How Are Poker Sites Regulated and Licensed Around the World?
When it comes to playing poker today, especially online, the question of whether you are playing legally will depend on your location. As you move from continent to continent, country to country or even from state to state - you will find conflicting rules regarding what constitutes a ‘legal’ game of online poker.
In this guide, you’ll find background on the different legal situations regarding poker around the world, along with how licensing works in each of the jurisdictions. The guide starts by detailing the current laws in the US, adding some background by pointing to laws that have shaped the regulatory landscape surrounding poker.
You will then find detailed of licenses and legal situations across many other major nations. These include the main regulated European markets, plus the jurisdictions which license sites globally.
Historical Rulings and Events that have Shaped Legal US Poker
With the exception of 3 states which license their own poker rooms, US real money poker is played at offshore sites. These are licensed in jurisdictions where online gambling is legal. In order to understand how this situation came about – some of the laws shaping this legal landscape are covered first. After these, you will find information on the offshore licensing jurisdictions.
The Wire Act - While 1961 was more than half a century ago, the ‘Wire Act’ ruling is still having repercussions today. The ruling states:
‘Whoever being engaged in the business of betting or wagering knowingly uses a wire communication facility for the transmission in interstate or foreign commerce of bets or wagers or information assisting in the placing of bets or wagers on any sporting event or contest, or for the transmission of a wire communication which entitles the recipient to receive money or credit as a result of bets or wagers, or for information assisting in the placing of bets or wagers, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than two years, or both’.
This ruling was introduced and signed by US Attorney General, Robert F. Kennedy as an attempt to curb the mob’s wide ranging illegal gambling network. However, in 2002, anti-gambling opportunists seized on the ruling and contended that the law applied to online gambling too. This was confirmed when the Department of Justice contacted the Nevada Gaming Board in 2002. Despite the ruling, the game would thrive in the next few years, especially after online qualifier Chris Moneymaker, won the World Series of Poker main event after qualifying for the event online at PokerStars.
It was not until 2011 that a ruling (by the attorney general in New York) clarified that the Wire Act only applied to sports betting. With poker and casino gaming excluded, the path was opened for state regulated poker sites.
The Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act - In 2006, the passing of the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA) was a major blow to online poker players in the US. This bill was introduced by conservative members of the government as an attempt to curb online gambling in general and was tacked onto the ‘Safe Ports Act’ (a defense bill) to ensure that the ruling would pass.
Although this bill didn’t question the legality of gambling online (including of course poker), this ruling would prohibit the movement of money from banks to and from gambling sites. This law put the onus on both the websites and financial institutions, making them both liable for prosecution if continuing to trade in the US. The act did not cover individual players or make it illegal for an individual to enjoy real money online poker games.
The UGIEA had an immediate effect, as many financial institutions did stop any gambling related transactions – sites such as Neteller pulled out immediately, this eWallet was popular at the time for poker players in the US. Many of the big-name poker sites pulled out too, the most notable of which was Party Poker, who were the world’s number one site before leaving the US market.
Despite the ruling, a number of large sites continued to trade within the US, including PokerStars and Full Tilt. These sites would grow to assume the number one and two ranking in online poker traffic worldwide post 2006.
Black Friday in 2011 - The status quo would continue until April 15th, 2011, when poker players in the US were met by a nasty surprise. Players visiting the dot-com sites of both PokerStars and Full Tilt would see a screen showing a ‘seizure notice’ with seals from both the FBI and Department of Justice. By the end of the day, both sites had blocked all their US based players from playing, while announcing that it would be business as usual for players from outside of the US. At the time both Absolute Poker and Ultimate Bet would continue to trade in the US, although this was short lived as just a month later, their parent company announced that they would be filing for bankruptcy.
As well as allegedly violating the current gambling laws in the US, there were also accusations of money laundering and bank fraud and eleven individuals were charged in the indictment. Players at PokerStars would be able to cash out just a few days after the ruling, while players at Full Tilt would face a long wait of up to three years to receive their balances. Sadly, players at both Ultimate Bet and Absolute Poker would never see their funds.
Although 2011 was a bad year for poker in the US, there was a glimmer of light, when the Department of Justice clarified its position regarding the Wire Act and poker. The ruling below made it clear that poker, not being a sporting event, was in the clear:
“… interstate transmissions of wire communications that do not relate to a ‘sporting event or contest’ fall outside the reach of the Wire Act.”
