Rollerball vs. Ballpoint Pens: A comparison


Ballpoint pens are very similar to rollerballs but there are several differences.


Rollerball and ballpoint pen writing

Ballpoint pens uses a thick oil-based ink, whilst rollerball pens use a water-based ink, more similar to the ink used in fountain pens. These two styles of ink act very differently to one another. We've highlighted the key difference below:

  • Oil-based inks can be thick and sticky, which will sometimes leave blobs of ink on the page or be difficult to start writing after long breaks between uses
  • Water-based ink is more fluid and usually provides a smoother writing experience
  • Oil-based inks are less prone to drying then water-based inks
  • Oil-based inks generally last much longer than water-based inks; even if both pens have been stored properly


Due to the inks used, ballpoints and rollerballs have different barrel styles. As a ballpoint pen's oil-based ink is less prone to drying, it does not require a cap, so these generally use a twist mechanism or a click mechanism to expose the writing tip. A rollerball pen, with its water-based ink, needs its tip kept out of the air and so will generally have a cap to enclose the writing tip. It's very important to remember to cap your rollerball pen when not in use to avoid the refill from drying out. Many find that ballpoint pens are more convenient as they do not have a cap and can be used with one hand.

Occasionally you can find a capless rollerball pen, like the Cross Edge or Lamy Tipo, where you have the best of both worlds.

Two capless rollerball pens; the Cross Edge in red and Lamy Tipo in black purple


The fluidity of ink translates to a rollerball pen generally having a finer writing line, which is good for people with smaller handwriting or for detailed drawings. On the other hand, a ballpoint pen does have a more controlled action and is deemed suitable for completing official forms and documents.

A rollerball pen may cause slight bleeding onto the back of the paper depending on the quality of the paper and the pressure at which one writes.

We’ve provided scans showing the stroke of each type of pen as well as the bleed onto the back of the paper. The paper which we’ve used is standard 80GSM computer printer paper.

 line-comparisonPicture 1: Note that the rollerball pen writes a darker, finer line.

Rollerball vs Ballpoint back bleedPicture 2: Note that the roller pen causes negligible bleed onto the back of the paper while the ballpoint pen causes no bleed.





  • Ink is suitable for use on official documents
  • Ink does not bleed through the paper
  • Body style / mechanism means the pen can be used one handed
  • Ink tends to dry almost instantly avoiding smudges


  • Less pressure needs to be applied when writing.
  • Smoother writing
  • Available with finer tip points


  • The ink can feel thick and sticky
  • If left for a long time it can be difficult to get the pen
    writing again
  • Big blobs of ink will take a long time to dry and will leave
    big smudges if you try to wipe away


  • Refill more prone to drying
  • Shorter refill life even when stored properly
  • Ink can smudge fairly easily in the moments after writing

40 thoughts on “Rollerball vs. Ballpoint Pens: A comparison”

  • Mukul
    Written by Mukul on December 22, 2018

    Hello, I’m in aviation and am using Parker pen with Ultra Fine roller ball refills. This pen is subjected to change of cabin altitude from 0 to 7000 feet within 30 min until reaching cruising altitude and the reverse during descent. I’ve been using 2 different type of roller ball Parker refills and both have shown similar characteristics of light to moderate bleeding (leakage) after having used about two thirds of the ink.

    Do you think there could be a manufacture defect in the refills, or should I discontinue roller ball & switch to ball pen ink?

    • Gemma Plumbridge
      Written by Gemma Plumbridge on January 17, 2019


      The leaking is due to the change in cabin pressure. The remaining ink is being forced out of the refills to try and equalise the pressure. This is not a defect and is a known issue of using pens at altitude. Fountain pens and rollerball pens suffer the worst from this as they are a water-based ink and so more free flowing. The viscous oil based ink of a ballpoint is less susceptible to leakages due to pressure changes.

