Do you spend a lot of time online? You may be doing work online, shopping, or banking, and you realize that you face various security risks.
While researching ways to protect your identity and Personal Identifiable Information (PII), you’ll likely come across Virtual Private Networks (VPNs).
Almost every identity theft prevention strategy utilizes them. You might have even tried signing up for free VPN service providers to access geo-restricted websites.
However, as a first-time user, you still have some questions about how it works.
For instance, you know VPN is legal in the U.S. Yet, it seems dodgy bypassing blocked content, so you don’t feel 100% confident about its safety and legitimacy.
Just like you, we feel unsafe sharing personal data and prefer using VPNs while browsing, but we also want to avoid violating any restrictions.
And to understand the limitations, our team researched VPN legalities extensively. We scoured the web for authoritative resources discussing digital security, internet ethics, and VPN restrictions worldwide.
You don’t have to go out on a limb to test the limits of VPN usage. After this article, you can use VPN correctly and avoid activities that could be illegal.
Please stick with us until the end to know the worst country to get caught using VPN. You might even get sent to jail!
So, is VPN legal? Let’s find out now!
When is it legal to use VPNs?
As you might already know, websites collect user data through cookies and server logs. They also make you agree to their data collection terms and conditions before letting you surf any web page.
Sites can only use collected data for marketing purposes. However, we all know that these pieces of information could cause serious damage in the wrong hands.
You can use a virtual private network (VPN) to avoid privacy invasion. It serves as an intermediary between your device and the internet by redirecting your traffic through its encrypted tunnel—thus masking your IP address.
You’ll have an anonymous, untraceable profile. Once your traffic goes through the encrypted tunnel, the sites you visit will no longer know your IP address, device, surfing history, or location.
The limitations and legality of VPN
VPN is simply a tool that lets you reroute your traffic into an anonymous, encrypted tunnel. Using it has no legal restrictions as long as you:
1. Live in a country with no stringent internet regulation policies
Yes, VPN is legal in the U.S. However, not everyone can enjoy the right to private browsing, especially if they live in a country with stringent internet regulations like:
- North Korea
Countries like China only regulate VPN usage. As such, tourists might come across several VPN service providers capable of bypassing the Great Firewall.
However, locations like North Korea and Russia have a total ban. Getting caught has a broad range of punishments, from getting your internet accessibility blocked to paying steep local fines.
2. Understand which platforms don’t support VPNs
Let’s face it—many rely on VPNs to work around various website restrictions. For instance, a VPN lets you watch Netflix shows from regions outside your country.
We can’t wholly encourage the use of VPNs to cheat website restrictions because it goes against user terms and conditions.
The act is not illegal. However, it’s frowned upon in the industry; the platform might even block your account for these violations.
Ultimately, you have total control over the restrictions you bypass. But familiarize yourself with the platforms and websites against VPN services; otherwise, you might end up disappointed if your account gets blocked.
3. Have a legitimate use for VPNs
While researching VPN service providers, you’ll come across different plans. Some focus on creating IP addresses from various locations worldwide, while others were designed for enterprise-level network scalability.
Of course, you can’t choose just any plan. To get your money’s worth, look for a VPN service provider that addresses your connectivity needs.
Only use reviews as a reference. Security needs vary from person to person, so you won’t automatically benefit from copying the VPNs your peers use.
Smart, legal ways to use VPN
Your country might not prohibit VPNs. However, whether or not VPN services are legal has no bearing on the legality of criminal activities and illicit transactions, among other cybercrimes.
VPNs won’t and can’t protect you from crime. Service providers themselves only encourage users to download VPN for smart, legal purposes, like:
1. Staying anonymous
One of the most common reasons why users sign up for VPN services is to stay anonymous online. Again, many feel uncomfortable disclosing their legit IP address.
Luckily, VPN services will provide you with a temporary IP address, so you’ll leave a significantly smaller digital footprint. The websites you visit won’t know anything about you.
2. Keeping PII secure
Don’t worry if you haven’t yet. 99% of internet users blindly agree to these pop-ups, which explains how websites collect massive amounts of data daily.
