As virtual private networks are often used for things that aren’t completely legal, like torrenting copyrighted material or circumventing Chinese censorship, it might seem plausible to think that VPNs are illegal. The good news is that in most of the world, VPNs are perfectly legal. The bad news is that, in a small number of countries, they can get you into trouble.
VPNs Are Legal Almost Everywhere …
First, though, let’s look at the situation in most of the world. If you live in the United States, Canada, Africa, South America, or most of Asia and Europe, VPNs are perfectly legal. Signing up for one and using it for whatever reason you need to won’t get you in trouble with authorities or your internet service provider.
Although VPNs are used for all kinds of shady purposes, from downloading copyrighted files to committing cybercrimes, most governments seem to understand that VPNs have legitimate uses, too, and thus, have taken little to no action against them. The FBI even recommends using one when on an open network.
That being said, VPNs don’t magically make the things that you’re doing legal: If you use a VPN to remain anonymous in order to threaten somebody online, you’ll still get in trouble for doing so. It’s just the VPN part that’s legal about that—saying that you’ll hurt somebody is still not OK.
Think of it like wearing a mask while robbing a bank: It’s legal to buy and wear a mask, but it’s illegal to rob a bank.
… Except Where They’re Not
However, in some parts of the world, the relative anonymity that VPNs provide is a thorn in the side of the government. In these countries, VPNs are either forbidden outright, or their use is limited. The three that are in the news in 2021 are China, Russia, and Belarus. However, there are others, which we’ll discuss a little further down.
The first (and in many ways, best) example is China. We’ve talked about what the internet looks like in the Middle Kingdom before: It’s basically a sanitized version of the web that doesn’t contain too much free speech and definitely no criticism of the government. Unsurprisingly, there’s a fine imposed for being caught with a VPN there, although we’ve heard rumors that greater penalties await repeat offenders.
Russia isn’t much better: The Russian telecommunications agency Roskomnadzor blacklists certain sites (usually under the cover of combating “extremism”) and has made it illegal to use a VPN to get past the block. However, note that using one is legal, as long as you don’t do anything illegal with it. But once you break the law, using the VPN becomes illegal. Our sympathies go out to any lawyers who need to figure out that one.
The Russian government also tried to make a few VPN services comply with the blacklist and banned them from use in Russia when they refused to comply. Also, this author has received unsubstantiated reports that at times, police will stop people in Russia and check their phones for VPN software. (Please tweet at him if you can confirm this rumor.)
Unsurprisingly, Russia’s close ally Belarus seems to have restricted VPN use as well. The extremely authoritarian regime of this small European country blocked Tor a few years ago, and it seems plausible that VPN use was similarly prescribed. It would fit in well with the huge internet blackout that Belarussians are forced to live under ever since protests erupted there in 2020. In this case, too, we would love to have more information from people on the ground.
Other Countries Where VPNs Are Illegal
The above three countries are the ones that are the most in the public eye, but there are other places that have banned or restricted VPNs in some way. The biggest two are Iran and Turkey. Others include Iraq and Oman, although in both cases, the bans are from a few years ago—2014 and 2010, respectively—and it’s unclear whether anything has changed since then.
The United Arab Emirates also has a widely publicized VPN ban, but it seems that it’s a bit like Russia’s in that it forbids people from using a VPN for activities that are illegal in the UAE. As this list shows, though, that umbrella covers all manner of sins, so we recommend being careful when in Dubai or Abu Dhabi.
Iran, however, is an entirely different story. Its internet is almost as tightly policed as China’s. A large number of websites there are blocked—Wikipedia has a partial list. Once authorities figured out that people were using VPNs to get around those blocks, they promptly banned VPNs, too. Whether that means that using a VPN is illegal is unclear, but we have a feeling that visitors to the country might not want to find that out the hard way.
Last but not least is Turkey, where the past few years have seen a steady deterioration in freedom of speech (Freedom House has the full report.). Unsurprisingly, a country that routinely imprisons journalists has also banned VPNs, particularly those aimed at consumers. However, company-operated VPNs remain untouched.
In this case, the penalty for breaking the law is vague, but we have a feeling that any consequences will be unpleasant. As a result, Germany has warned travelers to Turkey about using a VPN while there, and in 2018, your author himself spoke to foreign nationals who were stopped by plainclothesmen in Ankara railway station and made to submit their smartphones for inspection.
Such being the case, it pays to be careful when traveling in Turkey, or really anywhere else we’ve mentioned on this list—although China does seem to leave most western visitors alone when it comes to VPNs. Stay safe!