      If you would like to continue using a rollerball pen, then the best way around is to ensure a full or mostly full refill, but this would obviously be somewhat wasteful. Otherwise switching to a ballpoint would probably be beneficial.

      - Gemma

  • Written by Gail Klein on July 17, 2018

    Ballpoint pens can take different width cartridges,e.g. they produce thicker or thinner lines. Is this true for roller point pens too? If not is their line just like the thinnest of the ballpoint refills? Thanks

    • Gemma Plumbridge
      Written by Gemma Plumbridge on July 26, 2018

      Many manufacturers do different tip widths for their ballpoint pens, but its more unusual to find various widths in rollerballs. We know that Lamy and Parker do them.

      Also don't try and compare line widths between writing types. A medium ballpoint might be 0.8mm line width, but a rollerball 0.7mm... It's not really clear cut as this will also vary brand to brand.

  • Written by Angela on July 7, 2018

    I’m looking to get my husband a Mont Blanc for his 40th. He uses gel pens - should I go rollerball?

    • Gemma Plumbridge
      Written by Gemma Plumbridge on July 26, 2018

      A gel ink refill is between ballpoint ink and rollerball ink in terms of its properties. It's free flowing, but won't dry as quick as the water based inks of most refills. You can get gel refills for certain brands in either ballpoint or rollerball, so it's really going to be about what writing type your husband prefers and if you can get a gel refill to fit the pen.

      If you are just looking to purchase a pen and not switch refills then probably rollerball.

  • Written by Kien thuc can sa on February 13, 2018

    Terrific work! That is the type of information that are supposed
    to be shared around the internet. Shame on the search engines for no longer positioning this publish upper! Thank you =)

  • George Franklin
    Written by George Franklin on September 5, 2016

    Are there ballpoint and rollerball pens with mechanisms that are higher quality than those in inexpensive pens?

    • Jeremiah Habecker
      Written by Jeremiah Habecker on August 23, 2017

      The best inexpensive (ie 'cheap') rollerball that I've found is the Vision Elite by Uni-ball. It has an internal ink reservoir just like a fountain pen which helps regulate changes in pressure. You can pack a Uni-ball rollerball in your checked luggage and never worry about it exploding. I live in Colorado at 4,560 feet but I have visit job sites sometimes 10,000 feet and higher. I have never had a problem with this pen, even in winter. They are pretty sharp looking too and would fit right in at the office. They come in white or black with chrome accents. You can find them pretty much anywhere that sells pens. Even the grocery store. They are always the priciest 'budget' pen, averaging $3 per pen, but so worth it. And one last thing, get a 0.7 Fine or 0.8 Bold for best results. I would avoid the 0.3 Needle and 0.5 Micro.

  • Leigh Bowden
    Written by Leigh Bowden on June 17, 2016

    I've just had three UK passport applications turned down by the Post Office as I'd used a rollerball type pen. The PO official says the ink doesn't scan but it seemed to go through my two year old scanner and my thirteen year old scanner without incident.

    • Jerry
      Written by Jerry on September 12, 2017

      I don't think the problem is with ballpoint pens vs roller ball's the color. Yes most governments want you to use blue ballpoint pen for documents...and here is why. If you make a copy of a document, it always comes out black. They want to make sure it is the original document, and not a copy. Therefore, it's not the type of ink pen you use, but rather the color of ink. In most cases they want it in blue. ... which is sort of strange because blue ink doesn't copy that well. But leave it to the government! :)

    • Przemek
      Written by Przemek on June 17, 2016

      We haven't heard of this before. Rollerball ink is usually water-based, so I don't know if it is a good idea to use it on official documents. I would recommend a ballpoint pen or a fountain pen with carbon ink.

  • Robert Hyde
    Written by Robert Hyde on January 26, 2016

    Hi. I believe that gel pens are airplane safe.
    Is anyone aware whether the gel/ink type pens are also airplane safe?
    Many thanks

  • Jaxson
    Written by Jaxson on December 6, 2015

    This is a very interesting blog. It is very well presented, easy to understand, and was exactly what I was looking for. Thank you!


