

So an initially closed circuit can be opened by a broken wire by turning the switch off if the fuse breaks or the circuit breaker trips.

How an Open Circuit Becomes Closed

If current starts flowing through an open circuit, it must be closed.

An open circuit can become closed accidentally if, for instance, a join is made somewhere along the circuit due to wrong wiring or a short circuit. But closing an open circuit can also be managed intentionally or by design using switches, fuses, and circuit breakers.

So an initially open circuit can become closed by wrong wiring, a short circuit, by turning the switch on, if a new fuse is inserted, or if the circuit breaker is switched on.

What Happens When a Circuit is Opened or Closed

I will show you what happens in the case of a lighting circuit with one or two switches.

A Circuit With One Switch

a circuit with one switch

A simple circuit with only one switch can only be connected in series with a load, such as a light bulb.

In this case, the operation of the light bulb depends entirely on that one switch. If it is closed (turned on), the light will be on, and if it is open (turned off), the light will also be off.

This circuit arrangement is common in high-power circuits when we must be sure an appliance, such as a water pump motor, is controllable by a single switch.

A Circuit With Two Switches

A circuit with two switches also has practical applications.

What happens when a circuit is opened or closed depends on whether the circuit is complete or incomplete and whether it is a series or parallel circuit.

Consider a circuit with two switches, as may be found at the top and bottom of a staircase, to control a single light bulb. The table below considers all four possibilities for each circuit type.

switch circuit table

As you can see in the above table, BOTH switches must be on (or closed) in a series circuit for the light to be on. If either is off or both are off, the light will be off, as it would open the circuit.
In a parallel circuit, only ONE of the switches must be on (or closed) for the light to be on. The light will only be off if both switches are turned off, which would open the circuit completely.

For a staircase, you need to be able to turn the light off from either the top or bottom switch, so you can see that a parallel arrangement is the most suitable one.

open and closed switches in a series and parallel circuit
Open and closed switches in a series (top) and parallel circuit (bottom) (1)

Electrical Theory

We can consider different aspects to understand the difference between a closed and open circuit in more detail. These differences are summarized in the table below.

An open circuit is in an off state because the circuit is broken or incomplete, whereas a closed one is in an off state because the circuit is continuous or complete. An open circuit does not allow current to flow, and there is neither electron transfer nor the transfer of electrical energy. In contrast, an open circuit allows current to flow. Consequently, electrons transfer and electrical energy are also transferred.

The voltage (or potential difference) across the break in an open circuit will be equal to the supply voltage and is considered non-zero, but it would be almost zero in a closed circuit.

We can also show another difference in resistance using Ohm’s Law (V = IR). An open circuit will be infinite due to the zero current (I = 0), but in a closed circuit, it will depend on the extent of the current (R = V / I).

AspectOpen CircuitClosed Circuit
StateOpen or OFFClosed or OFF
Circuit pathBroken, interrupted, or incompleteContinuous or complete
CurrentNo current flowCurrent flows
NatureNo electron transferElectron transfer
EnergyNo electrical energy transferredElectrical energy is transferred
Voltage (PD) across the break/switchEqual to the supply voltage (non-zero)Almost zero
ResistanceInfiniteEqual to V / I
Symbolopen circuit symbolclosed circuit symbol

So a circuit is only complete or functional if it is closed, not if it is open.

Besides having a complete and uninterrupted route for current to flow, a closed circuit requires the following elements:

  • An active voltage source, such as a battery.
  • The path is made of a conductor, such as a copper wire.
  • A load on the circuit, such as a light bulb.

If all these conditions are met, the electrons will be free to flow through the entire circuit.

Take a look at some of our related articles below.

(1) Leonard Styles. Deciphering cyberspace: Making the most of digital communication technology. SAGE. 2003.

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About Sam Orlovsky

b1d87d2ee85af3e51479df87928bdc88?s=90&d=mm&r=gCertifications: B.E.E.
Education: University Of Denver - Electric Engineering
Lives In: Denver Colorado

Electrical engineering is my passion, and I’ve been in the industry for over 20 years. This gives me a unique ability to give you expert home improvement and DIY recommendations. I’m not only an electrician, but I also like machinery and anything to do with carpentry. One of my career paths started as a general handyman, so I also have a lot of experience with home improvement I love to share.

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