A virtual private network (VPN) is incredibly useful when you travel abroad and still need to access Netflix U.S or local secure websites that require certain IP addresses, like your bank. VPNs also help citizens of repressive regimes (like China or Russia) bypass efforts to censor information and regulate the internet. However, before you hop on to your favorite VPN, you should ask yourself: are VPNs legal in this country?
If the answer is “no,” then you could land in hot water if the VPN isn’t as secure as you think it is (which is especially true for most free VPNs). You should fully understand VPNs’ legality to avoid the harsh implications of breaking internet censorship laws. Of course, if the answer is “I don’t know,” then you should probably find out before using your VPN to weigh the pros and cons.
- VPNs are legal in most countries, like the United States, Australia, the UK and most European countries.
- Some countries with strict online censorship laws — like Russia, Turkey and Belarus — ban VPNs to maintain control over the internet and to prevent citizens from circumventing internet restrictions and government oversight.
- A VPN doesn’t sanitize illegal online activities. Any online activity that’s illegal without a VPN remains illegal with a VPN. Government agencies will press charges against you for cyberstalking or hacking, whether you use a VPN or not.
In this article, we’ll explain some of the issues surrounding VPN legality across the globe, as well as detail which countries do or do not allow you to legally use VPNs.
You can get in trouble for using a VPN in a country where it’s illegal. Even in countries where VPNs are legal, you could face punitive actions for using the tool to do something illegal.
Yes. If you’re in the U.S. or any other country that permits VPN applications, it’s legal to use a VPN to get around Netflix content restrictions.
Yes, some countries like North Korea, Iraq and Belarus explicitly ban the use of VPNs within their borders. Others like China, Russia and Turkey don’t ban VPNs outright, but impose restrictions to control their use.
Yes, it’s legal to use VPN in Australia.
Are VPNs Legal in the U.S.?
There’s no law banning the use of virtual private networks in the U.S. — and so, using a VPN in the United States is perfectly legal. Some law enforcement agencies like the FBI recommend using VPNs to alleviate the risk of cybercrime.
However, while using a VPN provider or proxy service itself is legal, using them to carry out non-legal online activities remains illegal. For example, cyberstalking, downloading child pornography, hacking and illicit file sharing are illegal activities, whether you use the best VPN or not.
If you’re caught in the act, the VPN won’t save you from the dire consequences (we’ll delve into the repercussions later). Using a VPN will work against you if the provider doesn’t have a strict no logs policy (as one criminal user of IPVanish found out the hard way). There’s also the possibility the VPN service provider will share user information if they receive a law enforcement request.
Is It Legal to Use a VPN to Stream Location-Restricted Content?
It’s perfectly legal in the United States to use VPNs to stream location-restricted content. This means that using the best VPN for streaming to unblock Netflix, or the best VPN for MLB.tv to bypass MLB blackouts, won’t land you in jail.
However, the content providers may have terms of service that say you can’t use a VPN. They may also try to block location-spoofing services due to regional content agreements, using innovative algorithms to detect and block VPN users. In the worst-case scenario, the content providers will only cancel your subscription for breaching the terms of service.
What Can I Legally Use a VPN For?
The most secure VPNs conceal your digital tracks and activities from the service itself — called a “no logs policy” — so that your ISP, government agencies and other third parties can’t find out what you do online, even with law enforcement requests. However, the VPN’s capability does not give you leeway for illegal activities, like cyberstalking or hacking other people’s systems.
Instead, you should limit VPN usage to things that are permissible by law on the World Wide Web, including:
- Accessing unsecured WiFi networks: Using a VPN to access public WiFi networks is legal and indispensable in an era where cyberattacks have become the order of the day. A VPN gives you a rigid security layer that can’t be breached by cybercriminals hovering around public WiFi networks.
- Getting around network-level restrictions: It is entirely legal to use a VPN service to skirt network-level restrictions to access permissible content, like educational YouTube videos at work.
- Bypassing geo-restrictions: If you travel abroad, say to the UK, you can only access less than 35 percent of Netflix U.S. library. Using the best VPN for Netflix enables you to access all Netflix U.S. movies. It also gives you a U.S. IP address, allowing you to circumvent blackouts and stream live NBA games wherever you are.
- Maintaining internet privacy: You can use a VPN to maintain watertight digital privacy. It helps defeat censorship and internet service provider (ISP) throttling and prevents advertisers and third parties from gathering information about you.
The Consequences of Using a VPN for Illegal Activity
The law enforcement authorities can press criminal charges against you for committing illegal activities online, whether you use VPN services or not. The magnitude of the penalty will depend on the nature of the offense and the laws you’ve breached. For example, in the U.S.:
- You could face many years behind bars for privacy intrusion, identity theft or online harassment. In the Ryan S. Lin case, the FBI used connection logs from VPN providers PureVPN and WANSecurity as evidence against him for extensive cyberstalking of his roommate. Lin was found guilty and jailed for more than 17 years.
