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We answer the question:

Is online gambling legal in the U.S.?

I'm not a lawyer. Do not rely on this article as legal advice.  I also can't guarantee to have heard of every relevant case or found every law.

Last update: November 2022

This article was cited in the book Legal Principles for Combatting Cyberlaundering.

Short summary

  1. There is no federal law against online gambling. (more...)
  2. Eighteen states have legalized some form of online gambling, but you have to play in one of their approved casinos or sportsbooks. (more...)
  3. Most states outlaw unregulated gambling in general, which applies equally to online and offline gambling.  However...
  4. Even in states where online gambling is illegal, prosecution is rare and penalties are usually slight.  In most cases it's only a misdemeanor, and in some cases it's a minor infraction, like a traffic ticket.  The penalty in Arkansas is a whopping $25.  I'm so confident that almost nobody gets jailed for gambling online that I openly offer to pay $100 for each report of a U.S. citizen serving even one night in jail after being sentenced for online gambling (as a player) under any U.S. state law. (details)  
  5. Bovada takes players from most states, even from states where Internet gambling is technically illegal. advertisement

AL AK AR AZ CA CO CT DC DE FL GA HI IA ID IL IN KS KY LA MA ME MD MI MN MO MS MT NC ND NE NH NM NJ NV NY OH OK OR PA RI SC SD TN TX UT VT VA WA WI WV WY

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Bovada does not accept players (source, section 2.3)

a d v e r t i s e m e n t

Summary of state laws about online gambling

Summary of State ONLINE Gambling Laws
State Legalized
(and when started)
Betting at an unlicensed site:
Casino Sports Poker Legal, b/c no
law against it
Max Penalty,
but seems to be
almost never
prosecuted
Level of Offense
(yellow=jail not possible
orange/red=jail possible)
Sources
AK




$500 1st offense
$1000 2nd+ offenses
Violation
11.66.200, 12.55.030
AL







AR

3/6/22

$25 (!) (level not named) 5-66-113
AZ

4/15/21


6 months
Misdemeanor, Class 1
13-3301, 13-3304, 13307
CA




$1000 and/or 1 year Misdemeanor
330
CO

5/1/20


$500 and/or 6 mos. Petty Offense, Class 1
18-10-103, 18-1.3-503
CT
10/19/21
10/19/21


$1000 and/or 6 mos. Misdemeanor, Class B
53-278b, 53a-36, 53a-42
DC

5/19





DE
11/8/13
legal but
none available
11/8/13




FL




$500 and/or 60 days Misdemeanor, 2nd Deg.
849.08, 775.082, 775-083
GA




$1000 and/or 1 year Misdemeanor
16-12-21, 17-10-3
HI




$2000 and/or 1 year Misdemeanor
712-1223, 706-640, 706-663
IA

2019


$10,000 and 10 yrs. Felony, Class C
725.7, 902.9
ID




$500 and/or 6 mos. Misdemeanor
18-3802, 18-303
IL

3/9/20


$2500 and/or <1 yr. Misdemeanor, Class A
720 5/28-1, 730 5/5-4.5-55
IN

9/19


$1000 and/or 180 days Misdemeanor, Class B
35-45-5-2, 33-50-3-3
KS




$1000 and/or 6 mos. Misdemeanor, Class B
21-6404, 21-6602, 21-6611
KY






KRS 528
LA

1/28/22


$500 and/or 6 mos. (level not named)
14.90.3 D, 14.90
MA




Double the winnings and ($50 or 3 months) (level not named) 273-1, 273-2
MD

11/23/22


$1000 Civil Violation 12-103 • Decriminalized in 2019 (Westlaw, MD Reporter)
ME




winnings and ($2000 and/or <1 yr.) Class D Crime 17-A:39:954, 17-A39:954-11, 17-A:63
MI
3/20
3/20 3/20
$1000 or 1 yr. Misdemeanor 750.314
MN




