Are VPNs legal?

Are VPNs legal

Virtual private networks, or VPNs, are network tunnels from one device to another. By connecting your computer or smartphone to a VPN, your Internet connection will appear to originate on the other side of the VPN tunnel

With a VPN, you can maintain your privacy, bypass location-gated content, get around filtered networks, and lots more. While these uses are usually legal, many people also use VPNs to pirate copyrighted content or commit other crimes. 

In this article, we’ll thoroughly analyze the question of whether VPNs are legal to use in countries around the world. 

Yes. Under US law, it’s perfectly acceptable to use a virtual private network. In fact, lots of companies use them to give their employees secure access to the corporate network. Consumer VPN providers abound in the US, with companies as big and reputable as Google offering VPN services. 

While the act of using a VPN is not inherently illegal in the US, many activities done using a VPN might be illegal. Here’s what you shouldn’t do with a VPN in the US:

  • Pirate copyrighted content. Although copyright law is rarely enforced against individual citizens who pirate content, it’s still illegal—and there might be repercussions from your Internet service provider (ISP). 
  • Buy or sell on dark web marketplaces. Dark web marketplaces are usually accessed through Tor, but VPNs have become increasingly popular ways to access these sites as well. Buying weapons, drugs, and hitman services on the black market is just as illegal with a VPN as without. 
  • Hack, stalk, or cyberbully someone. VPNs provide some amount of privacy and anonymity, but don’t hack someone and expect to get away with it. 

In essence, using a VPN doesn’t change the legal status of any online activity you might perform. If it’s legal without a VPN, it’s legal with a VPN—and if it’s illegal normally, it’s still illegal with a VPN. 

Other countries have different laws surrounding VPN use, copyright, and other areas, so read on if you reside outside of the US. 

Where are VPNs Illegal?

While it’s perfectly legal to use a VPN in most of the world, some countries have specific bans or restrictions. Countries with heavily-restricted network access generally don’t want their citizens accessing the open Internet with a VPN. 

VPNs are illegal (or their use is restricted) in:

  • China
  • North Korea
  • Iraq
  • Belarus
  • UAE
  • Egypt
  • Turkey
  • Russia

Here’s a table summarizing where VPNs are illegal (at the time of this writing):

Country:China
Legality of VPN Usage:Heavily restricted. Using a VPN in China is to access outside content is difficult as a result of heavy filtering and strong government control.
VPNs are legal in China, primarily because of their use in international business.
Consumer VPN providers must be licensed by the Chinese government. The country frequently shuts down unlicensed services, so the remaining options are heavily censored.
If you’re a foreigner trying to use a VPN within China, expect that it will be difficult, but probably won’t land you in jail.
Reason:China’s Great Firewall, which aggressively controls and censors the information within its borders, would not work if it could be easily circumvented.
At the same time, VPN technology is very useful for business.
China has reached a middle ground between banning VPNs and allowing them wholesale.
Country:North Korea
Legality of VPN Usage:Illegal. North Korea takes China’s Internet censorship to a whole new level. Most citizens don’t have access to the Internet at all—instead, they connect to Kwangmyong, North Korea’s intranet.
Generally, only the very top government officials have unrestricted Internet access. If you choose to visit North Korea and attempt to use a VPN, it might land you in jail.
Reason:Like China, North Korea wants to have a stranglehold on its citizens’ access to information. For this reason, any tool that can be used to access uncensored content is illegal.
Country:Iraq
Legality of VPN Usage:Illegal.The Iraqi government uses various forms of Internet censorship. Using VPN services is illegal. Iraq’s censorship is less advanced than China’s or North Korea’s, but they can certainly catch and punish VPN users.
Reason:While Iraq tries to inhibit its citizens’ access to outside information, its approaches are more limited. The government generally blocks specific apps and sites instead of censoring information piece-by-piece like China.
Country:Belarus
Legality of VPN Usage:Illegal. Any technology that anonymizes Internet usage is considered illegal in Belarus. Both Tor and VPNs have been illegal since about 2015.
Reason:In the midst of unrest after a contentious election fraught with voter fraud, Belarus strives to block apps like Telegram which are used to organize protests.
In general, apps and sites that are unpopular with the government are blocked.
During some times of protest, the Belarussian government has resorted to extreme measures like completely cutting off the Internet.
Country:UAE
Legality of VPN Usage:Legal with restrictions.The United Arab Emirates does not allow entire classes of applications, like voice over IP (VoIP). However, VPNs are legal unless they are used to commit a crime, in which case the use of a VPN carries additional penalties.
Reason:Many of the UAE’s Internet restrictions serve to enforce its bans on content against its “moral values”. Pornography, video calling, and anything politically sensitive are blocked.
Country:Egypt
Legality of VPN Usage:Legal with restrictions.Just like the UAE, Egypt blocks certain kinds of applications that it deems to be immoral. However, VPNs themselves are not illegal.
Reason:Video calling and VoIP apps are banned because they’re seen as immoral. Egypt has turned off or severely restricted Internet access on a number of occasions. The restrictions on VPNs continue this effort to prevent access to “immoral” content and control information intake.
Country:Turkey
Legality of VPN Usage:Legal with restrictions.The Turkish government blocks all sorts of websites, apps, and content that it doesn’t like. Using a VPN is legal on its own, but many providers have been blocked.
Reason:Turkey is one of the countries with the most restricted social media access in the world. Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Wikipedia, and other major platforms are inaccessible.
The websites are generally blocked with the goal of preventing terrorism, but Turkey also blocks sites for content that it deems politically sensitive.
Country:Russia
Legality of VPN Usage:Illegal.Over time, Russia has consistently increased its control over the information intake of its citizens. As of 2017, VPNs are completely illegal in Russia. However, VPN traffic itself is not blocked at the time of this writing.
Reason:Russia seeks to ban “extremist” content, but it also removes politically sensitive information.