  • Mark Sunday
    Written by Mark Sunday on July 18, 2015

    I'm vision impaired, and currently use a gel ink pen with 1.0 mm point. I've been looking at fountain pens online, but am concerned about leaks. Are there any broad and bold rollerball pens?

    • Sidney Post
      Written by Sidney Post on February 10, 2017

      Modern fountain pens don't leak unless really abused as long you don't take them with you on an airplane or go mountain climbing. The cheap Japanese fountain pens are very neat and tidy but, I find the feeds on the double broads to be a bit stingy unless your write slowly. For a very heavy line with a fountain pen, the European nibs lay a fatter line that a similar Japanese pen too. Waterman Experts seem to be a good mid-tier entry point for me with their nice nibs, brass body (for weight) and, modest price when gently used on the second hand market. Shaeffer Preludes are nice as well at $20~25USD.

    • John
      Written by John on August 26, 2015

      Are you still looking? I thought if mention that the stigma of leaking with fountain pens only applies to pens before World War II, all modern pens have as much possibility of leakage as any other pen. Meaning zero unless you throw it a wall several times or something. The only mess possible is spilling an ink bottle, but there are cartridges to buy anyway which are no mess.

    • Przemek
      Written by Przemek on July 20, 2015

      Thanks for your comment. I am not aware of any rollerball pens which have a broad tip. Gel ink pens have good ink flow and if you are looking for something smoother, I would recommend a Lamy Fountain pen with a broad nib. I use a Lamy Fountain pen on a daily basis and have never had a problem with leakage.

      • THRobinson
        Written by THRobinson on September 22, 2015

        Agreed, I have 3 LAMY pens... 2 Safari's, and the most recent purchase, a Lamy Al-Star with a broad nib. The medium nib is still pretty thick when compared to something like a 1.0 M PaperMate ballpoint.

        Lamy is a good daily writer, and you can swap nibs without having to dismantle the pen or remove the ink cartridge. Downside though is it doesn't take a standard/universal cartridge or converter. You'll have to get the Lamy converter or buy Lamy ink cartridges.

  • Bharat
    Written by Bharat on July 15, 2015

    Hi... I'm bharat. I'm totally confused as to which pen suits my handwriting style... Wish I could show u how pathetic it is. Anyways.... I want to write bolder and faster since my habdwriting is small and I don't write the complete alphabets which makes it difficult to understand. May be a bolder non would help. I recently got a lamy broad min also but I find it too broad. I'm confused and I have to write a competitive exam in a couple of months... I'm really in need of help and guidance pls....thanks

    • Philippe Carphin
      Written by Philippe Carphin on May 15, 2019

      I was looking for a calligraphy stuff and a regular writing pen. I got a starter calligraphy set, and a Lamy Studio. When the guy asked me what nib to put on the Lamy, I asked "do you have a flexible nib?". The guy said no so I asked for the finest nib.

      He thought I was still in calligraphy land and for that reason, he understood that to mean the finest calligraphy nib, so he put on the Lamy 1.1mm stub nib.

      I cannot get my handwriting to look bad with this nib. And as for how small you write, I can write in standard dotted paper where my lowercase letters take up half the line, and the capitals take up the whole line.

      That nib writes super smooth.

      That was my first pen, and later I bought two new colors of ink and two Lamy Safari to put the new colors into. For variety, I asked for a fine and medium nib.

      I am so glad the shopkeeper and I had the misunderstanding resulting in me getting the 1.1mm nib. Otherwise, I would have gotten a fine nib.

      I don't like the fine or the medium nibs. To me a fine nib feels like just a regular Pilot Techpoint pens.

      Seeing that your comment is from 2015, I guess it will only be useful for future readers of this article.

