Is a using a VPN legal? It’s a legitimate question and the answer is not a simple yes or no. In most cases, it is perfectly legal for you to use a virtual private network to access the internet. There are some cases, however, where the activity you engage in or the country where you connect could make using a VPN illegal. Here’s how you can know for sure.
It’s crazy to consider that over the past couple years, a number of countries have begun passing laws banning Virtual Private Networks (VPNs).
China has even started fining its citizens who are caught using the anti-censorship software. It makes sense why many people question whether VPNs are legal in China…or any country for that matter.
Add to that the idea that this security software is specifically designed to mask your Internet activity and are developed by companies strategically located beyond the jurisdiction of any major superpower and, well…
…you can see why this is an issue.
The question isn’t about the integrity of the encryption services; the question is this: in what cases is a VPN illegal to use?
Here’s what we’re going to cover:
Let’s jump right in!
Note: Some of the links in this article are affiliate links, which means that at no extra cost to you, I might be compensated if you choose to use one of the services listed.
Are VPNs Legal? [Video Explanation]
To set the stage here, take a couple minutes to watch this video which offers a quick overview on the topic of whether or not it is illegal.
Be sure to subscribe to the All Things Secured YouTube channel!
Now let’s discuss a bit of why this question of legality is even an issue.
The Dark Side of the VPN World
With a quality virtual private network (see our list of the best VPNs on the market today), you are able to do a number of things. This includes:
- Masking your IP address;
- Encrypting the data between your device and the VPN server;
- Accessing geo-restricted content such as Netflix in China.
Of course, having all these abilities at your fingertips comes with the risk of abusing the legal powers afforded you by using it. Not to mention all the data that you’re giving to these VPN companies.
Under the terms and conditions of all major services, you can usually find a list of activities that are prohibited while connected to the network.
Among the numerous prohibited items, what sticks out most is:
- Distributing internet viruses: Hiding yourself while trying to infect other networks with a virus is an obvious no-no. Please don’t do that. It is illegal.
- Gaining illegal access to other computers or networks: Again, a bit obvious, but it needs to be stated.
- IP spoofing: The act of pretending to be another machine for the express purpose of gaining illegal access to a computer or network.
- Copyright, Trademark, and Patent Infringement: In other words, torrenting content you would have to pay for under normal circumstances. Even if your service provider allows peer-to-peer and torrent traffic, it does not mean they allow illegally downloading copyrighted content (although most companies don’t actively monitor this). This is the reason that answering the simple question “Is torrenting legal” can be so tricky.
You should also keep in mind that you are never safe torrenting copyrighted content, even if there are some VPNs that are optimized for torrenting.
Some virtual private networks even log your activity to crack down on illegal practices. This is true even if they say “We have a no-logging policy,” because, you know…
…VPN companies sometimes lie to you.
But my VPN says they don’t log data…right?!
While many providers claim they do not log user data, you can never guarantee this is the case.
Every company claims to not log any data, but 95% of the time this isn’t true.
Even if service providers truly do not log user activity, it is possible that the 3rd party companies they rent servers from do, and they can use your data to land you in trouble with the police.
Therefore you always run the risk of bringing the law down upon you when downloading copyrighted material, which is illegal.
Which Countries Ban VPNs?
Apart from criminal activity, a small number of countries have banned this software, further clouding whether a VPN is legal or illegal.
The following map shows which countries explicitly label the software as “illegal”.
Virtual Private Networks have been banned and are no longer legal in:
- United Arab Emirates.
As a number of these countries (such as Russia) have only recently made the software illegal, it is still too early to gauge how strict these bans will be.
Moreover, as many corporations and media networks rely on virtual private networks to do business in some of these countries (a legal usage), it is highly unlikely that they will be entirely eliminated.
Foreigners are usually fine to use VPNs; it’s the local citizens who have to worry.
However, that doesn’t mean that citizens and residents in these countries will not be affected. In China, for example, the Great Firewall uses deep packet inspection (DPI) to detect and block the use of this software.
I’ve used ExpressVPN for years in China despite it being “frowned upon,” and I’m not the only one.
The vast majority of long-term expats in China and all throughout southeast Asia use a virtual private network to access the internet.
The only problem I’ve run into occurred in China’s far western province of Xinjiang. Here, the government went so far as to block cell phone usage for residents caught trying to bypass censorship.
Does this mean you should avoid using a virtual private network in countries where it is blocked?
Generally speaking, campaigns to restrict usage in countries like China are geared towards local citizens and domestic services.
Therefore, foreigners can usually connect to offshore servers and only have to worry about the occasional connection disruption.
For locals, on the other hand, using this software can be considered an illegal anti-government act and has in the past resulted in a fine or, in the worst cases, jail time.
If you want to dig in further, check out these articles:
VPNs Aren’t Illegal BUT…Your Activity Can Be
To sum up, it is not only legal but also highly recommended that you use a VPN to maintain Internet privacy and enhance security.
