Many people are confused about the legality of VPNs because the security and anonymity that they offer while online are so good that VPNs are often used to mask illegal activities. People who are not trying to mask illegal activities might then find themselves wondering: are VPNs legal?
In most countries, VPNs are legal, and they are commonly used to ensure online security and enable certain types of activities. There are a few notable countries where VPNs are illegal, such as China, Russia, and North Korea, where censorship is strong.
While VPNs themselves are legal, what you do with them can be illegal. While you can use a VPN to appear as though you are in a country where what you want to do online is legal, you are still governed by the laws of the country that you are physically in, so your activity is still illegal.
If you are using a good VPN service, though, the chances of being caught for low-priority crimes such as accessing streaming content that is blocked in your region, or torrenting entertainment you’ve not purchased, are very low.
Read on as we take a closer look at the legality of VPN, as well as why you should be using a VPN even when everything you want to do online is legal.
What Are VPNs?
VPN stands for virtual private network, which offers a private network for accessing the internet. Instead of using the internet by communicating directly between your computer–and more specifically your IP address–and the IP address of your destination website, you send your connection to a VPN and the VPN mediates your link to your destination website.
Why would you want to do that? Two reasons. First, you can appear to be accessing the internet from somewhere other than where you are. VPNs were initially created for companies with private servers for their sensitive documents. Access to these servers was limited to IP addresses on company property, but what about when someone off-site needed access? They can connect to a VPN to make it appear as though they are on company premises and thus gain access.
Today this kind of location masking is used for a much broader range of applications. Are you outside of the US and need to access government websites that are only accessible within the country (which is a lot of them)? Jump on a VPN. Do you need to purchase flights that are cheaper to buy in your destination country than where you are now? Shop with a VPN. Want to access entertainment that is not yet available in your country due to copyright restrictions? Again, use a VPN.
The other thing that VPNs do is encrypt your data as it enters and exits the VPN, making it impossible for others to look at. Most VPN services use AES-256 bit encryption. It is estimated that it would take a quantum computer about 200 times longer than the universe has existed to decrypt this.
This protects your data not only from hackers but also from anyone else who might want to monitor what you are up to online, specifically marketers who want to utilize push messaging based on your activity.
Are VPNs Legal?
It is entirely legal to use a VPN in most countries, but there are some notable exceptions.
In China, VPNs are banned because they might allow users to bypass the Great Firewall, which censors what Chinese citizens can access online. Russia banned VPNs in 2017 for similar reasons. They are also banned in Belarus, North Korea, Turkmenistan, Uganda, Iraq, Turkey, Oman, and the UAE.
Why Do People Think VPNs Are Illegal?
Why do so many people in more liberal countries think that VPNs are illegal?
VPNs do let you hide your identity and block governments and other agencies from finding out what you do online. Naturally, then, criminals use VPNs as a standard part of their activity. Even mostly law-abiding citizens who want to do something like torrent the latest movie from the cinema or increase their watching options by installing and using certain Kodi apps on their Android TV box will use a VPN to mask this activity.
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It is not the VPN that is illegal, though; it is the online activity itself. While you may appear to be accessing the internet from elsewhere in the world, you are still subject to the laws in the country that you are physically in. If accessing pirated copyright content is illegal where you are, then, it is still illegal regardless of the VPN masking it.
Because VPNs are widely used for illegal activities, many types of companies actively try to identify and block VPNs.
Banks and other financial institutions block VPNs to protect their clients against fraud. Since they use the same level of encryption when managing client data, you can switch your VPN off when doing online banking.
Streaming services such as Netflix and Prime Video also try to block VPNs since they are contractually obligated to do their best to stop people from accessing copyrighted material without permission; however, most good VPN services will still allow you to access these streaming services as they stay one step ahead of their blocking activity.
Why Use A VPN?
While VPNs are legal in most countries, many people shy away from using them because of their association with illegal activities. This is a mistake; there are more good reasons for using a VPN than for not using one.
VPNs Protect Your Data
The principal reason for using a VPN is to encrypt your data, making it pretty much impossible for hackers or anyone else to see your personal information. These days, we share personal data much more often than we imagine. We don’t think much of popping in our credit card or PayPal details on most websites to make a purchase, and social login is becoming increasingly common. If someone gets their hands on our Google or Facebook credentials, they can gain broad access to our world and data.
