Douglas Crawford

Douglas Crawford

July 13, 2018

Yes. Or at least almost always. In most countries, citizens have a legal right to privacy (in fact, this is a right under UN convention), and using a VPN service is illegal in very few places.

Repressive countries such as China, Iran, and Egypt do attempt to block users from accessing overseas VPN services; but they do not criminalize citizens simply for attempting to do so.

Russia has criminalized the running of domestic VPNs services that have not been issued a state license, but again, this does not criminalize those who simply attempt to use them.

In this article, we look into every country where using VPNs is illegal, banned, or in some way restricted. Before we do so, however, there are some points worth considering.

What you do when using a VPN may illegal

VPNs can help to hide what you get up to on the internet and are therefore sometimes used by criminals to hide their illegal activities. Needless to say, simply using a VPN does not make any of those illegal activities any less illegal.

If the “crimes” committed using a VPN are culture-specific and therefore only illegal in a few countries, then it is unlikely that international VPN services will assist local governments or police forces in catching perpetrators. So no VPN provider is likely to assist authorities trying to catch people who use a VPN to watch porn in the UAE.

Similarly, international VPN providers are unlikely to help most repressive governments catch political dissidents. So critics of President Erdogan in Turkey can almost certainly use European or US VPN services without fear of betrayal by those services.

But… VPN companies will not attempt to protect you if you commit actions that are internationally recognized as being criminal, or which upset politically powerful governments with international reach.

If presented with strong enough evidence that a serious crime has been committed, many VPN companies will voluntarily assist even overseas police investigations. And they certainly won’t fight a valid court order. Quite simply, no VPN staff will ever willingly face jail for your crimes.

No logs VPN providers should be able to provide only minimal assistance to investigations, but even these can be forced to start keeping logs. And not every VPN provider who promises to keep no logs can be trusted.

If you’re looking for a secure service, or a provider that you cant rust you’re in the right place. Our rigorous review process puts all VPN providers and their privacy policies through their paces, so you can be sure that they are above board before buying.

To get started with a truly secure service, check out some of our guides below:

VPNs are ubiquitous

Commercial VPN networks of the kind we discuss here have evolved from the technology’s original purpose. VPNs were developed to allow remote workers to securely access corporate intranets as if they were in the office.

And they continue to be used as such by ordinary businesses throughout the world, which rely on VPNs to secure their internal LAN systems from hackers, and to protect sensitive information when it is accessed by employees from the internet.

This means that:

a) Even in more restrictive countries, simply using a VPN does not look in any way suspicious. It is a routine part of day-to-day business.

b) It is very hard to block VPN traffic, as doing so damages business’ ability to operate, and therefore also damages the local economy. Places such as China and Egypt, of course, appear willing to take this risk.

Legality is not the only issue to be concerned about

Many offices, schools, college dorms, and suchlike, block access to websites and other internet content – often for very good reasons! Using a VPN to overcome such blocks it not usually illegal, but getting caught might have other unpleasant consequences.

After all, your teacher is unlikely to be impressed if she catches you using a VPN to message friends on Facebook during a lecture. And getting caught by your boss using a VPN to watch inappropriate content at work might, quite rightly, get you the sack!

Countries where the use of VPNs is against the law:

Below are the only countries where VPNs might in any way be considered illegal. Everywhere else in the world, VPN use is 100% legal and uncontroversial.

Iran

The Iranian government blocks access to a wide range of websites, including Facebook and Twitter. The Telegram messenger app is also banned. Citizens are allowed to use state-approved domestic VPN providers but are banned from using international VPN services to bypass its censorship blocks.

In theory, anyone using a VPN to visit a forbidden website can be sentenced anywhere from 91 days to one year in prison. In theory.

In reality, VPN use is widespread. This is evidenced by the fact that some 12 to 17 million Facebook users and 23 million Telegram users are Iranian! It is even alleged that most members of the Iranian parliament use VPNs to bypass their own censorship laws!

With VPN use being so ubiquitous in Iran it seems unlikely that there is much risk in using one, and we are not aware of any cases where a VPN user has been arrested.

To find a list of the best VPNs to use in Iran, check out our 5 Best VPNs for Iran guide.

Iraq

We have read unconfirmed reports that VPNs are “banned” in Iraq to prevent them being exploited by Islamic State. We don’t know what the situation is like on the ground, but Iraq does not have the technical infrastructure to implement VPN blocks or to detect VPN users.

It is very possible that VPN use is common in areas with internet access, but it is equally possible that it is heavily policed at a local real-world level.

If you’re interested in a VPN for Iraq, check out our dedicated list. 

United Arab Emirates

In 2016 it was widely reported that UAE had made using VPNs illegal, saying that “tampering with the internet is a crime.”

There is some lack of clarity, however, over whether using a VPN is itself illegal or whether it is only using a VPN to access content scheduled by the UAE’s Telecom Regulatory Authority (TRA) that is a crime.

In practice, the difference can be seen as a little academic, since most content you might actually want to use a VPN for is officially banned by the TRA.