$1000 and/or 90 days Minnesota 609.755, 609.03
MO




$750 and/or 15 days Misdemeanor, Class C 572-020, 572-010, 558.011, 558.002
MS




$500+winnings7 (level not named) 97-33-1
MT




$500 & no jail for 1st offense & ≤$750 bet/won
$50,000 and/or 10 yrs if bet/won >$750 9
Misdemeanor if <$750 bet/won on 1st offense, otherwise felony 23-5-151, 23-5-156, 23-5-112, 23-5-161, 23-5-162
NC




$1000 and/or 60 days Misdemeanor, Class 2 14-292, 15A-1340.23
ND




$1000 Infraction 12.1-28-02, 12.1-32.01
NE




$1000 and/or 6 mos. Misdemeanor, Class II 28-1103, 28-106
NH

1/2/20


$1200 Misdemeanor, Class B 647:2-I-(b), 651:2-IV-A
NJ
11/13
11/13
11/13



NJ Code 2C:37-2C
NM




$500 and/or 6 mos. Misdemeanor, Petty 30-19-2, 31-19-1
NV

source 4/13




NY

1/8/22





OH

set to launch
in 2023

But it's against
the law to be a
pro player


2915
OK




$100 and/or 30 days Misdemeanor 21-942
OR

source


$6250 or 2x the winnings, and/or 365 days Misdemeanor, Class A 167.122, 167.117(24), 161.635, 161.615
PA

source




RI

source




SC







SD




30 days and/or $500 Misdemeanor, Class 2

TN

11/1/21

30 days and/or $50 Misdemeanor, Class C

TX




$500 Misdemeanor, Class C

UT




6 mos. and/or $1000 Misdemeanor, Class B

VA

source

$500 Misdemeanor, Class 3
(jail not possible)

VT




$200 and/or 60 days16 (level not named)

WA




$10,000 and/or 5 yrs. Felony, Class C

WI




$1000 and/or 90 days Misdemeanor, Class B

WV

8/18

$300 Misdemeanor

WY

source

$750 and/or 6 months Misdemeanor

Footnotes
Every state's code was current through 2019 or 2020 when I checked it in 2020.

1.  Some states allow gambling at tribal casinos, other brick-and-mortar casinos, in a state lottery, etc.  The table above is for gambling at an unapproved site, which would include all online casinos.  Also, in every case except Montana, the prohibition is against gambling in general, not specifically on the Internet.
2.  Penalties listed are the maximum possible.  First offenders for most crimes rarely get the maximum penalty.
3.  "Sum of Money Involved" (SOMI) ≤$100 = Serious Misdemeanor for 1st offense, Aggravated Misdemeanor for 2nd offense, Class D Felony for 3rd offense, Class 3 Felony for 4th+ offense.  SOMI >$100 ≤$500 = Aggravated Misdemeanor for 1st offense, Class D Felony for 2nd offense, Class C Felony for 3rd+ offense.  SOMI >$500 ≤$5000 = Class D Felony for 1st offense, Class C for 2nd+ offense.  SOMI >$5000 = Class C Felony.
4.  Betting at an unlicensed venue on a horse race that takes place within Virginia is a Class 1 Misdemeanor.
5.  At least not that I can find.
6.  An aggressive reading of 17-A:39:953 could make a player guilty of Aggravated Gambling, a Class B crime, with a maximum penalty of $20,000 and/or 10 years.
7.  Up to 90 days if fine is not paid immediately, and 20 days if violator is a certain public officer and used public money. (97-33-3)
8. Class A ($2000 and/or 1 year) if player is a pro, Class B ($1000 and/or 6 mos.) if done with someone <17 years old.
9. Montana's gambling laws are the least straightforward of all the states.  23-5-151 says gambling is prohibited in general but doesn't specify whether that makes it illegal for players only, or operators only, or both.  It also fails to specify a penalty.  Assuming it applies to players, 23-5-156 says that betting or winning money through an "illegal gambling device" is a misdemeanor if the amount won ≤$750, and a felony if >$750.  23-5-112 defines gambling device to include electronic devices, so that would seem to apply to online gambling with a computer.  As for whether the device is an *illegal* device, since gambling is prohibited in general in 23-5-151, we can figure that all gambling devices are illegal gambling devices.  23-5-161 and 23-5-162 prescribe the penalties.
10. Betting less than $500 a day is only a Class IV misdemeanor (28-1104), punishable by a fine of $250 or less.
11. NH code doesn't bother to mention whether the misdemeanor is Class A or Class B, but a NH law firm says that unspecified misdemeanors are Class B unless they involve violence.
12. A NC lawyer says, "Most offenders who are charged with a Class 2 Misdemeanor do not receive any jail time....", and the court training manual says that if their are no prior convictions, then "the sentence must be suspended." ("Imposing Sentences for Misdemeanors", Step 4)
13. Betting >$25 on any hand or round is a Class A Misdemeanor, with a penalty of $3000 and/or 1 year.  For ≤$25, for a third conviction within 1 year of the first, it's a Class B Misdemeanor, with a penalty of $1500 and/or 30 days.
14. Betting on animal races is a petty offense. (22-25-6) • The South Dakota statutes has a section on Internet Gambling (22-25A), but it applies to operators, not players.
15. Second and subsequent offenses are Class A Misdemeanor, punishable by $2500.
16. Jail is possible only if the offense occurs at a "gaming house", which is not defined, but I would presume that an online casino would be considered such.
17. In many jurisdictions, even when jail is not prescribed, jail is possible if you don't pay your fine.
18. In summer 2020, I asked the state government whether anyone had served jail time as a sentence for a violation of the relevant statute in the last ten years, and for states with this footnote number, the answer was no.  It's possible that someone was jailed before that, but extremely unlikely.

