Hundreds of millions of people use Virtual Private Networks in every country on earth. But if you chat to people about VPNs on or off-line, the question of legality still comes up. People have the idea that using VPNs to hide your identity and data is against the law, and this turns off many potential users. So, are VPNs legal or not?
This global spread hasn’t been perfectly even. The legal status of VPNs differs from country to country, with some nations actually imposing bans on these essential security tools. So we thought we’d offer a handy summary of the state of play in some of the most important jurisdictions. That way, VPN users can know exactly where they stand before firing up their client.
Is a VPN legal? Understanding the law
The simple answer to the question are VPNs legal is yes, they are totally fine to use, and nobody needs to worry about installing a VPN client and protecting their internet activity.
However, you’ve probably guessed that there’s a catch. In some countries across the world, the answer to is a VPN legal is very different. We’ll look at the situation in repressive regimes in more detail in a moment. For now, it’s enough to note that if you live in a country with a surveillance state and a desire to keep the lid on democracy movements, privacy tools probably aren’t something the government likes to encourage.
In countries like Sweden, the USA or Australia, things are different. In those places, using a VPN is completely legal, despite what you might have heard. Since VPNs came about, the situation has been unclear about whether it is illegal to use a VPN. But the reason has nothing to do with the VPNs themselves.
In countries like Sweden, the USA or Australia, using a VPN is completely legal.
Instead, the controversy has always been about how people use VPNs. When you can hide your identity and online activity, it certainly has the potential to assist criminals. And VPNs have been used by all kinds of people for illegal activity, from relatively harmless activities like torrenting a movie or two or getting around Netflix geoblocks, to serious offenses like international drug dealing.
VPNs have been used for illegal activity, from torrenting to serious offenses like international drug dealing.
The thing to remember if you’re worried about the question is VPN illegal is that those offenses are criminalized, not VPNs. That’s never changed, and it doesn’t seem likely to change in the near future.
Some of the nations have tried to institute blanket bans. For example, Uganda’s government have sought to assert total control over the web, seeing VPNs as a critical political enemy. But Iran has only targeted certain VPNs while leaving others to operate normally.
Because of this, it can be fairly confusing for travelers when they ask if it is illegal to use a VPN. For instance, some post-Soviet republics ban VPNs (such as Turkmenistan) while most don’t. In the Middle East, some Arab nations like Oman have limited VPN access, but Saudi Arabia doesn’t, despite having a fairly repressive political system. This makes it essential to check the situation in every country you visit, just to be sure.
And remember, just because a country doesn’t ban VPNs doesn’t mean that you can do whatever you like on your private connection. Saudi Arabia might allow VPNs for pragmatic reasons, but if pro-democracy groups started to use them, this could easily change.
There are also relatively democratic countries where the answer to is using a VPN legal could change quickly. For example, South Korea’s conservative opposition has long sought to crack down on the way young people use the internet.
Understanding the world of VPNs: a country by country guide
The countries below are listed according to the restriction level, starting from the least controlled ones and ending with those where using a VPN is totally illegal. We will be updating the list as time goes by, so make sure you visit again to learn about the latest situation in each of 197 countries when it comes to using VPN services.
Brazil generally has a good reputation for guaranteeing online freedom, and privacy fans will be happy to know that Virtual Private Networks are officially welcomed.
However, be aware that there have been attempts by legislators to limit Instagram access, and the policies of the authoritarian Bolsonaro government may well extend to the digital realm.
Status: Legal but heavily regulated
Unfortunately, the world’s most highly populated country is also one of the most repressive when it comes to digital services. Sites like Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, WhatsApp, and Instagram are routinely banned in China. But what about Virtual Private Networks?
Interestingly, this is a gray area. For a long time, the government co-existed relatively peacefully with VPN users. To some extent, the Chinese authorities realized that tech firms and foreigners in the country needed the access provided by VPNs, and usage was rare enough among ordinary Chinese people to allow users some freedom. However, in April 2018 things started to change.
Seeking to tighten up their censorship procedures, the government announced a ban on all “non-approved” VPNs. Soon after, all of the VPNs disappeared from China’s Apple Store, which had been a major outlet for all sorts of VPN companies.
On March 31st, 2018, Beijing put in place a series of regulations to make it harder to access VPNs across China. The state created the categories of “authorized” and “unauthorized” providers and made it illegal to use the latter. State-owned ISPs were also directed to take steps to counter all Virtual Private Networks, regardless of whether they were authorized.
However, many providers such as NordVPN remain active and accessible. It seems like the Chinese state has targeted local users while tolerating use by foreigners and businesses. So while VPNs are technically banned, they are still widely used.
