Is it legal to use a VPN?

Is a VPN connection legal featured

Lady JusticeIf you’ve reached this page, you’re probably wondering whether it’s legally allowed to work with a VPN. For most countries in the world, the answer is yes. However, each country still has its own laws and regulations. If you use a VPN to stay anonymous while conducting illegal activities, you’re still subject to the law. What you’re doing is still illegal, regardless of whether you’re using a VPN or not.

A VPN (Virtual Private Network) creates a lot of possibilities. You could use it to circumvent geographical restrictions on the internet and get access to information that normally wouldn’t be available in your country. A simple example would be BBC iPlayer. This service is meant only for the British public, living in the United Kingdom. However, if you were to use a VPN server in Great Britain, you’d be able to access the website from Italy, Norway or the USA as well.

Many people wonder whether it’s legal to use a VPN connection. In most parts of the world, especially in western countries, using a VPN is completely legal. There, you won’t have to fear being arrested simply because you use a VPN. Even so, there are some countries whose governments do not accept VPN use. Usually, these countries have dictatorial regimes or extremely authoritarian leaders. Examples would be China, Russia, and Iran. Why do they want to limit VPN usage? And why do VPNs have such a bad name? We’ll explain it all in this article.

Why is a VPN connection illegal in some countries?

VPN use is mostly forbidden in countries with authoritarian laws such as China, North Korea, and Turkmenistan. Government in these countries have limited internet freedom as well as the freedom of the press. Therefore, social media and critical news websites tend to be blocked for internet users in the country. To get access to these blocked websites and online services anyway, many civilians, expats, tourists, journalists and whistleblowers use a VPN or proxy server. The image below shows countries that use online censorship on a huge scale and their main motivations for doing so.

Is a VPN illegal infographic

By banning VPNs, governments hope to control the information their citizens can access. Additionally, they want to monitor and register civilians’ internet behavior. When using a VPN, citizens, tourists, expats, journalists and whistleblowers are all able to circumvent online censorship while also anonymizing all their online data. This greatly annoys the governments, as it means they’ll have less control. Therefore, VPNs are often made illegal in such places. Some countries even introduced severe punishments for the use of a VPN. An example would be the United Arab Emirates, which we’ll be talking more about later.

In some cases, VPNs are initially made illegal for safety reasons. Iraq, for example, decided to forbid the secure connection to make it easier to combat IS. Sadly, this means the rest of the population suffers the negative consequences of these laws. In a sense, they’re forced to give up part of their privacy for the sake of national security.

In which countries is using a VPN connection forbidden?

We’ve already named a couple of countries where using a VPN isn’t allowed. For the sake of clarity, we’ve listed all countries known to block VPNs or consider VPN use illegal down below. It often isn’t completely clear whether VPN connections are completely forbidden and what kind of punishment to expect when you do use one. Regardless, using a VPN in any of these places is a big risk.

Country Remarks
Belarus Belarus forbade VPN connections as well as the Tor browser back in 2015. It has even made the use of any anonymizing networks or connections illegal. Likely, this has to do with their close relation to Russia.
China VPN use in China is a bit of a grey area. The Chinese government has given its official approval for some VPN services, which can be used legally. These services are likely logging your online activities and sharing it with the authorities. Although China has threatened to block all foreign VPNs in 2018, it’s still possible to use them, even if it might not be 100% legal. Some high-quality VPNs such as NordVPN even offer special ‘obfuscated servers’, which help you get around China’s firewall.
Egypt Egypt’s government has been using Deep Packet Inspections (DPI) to block several VPN protocols (PPTP, L2TP, OpenVPN) since 2017. The country has been blocking numerous websites and services for a long time. Although VPNs aren’t officially illegal, Egypt has made it very hard to use a VPN to enjoy a free internet within its borders.
Iraq Iraq introduced a complete VPN ban in 2014, also blocking access to some social media and other services. Their main motivation was that it would help them fight IS. Even now these laws are still active, even though IS no longer has the country in its grip.
Iran Iran has officially banned the use of many VPNs since March 2013. Promoting and selling these VPNs is forbidden and can result in a prison sentence. Only VPNs with government approval are allowed to be used, even though those still don’t give you access to blocked websites such as YouTube. They likely log your use, too.
North Korea North Korea is known for its strict censorship. It doesn’t even allow civilians to use the regular internet. VPNs are forbidden, but since North Korea is so closed off from the rest of the world, the consequences of VPN use in this country are unknown.
Oman Using a VPN is illegal for all Omani citizens, but organizations are allowed to use one as long as they have a license. Only VPN services that have been approved by the government are legal.
Russia Since July 2017 VPN providers are only allowed to offer their services to the Russian population if they share all user data with the government. In 2019 Roskomnadzor (the Russian national media control force) gave several well-known VPNs thirty days to grant them access to all Russian data and abide by the Russian law (meaning enforcing censorship). Many VPNs responded by shutting down their Russian servers.
Syria Using a VPN isn’t necessarily illegal in Syria. However, since 2011 some VPN connections are being blocked, as the government attacks VPN protocols. It’s unsure how successful these attempts are.
Turkey To keep citizens from accessing blocked websites, the Turkish government has restricted VPN use. Attempts are made to detect and block VPN connections by means of DPI. Using a VPN in Turkey might therefore not always work. Moreover, it can make you more of a target for the government: their watchful eyes will be studying you more closely.
Turkmenistan Turkmenistan heavily censors and restricts the internet in order to block foreign media. VPN use is therefore also banned in this country. The country only has one ISP, which is under government control.
Uganda Uganda introduced a social media tax in 2018. To get around this tax, many citizens started using VPNs. Now the government is blocking VPN connections and discouraging the use. However, VPN use isn’t officially illegal (yet).
United Arab Emirates In the UAE, only organizations are allowed to use a VPN. VPN use is illegal for civilians when they use it for criminal purposes. However, criminal acts in the UAE also include visiting dating websites and the American Netflix. VoIP services such as Skype, too, aren’t allowed. If you do use them, you could get a high fine or even be sent to prison.

