Almost every internet user at least once asked this question: ‘’Are VPNs legal?’’
I’ve received tons of letters from readers asking about it, so I decided to publish this ultimate guide for you to know everything you need to know about VPN legality, jurisdictions, and Internet censorship in different countrie.
In today’s guide, you will learn about:
- the legality of a VPN by state,
- jurisdiction peculiarities,
- countries that are so heavy on Internet censorship that having a VPN is not just recommended but required for anyone staying there.
Let us get started.
In this chapter, I will tell you what governments have banned VPNs either fully or partially.
Most of them have a few things in common: a long-lasting, almost (and, in some cases, literally) monarchical ruler, a strong ideology, either religious or political, pushed by the government, the desire of the ruling elites to paint the rest of the world black in the eyes of the citizens, telecom services being state-owned…
But most of all, it is the drive to monopolize all information, both going in and going out of the country.
As you can see, VPNs are naturally spokes in the wheels of such efforts, as they allow the residents to access information deemed dissenting by those in power.
What is more, with a VPN the citizens can smuggle information outside of the government-installed dome or even plan and coordinate protests.
Thankfully, the following lists are not too long. However, I ask you to keep in mind that the trends and forecasts concerning online privacy are not too bright for the rest of the world, too.
5 countries where VPNs are fully banned
Some regimes just do not know the word “moderation” and are trigger-happy to ban things they do not like outright. Currently, there are five such states in the world, and you are about to find out why they ban VPNs. Some of the reasons may shock you.
Like several other remnants of the Soviet Union, the Republic of Belarus takes after its predecessor in terms of freedom of speech.
A number of websites are blocked under the pretense of protecting the population from “harmful content”, and everyone who wants to comment on Belarusian forums and news sites must confirm their identity via their cellphone number, as showing your ID is required to buy a SIM card.
This is how signing up works in Belarus
In 2016, Belarus’s President Alexander Lukashenko signed the decree On the Rationalization of the Procedure of the Transmittance of Electronic Communication Messages [source in Russian], which prohibits the use of any technical or software-based means that change the user’s identification data.
This decree effectively bans the use of VPNs, proxies, and Tor in Belarus as well as allows the ISPs to prevent any such use by cutting down the Internet for the user.
The Republic of Iraq’s Ministry of Communication banned virtual private networks in the state as a part of its counter-ISIS strategy in 2014. That effort also included shutting Internet access down for five districts occupied by the terrorists as well as blocking access to WhatsApp, Facebook, and other social media in the entirety of the country.
The Iraqi MoC’s document banning the use of social media (as reported by The Register)
It was done to prevent the terrorists from recruiting more members to their ranks via the Internet.
Despite the fact that those territories have since been reclaimed from ISIL and are now under the Iraqi control, the VPN restrictions still remain in force. While it is understandable for the country that has for so long been torn apart by wars and insurgencies to have somewhat stricter regulations, but the fact still stands: VPNs are banned in Iraq.
3. North Korea
North Korea is a special case: VPNs are not only banned but also impossible to get for an average citizen.
Why, you may ask?
Well, because almost none of them have access to the Internet. I mean, the real Internet. In the entirety of the country, there are just 1,024 IP-addresses. The rest of the population has to use the intranet called Kwangmyong.
If you’re planning on visiting, though, there is good news: foreign tourists are allowed to access the Internet while in North Korea. But not everything is so great, as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube along with South Korean websites (all of them!) were blocked in 2016. Too bad VPNs are banned too.
Another former USSR republic, Turkmenistan, just like Belarus, bans the use of virtual private networks. There’s a bit of a silver lining here (though I am reaching): for the state that has banned libraries and black cars, this one actually makes sense.
VPNs are banned to prevent people from accessing social media websites such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. Yeah, there is logic in it, albeit dark logic.
The only ISP in Turkmenistan is the state-owned Türkmentelekom, which makes it substantially easier for the government to enforce the ban. According to the Turkmenistan Civic Solidarity Group, the use of VPNs and proxies is prohibited and those caught using them may be fined or given a warning by the Ministry of National Security.
Uganda is the only African country on this list—while censorship may be a problem for certain nations of the continent, only this one bans VPNs. What is interesting about Uganda in comparison with the above countries is that the restrictions it imposes are not so much to quell the dissenters but to extort more money from the population.
Last year, Yoweri Museveni, who has been the President for more than thirty years, ordered the Parliament to tax the use of the so-called Over The Top services, which include social networks.
MTN Uganda’s public notice on the OTT tax
A daily sum of 200 Ugandan shillings (~$0.05) for something as basic as using Facebook is considerable for most Ugandans.
Ugandan shilling to US dollar
Understandably, the Ugandans started using VPNs to avoid paying the tax. Also understandably, the government did not like it at the slightest. What followed was the ban on VPNs.
7 countries where the use of VPNs is partially restricted
For the countries on the following list, things are not as bad as for the ones above. Technically, you can use a VPN while in these states legally… but it doesn’t mean that you are completely free to do so. The reason for it is restrictions that often defeat the very purpose of using a VPN in the first place.