While millions of Chinese people use VPNs on a daily basis for all sorts of reasons, the legal situation there has been much murkier than in Europe or the USA for some time.
Since the internet became an established part of Chinese life, the government in Beijing has sought to maintain a “Great Firewall of China” to shield Chinese users from outside influences.
All of this sounds like Beijing has stamped out the freedom provided by VPNs. But does it mean that all VPNs are now illegal in China? Actually, things aren’t so clear-cut.
Since April 2018, users inside China have reported very few disruptions in their VPN experience. Many VPNs that work outside China have never worked well inside the People’s Republic. But the ones that did (such as ExpressVPN or NordVPN) continue to operate and gain new users. So the implication is that Beijing has dampened the severity of their anti-VPN law.
Still, the legal status of VPNs has been clarified. China now officially bans VPN usage, especially in sensitive areas like Xinjiang where separatists could use privacy apps to organize protests. And Chinese individuals are not advised to use VPNs without understanding the risks they run.
Chinese internet access operates on a variety of levels, despite what the legal system says.
But for foreigners and international firms which work in China, things are different. It’s an unpleasant fact of life, but Chinese internet access operates on a variety of levels, despite what the legal system says.
India hasn’t made any moves towards banning Virtual Private Networks and is one of the sector’s biggest growth markets. However, the government isn’t necessarily committed to internet freedom for the long term. In 2015, measures were imposed to limit access to adult content, and New Delhi regularly resorts to internet “shutdowns” in unstable regions like Kashmir.
So while Virtual Private Networks are totally fine at the moment, there may be issues in the future.
The Islamic Republic isn’t known for its full-throated defense of free information, and this hostility definitely extends to online privacy.
After episodes of anti-government protests in 2017-2018, Tehran has tightened up its censorship of western sites like Telegram or Instagram, and VPNs have come under its crosshairs as well.
Legislation has empowered the government to crack down on encrypted traffic. Although many people have questioned how effective those measures can be in a modern digital economy, Iran is still a risky place to use online privacy tools. Seeking to control the flow of news, Iran’s government crack down on individual VPNs but tolerate certain providers.
Citing security concerns, the Iraqi government heavily regulated the internet in 2014. The VPNs are banned so that the terrorist activities can be monitored. This includes not only the citizens but also those who are visiting Iraq.
Unsurprisingly, VPNs are off limits for the few individuals with internet access in North Korea. The tourists will probably be able to use their pre-owned VPNs. Therefore you should get one before visiting.
Status: Legal but regulated
Oman banned VPNs in 2010, but only for individuals. Companies can still use them freely but have to get a permit first. Using a VPN without a permit in Oman can result in a 500 Omani Rial ($1,300) fine for individuals or a 1,000 ($2,600) Omani Rial for companies. Using a government-approved VPN would mean them keeping all logs about you.
Status: Legal but regulated
While Russia has a thriving tech scene, the government has taken quite a hostile stance towards VPNs. In Russia, users can only access officially authorized providers, which almost certainly means “providers with backdoors that the FSB can use to access confidential traffic.”
This was codified by a 2017 law, which empowered the Roskomnadzor’ agency to force VPNs to ban certain websites. This probably means that logging policies will be required to determine who seeks access to such websites. So if you intend to surf the web privately in Moscow, be aware that these VPNs are most likely compromised.
This law appears to make VPNs illegal unless they work closely with the country’s media regulator.
Status: Legal but regulated
The desert kingdom is similar to China, in that while Virtual Private Networks are not officially encouraged, they are still technically accessible for residents and foreigners.
Saudi Arabia regularly bans websites (with a registry of 400,000 blocked sites and counting). Anything remotely radical or adult-oriented is rapidly shut down by the state, and those accessing sites like this are taking a huge risk, whether or not they use a Virtual Private Network.
Status: Illegal, but accessible
Following the attempted coup against the Erdogan government in 2016, Ankara put in place some of the heaviest restrictions on Virtual Private Network and Tor usage in the world. This was combined with wholesale bans for services like Facebook and Twitter, along with thousands of sites associated with Erdogan’s opponents.
Currently, Virtual Private Networks are officially banned in Turkey. But, as with countries like China, there are ways around the restrictions, and many leading providers continue to offer access to their Turkish customers.
VPNpro.com recommends: best VPN for Turkey
The country permits just one ISP, which is run by the government and heavily limits the freedom of citizens to access information from outside.
All attempts to use a proxy or a VPN are blocked. It can also result in a fine or in worst case scenario, a visit to the Ministry of National Security to have a not so friendly talk.