Licensing Jurisdictions for US Poker Today – The 3 Regulated States
Fast forward to today and there has been some progress in regard to online poker. The game can be played online in 3 states at regulated state-licensed poker rooms.
Delaware became the first state to legalize online gambling on June 8th, 2012 and by November 2013, real money gambling was live. There are three sites which offer legal online poker in the state of Delaware, each linked to one of the three racetracks in the state (Delaware Park, Dover Downs and Harrington Raceway). These sites are run by 888 Poker and use the same player pool, meaning increased liquidity at the tables, although players in Delaware did suffer due to the overall lack of traffic. This would soon change.
Nevada legalized online poker in February of 2013 and would soon be offering real money games, first from Ultimate Poker and then WSOP.com who would quickly corner the market. The following year would see a deal between Nevada and Delaware to share their respective player pools. This deal especially helped the players from Delaware who would see a 20x increase in traffic levels. Notably, this deal would also lay the framework for further cooperation between states (a co-operation which might not have been possible before the clarification regarding the Wire Act in 2011 from the Department of Justice).
New Jersey became the third state to introduce legal online poker after a ruling in February of 2013. WSOP.com, Party Poker and 888 all entered the marketplace, but the reintroduction of PokerStars into the US saw them become the dominant site in this state.
Licensing Jurisdictions for Offshore US Friendly Poker Sites
While residents of Delaware, Nevada and New Jersey can happily play poker online, players from outside of these three states might assume that they have no avenue for online poker. However, this is not strictly true, as a number of offshore sites are more than happy to accept players from the US.
The legality of playing at these sites is something of a grey area. While the ‘Wire Act’ no longer applies to poker, the UIGEA ruling still stands. As stated earlier, this ruling is aimed at both the gambling sites and the financial institutions - nowhere does it mention the individual players, and it is a fact that no individual from within the US has ever been charged or prosecuted for playing online poker.
It could be assumed therefore, that players are free to play at these offshore sites, however, there is another factor to bear in mind. Individual states each have their own rules regarding gambling,
The Offshore Licensing Jurisdictions
Most of the nation states licensing poker sites offshore are based in the Caribbean or Central America. These countries claim their right to allow gambling under international free trade agreements (though the World Trade Organization).
Here are the biggest licensing bodies:
- Curacao: Formerly known as the Netherlands Antilles, this licensing body welcomes many of the bigger offshore casino and poker brands.
- Antigua: This island nation filed a dispute with the US via the World Trade Organization, threatening retaliation (via relaxing copyright laws). This dispute is still ongoing.
- Panama: This central American nation licenses BetOnline, a huge sportsbook which now has a leading US poker room on the Chico Network.
- Kahnawake: This is not a Caribbean island, instead it is a tribal reservation based inside Canada, the Morris Mohawk tribe there have shaped a lot of the poker (and gambling in general) landscape in the years since 2006.
Poker Licensing Jurisdictions Around the World
When you look at the situation for Gaming licenses outside of the US, things get complex very quickly. There are jurisdictions like Malta and Gibraltar, which offer licenses for global gaming (though not to sites welcoming US players). There are individual country licensing bodies too. Some of these oversee ring-fenced player pools (France, Spain), while others allow players to join the giant global sites (UK, Denmark). Still other countries ban online gambling, including poker, completely – though their enforcement efforts vary in quality.
The section below covers the bigger countries and those with notable licensing rules. Below this countries list you will find information on the jurisdictions awarding global licenses.
Online Poker Licenses in the United Kingdom - While online poker has always been legal for players in the UK, the companies and websites offering the games have seen legal changes in recent years. In 2005, ‘The Gambling act’ was introduced, which gave power to the ‘Gambling Commission’ to issue licenses to approved online poker sites (as well as casinos and other gambling sites). For a site to be awarded a license, they have to meet a series of standard requirements, ensuring that playing at one of these sites ensures a safe and secure environment.
Until 2014, these laws only applied to sites based in the UK, but now any sites based overseas also have to hold the same license, which has seen a reduction in choice for players, as some sites chose not to pursue a license. Online poker can be played legally by anyone over the age of 18 in the UK.
Online Poker Licenses in France - Up until 2010, poker players in France had been playing online for many years, but the introduction of the French Gambling Act changed the scene completely. No longer were French citizens able to play online outside of France and play within the country saw players with two distinct disadvantages. First, the government tax the gambling sites highly, meaning this is passed onto players in the form of higher rake levels than you would usually find elsewhere. Second, the traffic levels at sites within France are much smaller than at the international sites, making games (especially at higher stakes) harder to come by. Much like in the US, many players within France still play at sites outside of the country, although sites such as PokerStars.fr are popular.
