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 is a crucial issue for new VPN users to understand, and the situation isn’t as clear as it could be. So let’s find out more.

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 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 have the ability to 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.

Are VPNs legal in USA jurisdictions?

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 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.

Are VPNS legal in China?

Unfortunately, the situation hasn’t been as kind to VPNs everywhere in world, where the question is VPN illegal can have a very different answer.

Take China, for example. 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.

For a long time, this 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.

Government of China announced a ban on alll VPNs in 2018.

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 have 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.

Countries where VPN usage can be illegal

China isn’t the only country where using a VPN could land users in trouble with the legal system. For reference, here’s a quick list of countries that have sought to enforce full or partial VPN bans:

Uganda 2018’s worst VPN crackdown occurred in Uganda, where the Museveni government has attempted to assert total control over the internet, with mixed results.
China Things change regularly in China, and the answer depends largely on who you are.
Iran Seeking to control the flow of news, Iran’s government crack down on individual VPNs but tolerate certain providers.
Iraq Citing security concerns, the Iraqi government heavily regulated the internet in 2014. Interestingly, VPNs are banned from 4 pm until 7 am, to accommodate people who need them for work.
North Korea Unsurprisingly, VPNs are off limits for the few individuals with internet access in North Korea.
Turkmenistan The country permits just one ISP, which is run by the government and heavily limits the freedom of citizens to access information from outside.
Russia Putin’s government passed a law in 2017 which appears to make VPNs illegal unless they work closely with the country’s media regulator.
Turkey The Erdogan government banned VPNs in 2016, forcing ISPs in the country to block popular providers along with Tor usage.
The United Arab Emirates 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.
Oman Banned VPNs in 2010, but only for individuals. Companies can still use them freely.

 

Some of these 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 have 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 have long sought to crack down on the way young people use the internet.

Summary: So is it illegal to use a VPN or not?

As we’ve seen, VPNs can come under attack from governments all over the world, for a variety of reasons. If you’re worried that VPNs might be illegal in China, you have a reason to exercise caution. But if your question is “are VPNs legal in the USA”, the situation is totally different.

By and large, VPNs are legal in nations across the world, and not just in long-established democracies. But there are some countries where protecting your privacy comes with risks, and it pays to know the situation before you visit any of these places.

Anywhere else, VPN usage is fine, but not for illegal purposes. So whether you’re in Shanghai or South Bend, it pays to invest in the best possible VPN, and to be very careful when surfing the web. In those places, the answer to “is using a VPN legal” is that it’s totally up to you. Know the laws and you’ll be fine.