These are just a few of the many world jurisdictions with some kind of restriction on VPN usage. Most countries don’t explicitly restrict VPN usage, but a significant number do, so check before you assume it’s legal. 

What could happen if you use a VPN illegally? 

While committing copyright violations is illegal in most parts of the world, lots of people do it anyway. Some people figure that they’re unlikely to see consequences for their “victimless crime”. The same mindset can apply to using VPNs where they’re prohibited. 

Some countries enforce restrictions on VPN usage—like other Internet censorship laws—more strongly than others. Using a VPN illegally could land you in jail, or there might be no punishment at all. Regardless, it’s not generally a good idea to break the law, even if you consider the law unethical.

If a country blocks VPN applications, it’s a safe assumption that they have the means to enforce this ban. Attempting to use a VPN illegally is risky in any of these countries. 

Even in countries where VPNs aren’t explicitly banned, like China, police occasionally demand that citizens and visitors remove VPN applications from their devices. This might not carry a direct penalty (like jail time or a fine), but it does discourage people from using VPNs. 

Depends on the jurisdiction. You might want to use a VPN to access blocked content. If you’re getting around blocked content on your work or school network, you’re probably not going to face legal consequences. That said, you might be punished in some fashion by your employer or school. 

In most countries, blocked content generally falls into one of two categories:

  • Geo-blocked content (blocking on the side of content providers, such as Netflix)
  • Illegal content blocked by the government using technical means

Accessing content that falls under the first category using a VPN is generally permissible, while accessing blatantly illegal content is still illegal. However, even if you’re accessing legal blocked content with a VPN, there may still be repercussions, such as cancelled subscriptions.

Is streaming with a VPN illegal?

No. One of the most common uses for virtual private networks is accessing region-locked content from other countries. Some movies and TV shows are locked to particular countries, so a VPN can bypass these restrictions. 

While using a VPN in this manner is generally legal, it might violate the terms of service of the streaming provider. In this case, you can expect that your account might be restricted or closed. 

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act in the US created a legal framework for punishing people who get around digital rights management (DRM) software. This law could theoretically be used against people avoiding region locks with VPNs, although it hasn’t been tested. 

It’s perfectly legal—and probably ethical—to use a VPN for Netflix, so you shouldn’t worry too much about this use case. 

Bottom line

VPNs are a powerful technology that can be used for both good and bad. As a result, their legal status can be confusing. Every country has slightly different regulations on the use of VPNs. 

In most of the world, standard uses for VPNs are above board. However, it pays to check whether there are any restrictions in your particular country before doing anything potentially questionable. 

And remember: if it’s illegal without a VPN, it’s illegal with one.

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