A unique aspect of arrestin-3 is its ability to support both receptor-dependent and receptor-independent signaling. Here, we show that inositol hexakisphosphate (IP) is a non-receptor activator of arrestin-3 and report the structure of IP-activated arrestin-3 at 2.4-Å resolution. IP-activated arrestin-3 exhibits an inter-domain twist and a displaced C-tail, hallmarks of active arrestin. IP binds to the arrestin phosphate sensor, and is stabilized by trimerization. Analysis of the trimerization surface, which is also the receptor-binding surface, suggests a feature called the finger loop as a key region of the activation sensor. We show that finger loop helicity and flexibility may underlie coupling to hundreds of diverse receptors and also promote arrestin-3 activation by IP. Importantly, we show that effector-binding sites on arrestins have distinct conformations in the basal and activated states, acting as switch regions. These switch regions may work with the inter-domain twist to initiate and direct arrestin-mediated signaling.