Notes:
  1. Even in states where online gambling is illegal, it seems to be almost never enforced, and the penalties are usually slight anyway.  In fact, I offer a $100 reward for a report about a player who spent even one night in jail for gambling online.
  2. I have a separate page detailing the specific state-by-state penalties, in those states where online gambling is illegal.  Though again, this is theoretical, since online gambling doesn't seem to be enforced very much, if at all.
  3. Even in states that have legalized online gambling, play at unlicensed operators might be illegal, according to state law.  For example, Bovada takes players from Connecticut, but Bovada isn't licensed there, and it's illegal in Connecticut to play at an unlicensed online casino.  (However, it's only a misdemeanor, and I doubt it's ever enforced.)
  4. Most states don't outlaw online gambling specifically.  They outlaw gambling in general, which applies equally to online and offline gambling.  A few states do outlaw online gambling specifically (like UT, and WA).

States where online gambling is legal because there's no law against it

  1. Alabama
  2. Delaware
  3. District of Columbia.  Except it's illegal to play Three Card Monte. (22-1706)
  4. Kentucky.  The section on gambling says, "The status of a 'player' shall be a defense to any prosecution under this chapter".  528.010 (8)
  5. Nevada
  6. New Jersey.  "It is a defense to a prosecution...that the person participated only as a player."  (NJ Code 2C:37-2C)
  7. New York.  Section 225.05 of the penal code says a person is guilty if "he...advances or profits" from gambling, but Section 225.00 clearly states that "advancing" and "profiting" are terms that apply to operators, not players.  (Laws of NY) 
  8. Ohio.  But it's against the law to be a pro player:  "No person shall...engage in betting or in playing any scheme or game of chance as a substantial source of income or livelihood."  (2915.02(A)(4))
  9. Pennsylvania.  Applies only to operators, not players. (5513(a))
  10. Rhode Island.  "Forms of gambling prohibited" speaks to operators, not players. (11-19-1)
  11. South Carolina.  First, the statute outlaws gambling in physical places ("barn, kitchen, stable, street, highway, open wood..."), which wouldn't seem to apply to the Internet.  Second, if it did apply to the Internet, it would seem to apply only to table games (mentioned specifically in the statute), but not slot machines, since the only "devices" mentioned are ones which are "licensed", and online slot machines aren't licensed. (16-19-40, 12-21-2720)

Every state's code listed in this section was current through at least 2019 when I checked it in 2020.