Only by using your virtual private network for activities that are clearly illegal do you run the risk of getting in trouble with the law. As you’ll see in the infographic linked here, VPNs are an excellent way to maintain online security.
Based on years of personal experience, I use and recommend ExpressVPN (get 3 months free using this link). It’s an excellent option that is reliable even in those countries where connecting can often be difficult.
The only other thing to consider is whether you’re in a country that technically bans their use. If you are a foreigner in that country, you can generally use a VPN without any concerns.
Local citizens, however, should think twice and review how local laws can affect them if caught using a virtual private network.
Ha! Just kidding 😉
What exactly do I mean here?
Well let’s say that you’re using the software to unlock certain geographic perks or find better pricing on a certain good or service. Is this illegal?
The short answer is…
When we use the term “illegal”, generally we’re referring to actions which go against a societal law. Gaining advantages with streaming or getting better pricing on an online game does not break any country law.
What this means is that, while you may never have the police knocking on your door, there is a possibility that your favorite game will block your account if they find out that you’re using a VPN to get better pricing.
It’s not idea, of course, but it’s also not the same as jail time.
Josh Summers says
Hmm…definitely not what I’m trying to say here.
my daughter insists that we have a VPN while traveling to China next week, but I am very nervous about it. I feel like with all the tension between U.S. and China they might use it as an excuse to target american citizens as retailiation. I would only care about seeing my Email, seeing my instagram acount and posting sightseeing photos, and being able to access google or another search engine to read restaurant reviews, etc. Nothing crazy.
Josh Summers says
Hey Kara, it’s a valid concern and I don’t want to encourage you to do something you’re not comfortable with. That said, if China wanted to target American citizens, it would target expats living in China, not travelers. Even if you were targeted (which chances are slim), the worst that has ever happened to me is that I’ve been asked to delete the VPN app. Not a big deal.
i am british and have a valid uk tv licence. (needed to watch bbc)
I use a uk server, through a VPN, to watch BBC Iplayer and TV programmes when i work abroad.
I understand that it is legal for me to do this.
but the bbc regularly shuts me down – stating that due to rights issues bbc cannot be watched except in the uk. but it obviously can be, as it is picked up by the uk server and relayed to me.
i saw somewhere that a uk or european legal judgment has been issued saying that the bbc is obliged to provide its service to a holder of a valid tv licence, even if the watcher is abroad and using a vpn.
do you have any reference to this, or any comments
Josh Summers says
While I’m not aware of any legal judgement, I can say that you’ll run into this issue periodically while using a VPN to escape geo-restrictions. The best thing you can do is just change your server or connection protocol and try again.
Lets say i play a game. In that game we have some parks. In my country the biggest park will cost me 100$ but if i use vpn and change it to china it will be 50$. Is that illegal? Because if i can get half price it would be much better but it kinda sounds illegal
Josh Summers says
No, it isn’t “illegal” per se, in the sense that no police are going to come knocking on your door. Now, will the game possibly ban you for cheating? That’s a different story…
Mostafa Reda says
If I want to use ExpressVPN with Steam(To get games with cheap prices) will I get banned?
And Thank You.
Josh Summers says
Those kind of questions are answered in the terms of service page. If Steam prohibits the use of VPNs to get better pricing, then there’s a chance you’ll get banned.
harry moreno says
Hi, Very useful article, considering i myself am an expat (not in china, though)… i usually connect through a public hotspot using a vpn. Never gave it much thought until now lol
subhen Bhattacharjee says
I’m from india and i like watching some of the french tv channels like france 2, France 3, etc. which have geo restrictions here in india. hence can i use a vpn to watch them without any legal issues?
Josh Summers says
Yes, you can. It’s called “geo-blocking” and while it may be against the terms of service for the particular TV channel, it isn’t illegal.
My husband has been illegally downloading movies and tv shows for years. Now I discovered he has set up a VPN to hide his activity. He cannot stop even when it is illegal. We have thousands and thousands of movies and tv shows. He is obsessed. How do I stop him? He ignores our family and sits in front of the computer stealing all day long.
Josh Summers says
I’m sorry to hear this, Candice. Sounds like you might need some marriage counseling more than anything. And why is he downloading movies and shows when there’s Netflix, Hulu and Disney+?
I want to subscribe for Adobe Photoshop Monthly plan, but Adobe restrictions is blocking me because of region. Instead it referred me to their authorized reseller website in my country which doesn’t sell monthly plan but yearly that I cannot afford. If I use vpn to set my location to us and make my payment, is it legal
Josh Summers says
It’s always hard to answer legality questions. The real question is “Is it against the terms of service?” You can try doing this and really the worst that will happen is that they might cancel your account if they think it is against their terms of service and blacklist your email. But if you’re a paying subscriber, chances are they won’t do this. Hopefully…
can i buy something off amazon from a cheaper country and.ill throw out a example on amazon in the us AIR PODS are 150 but in india its 50.could i buy the indian one even if i live in us or is that ILLEGAL.