Millions of internet users connect through virtual private networks (VPNs) for the protection and freedom they afford, including the ability to access websites anonymously as if you were in another country. But are they legal? It depends where you are, and in some cases, what you’re doing with your service.
Are VPNs legal?
Predominantly, yes. VPNs are perfectly legal in most countries around the world; the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, as well as most of Europe, Indonesia, Pakistan, Brazil, and Nigeria. In these places, you won’t get into trouble for using a VPN, and there are usually multiple service options, with little to no restrictions on how you can use your service.
But there are notable exceptions, including China, Russia, and Iran, where using a VPN is restricted or outright illegal.
In many ways, VPNs are now woven into the fabric of the internet, an indispensable security tool for businesses and ordinary users around the globe—especially during the pandemic, as organizations had to provide secure network access to employees working from home. But like any technology, VPNs have all kinds of uses, some lawful, others not. Sometimes, even if VPNs are allowed where you are, not everything you do with it is.
Here’s a rule of thumb: If it’s normally illegal, it’s just as illegal with a VPN. Running illegal activities through a VPN doesn’t suddenly make them permissible, or excuse wrongdoing. In most jurisdictions where VPNs are allowed, it’s still illegal to pirate or torrent copyrighted material, buy or sell on dark web marketplaces, or bully, stalk, and hack other users.
Is it legal to use a VPN to access blocked content?
It depends on your jurisdiction and the type of content you’re trying to access. Blocked content typically lands in one of two categories:
- Geo-blocked content. Geo-blocking is when a company or service restricts where you can access their content. In the US, using a VPN to access geo-blocked content isn’t illegal. However, accessing geo-blocked content through a VPN might break the terms of service you agreed to when you signed up, and many services specifically block VPN connections. Netflix, for example, forbids using location-changing proxies and its terms and conditions. You could have your account suspended or terminated.
- Government-blocked content. Some content may be blocked by the government through technical means. In the United States, government-blocked content is often nefarious, like child pornography. It’s illegal to access outlawed content with a VPN, and you can face repercussions for doing so, including criminal charges or jail time.
Where is it illegal to use a VPN?
VPNs are legal in most countries around the world, but not everywhere. The technology can be contentious, especially in places where the open internet is outlawed or hard to access.
Some countries ban the use of VPNs, while others restrict usage, or permit only the use of a government-approved service. You should assume these governments have the means to enforce these rules, and that using a VPN illegally could carry serious consequences.
Here are a few countries where using a VPN is illegal or restricted:
- Russia. VPNs aren’t technically illegal in Russia, and VPN traffic isn’t blocked, but VPNs that provide true privacy and anonymity are banned. Since 2017, VPN services need to be government-approved; in 2019 the government blocked commercial services, demanded access to VPN servers, and mandated data retention—all of which defeat the purpose of VPNs. Online freedoms in Russia are rapidly deteriorating.
- Iran. VPNs with obfuscation technology (which hides the fact that you're using a VPN ) are not approved in Iran, which blocks illegal VPN ports as a part of wider internet censorship efforts. Only government-registered and approved services are allowed, and are reserved mostly for companies and corporations for security purposes. VPN-related arrests tend to target users who oppose the government online.
- North Korea. North Korea keeps a tight grip on its citizens’ access to information. Most people don’t have internet access at all, and instead connect to Kwangmyong, the country’s officially sanctioned intranet. While visitors can reportedly access the web via 3G, any tool used to access uncensored content is illegal—including VPNs. Break these rules and you risk jail time or worse.
- China. China hasn’t outlawed VPNs, thanks mostly to how useful they are for international business. In fact, China has more VPN users than any other country. But in the country known for its Great Firewall censorship, VPNs are heavily restricted. In 2017, China made it illegal for VPN services to operate without a license, and frequently shuts down unlicensed services. To be approved, VPNs need to give the government backdoor access, which makes them insecure. But this law applies to companies and corporations, not individuals, and some VPN apps, like NordVPN, reportedly work for visitors. You could, however, be ordered to remove VPN applications from your devices. Be especially careful if you’re visiting more contentious regions, like Tibet or Xinjiang.
- Turkey. Using a VPN is legal, though Turkey denies certain service providers to puportedly protect national security and fight terrorism. VPNs are popular in Turkey because the government heavily restricts social media access, including platforms like Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter, and YouTube. Tor and Wikipedia are also banned. Turkey also blocks content it deems politically sensitive. As of March 2022, no cases of visitors being fined for using a VPN have been reported.
- United Arab Emirates. Laws enforcing VPN usage in the UAE state that VPNs are legal unless they’re used to commit a crime. Banned content that goes against moral values includes pornography, politically sensitive activity, and video calling (i.e. VoIP or Voice over Internet Protocol)—a restriction widely considered to have been created to protect the country’s telecom companies. In other words, this content is banned, and accessing it via VPN is a crime. Since 2016, VPN users can face jail time or fines of more than half a million dollars if “internet protocols are manipulated to commit crime or fraud,” though as of March 2022 there haven’t been reports of prosecution for this offense.
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