China is famous for its Internet censorship, the aim of which is to not allow people to research or discuss certain parts of Chinese history (like, for example, the Tiananmen Square protests) and criticize the ruling party.
The Great Firewall of China is what blocks the Chinese citizens from accessing some of the foreign media. Certain VPNs like ExpressVPN, however, are able to bypass it.
This is why in 2018 the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology took steps to ban VPNs. It should be noted, however, that the ban only affects those VPNs that do not have a license from the Chinese government.
The situation in Iran is quite similar to that in China. To censor the Internet and prevent protest movements from forming and organizing, the Iranian government blocks websites it considers to be “non-Islamic”.
And just as China does, it also requires VPN providers to register with the Telecommunication Company of Iran to be allowed to operate within the state. Obviously, like with all states on this list, it means that a VPN provider has to comply with the state’s demands, which can lead to the VPN in question being unable to bypass sites or even actively spying on its users.
Oman could be placed somewhere between the two lists, as it bans VPN services for individuals but not for companies. The reason for that is the fact that the citizens of Oman mostly use VPNs for voice over Internet protocol services, thus crippling the profits of the Telecom Regulation Authority.
Additionally, companies have to apply for permission to use a VPN with the very same Telecom Regulation Authority, which may decline without providing any reasons.
We’ve seen two of Russia’s former satellite states, Belarus and Turkmenistan, on the previous list. And while not as strict on VPNs as those two, Russia still employs a form of restriction.
In the present year, Russia’s Roskomnadzor (Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media) warned 10 VPN services (for example, NordVPN, Hola VPN, ExpressVPN, etc.) to agree to its conditions. Namely, those included the acceptance of the blockage of the websites blocked by law in Russia.
Most of the providers refused to comply with the threats, which now is leading to them being either blocked in Russia or them having to shut down their Russian servers.
In 2016, Turkey imposed a ban on social media, you know, the usual set: YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, but also the entirety of Wikipedia. Simultaneously, the Turkish Information and Communication Technologies Authority, or BTK, banned several VPN services in the country.
As it doesn’t ban all the VPNs, I can’t put Turkey on the first list. However, it does in no way mean that it is a free-Internet state. In fact, it’s quite the opposite: censorship has been steadily on the rise under Recep Erdogan’s regime there.
In the UAE, VPNs are banned partially as well. They cannot be used to make “calls that would not be allowed otherwise” and accessing other restricted content. Committing a crime (or preventing its investigation) with the help of a VPN is a criminal offense.
VPNs are used by nearly half of the Internet users in the United Arabian Emirates. According to a survey, most of them would not stop doing so despite the possible legal problems.
While virtual private networks are not banned in Venezuela as of yet, it did ban Tor in 2018. Perhaps it does not fully fit our list, but it’s certainly going that way.
According to the comments on the above website, proxies such as Opera VPN also have stopped working in Venezuela after the ban took place.
So, we’ve dealt with the countries that block VPNs both fully and in part. But that’s hardly it.
Some states allow the use of such software but their legislation makes it unsafe.
What do I mean?
Find out in this chapter!
What are the VPN-friendliest jurisdictions?
But first, we’re going to take a short break from the awfulness of bans, censorship, and surveillance. We will look at the brighter side of online laws here and talk about some of the countries that are very nice to VPNs and their users.
Cyprus, or, at least, its Greek part, is known as a country with one of the least intrusive governments. This fact alone makes it a popular off-shore destination.
Furthermore, there are no known occurrences of Internet censorship on Cyprus. It’s no wonder that VPNs are fully legal to use there, too.
Denmark being one of the freest states (according to Freedom House), it naturally doesn’t have censorship of the Internet, nor any legislation forbidding the use of VPNs.
Speaking of Romania, it has virtually no online regulations. VPNs are perfectly legal here.
Please note that VPN providers based in these countries, while not 100% reliable, are likely to be safer to use the service of than those in the next section. So trusting them blindly might not be the best idea, but their location is definitely a plus.
States you should stay away from when choosing a VPN
Despite not banning VPNs and proxies (and often not censoring the Internet too much), the following countries should be a red flag to you when choosing a VPN provider.
That is because of their allegiance to the Five Eyes, a multinational surveillance agreement.
What their membership in it means is that surveillance networks of one state can spy on the citizens of another one and share their findings with the government agencies of the respective state.
This is how the Five Eyes Agreement works
I would commend the scheme if not for the fact that it is a direct threat to the constitutional rights and freedoms.
Moreover, many of these states, such as the US, have legislation that facilitates the exchange of users’ data between telecom agencies and the government. If a VPN provider is based in such a country, chances are that its customers’ private data is not safe.
It can be compensated to an extent by the provider keeping no user logs, but it is still not perfect, as payment information may still be retained.
Here is the list of countries that are part of the Five Eyes:
- New Zealand.
