How to play online poker in the US legally, safely, and securely
With a storied history spanning more than two decades, there’s no denying that online poker has staying power. And thanks to record-breaking guaranteed prize pools, enticing promotions, innovative software, and mobile support, the industry is in the midst of another renaissance. In other words, there’s no better time to start playing Texas Hold’em and other poker variants online.
Given the resurgence of online poker, it’s not surprising that prospective players have plenty of questions. If you’re wondering if it’s legal to play poker online for real money, you’re in good company. Keep reading as we explore the laws surrounding the world’s greatest card game.
Is online poker legal?
Whether or not poker is legal largely depends on where you live. While some countries like the United Kingdom regulate all forms of online gambling—so citizens can play safely and legally—governments of other nations have taken the opposite approach. For example, Australian law effectively prohibits online poker rooms from operating within the country’s borders.
Yet even in Australia, which is known for its relatively strict online gambling laws, there are no penalties for players who play real money poker online. Rather it is online poker room and casino operators who could face fines for illegally offering their services to Aussies. In other words, there is no risk for players provided they choose a reputable international online poker room. This tends to be true in most countries that aren’t particularly friendly to online gambling.
In Canada, several provinces operate their own online casinos and poker rooms, but these are only open to Canadian residents. That means that while Americans are welcome to play Texas Hold’em in person at casinos in Montreal, Niagara Falls, or Vancouver, they aren’t eligible to log onto any of the country’s provincially licensed online poker rooms.
The legal online poker situation in the US is unique. If you are an American, you do have fewer legal options than your British counterparts, but the government doesn’t expect you to sit on the sidelines like poker fans Down Under. The fact is there are several great poker sites available to US players right now, as we will discuss below.
Is online poker legal in the United States?
Online poker’s legal standing in the US isn’t black and white. Even so, you won’t have to hire a lawyer to make sense of the rules. Sure, with 50 states in the union, each with its own laws and federal regulations to contend with, the rules have the potential to be confusing on the surface. Fortunately, we’re here to shed light on the situation.
Before we indulge you with a brief history lesson, if you are interested in playing poker online for free, then the answer to the question “is poker online legal?” is always a resounding yes. As we’ll explain shortly, the laws surrounding online gambling have more to do with the financial aspects of poker rather than the game itself.
Still, if you are trying to determine if it’s legal to play poker online for real money, chances are you’ll like the answer no matter where you reside.
A very brief history of US online poker
When the first online poker sites launched in the late 1990s, the internet was a markedly different place than it is today. The old rules and laws either no longer applied or simply weren’t enforced given the Wild West nature of the internet.
By the time Chris Moneymaker won the 2003 WSOP Main Event after qualifying for his seat at an internet poker site, casino operators in Las Vegas and Atlantic City started to worry. Would online casinos and poker rooms eventually put them out of business? Could a destination like Las Vegas really compete with the convenience of playing on a PC or Mac in the 21st century? Rather than innovate, they did what any industry fearing extinction does. They hired lobbyists to legislate the competition out of business.
In September 2006, the US House and Senate passed the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA) seemingly out of nowhere. Interestingly enough, the UIGEA was added at the last minute to the Safe Ports Act right before a congressional break. Not only did the UIGEA have nothing to do with port safety, but the act wasn’t debated. Several senators later admitted to not even realizing they had voted for the unrelated legislation. As we’ll discuss below, the UIGEA would change the game, at least temporarily.
Getting to know the UIGEA
The Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA) is a contentious and widely misunderstood law that altered the online poker landscape more than a decade ago. This piece of US legislation was signed into law by President George W. Bush on October 16th, 2006, but didn’t come into effect until January 12th, 2009, which was the day before President Barack Obama’s inauguration.
While many players believe that the UIGEA outlaws US residents from playing poker online, they are mistaken. What the UIGEA actually does is prohibit gambling businesses from accepting payments. The act covers five different payment systems, namely clearing house systems, card systems, check collection systems, wire transfer systems, and money transmitting businesses.