Status: Legal (for now)
2018’s worst VPN crackdown occurred in Uganda, where the Museveni government has attempted to assert total control over the internet, with mixed results. While using the VPN is still legal, a 200 Uganda shilling ($0.05) tax has to be paid each day by anyone who wants to use social media like Facebook or Twitter. Naturally, this meant a spike in VPN usage because paying around $20/year is not a trivial sum in a country where the average income is less than $140/month.
The government is pressuring the ISPs to ban the use of VPNs, so chances are we will add another country to a list of those where VPNs are illegal in 2020.
United Arab Emirates
Status: Legal but regulated
The Cybercrime Law No 5 (2012) banned most VPNs for individuals, although the state has permitted some VPNs to operate since then on a case by case basis. This means that most institutions and their employees can use VPNs, but only for work-related purposes.
United States of America
As the “Land of the Free,” you would expect America to defend the rights of Virtual Private Network users, and you’d be broadly correct. There are no laws which prohibit the use of Virtual Private Networks and IP anonymization. Still, many people are skeptical about US-based VPNs. Why is this?
The issue is that while using VPNs is legal in the USA, plenty of common online practices are not. For instance, downloading copyrighted torrents is illegal, and the status of avoiding geo-blocking is cloudy.
Moreover, the Snowden revelations in 2013 exposed a comprehensive network of state surveillance reaching down to ISPs and even Windows operating systems. And VPNs based in the US could be compromised by that surveillance culture.
For some reason, VPN users in the United States have often seemed to be more worried about the legality of VPNs than in Europe or Asia. That might have something to do with recent NSA spying revelations or the possibility for the prosecution of copyright violators. Whatever the causes, there still seems to be a need to reassure American users about their legal situation.
To reiterate: there’s a very clear answer to the question is VPN illegal in USA areas. No, using a VPN isn’t illegal at all. If it was, many of the country’s biggest companies would have to plead guilty for using bespoke VPNs to allow remote working.
Moreover, plenty of leading VPNs are based in the United States. If VPNs were banned, major names like IPVanish, LiquidVPN, and TorGuard would have to shut up shop, but there’s no sign of any moving abroad to run their operations.
However, there have been some worrying signs in the past. Back in 2013, a story surfaced about a court case where an American was prosecuted for changing his IP address to visit a public website that he had previously been banned from.
That case (and the related case of Aaron Schwarz) sparked lively discussion about the legality of VPN services. But since then, things have settled down, and very few similar cases have appeared. And in any case, the issue wasn’t VPN usage, but fraudulent representation. Again, this is something that VPNs can facilitate, while VPN usage itself has never been affected.
After the social media, the time has come for the government of Zimbabwe to ban the VPNs too, especially because they were used to access the former. The order is being executed by the local ISPs (Internet service providers). It’s not yet known how many VPNs have been blocked as of January 17, but we’ll keep you updated.
VPN legislation around the world: facts and figures
When we see all 197 countries, we’re glad that generally speaking, the vast majority have nothing against you using a VPN. There’s only four where it’s strictly prohibited, and another six where it’s in a grey area and using a VPN might be problematic at best or causing issues with authorities at worst. In total, only a bit more than 5% of the countries are not VPN-friendly.
However, if we check how many people are actually living in these not so liberal conditions, we will find almost 1,818,000,000 people. And that’s about one-quarter of the total population that has restricted or no access to VPNs. So as we see from these numbers, there is certainly room for improvement. And we’re talking not only about undemocratic regimes.
Are VPNs legal in my country?
In the meantime, let’s check the full list of countries and see where using a VPN will cause you no trouble and where you should be more cautious about that.
Below is the full table of 197 countries sorted alphabetically and the current legal status of using VPN in them.
|Are VPNs legal in this country?
|Antigua and Barbuda
|Bosnia and Herzegovina
|Cape Verde (Cabo Verde)
|Central African Republic (CAR)
|Democratic Republic of the Congo
|Republic of the Congo
|Eswatini (formerly Swaziland)
|Myanmar (formerly Burma)
|Papua New Guinea
|Saint Kitts and Nevis
|Saint Vincent and the Grenadines
|Sao Tome and Principe
|Trinidad and Tobago
|United Arab Emirates (UAE)
|United Kingdom (UK)
|United States of America (USA)
|Vatican City (Holy See)
Tech writer and privacy advocate
Julie is a firm believer in equal rights for everyone. She is a traveler and blogger, focusing her efforts on exposing censorship and discrimination around the world. She wants to hold corrupt governments and shady companies accountable by writing investigative articles and helpful guides.