Are VPNs safe to use? And are they actually legal?

Clearing up the legal mumbo jumbo about VPNs and what it all actually means for you

are vpn legal
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Let's start this right away by being super clear – you can use the best VPN completely legally. That makes it sound like you won't need to read on but that's not the case. You see, guns are legal too in some places, but they can still get you in a lot of trouble.

Weapon analogies aside, a VPN, or virtual private network, is legal to use in itself but it simply depends what you do with it. The VPN gives you privacy online which is, or should be, your right. But privacy is a very difficult area both in real life and online, as it means treading the line between personal freedom and being able to hide illegal activity from the authorities. 

To avoid getting too political we'll just focus on what a VPN does that is and isn't legal.

 A VPN is a very useful legal tool which can protect you online. Say you're on holiday and want to connect to hotel Wi-Fi. Since this is an open connection it might not be secure so to protect yourself from being snooped on you can use a VPN which will mask your identity. This applies to all open Wi-Fi when you might be at risk and anonymity can be your friend. 

A VPN can also make you appear somewhere you're not - whether that be a paid-for or free VPN - allowing you to get around geo-restricted content.

Want to know more? We've gone in-depth with our guide on what is a VPN and how they work.

Can I watch BBC iPlayer legally on a VPN?

Perhaps you're in another country and want to catch up on a BBC iPlayer show from back home. If you're a UK TV licence payer then you're legally allowed to watch, no matter where you are. But, since the BBC controls this by limiting it to the UK, you may be blocked when away. 

A VPN can simply make you appear to be in the UK by bouncing you through a UK based server. There's nothing illegal about this.

However, if you're not a licence payer and you do this, then you're technically stealing. And you don't need us to tell you that's a bad thing!

Using the best Netflix VPN on the other hand is a direct breach of the streaming giant's terms and conditions. That doesn't seem to stop people doing it though...

Is a VPN illegal for torrents?

Some, not all, VPNs support P2P or torrent traffic. This is where files are shared between devices across the internet. This is a very difficult territory. While the sharing isn't strictly illegal, it can be. The point here is what you are actually sharing.

So if you're downloading a free book which is distributed via a torrent, then fill your digital bookshelves with the stuff. However, if you're downloading a Hollywood movie it's more than likely this is being illegally distributed and you are stealing.

Can I be caught for illegal VPN use?

All the illegal activities you can do with a VPN, you can mostly do without a VPN. It's the use of a VPN that will keep you anonymous if you do carry out those acts. While that technically means there is less chance of you getting caught, it's still not impossible should you be targeted.

So just remember, a VPN isn't illegal, it's what you do with it that defines if you're breaking the law or not. And that's a whole other article, we're afraid!

Luke Edwards

Luke is a former freelance writer for T3 with over two decades of experience covering tech, science and health. Among many others Luke wrote about health tech, software and apps, VPNs, TV, audio, smart home, antivirus, broadband, smartphones, cars and plenty more. In his free time, Luke used to climb mountains, swim outside and contort his body into silly positions while breathing as calmly as possible.