Generally, allowing cookies gives websites the right to collect your personal data. They’ll use your location, surfing habits, browser history, social media preferences, and even online shopping carts to curate a more personalized user experience.
However, not all companies use the data they collect for marketing. Some sites sell their users’ information to shady third parties, thus putting them at grave risk of identity theft.
To keep your PII more secure, always run a VPN. Keep your personal information safe no matter what platform you use, whether you’re logging into your online banking accounts or social media profile.
3. Avoiding ISP data caps
You might not realize it, but your internet service provider (ISP) likely regulates your internet usage. It would quickly lose profits if you always exceeded the maximum expected traffic.
To avoid this issue, most ISPs decrease the internet speed of their clients who exceed a certain amount of bandwidth, regardless of whether they have unlimited data.
We don’t think this tactic is fair. And if you want to get your money’s worth, you can use a VPN to hide your IP address so that your ISP can’t monitor your internet activity and data usage.
4. Bypassing geo-restrictions
Use VPNs to bypass geo-restrictions. Your service provider will reroute your IP address through an encrypted tunnel, so you won’t have to disclose your real location. You can even choose the location of your temporary IP address.
For instance, let’s say you’re a U.S. citizen traveling in Asia. You’ll likely need a VPN to access some websites you frequently visit, especially those geared toward an American audience.
After all, many websites have geo-specific servers. Running worldwide servers costs a fortune, which you won’t need if you don’t have a global audience.
5. Enterprise network scalability
Companies can use VPNs to make their company applications more accessible without compromising security. You can use these networks for both remote and on-site employees.
Although you can vary your network protocols based on your connectivity needs, the primary goal is to use VPN for system accessibility. It will serve as the bridge between employee devices and company networks.
Terms and conditions v.s. legal obligations
Based on our research, we noticed that many first-time VPN users find themselves confused between their legal and consumer obligations.
We’ll break down the details by giving you real-life examples.
Let’s take Netflix as an example. It prohibits VPNs and will block you automatically if you use one to redirect your traffic while on the streaming platform.
You can’t proceed until you take down your VPN. However, Netflix doesn’t have the capacity to detect all VPN service providers, and some networks might bypass its system.
Taking these two points into consideration, is it illegal to use VPN? The answer: no.
Netflix prohibits VPNs and reserves the right to block your account if you use one, but it can’t press charges against you.
Now, let’s say you’re in China. Since the Great Firewall bans streaming services like Netflix, you can’t access the site—even as a tourist.
The quickest way to work around this restriction is to use a VPN. However, are you really committing a crime if you decide to run a VPN and stream your favorite shows on Netflix?
Technically, you’re violating the Chinese government because it has laws against VPNs. It doesn’t matter what site you visit because using a VPN is illegal in China, and the Great Firewall will block you if it detects your private network.
However, as far as Netflix goes, it still can’t classify VPN usage as illegal. The violation of these terms and conditions isn’t criminal, so you can’t get sued or sent to jail for it.
The difference between legal and consumer obligations
VPN users generally have different legal and consumer obligations. If the country you’re currently in regulates internet usage heavily and prohibits VPN, then simply using a private network is illegal.
On the other hand, platform terms and conditions fall under consumer obligations. Even if your local government doesn’t prohibit VPN usage, sites and platforms can still block you from accessing their content.
When is it illegal to use VPNs?
We finished talking about the legal limitations of VPNs. Now, it’s time to discuss the most common ways people use these anonymous proxy networks illegally.
Please note that we don’t encourage any of the activities listed below. On the contrary, we want to help you understand the most common violations so that you don’t commit them by accident.
The most widely abused activities using VPNs include:
1. Downloading cracked programs and pirated movies
Cracked programs and pirated movies have been around for decades. Even with the U.S. government tightening the policies against piracy, many Americans still abuse these illegal resources.
Moreover, many now use VPNs to protect themselves further. The U.S. law enforcement authorities likely won’t waste funds decoding every anonymous proxy server committing copyright infringement, so most people are generally safe.
But we still discourage the use of VPNs for piracy. Although you likely won’t get caught, as cybersecurity and identity theft prevention specialists say, we don’t think it’s a good way to use advanced proxy server technologies.
