The southern painted turtle is the smallest subspecies at 4–6 inches long. Its top stripe is a prominent red, and its bottom shell is tan and spotless or nearly so. The southern painted turtle ranges from extreme southern Illinois and Missouri, roughly along the Mississippi River valley, to the south. In Arkansas, it branches out to the west towards Texas, where it is found in the far northeast part of that state (Caddo Lake region) as well as extreme southeastern Oklahoma (McCurtain County).
It is found in much of Louisiana, where it reaches the Gulf of Mexico (in fresh water). Eastward it is found in western Tennessee, northern Mississippi and much of Alabama, including the Gulf Coast city of Mobile. An isolated population in central Texas has been reported but is now believed to be non-native.
The male eastern painted turtle 5–7 inches long, while the female is 6–7 inches. The upper shell is olive green to black and may possess a pale stripe down the middle and red markings on the periphery. The segments (scutes) of the top shell have pale leading edges and occur in straight rows across the back, unlike all other North American turtles, including the other three subspecies of painted turtle, which have alternating segments. The bottom shell is plain yellow or lightly spotted.
The eastern painted turtle ranges from southeastern Canada to Georgia with a western boundary at approximately the Appalachians. At its northern extremes, the turtle tends to be restricted to the warmer areas closer to the Atlantic Ocean. It is uncommon in far north New Hampshire and in Maine is common only in a strip about 50 miles from the coast. In Canada, it lives in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia but not in Quebec or Prince Edward Island. To the south it is not found in the coastal lowlands of southern North Carolina, South Carolina, or Georgia, or in southern Georgia in general or at all in Florida.
The eastern subspecies's range extends slightly into east central Alabama, where it intergrades with the southern subspecies. In the northeast, there is extensive mixing with the midland subspecies, and some writers have called these turtles a "hybrid swarm". In the southeast, the border between the eastern and midland is more sharp as mountain chains separate the subspecies to different drainage basins.
The Western Painted Turtle is largest subspecies and grows up to 10 inches long. Its top shell has a mesh-like pattern of light lines, and the top stripe present in other subspecies is missing or faint. Its bottom shell has a large colored splotch that spreads to the edges (further than the midland) and often has red hues.
In the United States, the western subspecies forms a wide intergrade area with the midland subspecies covering much of Illinois as well as a strip of Wisconsin along Lake Michigan and part of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Further west, the rest of Illinois, Wisconsin and the UP are part of the range proper, as are all of Minnesota and Iowa, as well as all of Missouri except a narrow strip in the south. All of North Dakota is within range, all of South Dakota except a very small area in the west, and all of Nebraska. Almost all of Kansas is in range; the border of that state with Oklahoma is roughly the species range border, but the turtle is found in three counties of north central Oklahoma.
To the northwest, almost all of Montana is in range. Only a narrow strip in the west, along most of the Idaho border (which is at the Continental Divide) lacks turtles. Wyoming is almost entirely out of range; only the lower elevation areas near the eastern and northern borders have painted turtles. In Idaho, the turtles are only found in the far north (upper half of the Idaho Panhandle). In Washington state, turtles are common throughout the state within lower elevation river valleys. In Oregon, the turtle is native to the northern part of the state throughout the Columbia River valley as well as the Willamette River valley north of Salem. To the southwest, the painted turtle's range is fragmented. In Colorado, while range is continuous in the eastern, prairie, half of the state, it is absent in most of the western, mountainous, part of the state. However, the turtle is confirmed present in the lower elevation southwest part of the state (Archuleta and La Plata counties), where a population ranges into northern New Mexico in the San Juan River basin. There are also some unconfirmed sightings in parts of the far west of the state (e.g. Mesa County). In New Mexico, the main distribution follows the Rio Grande and the Pecos River, two waterways that run in a north-south direction through the state. Within the aforementioned rivers, it is also found in the northern part of Far West Texas. In Utah, the painted turtle lives in an area to the south (Kane County) in streams draining into the Colorado River, although it is disputed if they are native. In Arizona, the painted turtle is native to an area in the east, Lyman Lake. The painted turtle is not native to Nevada or California.