Online Poker Licenses in Germany - There was no regulation regarding online gambling at all until 2008, when the Interstate Treaty on Gambling (ISTG) was signed. This treaty effectively banned all forms of online gambling across the 16 states of Germany and apart from a short lived opt-out from Schlesswig-Holstein in 2012, this ban has remained intact.
This means that players from Germany have to resort to sites outside of the country. Much like in the US, the legality of playing at an offshore site is legally ambiguous, though there seems to be no appetite from the authorities to enforcing a ban. As such, online poker and gambling in general is very popular in Germany.
Online Poker Licenses in Spain - In many ways, the regulations concerning online poker mirror the rules in France. The only main difference between the laws is the fact that regulated sites within Spain only pay a percentage of their profits as tax, rather than part of the ‘rake’. This is more player-friendly than the French system, where the taxation is based upon turnover. Spain has strict penalties for international poker sites allowing residents of the country to play, although as a deterrent, this hasn’t been a success. It is estimated that nearly half of Spain’s online poker players play at sites from outside of the country.
Online Poker Licenses in Italy - The Finance Act of 2007 legalized online poker and other games of skill, although there were regulations put in place. Poker itself was subject to the fact that only tournament play should be allowed, something that didn’t go down well with the Italian players. This changed in 2011 and today players can enjoy both cash and tournament poker. Today PokerStars’ Italian site is one of the most popular sites online and sites in the country have been relatively successful.
Licensing and Regulation in Smaller European Countries
Many smaller European jurisdictions have bought in their own licensing systems. Some are in the process of fine-tuning the implementation of these. Denmark, the Netherlands and Belgium are 3 recent examples. These countries control advertising via licensing, and allow players at licensed sites to join the bigger international player pools. Other countries in central and eastern Europe have attempted to ban online poker – with varying degrees of success.
Australia: New Regulations - The laws regarding online poker in Australia have changed dramatically in recent months. A law dating back to 2001 had attempted to prohibit internet gambling, but this ruling had no effect on poker players at all. A study in 2015 surrounding illegal online gambling recommended that ‘loopholes’ allowing Australians to play online poker be closed. The Interactive Gambling Amendment Bill of 2016 stated that online companies can’t offer poker to Australians unless regulated, but there is no process for gaining that regulation, and this bill was approved in early 2017.
Online Poker Regulations in Canada - Canada does not have any specific licensing for poker sites. The law here allows individuals to enjoy the real money poker games at globally licensed sites. The stipulation being that those sites must not be physically located within Canada.
Licensing Bodies for Global Poker Sites
In addition to the many individual country licenses, legitimate poker sites have global operating licenses. The best regarded of these are supplied by island states and dependencies around Europe.
Seeing a site with a license from one of the jurisdictions below is a good sign that this is a reputable operator.
- Gibraltar: This UK dependency has been a licensing jurisdiction for gambling sites for many years. In addition to licensing, many big operators have headquarters there. Examples of sites with Gibraltar licenses include 888 and Bwin.Party.
- Isle of Man: This offshore tax haven between the UK and Ireland is home to some of the biggest names in online poker. These include PokerStars and Paddy Power.
- Malta: Better known for casino licensing, Malta has a long list of brands under its jurisdiction. Notably sports and spread betting operators are not licensed here.
- Alderney / Jersey: Two more jurisdictions that offer licenses, though are not as popular or prominent as the others these days.
Gaming Licenses and Jurisdictions – Overview
The rules surrounding online poker and gambling online in general seem to be in a constant state of flux. While many governments around the world seemed to react to online gaming long after the horse had already bolted, many laws have now been introduced to ensure that if gambling is allowed, the states/countries want a financial piece of the pie. In many countries, the laws can be confusing, especially when concerning the legality of playing at a site from outside of the country. While this confusion is in place, the numbers seem to point to the fact that players do enjoy the opportunity of playing poker at both offshore and international sites.
Looking ahead to the future, there are sure to be further law changes, especially when consider the number of rulings that have been introduced or amended in the last ten years. Let’s hope online poker will continue to be accessible to all.
Check out our poker sites page for information on the best legal poker rooms for your location, device and game preferences.