Considering that most of the online poker rooms serving the American market in 2009 operated from countries outside the US, the UIGEA’s biggest burden was on US financial institutions. The legislation effectively put the onus on banks and payment processors to screen and block online poker transactions.
In short, the UIGEA makes no mention of online poker, nor does it aim to police online gambling. Aside from the financial aspects, the legislation has little to say about actually playing poker online. As far as this act is concerned, there is no proscription on visiting an online poker site in the US. Unless you operate a bank or plan on opening up your own online poker room, chances are you won’t care much about the UIGEA.
Even in jurisdictions where the status of legal online poker is debatable, making a deposit generally doesn’t violate any rules. Again, US federal laws pertain to payment processors and the casinos themselves. Most importantly, no US player has ever been charged or fined for playing at an online poker room.
Thanks to the emergence of cryptocurrencies, it’s possible to deposit and withdraw money without relying on payment systems listed in the UIGEA. In fact, some of the best-known US poker sites accept bitcoin and dozens of other blockchain payment methods.
Black Friday and the aftermath
No discussion about legal online poker would be complete without mentioning Black Friday. In case there’s any confusion, we’re not referring to the Friday after Thanksgiving where hordes of shoppers line up at their local superstore before dawn to fight each other for door crasher deals. Rather, Black Friday is the day when the US Department of Justice seized the internet domains of leading online gambling sites and replaced them with takedown notices. The move came on the heels of a ruling in the United States v. Scheinberg, which found that the three biggest online poker companies violated the UIGEA.
Ultimately, the world’s best-known poker sites either pulled out of the US market or ceased operations entirely. To date, WPN is the only poker network that withdrew from the US market, refunded all players, and successfully returned to the US market. WPN currently operates several sites including Americas Cardroom.
What states is online poker legal in?
When you consider just how popular Texas Hold’em is, it shouldn’t be surprising that several US states have jumped on the internet poker bandwagon. While it’s nice to pretend that state legislators are giving their citizens exactly what they want, the reality is far more cynical. The reason New Jersey, Delaware, and Nevada now license online poker sites is due to successful lobbying by the gambling industry and because states are hungry for revenue.
While residents of New Jersey, Delaware, and Nevada can find homegrown licensed online poker sites, serious players continue to seek out offshore sites. The truth is local online poker rooms have limitations. Generally, players must reside in the state to register and play. While that might not seem like a burden in itself, it often ends up limiting the player pool and game selection. Although the three US states that regulate online poker signed a contract to combine their players, the numbers severely lag what’s available internationally.
If you are a new player looking for incentives to sign up or just like ongoing rewards and creative promotions, offshore poker sites tend to be far more generous and overall innovative. The most enduring international poker rooms also respect your privacy and anonymity more than their US-based counterparts. The only issue, at least as far as players are concerned, is whether sites will let residents of New Jersey, Delaware, and Nevada play for real money.
Why legal online poker is distinct
Legally speaking, poker differs from other popular casino games like slots, blackjack, and roulette in two significant ways. First, online poker has obvious elements of skill. If you’ve ever played poker, you know that your success at the tables isn’t merely a matter of chance like in most casino games. In other words, poker isn’t pure gambling. Success at the tables takes more than luck of the draw. You’ll need an in-depth understanding of the game, discipline, and the ability to size-up your opponents if you want to be a poker pro. This matters because many jurisdictions that prohibit games of chance allow games of skill, even if the latter is regulated.
Second, when you visit any of the top US poker sites, you’ll play against real human players rather than the house. This is an important distinction because legal online poker sites exist solely to provide a virtual venue for players to compete against each other. They have no vested interest in whether you win or lose.
