Are free VPNs legal?

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(Image credit: Marcus Spike)

VPNs are used for legitimate purposes all the time by governments, companies, and individuals, and, except in a select few authoritarian countries where the use of VPNs has been restricted, VPNs are entirely legal to use.

Free VPN usage has recently surged as more people have begun working from home and want to secure personal data and work information. However, while using the best VPN does improve your online security, privacy, and anonymity, free services don’t offer nearly as much protection and functionality as paid ones.

Why do people think VPNs are illegal?

VPNs have many legitimate, legal uses. But, because a VPN improves anonymity and hides what a user is doing online, VPNs are also a useful tool for online criminals. Sharing copyrighted material or selling illegal items online is made a little safer by using VPNs, so they've picked up a shady reputation.

Some countries block specific websites that they deem to be against the public interest, and VPNs can be used to circumvent these internet censorship programs. Though few countries have banned VPNs outright and laws against circumventing censorship programs have rarely been enforced, it’s a situation in which the legality of VPNs is a grey area.

VPNs can also be used to get around content geo-blocking. The geo-blocking of content is where a streaming provider, such as Netflix or Disney+, only allows you to stream certain content if you’re located with a specific country. But with a Netflix VPN, for example, you can stream US Netflix content from the UK.

People sometimes assume that content is geo-blocked for copyright reasons, so streaming from outside the country through the use of a VPN must be illegal. But geo-blocking is usually because the streaming provider has a limited distribution contract with the content creator. While streaming Netflix content from another country is against the company’s terms of service, it’s not illegal, and no one has ever lost access to their Netflix account for using a VPN.

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(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Do I need to be careful?

Of course – illegal activities are still illegal if you use a VPN to perform them! Torrenting copyrighted content, buying and selling illegal goods, and any other criminal activity could still land you in legal trouble if you’re caught, whether you’re using a VPN or not.

As advised, streaming geo-blocked content isn’t illegal, but technically, you could be kicked from the streaming platform’s service for breaking their terms of contract.

There are a few countries with laws limiting the use of VPNs. The UAE, Turkey, Russia, Iran, and China all have restrictions on using VPNs, but they aren’t banned outright. But other countries, like Turkmenistan, Oman, North Korea, Iraq, and Belarus, have passed laws that prohibit the use of VPNs entirely.

In short, unless you're in some of those countries, the use of VPNs is completely legal, as long as you’re using them for legitimate purposes.

Which VPNs are good?

Free services simply can’t compete with paid VPNs in terms of features, privacy, and security. So, unless you only need to use a VPN occasionally, we strongly recommend a top paid VPN.

Our first choice would almost always be ExpressVPN

Our first choice would almost always be ExpressVPN. With tons of privacy features that makes accessing restricted content super simple, it's also incredibly user friendly and even has 24/7 live chat support to help you if things aren't working as they should. 

On top of that, you'll be covered by a 30-day money-back guarantee, plus Tom's Guide readers will be able to claim three months absolutely FREE. That's 15 months for the price of 12. Not bad for the top VPN available today.

Richard Sutherland

Richard is a technology writer with over 20 years experience in website development, marketing, and SEO. A graduate in Computer Science, he has lectured in Java programming and built software for companies including Samsung and Walmart. Richard writes for TechRadar, IT Pro, Tom's Guide, and PC Gamer.