VPNs Make Public Wi-Fi Safer
While public wi-fi is incredibly convenient, it can also be quite dangerous as you have no idea what security protocols are in place or who might be monitoring your online activity. A VPN encrypts your data so no one can see what you are doing.
VPN Protects Your Data From Your ISP Provider
Your internet provider is probably monitoring your online activity at a high level for their own strategic planning purposes and potentially on a more detailed level. This information can be used to determine your internet tariffs. ISP providers are notorious for pushing up prices for those who spend a lot of time streaming. They can also sell your data to advertisers, who can use it to target you with specific messaging.
VPN Maintains Your Online Anonymity
Long gone are the days when our online worlds were private. Every time you go online there are scores of companies and government agencies collecting data on you and what you look at. They use this for various purposes, principally marketing and political influencing. You have a right for your online activity to be private and not to be spied on by these companies. A VPN can offer that anonymity.
VPN Lets You Choose Your Location
Watching copyrighted content is only one of the many reasons that you might want to appear to be accessing the internet from somewhere else in the world. Sometimes it is just a matter of fair access to information, and you might be surprised which kinds of websites are restricted. U.S. government websites are often blocked in other countries, and not just “hostile” countries. For example, if you were on holiday in Brazil, you might not be able to access sites for your state government back home.
Considering all this, the question seems to be not why to use a VPN, but instead, why aren’t you using a VPN?
How To Choose A VPN?
If you decide to start using a VPN, how do you go about choosing a reliable service? This is important since you are trusting them to do everything they say they will do.
The following are the main considerations when choosing a VPN.
- Appropriate encryption and protection. These days AES-256 encryption is standard. Your VPN should also come with protection features such as a kill switch to cut off your internet if your VPN drops out for any reason and things like split tunneling, which allows you to do things like access online banking outside of your VPN while keeping other activity protected.
- Avoid free services. It costs a lot of money to maintain the network and services needed to manage a VPN. If they aren’t earning through user subscriptions, they are making money elsewhere. This could mean that they are selling your data, defeating the purpose of using a VPN, or selling your bandwidth to paying users, significantly slowing down your internet connection.
- Find a trusted name. Choose a trusted name on the VPN market to find a service that has been vetted for delivering on promises. Check out websites such as Trust Pilot to see what other people are saying about any VPN service that you are using.
- Good speeds. Using a VPN will always cut your internet speeds a little bit. This is just inevitable when you bounce your connection around various server locations. Good services know how to limit the impact of this, eating up less than 20% of your connection speed, while bad VPNs can slow you by up to 90%. Again, check sites like Trust Pilot to see what the experience of others has been.
- Unlimited data. It used to be normal that VPN services would limit the amount of data you could send via their network. These days, most VPNs are unlimited, though they may have a limited free version designed to get you to start using the service and then upgrade. Always choose unlimited.
- Generous device access. These days, to ensure companies aren’t using private VPNs for commercial purposes, services put a cap on the number of devices that can be connected to the VPN at any one time. The minimum is usually 5 or 6, but 10 is common. This is enough for most people and even families. Also, make sure that they have applications compatible with the devices that you use. It is also a good idea to look for options that let you put the VPN directly on your router, protecting all of the devices on your home network at once.
- No logs policy. In theory, governments and other agencies can force VPN providers to turn over information about their users. This is why most VPN services are based in countries where this is unlikely to happen, such as the British Virgin Islands, rather than the United States. To deal with this, most companies have a no logs policy, which means that they commit to not logging any of your activity in the first place, or even how much data you are sending and receiving. This means that if the government did come knocking, the VPN service wouldn’t have any information to share beyond perhaps the email address that you registered with even if they wanted to.
In most countries, with a few notable exceptions, VPNs are 100% legal. They are a useful tool for enhancing your online security, maintaining the anonymity of your online activity, and letting you access content that might otherwise be restricted, such as business files, from the comfort of your own home.
VPNs can also be used to mask illegal activity. For most people, this means streaming and torrenting copyrighted content, but VPNs are also used by more serious criminals. While VPNs can mask these activities, using a VPN is not illegal.
If you decide that you want to use a VPN, which we highly recommend, check out our recommendations for the best VPNs.