Are VPNs Legal? Your Rights to Using VPNs Explained

May 25, 2018

1:26 pm

While VPNs are legal to use in many countries, including the US, they can be associated with illegal online activity. We explain what’s legal and illegal about using VPNs, plus your rights to use a VPN in different countries.

The good news is, for the most part, yes – VPNs are legal to use, including in the U.S.

Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) encrypt your connection to the internet and stop you being tracked or hacked while you’re online – and there are plenty of perfectly legal reasons for wanting to use a VPN.

VPNs are great for protecting your online privacy. With a VPN enabled, you can disguise your IP address and prevent the government, your internet provider, or third parties from monitoring what you’re up to online. While there are plenty of perfectly legal reasons you might want this degree of privacy, VPNs understandably appeal to those looking to hide less savoury activities, including illegal downloads and use of the darknet.


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Is It Illegal to Use a VPN?

It’s perfectly legal to use a VPN in most countries, including the U.S. This comes with a few important caveats, however:

  • You can use VPNs in the U.S. – Running a VPN in the U.S. is legal, but anything that’s illegal without a VPN remains illegal when using one (eg torrenting copyrighted material)
  • VPNs are banned by a few countries – Some countries, including China, Russia, Iraq and North Korea, restrict or ban the use of VPNs
  • VPNs use can breach terms of service – It isn’t illegal to access services such as Netflix over a VPN, though it does breach their terms of use
  • Law enforcement can demand information – Though most VPNs promise to keep no logs, there is precedent for VPN providers sharing user information with the authorities when requested

Ready to choose a great VPN? See all of our expert reviews of the best VPN services to choose.

Can You Legally Use a VPN in the US?

There are currently no laws prohibiting or restricting the use of VPNs in the U.S. and Canada. It’s also legal to use VPNs in many other countries around the world, including the UK, Australia and Europe.

However, VPNs aren’t legal everywhere. They’re are banned in certain countries, particularly those with a more restrictive reputation.

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Where Is It Illegal to Use a VPN?

Countries with a more restrictive reputation around civil rights and freedom of speech tend to be the ones that ban or restrict VPN use. Citizens may try to use VPNs to get around strict government monitoring of online activities, or blocking of certain sites or services, for instance. The governments, in turn, attempt to block or restrict their use.

VPNs are illegal to use in Iraq, Belarus and North Korea, and usage is heavily restricted in a number of other territories, including China, Russia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates.

“While VPNs themselves aren’t illegal in the US and many other parts of the world, VPNs are sometimes used by people to disguise the fact that they’re carrying out activities that break the law.”

VPNs and Illegal Activities

While using a VPN itself is rarely unlawful, certain online activities remain illegal, whether you’re using a VPN or not. These may include:

  • Illegal file-sharing
    Also known as torrenting, this is where users simultaneously download and upload copyright-protected content (such as music, movies and games) between each other over the internet.
  • Hacking
    Gaining unauthorized access to computers or networks belonging to other companies or individuals, either to disrupt activity, carry out acts of fraud or steal data, is illegal.
  • Buying, selling or downloading on the dark web
    The dark web is an under-the-radar area of the internet, where a great deal of illegal activity occurs, such as buying or selling drugs, weapons and other illicit materials, or accessing illegal pornography.
  • Cyber stalking
    It’s illegal to stalk someone online and cover your tracks using a VPN.

Why are there Legal Issues Around VPNs?

VPNs use encryption to make your connection to the internet private. By using a VPN, you can make yourself anonymous online and mask your browsing activity.

In some countries, particularly where the free movement of ideas is restricted, anonymous, untrackable internet usage can pose a problem for authorities. This is why some governments impose a ban or strict controls over VPN usage.

While VPNs themselves aren’t illegal in the US and many other parts of the world, VPNs are sometimes used by people to disguise the fact that they’re carrying out activities that break the law.

“In some cases, use of a VPN can breach your terms of service for a platform (such as Netflix), rather than the law itself.”

In some cases, use of a VPN can breach your terms of service for a platform, rather than the law itself. For example, VPNs can be used to make it look as if you’re located in another country by routing your connection through a proxy server that’s physically situated abroad. If you’re doing this in order to access a service that’s geo-locked to a specific country – for example, if you wanted to stream from Netflix while you’re abroad – then you may find that doing so breaches the terms of your service agreement.

Not all VPNs can access Netflix successfully – see our round up of the Best VPNs for Netflix

To complicate matters further, if you use a VPN to make it look as though you’re located somewhere else in the world while you’re online, you could find that your online activities are bound by the laws of the country where the server is situated – not just by the laws of the country you’re really accessing the internet from.

Can you be Fined or Prosecuted for Using a VPN?

Unless you live in a country where VPNs are banned or restricted, you won’t face a penalty for using a VPN. However, in the U.S. and other countries where VPNs are allowed, you could face prosecution for any unlawful activities you carry out while using a VPN.

Using a VPN may not provide you with any protection in criminal cases, either. Many VPNs – including those that claim not to keep any logs – retain some information about their users and may reserve the right to provide this and any other relevant data to authorities, if requested.

Court documents show that VPN provider logs have been used in at least two recent cases (United States of America vs Ryan S Lin and United States of America vs Suzette Kugler) to track and prosecute individuals for illegal activities carried out online while using a VPN.

Your Rights Around VPNs

Your rights vary depending on several factors, including the terms of service offered by the VPN you’re using, the country you’re using the VPN in and the terms and conditions of any services you access while using a VPN.

Before you sign up with a VPN, check its terms of service and its privacy policy to make sure you’re happy with them first. Most will make it clear that carrying out illegal activity is not allowed and that users must assume all liability for any criminal behavior. You will also usually find a clause stating that any suspected fraudulent, abusive or illegal activity may be referred to appropriate law enforcement authorities.

It’s also important to read the terms and conditions of any service you’re using. For example, Netflix’s terms of use state that “You may view the Netflix content primarily within the country in which you have established your account and only in geographic locations where we offer our service and have licensed such content.”

Netflix’s terms of use state that “You may view the Netflix content primarily within the country in which you have established your account and only in geographic locations where we offer our service and have licensed such content.”

Basically, this means that if you use a VPN to access Netflix, such as Express VPN, from within a country where the service doesn’t currently operate, you are effectively in breach of contract. Netflix reserves the right to “terminate or restrict your use of our service if you violate these Terms of Use or are engaged in illegal or fraudulent use of the service”.

Before you travel abroad, always make sure you check to see whether or not VPNs are legal in the country you’re visiting. If you’re travelling to a country where VPNs are illegal or restricted, you’ll need to disable any VPNs on your devices.

Ready to choose a VPN? Check our VPN reviews to help you pick a fast, secure VPN service

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Jonathan has written about technology and related topics for more years that he’d care to mention. His writing credits include the BBC, Which? UK, and numerous tech magazines and websites.

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