2. Bypassing local internet restrictions
It has become the norm for travelers to use VPNs when visiting countries with strict internet regulation laws. Some service providers even specify that their technology was made for bypassing a specific area’s firewall.
However, not all countries are forgiving of VPN usage violations. Tourist spots like China might just block your proxy servers, but more regulated areas like Belarus, Russia, and North Korea won’t let you off the hook easily.
Again, you have total control of whether you bypass local internet restrictions. Just note that you might be compromising your safety—especially if you’re in an unfamiliar country.
3. Stalk and bully online
Anyone can quickly make a fake social media account. However, criminals who wish to take things a step further take advantage of VPNs.
They use throwaway emails and proxy servers to become untraceable. And to make matters worse, they often use legit names and images, thus compromising the real identities.
Please don’t ever consider doing something similar. Many states have anti-cyberbullying laws, so the authorities still have a good shot at finding you even if you use VPNs.
4. Do transactions on the dark web
The dark web serves as the largest black market online. Criminals come here to do anonymous, untraceable transactions to acquire almost anything illegal, from sex workers to unlicensed firearms.
Considering the nature of the dark web, everyone who visits uses a VPN. Leaving even one piece of information hinting at your true identity could tip the authorities, so proxy servers are the standard.
Unfortunately, these transactions give VPNs a negative reputation. We likely can’t change the stereotypes any time soon, but please don’t abuse VPNs to explore the dark web—even if it’s out of curiosity.
Apart from the legal consequences of diving into illegal marketplaces, these websites are infested with millions of malware. No VPN was made for diving into the deep web.
5. Send phishing scams
Tech-savvy individuals use VPNs to protect themselves from identity theft. Ironically, however, criminals also use anonymous proxy networks to send untraceable phishing scams using disposable email accounts.
Never even consider executing this type of scam. Moral and ethics aside, you’ll face jail time if even one of your targets tracks your account.
6. Trick local government and non-government agencies
Some crooks abuse VPNs to take advantage of government and non-government benefits outside their areas. They’ll typically steal the identity of an unsuspecting resident.
Although you can bypass geo-restrictions online, we doubt that government agencies and NGOs lack the sophistication to detect most identity theft cases that come their way.
If you get caught, you won’t just leave empty-handed. But rather, you could also end up facing several years of jail time depending on the gravity of the situation.
7. Hiding from the authorities
Websites collect the personal data of their users. And law enforcement authorities and government agencies monitor these data to pinpoint the location of certain criminals.
It’s an effective process. However, since it consumes so much time, the authorities typically focus on high-profile criminals and leave small-time crooks on their wanted lists.
In most cases, they can avoid arrests by just hiding their PII using VPNs. Unfortunately, the police can only zero in on them after receiving tips and hints from concerned civilians.
8. Selling stuff under fake accounts
Not all anonymous servers operate on the dark web. Some crooks pose as legit individuals or businesses through fake, untraceable accounts using VPNs.
In most cases, they’ll copy the profile of a widely trusted influencer or celebrity. For instance, a criminal can duplicate the profile of Robert Kiyosaki, generate untraceable proxy networks, then approach unsuspecting targets with various “offers.”
Victims often report these accounts. However, considering the insane number of similar scams, social media investigation teams spend weeks to months on each case.
Note: Overall, anything that the law classifies as illegal without a VPN is also prohibited even with a proxy network. Again, VPNs don’t protect you from the law.
What are the consequences of using VPN illegally?
No country tolerates cybercrimes and copyright infringements, regardless of whether they’re done through VPNs or not. However, there are cases where it’s illegal to even use VPNs.
As we mentioned above, countries with stringent internet restrictions prohibit surfing using private networks. You’ll have to follow the local restrictions.
If you persist in using VPNs, you might:
Have your VPN blocked
If you violate any terms and conditions while using VPNs, the platform you’re currently surfing will likely block you. But don’t worry—most sites will unblock you after you take down your VPN.
Let’s take Netflix as an example again. It doesn’t have permits to show specific shows outside their designated regions, so it highly discourages users from bypassing geo-restrictions.
