It may come as a surprise to some, but Virtual Private Networks (VPN) are actually banned in some countries. Although the list of countries that outright ban the usage of VPNs is short, there are others who tightly regulate the industry.
In my opinion, having a tool like the VPN regulated is as good as banning it since regulations will often defeat the entire purpose that VPNs were created for – anonymity and security. Because of this, aside from knowing where VPNs are banned or regulated, it is also interesting to know why.
Where Are VPNs Banned?
Because every country has their own laws and regulations on everything, VPN providers often have to work on a country-to-country basis. This is why some services are available in some countries and not others.
China may have opened up its economy to the world but at heart and general practice it remains very much socialist. This core integration to a single-party system has resulted in some very stringent regulations placed upon the citizenry.
To put the VPN issue into perspective, China has long banned a large number of foreign websites and applications from being accessed within its borders. Examples of these include the popular social networking site Facebook, as well as search Giant Google.
Since the use of a VPN can essentially circumvent these bans, the country has made the use of all VPNs illegal, except for government-approved service providers. Needless to say, these are generally local service providers answerable to the government.
Unfortunately, because the Great Firewall of China evolves at such a rapid pace, it isn’t possible to recommend a VPN service that works reliably there.
The closest we can possibly conceive (that isn't state-run or affiliated) would be ExpressVPN. Its simply based on the extreme resilience of this provider so far. The biggest issue is that China's Firewall is extremely adaptive and a VPN provider needs to work smart in the country.
Russia may be a new federation (albeit, a complex one) since the crumbling of the Soviet state but it remains at heart very much socialist in many ways. This has been especially true under premier Vladimir Putin, who has essentially held a tight grip on the country since his ascent in 1999.
In November 2017, Russia enacted a law banning VPNs in the country, raising criticisms about eroding Digital Freedoms in the country. The move is just one among a number designed to increase government control over the Internet.
Of late, foreign VPN providers there have been ordered to blacklist sites dictated by the government. This has led to some providers such as TorGuard ceasing services within Russia.
Belarus is a bit of an oddity since it has a constitution that doesn’t allow censorship but several laws that enforces it. As with many countries that try to clamp down on digital freedom, the country has leveraged on the trend of crying fake news’ as a means to an end.
In 2016 the country finally made the move to ban all internet anonymizers, which include not just VPNs and proxies, but also Tor, which scrambles user Internet traffic through its global network of volunteer nodes.
Over the years, digital freedom in Belarus has only gotten worse. Aside from placing obstacles to access and blocking the right to free speech, the government there has stringently enforced these regulations on its own citizens.
4. North Korea
Legal Status: Complete Ban
To be honest, the ban of VPN use in North Korea shouldn’t be much of a surprise to anyone. The country has one of the most authoritarian governments in existence and has laws forbidding much of anything to its people except the right to work and venerate their leader.
In 2017 the country took the last place in the annual Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders. Reports though indicate that the privileged in the country are able to use VPNs and Tor – mainly for skills acquisition.
I’m not sure if the ban on VPNs in the country really does mean anything to the populace though, since Internet access and even cell phone service isn’t something that is commonly available in the country.
In-line with the government’s attempt to tightly control all media in the country, no outside media outlets are allowed in. Naturally, domestic outlets are highly regulated and the usage of VPNs is completely banned in Turkmenistan.
The country is highly insular and has a human rights record which is impressively horrifying. Even as it moves towards the modern era as a presidential republic, again, this is a place which remains highly socialist at heart and tightly controlled by the ruling junta.
While most of the countries on this list so far have been observed to ban VPN use mainly for authoritarian reasons, Uganda is a bit of an odd duck. In 2018 the government decided it would be a good idea to tax users in the country who want to use social media sites.
Although the tax was a paltry 200 Ugandan Shillings (about $0.05) – users began to resort to VPNs to avoid the tax. This led to the government ending up waging war against VPN service providers and instructing Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to block VPN users.
Unfortunately (or perhaps, fortunately), Uganda lacks the wherewithal to completely enforce a VPN block and many users continue to use VPNs in the country.
