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VPNs, or virtual private networks, offer you more privacy and security when using the internet. But you’ve also probably heard that a lot of streaming services don’t like VPNs at all. Netflix is not a fan, for instance, and warns against using VPNs in its terms and conditions. Violating terms and conditions is one thing, but what about the law? Is using a VPN legal?
The short answer is that most of the time, it’s perfectly legal to use a VPN. But there are still some gray areas, so read on to get the full scoop on the legality of VPNs in the United States and abroad.
VPNs are completely legal in the United States. No laws ban VPN use in any of the 50 states, and there are no federal regulations against VPN use, either. The United States may have its share of problems, but the American government has not shown any interest in banning VPNs, and we don’t expect that to change anytime soon.
That said, VPNs are not some magical invisibility cloak that makes whatever you do fine and dandy. You can’t do things that are otherwise illegal and then defend yourself by saying, “But the VPN makes it OK!” If you’re going to download a movie that someone filmed inside a theater, then yes, you should still expect consequences, with or without a VPN. Of course, a VPN might make it harder for the authorities to catch you doing shady stuff like this, but it’s still the activity that’s illegal — not the VPN.
Legal though they may be, VPNs are not a God-given right. Private companies are allowed to try to stop you from accessing their products while using a VPN. Netflix, for example, tries to detect VPN use and block VPN users from streaming videos.
Most of our readers are in the United States, so we covered the United States first. But if you’re asking “Is a VPN legal in China?” or “Is a VPN legal in the UAE?” then you’re going to get a different answer.
The VPN landscape in China is complicated. China allows some VPNs, but if you don’t have an approved one, you could get fined. So some VPNs are legal for some people, but not all VPNs for all people.
Despite this, China is still one of the top markets for VPNs in the world. In countries with governments that censor content and try to control the internet, VPN users are often trying to do things that are far more serious than streaming a foreign Netflix library. A VPN user may be trying to circumvent China’s censorship laws — which helps explain why Chinese internet users remain interested in VPN options that are illegal in the country.
To some extent, what’s happening in China is happening all over the globe: People want to use VPNs, but governments and other entities don’t want them to. When the entity is a streaming service like Netflix, the consequences tend to be light — streaming services may cancel your subscription over a violation of their terms and conditions, but they won’t be able to throw you in jail. When the entity is a big and powerful government, though, things can get serious.
Whichever entity is trying to control things will have its hands full, no matter how powerful they are. It’s like a game of whack-a-mole with VPNs: There are a lot of them, and it’s pretty much impossible to block all of them at once. Not that it stops some governments from trying.
We’ve covered the U.S. and China, but we still need to know if a VPN is legal in the UAE, a/k/a the United Arab Emirates. The answer, unfortunately, is no. The UAE censors its internet, and people who use VPNs are risking fines and even jail time.
To be clear, this doesn’t mean every VPN is illegal all of the time. Like China, the UAE is technically heavily regulating VPNs, not banning all VPNs outright. Still, the effect on VPN use is chilling. The UAE specifically targets VPN users who are trying to get around government censorship — which, of course, is precisely what makes a VPN most useful in a country with such stringent internet restrictions.
If you’re using a VPN to get to a website that the UAE government doesn’t want you to access, then you could be in trouble. Under UAE law, you can’t use a VPN for things like porn, “anti-religious content” and “anti-state activities.” In other words, if you’re going to use a VPN when you’re in Dubai, you better be 100 percent sure you’re not doing something that the government could classify as “misuse.”
By and large, most Western countries share a similar attitude towards VPNs. You can expect VPN laws in nations like the U.K., Canada, and Australia to be very similar to the ones in the United States — meaning that there are no real restrictions on VPN use.
As in the U.S., the somewhat complicated reputations of VPN services in these nations tend to come from the association VPNs have with things like peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing and illegal streaming. As with U.S. law, though, the law in most Western nations is more concerned with the activity itself, rather than with the VPN used to conceal it.
Of course, if you’re not sure about the laws in your area, you should seek out a specific guide to local regulations — and to enforcement, which can often be just as important.
If you’re in America, you’re not going to be hauled off to jail just for using a VPN. But you could run into legal trouble if you use your VPN to do something that is itself illegal. You could also face consequences — less serious ones — if you use your VPN to do something that breaks the agreement you have with an ISP, streaming service, or another party.
Think of your terms and conditions as a bit like the lease you sign when you rent an apartment. If your lease states you can’t smoke inside your apartment and you decide to light up anyway, the police aren’t going to show up and arrest you. But your landlord wouldn’t be happy, and they might have some options for enforcing the rules or penalizing you under the terms of the lease.
Does that mean that Netflix will evict you from the service and force you to find comfort in the arms of Hulu or Disney+ or one of the millions of other streaming services out there? It could, but the difference between “could” and “will” is big here. Just like your landlord is unlikely to use every legal option to retaliate over a single cigarette, your streaming services are unlikely to take the most aggressive option in dealing with your VPN use. Most likely, they’ll opt for a fairly non-confrontational option: They’ll just try to make it so that their service doesn’t work while you have a VPN running.
Naturally, we can’t promise that Netflix and other streaming services will never take more serious action against VPN users — just like we can’t guarantee that they’ll never crack down on other terms-violating activities, like password sharing. All we can say is that, so far, Netflix and its peers have been focused on prevention, not detection and punishment. In the past, users have been free to see which VPNs work with Netflix.
Now you know what might happen if you use a VPN while watching a service like Netflix. That leaves one more question: Why is Netflix so annoyed by VPNs to start with?
Well, for starters, they’re not that annoyed. Netflix tries to block VPN users, but its protections are far from complete, and Netflix has shown virtually no interest in cutting off subscriptions or doling out other punishments for VPN use.
To the extent that Netflix fights VPNs, it does so because of global content rights. This is a little boring, but stick with us: When Netflix signs a contract to stream a movie or show, they sign it for a given region. A show or movie being available on Netflix in one country doesn’t mean it will be available in all 241 Netflix libraries around the world. Just because Netflix has the rights to a movie in the U.K. doesn’t mean it can show that movie to viewers in the U.S. — without the U.S. streaming rights in hand, that would be a violation of copyright law.
That’s the reason for Netflix’s different international libraries, and it’s also the reason that Netflix has to do at least a little due diligence in cracking down on VPN use. If Netflix encouraged VPN use, even tacitly, its business partners would be pretty upset — and might even have legal recourse.
By the way, none of this matters much in the case of Netflix originals like The Queen’s Gambit and Bridgerton. Netflix produced many of its originals in-house and owns the streaming rights itself, so it can simply keep those rights to itself in every country it does business in. That’s why Netflix originals are typically available in all markets.
While Netflix may not officially approve, you can easily use a VPN to unlock Netflix. With the freedom to shift your location, you won’t be bound by the licensing agreements that Netflix made with the people creating movies and TV shows.
Should you feel bad about putting Netflix in an awkward spot? Well, that’s up to you. It’s a moral question more than a legal one. Netflix isn’t about to go under just because someone used a VPN to watch Elf at Christmas, for instance.
We’re pro-VPN here, but we don’t want you to do anything that gets you in legal trouble. To summarize: if you’re in the United States, you can use a VPN, as long as you’re not doing it to conceal some sort of otherwise illegal activity.
Now you can answer the question, “Is using a VPN legal?” What you do with that information is completely up to you. But if you just like pondering moral quandaries, we’d suggest watching The Good Place. Coincidentally, it’s currently available on Netflix.