Anyone caught risks a fine of up to AED 2 million (around USD 500,000) and/or prison time. We have not heard of anyone actually being convicted for using a VPN, however, and reports indicate that VPN use is common.

Expats in particular regularly use VPNs to aces Netflix and other international streaming content. The risk of doing this seems low, and it very unlikely that the UEA authorities will alarm its lucrative international community by making a fuss over such harmless infractions. But who knows?

The threat to UAE citizens using a VPN to evade censorship or engage in political dissent is likely to be much higher.

The extent of UAE telecoms companies’ ability to detect VPN use is not clear. It is known that deep packet inspection (DPI) techniques are used to analyze internet traffic, but access to VPN websites and VPN connections themselves do not appear to be blocked.

If you do decide that the benefits of using a VPN in the UAE outweigh the potential risks, we strongly recommend using VPN services that offer stealth or obfuscation tech. A list of recommended providers that offer this level of tech can be found on our most secure VPNs list.

If you would like to know more about using a VPN in the UAE, or want to know which providers we recommend, check out our 5 Best VPNs for UAE.

North Korea

It is generally assumed that using a VPN in North Korea is illegal. If this is indeed the case, though, it seems a rather pointless law.

The North Korean government appears to have little interest in censoring international visitors’ access to the internet, so trying to hide what you get up to online while visiting the country might peak the interest of its security services. But if you are simply a tourist, there is a good chance they just won’t care.

Either way, it might be a very good idea to play it safe and avoid any behavior that might be considered suspicious while in the country. Getting on the wrong side of the North Korean government is not recommended under any circumstances.

North Korean citizens, on the other hand, have almost no internet access at all. Such access as exists is limited to a very select group of elite students, scientists, senior government officials, journalists (presumably), and the like.

These individuals are no doubt closely monitored, and would probably get into very serious trouble for doing anything on the internet that upsets their government. This probably includes using a VPN to hide what they get up to.

But it seems unlikely that North Korea would bother passing an actual law that makes VPN “illegal” for such a limited set of circumstances.

We always recommend using a premium service when in a restricted country. Click the link to find a list of the best vpn services on the market.

Oman

The telecommunications law in Oman prohibits the use of any method of encryption without acquiring explicit permission from the government beforehand. But since encryption is required for even the most basic e-commerce operations, such a law is wildly impractical.

In 2010, the [Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA)] sought public consultation over draft regulations that would have made VPN totally illegal for private use and would have required establishments to acquire a license from TRA to use VPN for commercial use. These draft regulations never materialised and the feedback the TRA received about them was never published.

We have read some unconfirmed reports that internet users in Oman are required to only use state-sanctioned domestic VPN services, but if this is the case then the rules are widely ignored.

Use of VPNs to evade Oman’s strict internet censorship blocks is “extremely common” and no technical measures are taken to prevent it.

If you’re looking for a VPN to use when in Oman, our Best VPNs for Oman list is a great place to start. 

Syria

If we know little about the VPN situation in Iraq, we know less about it in Syria. We do know that the brutal ongoing war makes for a very unstable internet, and that government censorship and police intimidation (up to an including arrest and torture) of reporters and dissidents are a daily fact of life in the country.

Any internet infrastructure that still exists is firmly in the hands of the Assad-led government, and internet cafes are heavily monitored. As a result, illegal satellite connections and mobile phones using Turkish or Lebanese network SIM cards are the primary way of accessing the open internet.

Use a VPN with caution in Syria, however if you would like more information on services check out our VPNs for Syria list. 

Turkmenistan

Turkmenistan is one of the most closed and repressive counties in the world. Much like North Korea, very few of its citizens have any access to the internet at all. It is prohibitively expensive, its speed is deliberately slow, and it is subject to almost total censorship.

There is just a single government-controlled ISP. According to this report:

Attempts to use proxy servers and VPN are detected and blocked; their users are subjected to administrative penalties and summoned for ‘preventive conversations’ to the Ministry of National Security, where they face intimidation.

Yikes!

Countries where VPNs are blocked

When you read that VPNs are “banned” in this or that country, what is almost always meant is that technical efforts are made to prevent internet users in that country from using VPNs to bypass state censorship measures.

Simply using a VPN (or trying to use a VPN) in these counties is not illegal and no-one has yet got into trouble for doing so.

China

The Great Firewall of China (GFW) is the world’s most far-reaching and sophisticated internet censorship system. It therefore comes as no surprise that China is not keen on its 1.5 billion citizens using VPNs to bypass it!

China employs a wide range of technologies designed to block access to international VPN services. These range from simple blocklists of IP addresses known to belong VPN servers, to sophisticated deep packet inspection (DPI) techniques that can detect when VPN protocols are used. Needless to say, access to most VPN websites is blocked.

With an internet-using population of some 720 million people, however, even the most far-reaching and sophisticated internet surveillance system in the world is bound to struggle. Most VPN services are indeed blocked in China, but a number of providers offer various forms of obfuscation (“stealth”) technology to hide the fact that VPNs are being used.

The result is that a number of VPN services are widely available in China, although it will make travelers’ life easier if they sign-up for a service and download its software before entering the mainland (Hong Kong is not covered by the GFW and has a free and uncensored internet).