Unfortunately, the platform can’t dictate what its users do. And for this reason, it focuses on pinpointing users who insist on using VPNs, although it can’t detect all proxy networks in the system.
VPN isn’t illegal in the U.S. However, the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) regularly monitors internet activities for potential cybercrimes and terrorist attacks.
As such, you might undergo questioning if you abuse VPNs. An anonymous proxy server can effectively prevent websites from collecting your personal data, but it can’t combat the U.S. government.
Use your best judgment. If you know that you’ll be violating any cybercrime law involving the limitations of VPN usage, please rethink your actions.
Lose your online accounts
Some financial and investment platforms have non-negotiable restrictions on VPNs. While most websites temporarily block violators, more stringent ones might cancel accounts altogether.
For example, let’s say you do stock trading. Your broker can freeze your account if it notices any unusual activities on your end—even if it’s with a proxy server.
Overall, read the terms and conditions of the websites you visit. The consequences of getting caught with VPN on entertainment sites and streaming platforms are low, but platforms that deal with real money might not be as forgiving.
Get sent to jail
You might think China has the worst internet restrictions globally, but it doesn’t. In most cases, your VPN-enabled device will only lose access to the internet if you get caught using proxy servers.
Chinese law enforcement authorities won’t put you in jail. However, you might have to pay a fine depending on who arrests you or how you get caught surfing the web.
Note that North Korea has web surfing guidelines. Most of the country doesn’t have access to the internet, but instead, the countrywide intranet Kwangmyong.
Important: If North Korean law enforcement units catch you using the internet, much less running a VPN, expect to spend the next few days in jail.
Russia also has strict restrictions. However, it only ranks second to North Korea, and we didn’t even encounter any reviews from foreigners saying they got detained for using VPNs.
Why do everyday people use VPN?
After reading the different ways tech-savvy individuals and crooks utilize VPNs, you might wonder whether the average, everyday people like you would also need them.
We generally encourage you to use VPNs for two primary reasons:
Identity theft prevention
Is your data really at risk? Unfortunately, yes. It’s a common misconception that crooks only steal the identities of high-net-worth individuals with millions of dollars in their accounts.
However, crooks actually target a broader range of victims. Based on our research, we found that identity thieves target anyone with a name and Social Security Number (SSN), from toddlers to homeless people.
Trust us—crooks will find a way to abuse your information. So, you’d do well to avoid any instance wherein you might leak your full name, gender, birth date, and, of course, SSN to any individual, website, or corporation.
For your added security, consider using a throwaway email for your VPN account. Proxy servers reroute your traffic and mask you with a different IP address, but more experienced crooks might still trace your data back to you. It’s best to stay cautious.
Anonymous, private web surfing
As you might already know, the incognito mode on your browser doesn’t hide your IP address. It only erases your browsing history.
The websites you visit will still collect your personal data, plus your ISP continuously monitors your internet activity. You’re not really browsing in “incognito.”
Even if you don’t execute high-value financial transactions or input super-sensitive PII daily, we still think it’s a good idea to browse anonymously. You never know when a crook might be hijacking your network.
The same rule applies to business owners managing teams. Ask your employees to run VPNs when accessing company data to ensure that your confidential files, employee passwords, and in-house programs remain secure.
We highly encourage frequent travelers to install VPNs on all their devices. The free Wi-Fi you find in airports, bus stops, and coffee shops are definitely convenient, but they’re also riddled with security risks. Please don’t use them without any sort of protection.
Understanding the limitations of VPN usage
You can legally use VPN in most parts of the world. The only countries that prohibit or regulate it have super-stringent internet restriction policies (i.e., China, North Korea, Russia, Belarus).
Stay wary if you plan on bending the rules as a tourist. Even if the local authorities can’t just put you in jail, you still might face legal consequences like fines.
Overall, remember that you’re held accountable for any criminal acts performed using VPNs. Please use your moral compass and common sense.
The law might not have a problem with VPN usage. However, performing anything illegal online will get you into trouble with the authorities, regardless if you use a VPN or not.