Are VPNs Legal? A Simple Explanation

Martin Gschwentner
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VPNs have a variety of uses: They provide anonymity on the internet, secure public WIFI connections, and help bypass geoblocks. However, since VPNs are so good at ensuring privacy, they’re often used by people who commit crimes such as downloading copyrighted media or planning ransomware attacks. So, are VPNs legal?

In short: Yes. The use of VPNs is legal in most countries. To be precise, their legality depends on two factors: what users do while on the VPN, and compliance with any laws regulating VPN use, which vary by country.

What Are VPNs Used For?

VPNs have several uses, most of which are perfectly legal. However, they can also be used as a means to commit crimes, or for activities that may not be criminal, but fall into a gray area.

Protection while using public WiFi
When you use public WiFi, your data can be exposed to other people accessing the same network. VPNs bolster your security by encrypting your connection.

Anonymous web surfing
Protecting your identity isn’t just important while on public WiFi. Using a VPN can ensure anonymity wherever you access the Internet, including when you’re surfing the Web at home. This prevents Internet service providers (ISPs) and advertisers from cashing in on your data. 

Location changes
Whenever you travel to a different country, you may not be able to access the information and services you need. You could be blocked from your company’s network, or even unintentionally land on local versions of the websites you normally access. A VPN connects you to a server in your home country and lets you continue using the Internet as if you never left.

Journalistic endeavors
Journalists who report on sensitive issues use VPNs to aid their research and secure their communication; an encrypted connection helps them access relevant content while shielding their identities (and those of their sources). In countries where Internet usage is restricted by law, such research and activity might be illegal.

Access to company networks
Businesses use VPNs to give their employees access to company networks. This has become more common with the ever-increasing popularity of remote work.

Gray Areas

Access to foreign content
Content libraries for streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and Disney+ vary by location, with rights to movies and TV series obtained for each country in which they operate. While it’s not against the law to use a VPN to access streaming content outside your country, it likely violates the service’s terms of use. To date, no company has threatened their users with serious consequences in this regard. However, some streaming services may take action against their customers going forward in the form of account closures or bans. 

Illegal VPN Activity

Illegal downloads
Criminals can conceal their identities while illegally downloading copyrighted material. Because most VPNs hold to their 'no logging' promise and don’t save personal information, the majority of these crimes go unpunished. All the same, downloading copyrighted material remains illegal.

Buying and selling on the dark web
From narcotics to unlicensed firearms, the dark web is full of illegal commercial activity. VPNs do not absolve users of any consequences when committing such crimes.

Stalking, cyberbullying, and hacking
Some people use VPNs to conceal their identities and avoid consequences when stalking or bullying their victims. 

To review, VPNs are legal in most countries, provided they aren’t used to commit illegal activities. 

That being said, it is important to consider local laws when accessing a VPN.

Regional Legality of VPNs

VPNs are legal in most countries as long as they aren’t used to commit crimes. However, laws do vary by region.

Legality in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland

Across German-speaking Europe, namely Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, VPNs are legal, so long as they aren’t used to commit crimes.

Legality in the USA

The same VPN laws apply in the US as most of the world, namely, so long as illegal activities aren’t committed on the VPN, their usage is legal.

Legality in China

In the People's Republic of China, things are a bit more complicated. VPN technology itself is not illegal; in fact, it’s used by many individuals, companies, and even the government. However, most companies providing VPN services are located outside Chinese jurisdiction and don’t have any offices within the country. 

The Chinese government actively seeks to suppress the use of VPNs, viewing the technology as a threat to their Internet censorship measures, dubbed the “Great Firewall of China.”

From time to time, reports come to light of new restrictions on VPN usage in China. In 2017, Bloomberg noted an order to ban personal VPN services, however, the Chinese Ministry of Industry and Information Technology denied the claim

While the legality of VPNs in China isn’t entirely clear, there are few known cases in which the government has cracked down on individuals who use them. In 2019, a man from the province of Guangdong was fined 1,000 yuan for visiting foreign websites on a VPN

There don’t appear to be any cases of tourists being fined for accessing VPNs while in China. It’s possible that critics of the Chinese government and individuals living in Xinjiang and Tibet are subject to even tighter restrictions concerning VPNs, however, it’s impossible to be certain owing to the regime's authoritarian nature.

In Which Countries Are VPNs Illegal or Restricted?

China isn’t the only country that frowns upon VPNs. Other authoritarian states also restrict or ban the usage of VPNs outright and include:

  • Russia: In 2017, the Russian government passed a law prohibiting access to certain banned websites via a VPN connection, however, the general use of VPNs in the country is not illegal.
  • Iran: Only government-approved VPNs can be used in Iran; alternative VPN services were deemed illegal in 2013. It’s unlikely that the government-approved versions prioritize user anonymity, especially when it comes to journalists or dissidents.
  • Turkey: VPN use in Turkey is generally legal, but some specific VPN services are prohibited. Freedom of speech for individuals and journalists in Turkey is constantly under threat. In 2019, the German government warned its citizens that VPN use while traveling to Turkey could have legal ramifications. So far, we’re unaware of any reported cases.
  • Iraq, Turkmenistan, North Korea, Belarus: According to the German Foreign Ministry, VPN use is prohibited in these countries.
  • United Arab Emirates (UAE): According to the German Foreign Ministry, the use of VPN services in the UAE is punishable by law if the service facilitates criminal activity.
  • Oman: The German Foreign Ministry states that in Oman, “The use of VPNs is restricted and can lead to criminal prosecution”, without going into further detail.

Conclusion

In general, VPNs are legal to use as long as it isn't towards criminal ends. If you simply want to surf the web anonymously or have more security online, VPNs can facilitate this in most countries. Even when it comes to gray areas, such as employing a VPN to get around geo-blocking on your streaming service (like Netflix), you’re only violating the company’s terms of use (as opposed to the law).

In countries with strict laws regarding Internet use, such as China, Russia, and Turkey, governments have taken action to limit access to VPNs. However, even in those countries where freedom of speech is under threat, using a VPN for activities deemed legal by the government is generally safe. Specific cases of individuals being prosecuted for being on a VPN are rare. The issue is more than freedom of expression is limited in these countries.

Of course, using a VPN to commit crimes, such as downloading copyrighted material or selling illicit products, will not protect you from criminal prosecution.

FAQs

Are VPNs legal?
VPNs are legal in most countries, so long as they aren’t used to commit crimes. In some countries with strict laws governing Internet usage, VPNs are highly regulated (such as in China and Russia) or illegal (as in North Korea and Iraq).

Are VPNs legal in the US?
Yes, VPNs are legal in the US. You can only be prosecuted if you use a VPN to engage in illegal activities. 

Are VPNs legal in China?
VPN technology itself isn’t prohibited in China; in fact, it’s commonly used by individuals, companies, and the government. However, the Chinese regime heavily regulates VPNs since they are capable of breaching what’s known as the “Great Firewall.” That being said, it’s unlikely that individuals, especially tourists, will face legal consequences if using a VPN.

Author (German Version): Martin Gschwentner
Martin Gschwentner majored in American Studies and Media Studies in Germany, the USA and France and works as a freelance editor in Paris. He is a doctoral student at the Institute for English and American Studies at the University of Paris Diderot, where he is researching the influence of money on US politics. On EXPERTE.com he writes about IT security, data protection and software for the self-employed and small businesses.
Translator & Editor: Lisa Torelli-Sauer
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