For example, if you live in California and play at a licensed online poker site in Panama against players from France, who is to say where the game really takes place? Legal scholars, computer experts, and philosophers can debate at length whether the game takes place in Central America, the United States, Europe, or all three, but we’re pretty sure you just want to have fun playing poker. Naturally, this so-called gray area dissuades very few people from enjoying real money poker online.
Depositing Legally at a Poker Site From the US
Given the disparate rules and regulations surrounding online gambling, poker players often face difficulty bringing their money to the table. Credit card processors often reject deposits at reputable poker sites, even in jurisdictions where online poker is perfectly legal. Players who rely on bank transfers to fund their bankroll or receive their winnings often face an unwarranted barrage of questions from their financial institutions along with huge delays. The popular payment service PayPal not only prevents US players from using their accounts to play poker, but they refuse to do business with any casino or poker room that welcomes American players.
Fortunately, a few top poker rooms have found a way around these financial issues. Popular US-facing poker site Americas Cardroom makes it easy for Americans and everybody else to get their money in the game by offering dozens of cryptocurrency options. Although the site does offer a range of traditional deposit options like credit cards, most players prefer Bitcoin or one of the other supported cryptos.
With cryptocurrencies, you can easily get your money in the game in a matter of minutes without sacrificing your security or privacy. What’s even better is that you can also get paid quickly and safely too. As discussed earlier, cryptocurrencies don’t violate the US regulations that caused many online gaming sites to exit the American market.
Tax considerations where poker is legal
Whether you play professionally or recreationally, your poker winnings may be subject to taxes. If you are a US resident, you could be subject to federal as well as state taxes. If you win regularly, it’s wise to consult an accountant or other tax professional. Your accountant can help you decide whether to file as an amateur or professional gambler.
Keep in mind that online poker sites located outside of the US don’t generally issue paperwork or provide tax forms. You’ll need to keep your own records of wins and losses for tax purposes. If you file as a professional, you may be eligible to deduct your losses and other expenses. While taxes might seem like a burden that detracts from the game, it’s hardly the end of the world. If you have to give the IRS a cut, that just means that you’re in the black to begin with.
The taxation rules in other countries differ from the US. For example, British players don’t pay tax on casino winnings but establishments do pay a 15% levy on their earnings. In Canada, poker players generally don’t pay taxes on poker winnings unless it’s their main source of income.
Can you play poker online for money?
Whether you live in the US or elsewhere, there are several highly-rated online poker sites that offer a wide range of cash games and tournaments.
Is online poker legal in the United States?
While gambling laws vary from state to state, it’s not hard to play poker legally in the US. If you live in Nevada, Delaware, or New Jersey, you can find several legal homegrown options. Yet there are reputable international sites that cater to players in most regions.
Is it legal to play Texas Hold’em online for real money?
Whether you live in the US or elsewhere, there are lots of great online poker rooms that let you enjoy Texas Hold’em and other poker variants legally. All the top sites let you play for fun or real money.
Do online poker sites accept US currency?
All the leading poker rooms on the internet welcome US currencies. Since the US dollar is the most popular currency in the world, games are almost always denominated in USD.
What should I look for when choosing an online poker site?
We recommend choosing a poker room with a long track record. You’ll also want to consider the selection of games, quality of the poker client, promotions, customer service, and the welcome bonus. Always make sure the site and its software are certified by an accredited agency.
Which laws apply to online poker in the US?
The main piece of legislation that pertains to online poker in the US is the UIGEA. The UIGEA doesn’t speak to the legality of playing online poker, but it does cause headaches for financial institutions since it prevents them from processing certain types of payments.
You don’t really need to be concerned with this legislation unless you are planning on opening a casino or poker room that serves US players. You can learn more about the UIGEA above.
What’s the legal age to play online poker?
The gambling age in most US states is 21. While the age of majority at many global poker sites is 18, you’ll need to check the user agreement to determine if your state’s laws override international rules. No matter how old you are, be prepared to provide valid identification when signing up or certifying your account.