State violations of gambling are usually misdemeanors

Even when states don't allow players to gamble, the maximum penalties are usually light.  The only states where simple gambling is a possible felony on first offense are Iowa, Montana, and Washington.  In most states simple gambling is just a misdemeanor, and in Alaska and Arkansas it's a simple petty offense, like a traffic ticket.

Combining the states where gambling isn't against the law, and adding the states where it's against the law but jail isn't possible, that's 19 states total in which jail isn't possible.

The table of penalties depending on the state is pretty long, so I moved it to a separate page:  State-by-state penalties for online gambling.


Online players convicted of breaking State laws

I know of only two cases in which an online player ran afoul of state laws, both of them many years ago.  Both players charged under their state's general anti-gambling laws (not any specific anti-online-gambling law), and were not sentenced to jail.

  1. North Dakota.  Jeffrey Trauman paid a $500 fine on what was probably over $100,000 in online sports bet winnings, in 2003. (Gambling & the Law)

  2. Oklahoma.  Online sports bettor Roland Benavides was charged in 2011 and in 2012 received a deferred sentence (which means that if he didn't violate the terms of his probation, he would face no jail time). (News OK)

If you do a Google search for "arrested for online gambling", you won't find examples of players being arrested, only operators.  (Well, maybe you'll find examples well deep into the results, but I couldn't find any on the first few pages.)

I'm so confident that almost nobody gets jailed for gambling online that I openly offer to pay $100 for each report of a U.S. citizen serving even one night in jail after being sentenced for online gambling (as a player) under any U.S. state law. (details)


There is no U.S. federal law against gambling online

There is no U.S. federal law against gambling online, as a player.  At the federal level, gambling online is perfectly legal, because of the lack of a law against it.  (But it might be illegal in your state.  See the table above.)

U.S. Attorney Catherine Hanaway admitted in a House hearing that just placing wagers online doesn't violate federal law.  No American has ever been arrested, indicted, or prosecuted by the feds for gambling online, because you can't break a non-existent law.  If online gambling were illegal under federal law I wouldn't be running his website for twenty years, as an American citizen, living in the U.S., using my real name.  I've occasionally gambled online, too, at Bovada, and I admit that publicly, like I'm doing right now.

This might be confusing because other outlets erroneously reported that Congress banned online gambling in 2006.  Those reports are simply wrong.  The 2006 law makes it illegal for banks to move gambling money when the bets are already illegal (like from a state law), but doesn't make it illegal for players to make bets.  In fact, the law says quite clearly, "No provision of this subchapter shall be construed as altering, limiting, or extending any Federal or State law or Tribal-State compact prohibiting, permitting, or regulating gambling within the United States."  You can see for yourself by checking out the full text of the law.

While you don't break any federal laws from placing bets online, it's not legal to run a gambling operation (i.e., to take bets), except in those states where it's explicitly legal and the operator is licensed. 

And yes, the FBI posted a scary warning online in 2007 in which they claimed that placing bets online is against the law.  In short, they lied. (more on that)


Taking bets online is usually illegal

It's illegal in all states to take bets (as the casino/operator), except for licensed operators in those few states where gambling is regulated.  So, for example, don't try to run a raffle on Facebook.

At the federal level, taking sports bets online is plainly illegal, thanks to the federal Wire Act, unless a state has specifically legalized it.

The feds keep changing their mind about whether the Wire Act applies to taking casino/poker bets as well as sports bets:

  1. Before 2001, the DoJ said the wire act applied to casino and poker bets too.
  2. Then in 2002, a federal court ruled that the Wire Act applied only to sports betting, not casino. (source)
  3. That didn't stop the DoJ from prosecuting poker sites in 2008 and 2011. (more...)
  4. Then in 2011, after the prosecutions, the DoJ reversed itself and said it applied only to sports. (Forbes)
  5. Then in 2019 they reversed themselves again and said it applies to casino and poker. (source)
  6. Later in 2019, a federal court set aside the DoJ's position, with the court saying that the Wire Act applied only to sports bets. (source) 
  7. However, sources say the DoJ will most likely appeal the court's decision.
  8. In the meantime, the DoJ said it's suspending enforcement against non-sports operators. (source)

The beginning of legal online gambling in the U.S.

