Virtual private networks (VPNs) are essential tools for protecting your privacy when you’re browsing the web. When using a VPN, your activity is encrypted and obscured from anyone who may want to spy on you — hackers, your internet service provider (ISP), and even the government.
It’s for that exact reason that some countries view VPNs as problematic. While it keeps an individual secure and protects their privacy, some governments view this as a threat. For that reason, using a VPN in some countries is considered illegal or may occupy a gray area as to whether it’s safe to use them.
Below, we’ll look at how different countries and governments view VPNs, what may happen if you use a VPN when it’s illegal to do so, and what your rights are in these situations:
- Is it illegal to use a VPN?
- Why is it illegal in some countries?
- Are there certain activities that are illegal? What is legal?
- Can you be fined for using a VPN?
- What are your rights concerning VPNs?
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Is it illegal To Use a VPN?
Whether a VPN is legal or illegal depends on where you’re located when you’re using it. Different countries have different rules regarding the legality of a VPN and what you’re allowed to do with this privacy tool.
As a general rule, if you’re living in a democratic country, you’re likely safe to use a VPN — although there may be restrictions on how you’re permitted to use it and what you’re allowed to do with it. If you’re living in or traveling to a country with a more restrictive government or an authoritarian state, VPNs may be illegal.
Many of these countries view VPNs as intrusive to their security state, claiming that the privacy tool may be used for terrorist activity, criminal actions, or other malicious purposes. In these cases, using a VPN carries greater risks for you even if it protects your identity online.
What Countries Are VPNs Illegal In?
There are a handful of countries where VPNs are illegal to use. Other jurisdictions have heavily restricted the use of the technology and may have punishments for those who choose to use them. VPNs are illegal to use in:
- North Korea
These countries operate in a very strict manner, restricting the access to information that citizens have. VPNs present a threat to this as they allow people to get around the country’s firewall that prevents access to certain sites, services, and information.
For that reason, these governments have decided to ban the use of VPNs. Other countries do allow the use of VPNs, but they have heavy restrictions on the technology. Countries with these restrictions include:
- United Arab Emirates (UAE)
In these countries, it isn’t necessarily illegal to use a VPN. But you’re only allowed to use the privacy tool for specific purposes.
China only allows VPNs that have been licensed and approved by the Chinese government, which may undermine the privacy that these VPNs can provide.
Other countries restrict the use of specific apps or services through VPNs, such as how the UAE restricts the use of voice-over-internet-protocol (VoIP) services via VPNs.
Why Is It Illegal in Some Countries?
There are a variety of reasons that different governments cite for restricting the use of VPNs, but most of it stems from how VPNs work and how they can be used to subvert restrictions imposed by these governments and ruling classes.
A VPN encrypts your data, providing a secure tunnel between your computer and a server that communicates with the web for you. All data sent to and from your device travels through this tunnel and cannot be viewed by anyone else.
For this reason, some countries that monitor the internet usage of their citizens believe that VPNs undermine their ability to provide security. They believe VPNs hinder efforts to target and stop criminal activity, including the threat of terrorism.
While most people argue that these types of restrictive regimes are overreaching and criminalizing behavior that isn’t inherently incriminating, these governments continue to ban or greatly restrict the use of these privacy tools.
Similarly, VPNs present a threat to countries that attempt to limit and control access to information. Some countries only allow state-approved media and information to be accessed and have tools to ensure that citizens cannot view information that hasn’t been approved.
When someone uses a VPN, they typically connect with a server outside of the country where they’re located. This bypasses some of those restrictions and allows access to a freer internet. Because of this, countries that censor certain information see VPNs as undermining their ability to control access and choose to ban the tools entirely.
Are There Certain Activities That Are Illegal?
Even in countries where you’re allowed to use a VPN, there are some activities that are restricted or forbidden. Often, these are the types of activities that are illegal without a VPN. But attempting to use a VPN to try to obscure these activities can potentially lead to harsher penalties if your activity is identified.
Some of these illegal activities include:
- Pirate copyrighted content: It’s illegal to download copyrighted material. Some people try to use a VPN to hide their activity, but it’s still illegal to do. If your Internet Service Provider or law enforcement sees this activity, you can face fines or penalties.
- Buying or selling illegal goods: Some people use VPNs to access the dark web, where there are marketplaces that allow the sale and purchase of goods and services that are otherwise illegal. While you can try to hide your activity on these platforms with a VPN, it’s still illegal to engage in these transactions.
- Hacking: Hacking other people is illegal and using a VPN to try to hide your identity won’t protect you from the legal ramifications if you’re caught.
- Stalking: Some people attempt to use VPNs to obscure their true identity and follow or harass people online. This is illegal and you can face penalties for engaging in this behavior.
Can You Be Fined for Using a VPN?
The penalty for using a VPN depends on the county, but countries that restrict or ban the use of VPNs will penalize you if you’re caught using them. Depending on what you’re found to be doing or what you’re suspected of doing, the penalty may be harsher. You may face a fine for using a VPN. In more extreme cases, it’s possible that you may face jail time in a country that bans the use of a VPN.
What Are Your Rights Concerning VPNs?
When it comes to your rights while using a VPN, it depends on the country that you’re located in, how you’re using the VPN, and the terms of service that the VPN provides. A good VPN should offer you some protections like a no-log policy that guarantees your online activity won’t be stored and cannot be requested or accessed by a government agency. It should also offer tools like kill switches that prevent your data from leaking online in case the VPN loses connection.
However, these protections may not matter if you’re found to be using a VPN in a way that violates the law or the terms of other services. Netflix, for example, doesn’t allow you to use a VPN so if you’re found to be using one, the company can terminate your service or report you to legal authorities.
Similarly, if a government forbids the use of VPNs and finds that you’re using one, you may face legal ramifications for this including fines or other penalties. VPNs are great privacy tools, and in most cases, you’re able to use them for legitimate purposes when you want to protect yourself online. However, you need to be careful using a VPN in some countries that are more restrictive and may penalize you if you’re found to be using one.