During the war with ISIS in the region, Iraq resorted to Internet bans and restrictions as part of its defense strategy. These restrictions included a ban on the use of VPNs. However, that was quite a while ago and today, ISIS isn’t as big a threat as it used to be.
Sadly, this is a state that often has conflicting laws and beliefs. As such, it is nearly impossible to tell if the usage of a VPN in the country is allowed today, since even censorship is a dodgy topic.
Since 2005 there have been constitutional guarantees regarding censorship, but as with Belarus, there are laws aimed against those who don’t self-censor. This makes using a VPN in the country a dangerous proposition.
Another country with a record of tight censorship, Turkey has since 2018 blocked and made illegal the use of VPNs in the country. This move is part of sweeping censorship laws aimed at severely restricting access to selected information and platforms.
Over the past 12 years, the ruling junta has increasingly broadened its scope of control over media channels, allowing only propaganda-broadcasting operations to remain. Today, Turkey blocks thousands of sites and platforms ranging from social media channels to cloud storage platforms, and even some content delivery networks.
Where initially VPN use was discouraged by wording in their laws, the UAE has since amended those laws to specifically make the way VPNs work illegally. This means that in essence, it has become a crime to use VPNs in the UAE.
If caught using a VPN service in the UAE, users may be fined a minimum sum of 500,000 dirhams (approximately $136,129). The government justifies this by claiming that VPNs help users to gain access to illegal content (at least, illegal in the UAE).
Unfortunately, what the UAE considers illegal can be somewhat strange. For example, the country bans access to Skype and Whatsapp. This is where the ‘tightly regulated’ keyphrase comes in, since if you have a legitimate use for it, you may.
While I’ve seen many users claim that the use of VPN remains a grey area in Oman, I beg to differ. Looking at the topic on a broader scope, Oman explicitly states that using any form of encryption in communications is illegal.
That being said, this law is virtually unenforceable since it would require that the country block or make illegal access to websites which use SSL. That would mean that technically, the majority of the world wide web would be illegal to access in Oman.
The situation here is strange and unfortunately, not many other sources are forthcoming on the situation.
Legality of VPNs Amidst Censorship and Restrictions
VPNs are legal to use in most countries around the world. However, if you’re in a handful of the ones that have some form of restriction you may face significant challenges. In many cases, the legality of VPNs seem directly tied to the type of government in control.
The general theme is that the more restrictive a regime is, the higher the degree of control over personal freedom. It isn’t always so easy to tell though, since many of them will guise restrictions as a form of “protection” for the citizens.
Why There Are Legal Issues Around VPNs
VPNs help anonymize the digital activities of their users. Because of this, ISPs and governments find it hard to track, monitor, or otherwise control the activities of VPN users. Everything you do while your VPN is active is encrypted to a high degree.
In addition, VPN servers mask your real point of origin, making you just one of millions of blank faces wandering digital channels. Oppressive countries simply get nervous about aspects of the population which they can’t control.
VPNs are simply tools and the decision to ban them or not has nothing to do with the realities of legality.
Understanding VPNs and Illegal Activities
To expand on the fact that VPNs are just tools you need to realize that VPNs and what you do with them are separate things. It’s like the difference between ownership of a weapon and what you do with the weapon.
Some things you do with a VPN can be illegal – and these have nothing to do with the VPN itself. For example:
- Illegal file-sharing – Many applications and files are protected by copyright or have some form of ownership. File sharing isn’t a problem until you share ones that don’t belong to you, or you don’t have permission to share – like most music, videos, or commercial software.
- Hacking – To access digital platforms, services, or devices without permission is illegal. No matter your intention – doing so with or without a VPN is against the law. If you use a VPN to hack a site, just because you’re anonymous doesn’t make it “OK”.
- Restricted materials – Some types of materials are simply illegal to have, trade, or share. Examples of this would be illegal types of pornography, confidential information not owned by you, or restricted financial information.
- Cyber stalking – Harassing or stalking someone in cyberspace is illegal almost all around the world. Covering your tracks with a VPN may keep you anonymous, but it doesn’t take away the illegal aspect of your actions in this sense.
