A VPN (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 explain 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 guide to the best VPN services. Our top picks include NordVPN and ExpressVPN.

What is a VPN?

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

Are VPNs legal?  

Traditionally the technology has been used by businesses as a way of keeping company documents safe while employees work on them from remote 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: What is a VPN?.

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 - or certainly a grey area - to use a VPN in China, Russia, Turkey, Iraq, and the UAE among a handful of others including Iran and North Korea. Some of these countries merely discourage the use of a VPN or limit the service’s capabilities.

The reasons for this are typically because the countries' governments want to prevent dissent or restrict 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.

Having said that, it's difficult to find cases where any individual (travelling as a foreigner) has been prosecuted or put in prison for using a VPN.

Remember, the Opera web browser and several others now have built-in VPNs. There are also plenty of browser extensions for VPNs, so if you’ve enabled that feature be sure to disable it when travelling to any of the countries listed above. Or use it at your own risk.

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 popular use for a VPN is watching overseas versions of Netflix and other streaming services. 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, you're not breaking the law if you do something that contravenes a service's terms and conditions.

Can I watch iPlayer when abroad?

UK TV license payers might also want to use a VPN 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 license 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.’

For this reason, the BBC - as well as Netflix and other companies - actively crack down on VPN providers, blocking specific servers and generally attempting to thwart their use. This is why you might find you can't access Netflix in a certain country today even though you're using the same VPN service you used yesterday. It's a game of cat and mouse.

Does a VPN really hide all of my activities?

It’s true that your ISP - your internet provider - 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 compel the VPN company to hand over whatever details it may have about your online history. That's why it pays to choose a VPN service which is located in a country where this can't happen, and which has a strict zero-logs policy. For more, read our round up of the best no logs VPNs.

There have 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 allowances anyway.

If you are willing to pay for a VPN with a good reputation such as NordVPN, ExpressVPN or PureVPN 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.

Related articles for further reading