You should also keep in mind that despite what we said about it in the last section, Denmark (along with France, Netherlands, Norway, Belgium, Italy, Germany, Spain, and Sweden) is a part of the larger Fourteen Eyes coalition.
If the use of VPNs isn’t banned in a given country, then it is a country where the government doesn’t restrict its citizens’ online activities.
Unfortunately, it is not true.
Even if using a VPN is legal, there still may be dangers to the free Web in a state. I’m talking about Internet censorship.
Make no mistake, all the countries we’ve looked at in previous chapters definitely employ heavy censorship online. Some, like China with its Great Firewall and North Korea with its Kwangmyong, are legendary in that regard, but they are not the only ones.
In this section, I will show you some of the worst censor states in the world.
Don’t forget to get a VPN for your PC if you go to these countries because that’s the only way you’re going to get real news instead of propaganda.
The Cuban government censors the Internet by filtering keywords, blocking IPs and other methods. It has it easy, though, as the Internet penetration is extremely low on Cuba. Abysmally low connection speeds, the intranet being the only web that most Cubans can access, the lack of home access points – all of these and more make Cuba a destination you don’t want to visit without a VPN.
The Ethiopian government blocks and filters content that is in opposition to its current politics. Skype is also banned to help out the local telecom providers. Total Net shutdowns are not uncommon, although, quite tragicomically, sometimes they have seemingly benign intentions behind them. Such was this year’s shutdown aimed at preventing cheating in the exams.
According to the OpenNet Initiative, Sudan freely admits to filtering Internet content for its citizens. Their emails are also read by the National Intelligence and Security Services. Journalists are often arrested for covering topics that paint the government in the negative light. To make such cases seem legit, the officials claim that the stories and reports that criticize them are libel. All in all, Sudan is yet another country staying in which requires you to have a VPN service.
4. The Gambia
The Gambian government doesn’t seem to spy on its citizens but it does block the opposition’s websites. Independent online newspapers have been shut down under threats, and their subscribers and informants’ personal data have been made public. Moreover, the informants were once ordered by the police to turn themselves in or be arrested.
Although the situation with Internet censorship has been improved since the Tunisian Revolution of 2011, some restrictions still remain in force, such as the blocking of certain Facebook pages that do not agree with the policies of the government.
Bahrain has one of the highest Internet penetration rates in the Middle East, which is one of the reasons its government has taken measures to prevent citizens from viewing content that is critical of it. Bahrain’s Press and Publications Law prescribes the grounds for blocking a website, and political opposition of the state is the main reason for it. Moreover, all websites are required to apply for a license with the Ministry of Information.
7. Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia filters all the international Internet traffic coming to and from its borders. It is done mostly to censor pornographic sites as well as sites that have to do with gambling or alcohol, as those are all against the Islamic law. Religion plays a huge part in Saudi Arabia’s Internet censorship, as websites that are affiliated with the Shia doctrine are also blocked, as well as the sites considered “pagan” or “occult”.
Syria has been involved in a long civil war as well as the war against ISIL for many years. Of course, it has left its mark on the country’s online freedom. Numerous shutdowns of the Internet were caused by the government’s wishes to prevent the opposition from organizing with the aid of social media and the Internet in general like it had happened in Egypt and Tunisia.
More than that, the Syrian government employs the so-called Syrian Internet Army to conduct cyberattacks on its enemies’ websites and servers.
According to the Freedom House 2018 report on Uzbekistan, the entirety of the international traffic comes through a single node which belongs to the state-owned ISP Uztelecom. This traffic is later sold to private ISPs that are forbidden to bypass this restriction and connect to the rest of the world on their own. Also, much like Ethiopia, Uzbekistan shuts Internet access down temporarily to make sure nobody cheats in exams.
Vietnam is ruled by the Communist Party, and those generally do not take criticism well. Vietnam is not an exemption: it often partakes in blocking and manipulating content and even imprisonment of dissident bloggers. It has also managed to coerce Facebook and Google into removing content and blocking accounts that the government found to be unacceptable.
Internet censorship in Myanmar has increased due to the desire of the government to hide information concerning the genocide of the Rohingya minority in the country. Journalists covering this topic risk being arrested. Online content is not blocked in Myanmar, but the sites that host anti-government content are pressured into removing it.
Thailand blocks websites by IP and by URL. Formally, it is up to an ISP to do that, but in reality, the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology is behind all blocks. Reasons for which a website may be banned in Thailand include political commentary, lèse majesté (defamation of any member of the royal dynasty), and pornographic content. In the recent years, lèse majesté was made not simply a criminal offense, but one that requires a Military Court. That means that the accused can have no lawyers representing them and the penalties are harsher.
As you can see, Internet censorship is indeed a very real problem for large parts of the modern world. Whether you live in a country from the above list or visit one, you should protect your privacy and gain access to reliable news sources by employing a VPN service. Do not forget that you can get a VPN for your mobile device as well as your PC.