The District of Columbia became the first jurisdiction to legalize some form of online gambling in the U.S., in April 2011, but the measure was repealed in February 2012 before it ever became active. (NY Times)  Delaware was next to legalize (June 2012), followed by Nevada and New Jersey (Feb. 2013).  Nevada was first to launch (April 2013), followed by New Jersey (11/25/13).

In May 2018, the Supreme Court overturned a law that prohibited sports betting in all states but Nevada.  This allows individual states to legalize sports betting (including online betting) should they choose to do so. (Forbes)  Following that decision, in the next few years several states rushed to legalize sports betting, usually including online betting as well.


Beware of advice on other websites

Lots of other websites say it's legal to gamble online in places where it actually isn't, probably because those sites get advertising money from online casinos.  (I get advertising money too, but that's not gonna make me lie about the law.)  For example "Let's Gamble USA" (LGU) says, for Illinois, "[T]he law doesn’t list any punishments for participating in online games as a player" and so "most experts agree that playing on offshore sites is perfectly legal for Illinois residents."  First, LGU doesn't bother to quote or link to even one of these supposed "many" experts.  Second, online gambling is actually plainly illegal under Illinois 720 5/28-1, which states "A person commits gambling when he or she knowingly plays a game of chance or skill for money or other thing of value...or knowingly makes a wager upon the result of any game [or] contest....Gambling is a Class A misdemeanor."  There is no exception listed for gambling online.  Third, 730 5/5-4.5-55 plainly lists the possible penalty as $2500 and/or one year in jail.

For Arizona, LGU says, "[T]he legal status of online play in Arizona is somewhat ambiguous, as many lawyers argue whether the general laws can be applied to playing on unlicensed iGaming sites or not...[M]ost industry experts agree that Arizona is perfectly safe when it comes to online play."  Here again, they don't bother to quote or link to a single one of these supposed "lawyers" or "experts".  But anyway, let's go straight to the source, the text of the actual laws in Arizona:

"[A] person commits benefiting from gambling if he knowingly obtains any benefit from gambling." (Arizona 13-3304)

"‘Gambling’ or ‘gamble’ means one act of risking or giving something of value for the opportunity to obtain a benefit from a game or contest of chance or skill or a future contingent event " (Arizona 13-3301.4)

There is nothing in the text of the law that suggests that it applies only to brick-and-mortar gambling and not Internet gambling.

For Montana, LGU says "being caught would result in a serious fine", ignoring the fact that the sentence could include up to ten years in jail if the amount bet or won is more than $750.  That kind of omission is either wildly irresponsible or grossly incompetent.

I suspect that LGU commits similar omissions or inaccuracies for the other states, but I stopped checking after I found serious problems with the first three states I checked.  Let the player beware.


$100 reward for reports of a player spending time in jail for online gambling

I think the chances of going to jail for online gambling in the U.S. are so small that I offer a $100 reward for each report of a player actually getting jail.  Here are the details:

  1. The defendant must be the player (not an operator), and must be sentenced for online gambling (not offline), in one of the U.S. states.
  2. The player must actually spend at least one night in jail as a result of the sentence.
  3. I accept reports starting one week after the first night in jail is spent.  If you notify me of an arrest or sentencing before that happens, the reward is only $25.
  4. In the event of a sting in which multiple people are arrested at the same time or under the same operation, the limit is one reward.
  5. Only the first report for a specific case is eligible for the reward.  (e.g., If five people notify me of the same case, only the first person gets the reward.)
  6. Does not apply to any cases I already list on this site.
  7. I don't promise to offer this reward in this format forever.

If you know of any qualifying cases, then contact me and claim your reward.

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