5 Countries Where Using A VPN Could Land You in Jail
Are VPNs legal where you live or travel to? Let’s find out!
People go to jail for plenty of reasons, and some of those reasons are just outrageous. Did you know, for instance, that simply firing up a type of software could land you in the slammer in some countries? It’s true.
And we’re not talking about hacking apps or software used to distribute illegal materials. We’re talking about VPNs, which are completely legal in the United States and almost everywhere else. If you live in the following countries, however, take extreme caution … using a VPN in them could land you in jail.
VPNs Are Illegal or Restricted in These Countries
VPNs, or virtual private networks, are cybersecurity tools that promote online privacy and open internet. As you can imagine, that doesn’t sit well with restrictive regimes that want to keep their people in the dark. As a result, VPNs are banned or severely restricted in these countries.
Chen Yuzhen, a Chinese university student, got a VPN subscription while studying in Taiwan. There, he enjoyed internet freedom like he had never done before, so when he moved back home, he shared the VPN with his friends for them to experience the same. Shortly after that, however, the police came a-knockin’ and detained him for “providing programs and tools for hacking computer networks illegally.”1
You see, the Chinese government outlawed the use of non-state-approved VPNs in 2018. Here’s the problem with that: State-approved VPNs must provide the government backdoor access to their systems. For citizens like Chen who use VPNs to escape government monitoring and to scale the “Great Firewall of China,” state-approved VPNs just won’t do. What’s worse, if they get caught using non-approved VPNs, they could be fined or sent to jail.
2. North Korea
Surprised? Neither are we. VPNs in North Korea are not only illegal, but also virtually impossible to access. The general population doesn’t have the internet like we do. Rather, they have a closed-off intranet service called
, essentially North Korea’s own internet. And since it’s a “walled garden,” VPNs don’t work with it.
A few select people do have access to the global internet, mostly top officials and government researchers. Some universities also have internet-connected computers, but as you can imagine, they’re monitored very closely. Who knows what would happen if someone tried to use a VPN under leader Kim Jong Un’s watch. Jail might be the least of their worries.
The law concerning VPNs in Iraq is clear: They’re illegal for everyone. Individuals, businesses, companies, and institutions are all banned from using VPNs. Unlike other countries on this list, though, Iraq might have good reasons for banning them.
The terrorist group ISIS has been known to use social media to recruit members, promote its propaganda, and propagate war conditions. To counteract that, the government occasionally imposes bans on social media websites like Twitter and Facebook, especially during times of unrest. During a social media ban in 2014, news channels started airing tutorials on how to use VPNs to circumvent censorship, and well, it backfired. VPNs have been illegal in Iraq since.
Are VPNs illegal in Russia? Not entirely, but the Russian government has clashed with VPN companies several times in the past. It all started when President Vladimir Putin signed a bill restricting the use of VPNs in 2017. Since then, Russia has maintained a list of blocked VPN services — mostly from companies that didn’t want to comply with Russia’s request to log user data and keep blocked sites blocked.
Among the VPNs on the list are NordVPN, IPVanish, ExpressVPN, VyprVPN, and KeepSolid VPN. Those are some of the best VPNs because of how they value users’ privacy, but for the exact same reason, they’re also illegal to use in Russia.
5. The United Arab Emirates
VPNs are perfectly legal in the United Arab Emirates as long as you don’t misuse them to commit crimes or hide crimes you’ve committed. Sounds fair, right? Well, not really, especially if you’re planning to use a VPN to access blocked sites, which is considered a crime.
And the punishment for misusing a VPN to commit a “crime”? A fine of no less than 500,000 AED (about $140,000) plus prison time. With punishments that harsh, it’s probably not worth it to use a VPN to access Tinder, one of the services blocked in the country.
Other Countries With Strict VPN Laws
Take note of these countries with strict laws about the use of VPNs, as well.
- Belarus: Under the rule of its first and only president since its independence in 1991, Belarus citizens are banned from using VPNs, Tor, and proxy networks.
- Iran: Unlike its neighbor to the south, Iraq, the laws in Iran about VPNs are much looser. That might change if, or when, the new Protection Bill passes into law, which includes a section that seeks to ban the development, production, and distribution of VPNs and proxy servers.
- Turkey: VPNs are legal, but like Russia, certain VPN services are unavailable in Turkey.
- Oman: The legal status of VPNs in Oman remains hazy. They are illegal, technically speaking, because Oman prohibits the use of encryption in any form of communication. If that’s to be followed strictly, though, then the majority of the global internet should be banned as well, as most websites use encryption (SSL, anyone?).
- Uganda: Uganda thought it would be a good idea to tax its people for using social media. And when Ugandans started using VPNs to evade the “social media tax,” the government pushed back by banning VPNs. The ban is not being enforced strictly, though, so citizens can still use VPNs.
Can Foreigners and Tourists Be Jailed for Using VPNs?
Countries that ban or restrict VPNs are often most strict about their laws when it comes to their citizens. That said, tourists are not exempt from local VPN restrictions in the same manner that tourists in your home country aren’t exempt from traffic laws.
In China, for example, as long as you follow VPN regulations — you use a state-approved VPN, don’t leak sensitive information to the outside world, and avoid taboo topics like the Tiananmen Square — you should be safe.
Of course, if you visit a country that completely bans VPNs like North Korea or Iraq, it’s best to oblige and don’t use a VPN altogether … unless, of course, you want a special tour of their prison facilities.
Are There Undetectable VPNs?
You might notice that despite restrictions, there are VPNs that claim to work well in restrictive countries. That’s not because they have special permission to operate, but rather, because they use features that can help their service evade detection, such as:
- Obfuscation techniques: Obfuscation techniques camouflage VPN traffic to make them appear as normal internet traffic.
- NoBorders Mode: We saw the NoBorders Mode when we reviewed Surfshark. It’s essentially an obfuscation technique taken to the next level that activates automatically when it detects your traffic is coming from Russia, China, or UAE.
- Multi-hop: Multi-hop doesn’t make VPNs undetectable, but they can circumvent stricter restrictions. In China, for example, traffic to some U.S.-based websites are throttled. To avoid the throttling, you could route your traffic first to a VPN server outside the U.S., which then forwards it to the U.S.-based destination.
Although those methods could make your VPN connection harder to detect, they’re not always reliable, so use them at your own risk.
Are VPNs Ever Illegal in the United States?
Fortunately, if you live stateside, the use of VPNs is not and has never been illegal. It’s unlikely to become illegal in the future, as well. That’s one of the beauties of living in the free world.
That said, activities that are illegal don’t magically become legal just because they’re hidden behind the protection of a VPN. Some seem to think that it’s okay to do bad or questionable stuff just because their identities are hidden. But as proven by the 24-year-old Massachusetts man who was arrested for allegedly using a VPN to cyberstalk his former roommate, that’s not the case. It’s basic common sense: What’s wrong is wrong even when no one is looking.
VPNs are necessary cybersecurity and privacy tools, and it’s sad to see that the countries that need them the most are also the ones that can’t access or have limited access to them.
Online privacy and access to a free flow of information should be a basic human right, and we can only hope that VPN regulations around the world will change for the better in the near future.
1. Radio Free Asia. (2021). Student Flees China After Questioning Over Sharing of VPN Login.