Why do VPNs have such a bad reputation?

A VPN can help you browse the internet anonymously. It provides more online freedom and safety. Therefore, almost all big companies regularly use a corporate VPN these days. Even so, many people believe that VPNs aren’t completely legal. In many parts of the world, it is: you can use a VPN to protect your online privacy whenever you wish. VPNs allow you to access the internet in a secure way, which isn’t bad, dangerous or forbidden in and of itself – in most places.

However, it is against the law to partake in criminal activities while using a VPN. Depending on the country you’re in, the definition of ‘criminal’ can differ tremendously. Most countries would consider selling hard drugs a criminal offence, for example. Criminals who concern themselves with such activities can try to stay out of the government’s grip by using a VPN. Their privacy will be somewhat protected, making it harder for the police to find and punish them. However, the criminal practices they take part in remain illegal. If they’re caught, they’ll be in serious trouble. Not for using a VPN, but for undertaking illegal activities.

Just as is the case with the Tor browser, many people believe a VPN connection is illegal because it facilitates crime. However, that isn’t the only use of a protected and anonymous internet connection. A VPN is simply a means to an end that can be used for multiple purposes, both good and bad.

There are many good reasons for people to use a VPN. Privacy often plays a big role, along with extra protection while using open Wi-Fi hotspots. Streaming online content can also become easier with a VPN. For more information on the reasons why you might want to use a VPN, we’d like to refer you to our full article on VPNs and their uses.

To summarize: VPNs are legal in most countries. However, some governments have placed restrictions on VPN use or banned the practice altogether. This way, they aim to control the population or maintain national safety. Using a VPN in these places could be dangerous and get you in trouble. When you’re not in any of those countries and don’t partake in criminal activities, however, there’s no need to be afraid.

Cybersecurity analyst
David is a cyber security analyst and one of the founders of Interested in the "digital identity" phenomenon, with special attention to the right to privacy and protection of personal data.
Leave a comment
  1. Hello,
    1. Does a VPN provide additional security and prevent unauthorized access to passwords etc., when performing financial transactions on your cell phone?
    2. Can a VPN be turned off when in countries (China and Egypt) that don’t allow it?
    3. If the VPN Is turned off, would this comply with the laws in China and Egypt?
    4. If I installed a VPN on my mobile iPhone, would I notice any difference in the way my mobile phone operates?
    Please let me know, Thanks

    • Hi David,
      1. It does. A VPN secures your internet connection, making it much harder for anyone to see what you’re doing online. This works the same if you use it on a mobile device, such as a smartphone. Although most banking environments already work with high-level protection, using a VPN on top of that won’t hurt.
      2. You can turn off your VPN whenever you want. Most VPNs have applications that allow you to switch the connection on or off by simply clicking a button.
      3. China and Egypt have been blocking VPN connections for a couple of years. In China, most VPNs are considered illegal. Still, a lot of people in China (and Egypt) use VPNs on a daily basis to get access to a free internet. Whether having a VPN application on your phone that isn’t activated is against the law, is hard to tell. There are stories of people who had to hand over their phones to officials when entering the country. When they got it back, the officials had removed social media and VPN applications. However, this had no further legal consequences for the travelers. In Egypt, using a VPN connection is actually legal, even if many of the providers are blocked. If you want to read more about the situations in these countries you can read about Egypt here and read about China here.
      4. Depending on the VPN’s speed, your location, and the location of the VPN server you’re using, you might notice a slight delay (or increase) in your internet speed. Besides that, the VPN will change your IP address, meaning you might experience the internet differently, possibly giving you more online freedom. If you want to read more about VPNs and how they can be used, we’d like to refer you to our article ‘VPN Explained’.
      Hopefully this answers your questions!

Leave a comment