    • David Cole
      Written by David Cole on July 16, 2015

      Thanks for your comment. If you'd like to write faster we'd recommend either a rollerball pen, a gel ink ballpoint refill or a fountain pen, as these would have the smoothest ink flow. In regards to a finding a broad nib that isn't too broad, you might want to try a Parker Sonnet fountain pen with a broad nib.
      We would also highly recommend reading 'Improve Your Handwriting: Teach Yourself' by Rosemary Sassoon. It is available from Amazon and has excellent reviews.

  • Ray Newcomb
    Written by Ray Newcomb on July 1, 2015

    I am left handed and tend to smudge ink. I would like to buy a high quality pen. It appears I may need to buy a ballpoint. I was wondering if a High quality Rollerball with an extra fine tip (0.5mm) might give me a crisp line without smudging. If not, then is a high quality ballpoint at 0.5 available. I also understand that with some pens the ball is not centered well, and they therefore scratch more and are less reliable. Is there a higher quality brand that is more reliably centered? Thank you for your response.

    • Madeline
      Written by Madeline on June 19, 2019

      I'm left handed as well. I prefer water based rollerballs as the gel ink smudges to easily for me and works best with my writing style. I have never had smudges with rollerballs. I also like that they keep the paper flat and don't indent, especially because I am heavy handed.

    • Przemek
      Written by Przemek on July 3, 2015

      Hi Ray,
      Thank you for the comment. If you are looking for rollerball or ballpoint pen that writes smoothly and has minimal smudging, I would personally recommend a pen with gel ink. Cross rollerball pens come with a gel ink refill and Parker also make a gel ink ballpoint refill. Here are two links that will point you in the right direction:
      Best regards,

  • Kevin B
    Written by Kevin B on November 27, 2014


    Are rollerball pens the same as gel pens?

    • Paul Tomlinson

      Hi Kevin - they're very similar. A rollerball pen is filled with liquid ink whereas gel ink is more viscous. There's very little difference in the feel though and the two systems are mechanically identical, so practically speaking they're more or less the same.

  • Elmo
    Written by Elmo on November 11, 2014

    Hi, evry time i used to check weblog posts herre in thee
    early hours in the morning, for the reason that
    i enjoy to fknd ouut more and more.

  • Juan Carlos Calderon
    Written by Juan Carlos Calderon on November 6, 2014

    According to your experience, which model result better to use. ? Roller ball or Ball point pen?

    • Paul Tomlinson

      Hi Juan, it's purely down to personal preferance. We'd probably recommend trying a friend's pen and seeing what you prefer.

  • Lola
    Written by Lola on November 4, 2014

    is a ballpoint pen the same thing as a 'Biro' as called in Nigeria?

    • Paul Tomlinson

      Hi Lola, a Biro is a form of ballpoint pen, with a metal ball writing tip and filled with oil-based ink - so yes, they function in the same way. Hope that answers your question!

  • Lee
    Written by Lee on November 3, 2014

    In that case can I assume that a rollerball does not suit a left hander since it is easier to smudge?

    • Paul Tomlinson

      Possibly - however some left-handers have trained themselves to avoid smudging by writing above or below the line, so it really depends on the user. Many left-handed people will be fine with a rollerball.

      • Madeline
        Written by Madeline on June 19, 2019

        I am lefthanded and I prefer rollerball. I am a heavy writer and I have never had issues with smudging. I had issues with ballpoints.

  • Jack
    Written by Jack on October 27, 2014

    So is the rollerball pen more liquidy and easier to smudge with?

    • Paul Tomlinson

      Hi Jack, yes rollerballs contain liquid ink so they do smudge more easily, but they also produce a darker line and glide more easily across the page.

  • ray sia
    Written by ray sia on October 19, 2014

    That is not what i want!!!

    • Paul Tomlinson

      Sorry to hear that, do you mean the article doesn't contain the advice you were looking for? If so please let us know and we'll see if we can update it when we have time

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