In the United States, and in many countries, it is legal to use a VPN, but they can be associated with illegal online activity. We explain what's legal and illegal about using Virtual Private Networks, plus your rights to use a VPN around the world.
The good news is, for the most part, yes – VPNs are legal to use.
Are VPNs legal everywhere? No. VPNs are perfectly legal to use in the United States, and in most western democracies such as Europe. That doesn't mean, though, that you are free to conduct illegal activities with a VPN enabled – you're still committing an illegal act. Whereas VPNs are legal in the United States, VPN use is monitored or even banned in less democratic nations, including China, Russia, North Korea, and Cuba.
Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) encrypt your connection to the internet and stop you from 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 savory activities, including illegal downloads and use of the darknet.
Remember, even though VPNs may be legal to use, not all VPNs are built alike. We've independently tested the best, and only recommend VPNs that are safe and legal.
Is It Illegal To Use a VPN?
Using a VPN is perfectly legal in most countries, including the U.S, but not all countries. Also, using a VPN to carry out illegal activity remains illegal, and you will likely still be caught and prosecuted. A VPN protects your privacy but does not excuse or hide you from being reprimanded by the law for theft, unlawful purchases, or any other crime as dictated by the country you are in.
Here's the lowdown:
- 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
- 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.
Although VPNs have suffered from a poor reputation in the past due to being used for dubious activities, there are a host of valid reasons why people would choose to use a VPN, from accessing content on streaming services not available in their region, to protecting themselves when using public Wi-Fi.
It's worth remembering that VPNs aren’t legal everywhere. They’re being banned in certain countries, particularly those with a more restrictive reputation.
If you're looking for a VPN, our research has shown that Surfshark is one of the best, thanks to its excellent features and ease of use.
Which VPNs are Legal to Use?
As long as they are deemed legal in your country, most VPNs are legal to use. However, some might employ slightly suspicious business practices that could put you at risk – we recommend sticking to the services we've recommended below.
Watch out, in particular, for free VPNs. These may look appealing, initially, thanks to their subscription-free service. But, they could actually be selling your details on to third parties or sharing your bandwidth with other users (as has been the case with Hola in the past).
Our scoring is based on independent tests and assessments of features, privacy settings, ease of use and value.
Click to find the latest offers, deals and discounts from the VPN provider
BEST CHEAP VPN
Industry-beating good value, with a single low price to cover all your devices, plus great speeds and top security features
Fast, effective, low-cost and simple – the best VPN we've tested, with risk-free money-back guarantee
A safe, simple, outstanding VPN
Outstanding value, with an advanced VPN app
Good VPN privacy at good speeds
A good, well-priced VPN
A decent option for expert users
A user-friendly VPN, let down by some speed loss
A powerful tool for expert users
Excellent privacy features for the security-minded
$2.49 (2-year plan)
$3.71 (2-year plan)
$2.88 (2-year plan)
$3.33 (1-year plan)
$4.99 (1-year plan)
$4.08 (1-year plan)
$4 (1-year plan)
$3.50 (2-year plan)
$2.66 (1-year plan)
$2.45 (2-year plan)
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.
Want to learn more? See our guide to the Worst Countries for Internet Censorship
“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.
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, the 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 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 comparison table to help you pick a fast, secure VPN service
However, Netflix may not approve, and could potentially revoke your account if you do anything which it deems outside its terms of service.
A VPN isn't essential, but we do recommend one for anyone that wants to add an extra layer of protection and convenience to their online life.
Tech.co is reader-supported. If you make a purchase through the links on our site, we may earn a commission from the retailers of the products we have reviewed. This helps Tech.co to provide free advice and reviews for our readers. It has no additional cost to you, and never affects the editorial independence of our reviews. Click to return to top of page