It has been widely reported that China has “cracked down on VPNs”, but this only really applies to companies that run domestic VPN services. It does not criminalize individuals who use VPNs to evade the Great Firewall, and such measures are toothless against international VPN services.

Clouds may be gathering on the horizon, however. In 2016 a small-time (and not very successful) VPN reseller was jailed for 9 months. This was a one-off case in a local court (Dongguan in Guangdong province) and does not reflect the legal situation elsewhere in China. It was also someone who made a (small) profit from selling VPN packages, not someone just using a VPN.

Whether it is thus an augur of things to come, only time will tell. It is not hard to imagine, though that China might use its scary new Social Credit System, which is scheduled for a full roll-out in 2020, to punish citizens caught using VPNs with negative ratings. This, of course, will be of little concern for expats and visitors to China.

To find out more about using a VPN in China, please see 5 Best VPNs for China. You may also find the advice in our How to Bypass VPN Blocks guide useful.

Egypt

In the summer of 2017, the Egyptian government started to block access to news websites. At last count, it has blocked more than 400 websites. Realizing that citizens are using VPNs to bypass such censorship, the government also started to block access to VPN websites.

In addition to this, ISPs are using DPI techniques in order to identify and block VPN traffic. These blocks appear to be very efficient, and all major VPN protocols are blocked unless obfuscation technologies are employed.

Anyone in Egypt who wants to access the open internet should, therefore, consult our How to Bypass VPN Blocks guide. In particular, we have received reports that the WireGuard, AnyConnect, and SoftEther protocols continue to work, although we are unable to confirm this. If your technical skills are up to it, Streisand is probably the easiest way to set up such a personal VPN server.

To the best of our knowledge no-one has got into trouble for bypassing Egypt’s VPN blocks, but with the current hard-line military government, doing so may not be entirely risk-free. So be careful.

If you would like to know more about which services are up to the job, check out our Best VPNs for Egypt list. 

Russia

In November 2017, President Vladimir Putin signed a bill prohibiting VPNs and other proxy services. It lacks teeth, however, because Russia does not have the technical capability to enforce a ban on international VPN services. It simply does not have anything like China’s Great Firewall.

What it has done (and is the about only thing it can do) is oblige domestic IPS to block access to international VPN websites, and require domestic VPN services to implement blocklists on (primarily political) content the government does not want Russian citizens to see.

It has also forced many international VPN providers to shut down servers located in Russia and asked Apple to remove VPN apps from its Russian App Store (something it has done for China, but not yet for Russia).

VPN servers located outside Russia are easily accessible from inside Russia, and we are not aware of any risk (legal or otherwise) in using them.

For a look at our list of recommended VPNs to use, check out our Best VPNs for Russia list.

Vietnam

The Vietnamese government blocks access to a wide range of internet content, including Human Rights Watch, the BBC, and Facebook. The OpenNet Initiative published a 2012 list of its findings of which websites were blocked, and in addition to lots of Vietnamese language sites, found that many web proxy sites and other internet circumvention tools were blocked.

In the Internet tools category, [FPT Telecom and Viettel] blocked Facebook (http://facebook.com). Both ISPs also targeted circumvention Web sites for filtering but differed in the specific sites they were blocking. For instance, Viettel filtered http://anonymizer.com, http://the-cloak.com, http://anonymouse.org/, https://megaproxy.com, http://proxyweb.net/, and http://inetprivacy.com, while FPT filtered only http://inetprivacy.com.

In addition to forming a new 10,000-strong military cyber warfare unit to counter “wrong” views on the internet this year, Vietnam has since stepped up its efforts to censor access to content. It is therefore reasonable to assume that many VPN websites are now blocked.

These blocks are not very sophisticated, however, and should be easy to overcome without the need for obfuscation tactics as long as you can sign-up for a service and download its software. Visitors are advised to do this before entering the country, while residents can use one of the tactics discussed in How to Bypass VPN Blocks.

To get started with a VPN, check out our Best VPNs for Vietnam list to see our recommendations. 

One to watch

Turkey

Turkey has a track record of blocking websites that have offended it, or which are politically sensitive. ISPs even used DNS poisoning to prevent citizens from accessing YouTube when it was banned in 2014.

With a newly endorsed presidency that greatly expands executive powers, it will surprise no-one if Recep Erdogan continues to tighten his hold over internet access. And any such move would almost certainly include measures aimed at preventing Turkish citizens from using VPN services to access the open internet.

To access the free internet in Turkey, a VPN is recommended. To see our favourites, check out our list of Best VPNs for Turkey.

Are VPNs legal? Conclusion

Outside of war zones and North Korea, VPNs are legal to use almost everywhere. In the few places they are not, or where their legality might be considered a “grey area,” there is little in the way of enforcement of such laws.

Blocking access to VPN websites is much more common, but only China and Egypt really have the internet infrastructure required to seriously restrict the use of VPNs to evade censorship.

Image credits (all flags): By Loveshop/Shutterstock.

Image credit: By KPixMining/Shutterstock.