Even the most law-abiding citizen may have to post bail for a friend arrested in a DUI traffic stop or a relative in trouble for disturbing the peace. The problem is, when people get the call to help, they have no idea what to do but often need to make decisions fast. What you need to know now…

Bail basics: Bail is intended to ensure that a person let out of custody shows up for his/her court appearances. People who have strong ties to the community or meet other criteria may be freed without posting bail (“released on their own recognizance” in legalese). Defendants considered dangerous to the community may not be offered bail. Everyone else must put up cash or another form of payment to be released. If a bailed-out defendant fails to show up in court, an arrest warrant is issued and the bail is then forfeited.

Many jurisdictions have standard bail schedules for common offenses. Example: The standard amount for a DUI arrest in Florida’s Miami-Dade County is $1,000. Once bail is posted, the individual is released.

If an alleged crime is less common—or more serious—a judge sets bail in an amount tailored to the individual and alleged crime. Judges may not be available right away, especially on weekends. Defendants may have to spend up to several days in jail before bail can even be set-let alone paid.

Where to get the money for bail…

Option #1: Pay the bail yourself or have someone you know do it. Though bail may have been set at, say, $5,000, courts may require that only a certain percentage be paid up front—usually 25% to 30%. But if the arrested person fails to appear in court, whoever paid the deposit is liable for the full $5,000. Many jurisdictions allow bail to be posted as cash, cashier’s checks or certain kinds of money orders. More and more now are accepting credit and debit cards—though you will have to pay an extra processing fee (usually 7% of the amount that is put on the card).

Once the defendant has shown up for all court appearances, bail will be ­refunded, minus any fines if the defendant is found guilty and sometimes administrative fees. In some courts, bail paid by credit card or debit card will be refunded to the defendant, not the cardholder. Ask about this before you use your card to post bail for another person.

Option #2: Hire a bail bondsman. People who can’t put their hands on the money right away can use a professional bail bondsman to make bail. The usual fee is 10% of the bail amount, payable in cash, by credit/debit card or by check. Bail bondsmen often also require collateral such as a home or car, which they can claim if the suspect flees.

Payments to bondsmen are not refundable. Bondsmen keep these fees even if defendants show up in court. If defendants don’t show up, the bondsmen must pay the court 100% of the bail and can take legal action to get back the money from whoever hired them.

Some states don’t allow the use of bondsmen. Other states require them to be licensed. Search for local bondsmen in the phone book or online. You can contact them 24/7 and make arrangements for bail in person, by phone or online.