How VPN Bans are Enforced
From legislation to actual activities, there are many ways that countries can enforce VPN bans. What they do can include:
- Registration of VPN services – Some countries may require that VPN services operating in their territories register with the government. This requirement is typically accompanied by conditions on access to information – making the VPNs essentially useless for privacy there.
- Implementation of technology – While VPNs are generally invisible, some forms of technologies can help to identify VPN traffic. Deep Packet Inspection, for instance, helps governments monitor VPN traffic status.
- Deterrent measures – Often, VPN usage prevention is accompanied by strong deterrent measures. These measures can include jail time or fines for those caught using VPN services without authorization.
Consequences of Illegal VPN Use
For countries that ban VPNs there are often serious repercussions to violating the ban. The penalty range can vary, but it often includes either (or both) a fine and jail time. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) for example, can fine individual VPN users up to $500,000.
The fine or jail time in some cases can be moot. For some countries, VPN users may face interrogation by authorities – with unknown consequences. China, for example, has had frequent reports of people “disappearing” for unknown reasons.
Legality of Media Streaming With VPNs
It isn’t illegal to stream movies from legitimate streaming services while using a VPN (If VPNs are legal where you are). However, due to licensing issues, many streaming platforms like Netflix frown on this. In fact, some service providers will do their best to detect and block VPN users.
Your Right to Private Browsing
Having said that, it is important that you realize this: You should have a right to a reasonable degree of digital privacy. Even once-liberal countries today are easing restrictions on companies, allowing them to gather, use, and sometimes even sell your private data.
Because of this, even if you’re using a VPN, make sure to pay close attention to the fine print – and even what’s left unsaid. For example, a US-based VPN will be subject to US data retention laws, which may affect “No-logging” claims by the VPN provider.
FAQ: Are VPNs legal in…
VPNs are technical tools and should not normally be banned since there is no direct correlation with illegal activities. For example, bolt cutters can be used in burglaries, but have not been made illegal.
Unfortunately due to circumstances, VPNs have come under the spotlight in a few countries. Let’s a take a quick look to see if:
Are VPNs legal in the China?
As mentioned, the answer to this is a little complex. Technically they are not, but at the same time the Chinese government does not allow unsanctioned VPN service providers to operate in the country. As such most legally available VPNs are normally government-affiliated or approved in some form, defeating the purpose of most VPNs.
Are VPNs legal in the USA?
Yes. The land of the free and brave has not gotten round to banning VPN services yet. However, it has managed to coerce or force some service providers in the past to hand over user data. That’s why it’s best to be aware of what jurisdiction a VPN service provider is in before signing up with them.
Are VPNs legal in the Japan?
As a close ally of the US, Japan normally follows suit in many things and the same goes with them flagging VPNs as legal. However, Japan already has very few Internet restrictions, so the use of any VPN here would mostly be for other purposes.
Are VPNs legal in the UK?
Yes, residents in the UK are free to use VPNs although as with the US I would recommend users keep an eye on jurisdiction. The UK and USA both are part of the 5 Eyes alliance which means they carry out and share digital surveillance information.
Are VPNs legal in the Germany?
VPNs are legal in Germany but users should exercise caution on jurisdiction as Germany is a member of the 14 Eyes alliance.
Are VPNs legal in the Australia?
Aussies will be happy to note that VPNs are fully legal in Australia and that the country is a key server location for many service providers.
Are VPNs legal in the Russia?
VPNs and in fact any form of anonymity applications/services are illegal in Russia. The Rodina (motherland) loves control and these services help users to work around too many things for the government’s liking.
Conclusion: VPNs Are and Will Always Remain Tools
As you might be able to tell by now, the list of countries which ban the use of VPNs isn’t very long and consists mainly of countries which impose high levels of censorship. In most cases, it is obvious that the ban arises from a governmental desire to control the narrative or impede access to the outside world.
In those cases, the status of the ban (complete or tightly regulated) isn’t really important, but the motivation behind it is. This is because, in reality, there is no real legal reason that can be used to ban VPNs – they are merely tools.
To enact a ban on VPNs is like trying to ban something like kitchen knives (or even more ludicrously, chewing gum). Yet as you would expect, most of the countries on this list don’t really care.