Feature

Are VPNs legal?

A Virtual Private Network can be a great way to protect your privacy, work on sensitive material while away from the office, or cheekily access overseas versions of Netflix. But, are they legal to use? We take a look at when and where a VPN is allowed by the powers that be.

By Martyn Casserly Mar 08th 2018

A Virtual Private Network can be a great way to protect your privacy, work on sensitive material while away from the office, or cheekily access overseas versions of Netflix. But, are they legal to use? We take a look at when and where a VPN is allowed by the powers that be.

If you’re interested in using this kind of service, then be sure to also read our Best VPN 2018 guide.

What is a VPN?

Essentially a VPN creates what’s often referred to as a software-based ‘private tunnel’ between your device and a server online. The data transmitted between these two points is then encrypted so that hackers or snooping intelligence agencies can’t decipher the communiques. 

Traditionally the technology has been used by businesses as a way of keeping company documents safe while employees work on them from various locations. In recent years, it’s also found favour with those concerned about privacy in general, and because VPNs can change your location (making it look like you’re in another country), more and more people use it to get around region-locked services - primarily streaming video.

For a more detailed explanation read our What is a VPN? Feature.

Is it legal to use a VPN?

In the majority of countries around the world, VPNs are perfectly acceptable. This changes when the regime in charge has a more totalitarian outlook.

For example, it is illegal to use a VPN in China, Russia, Turkey, Iraq, and the UAE among a handful of others. Certain countries also discourage their use or limit the service’s capabilities, such as North Korea and Iran.

The reasons for this are thought to be as a way of preventing dissent or restricting access to Western services and news sources. Whatever the truth of the matter, you don’t want to be caught using one in any of those locations.

Remember, the Opera browser and several others now have built-in VPNs, so if you’ve enabled that feature be sure to disable it when travelling to any of the countries listed above.

See also: Best Browser VPN 2018

If you’re concerned about any destination you may be visiting, thebestVPN has a reasonably up to date list of where VPNs are banned.

For people in the rest of the world, a VPN is a perfectly acceptable tool to use and in many ways is becoming increasingly important. By keeping your online activities private, they prevent companies and hackers from from acquiring your browsing habits, purchase histories, and in some cases political alignments.

Can I watch US Netflix in the UK?

One of the most popular uses for VPNs nowadays is watching overseas versions of Netflix and its ilk. As each region has different shows and movies, it can be quite a tempting proposition.

In the current Netflix Terms of Use it states that ‘You may view the Netflix content primarily within the country in which you have established your account and only in geographic locations where we offer our service and have licensed such content.’

This could be construed as saying that viewing content from other countries is permitted, if not implicitly stated. And, in any case, it's not a criminal offence to do something that contravenes a service's terms and conditions.

Can I watch BBC iPlayer when outside of the UK?

UK TV license payers also use VPNs to watch iPlayer while travelling internationally, but the BBC is more definite in its prohibition.

‘If you download a programme on BBC iPlayer before you leave the UK you can watch it anywhere in the world…but due to rights agreements, you need to be in the UK to download and stream programmes or watch BBC TV channels.’

There is hope that this might change in the future though, as the corporation adds the following;

‘While we are interested in being able to allow UK licence fee payers to access BBC iPlayer when they are abroad, there are complex technical issues to resolve which we are investigating as well as legal issues outside of the EU.’

Does a VPN really hide all of my activities?

Not always. It’s true that your ISP won’t know what you’ve been up to, but some VPN service providers will. This means that if you’re conducting illegal business, planning bad things, or generally up to no good, then the police can impel the VPN company to hand over whatever details it may have about your online history. 

There’s also been instances where free VPN services have been found to spy on users, access sensitive information, or provide no encryption at all. We recommend that you pay for a VPN service rather than use a free one. In most cases free ones are too limiting in their server locations or data anyway.

If you’re not planning to commit crime and are willing to pay for a VPN with a good reputation such as NordVPN, Hidden24 or ExpressVPN, then it is a great way to improve your own personal security online. But, those planning nefarious activities shouldn’t think that they can hide for long behind its virtual walls.