- You could end up paying $500,000 in fines or spend five years in jail for violating the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998. So, tread carefully as you torrent because a single file download could land you in hot water.
- Violating federal child pornography law attracts hefty fines and a statutory minimum of 15 to 30 years in prison.
- In some countries where virtual private networks are banned, using a VPN for legal or illegal purposes carries a jail term or a fine.
Where Are VPNs Illegal?
A VPN provider encrypts your internet traffic, making it practically impossible for government organizations and authorities to see what you do online. The nature of how VPNs work prevents some governments from having a bird’s-eye view of the online landscape within their borders.
As a result, these governments outright ban the use of VPNs or impose restrictive measures to regain control over internet use. Some of these countries include:
- North Korea — Illegal
- Iraq — Illegal
- Belarus — Illegal
- Oman — Partial; illegal for individuals
- China — Partial; unauthorized VPNs are illegal
- Russia — Partial; illegal when used to access blocked content
- Turkey — Legal but heavily restricted
- UAE — Legal but restricted
- Iran — Legal with some restrictions
Most governments justify their actions as safeguarding their citizens from cybercrime and terrorism. In reality, though, their justification is only a facade for their true intentions — to throttle the freedom of internet use. Here are the nitty-gritty details about the legality of VPNs in these countries.
1. North Korea: Illegal
North Korea takes the ban on VPNs the furthest of any nation. First of all, the internet isn’t a free space in the country, and citizens can only use Kwangmyong — the national intranet service. VPN use is banned outright, so using one within the country will most likely land you in jail.
2. Iraq: Illegal
Although Iraq’s online censorship is less repressive than, for example, China’s, VPN use is illegal. The Iraq authorities banned the use of VPN in a bid to curb ISIS’s online menace. Although Iraq quelled ISIS’s threat, it maintained the hard-line stance on the use of a VPN to access censored websites and apps.
3. Belarus: Illegal
The Belarussian government banned VPNs, Tor and anonymizing technologies in 2015. At the time of writing this article, the government hasn’t relaxed its VPN ban. In addition, the government imposes heavy censorship of websites and apps it deems unpopular. Internet service providers must constantly check the updated list of censored sites.
4. Oman: Partially Illegal
The legal use of VPNs in Oman exists in a gray area. Oman’s Telecommunications Regulation Authority (TRA) prohibits the use of VPNs by individuals. However, private and public institutions can use VPNs to bypass internet provider censorship or VoIP prohibition once TRA approves their request to do so.
Using a VPN for private purposes carries a fine of $1,300, whereas companies that use VPN without proper authorization are fined $2,600.
5. China: Partially Illegal
Even though VPNs are technically legal in China, their use is heavily restricted and most VPN services are blocked. The government licenses only VPN providers that comply with its stringent terms of service. Besides, the government frequently bans unlicensed VPNs to retain VPN options that can’t circumvent the Great Firewall of China. If you’re caught doing something naughty in China, you could face years in prison.
6. Russia: Partially Illegal
The use of VPNs in Russia is legal. Actually, the 2017 law on VPNs doesn’t criminalize the use of these services. Instead, it prohibits their use to bypass online censorship — and it is illegal to use a VPN for illegal activities. However, in a bid to tighten its stranglehold on VPN use, the Russian government shut down nine VPNs in 2019 for failing to comply with its censorship demand.
7. Turkey: Legal — Restricted
Even though no Turkish law bans the use of VPNs, the Erdogan regime has banned plenty of VPN providers since 2016. The government utilizes deep packet inspection technologies to pinpoint and block VPN services operating in the country, where even foreigners may face legal action for using a VPN.
8. UAE: Legal — Restricted
The UAE doesn’t ban VPN use outright; it’s legal to use a VPN in the country as long as you do it within the stipulated guidelines. In 2016, UAE amended the internet law to include a clause that outlaws VPN use for illegal purposes. Violations are punishable by imprisonment or a fine of up to $544,000.
9. Iran: Legal — Restricted
Using a VPN in Iran isn’t illegal — provided that the VPN service is registered with the government. The government frequently bans illegal VPNs in the country but doesn’t clearly state whether the use or distribution of such tools is unlawful.
However, a new bill tabled in the parliament by Iranian lawmakers in 2020 could change the landscape. The bill proposes hefty fines and up to two years imprisonment of people caught producing or distributing VPNs without proper government authorization.
VPNs are perfectly legal in most parts of the world — including the United States, the UK, Australia and Europe — but not everywhere. Some countries, especially those that seek to gain “military control” of the internet, vehemently impose stifling bans on VPNs.
The VPN restrictions and bans vary from country to country. For this reason, if you’re traveling overseas, you should exercise due diligence to understand the legal status of VPNs. Doing so will help you avoid breaking cyber laws in foreign countries, thus sidestepping harsh repercussions like imprisonment or hefty fines.
Have you ever landed in trouble for using a VPN in a restrictive country? We’d love to hear about it in the comment section below. As always, thank you for reading the article.