Gambling, though widespread in the United States, is subject to legislation at both the state and federal level that bans it from certain areas, limits the means and types of gambling, and regulates the activity in countless other ways.
A standard strategy for avoiding laws that prohibit, constrain, or aggressively tax gambling is to locate the activity just outside the jurisdiction that enforces them in a more “gambling friendly” legal environment. Gambling establishments are often found near state borders and on ships that cruise outside territorial waters. They have exploded, in recent years, in Indian territory. Internet-based gambling takes this strategy and extends it to a totally new level of penetration, for it threatens to bring gambling directly into homes and businesses in localities where the same activity could not be conducted by a physical gambling establishment.
15 U.S.C. §3001(1), states that
the states should have the primary responsibility for determining what forms of gambling may legally take place within their borders.
15 U.S.C. §3001(2), adds that
the Federal Government should prevent interference by one State with the gambling policies of another, and should act to protect identifiable national interests.
Congress has used the Commerce Clause in order to regulate interstate gambling, international gambling and relations between the United States and Native American territories. They have passed amendments to federal law making it illegal to sell one state’s lottery tickets in another state, outlawing sports betting with only certain exceptions (Las Vegas being one) and have regulated the extent to which casinos may exist on Native American land.
The federal government has given each state the ability to decide what kind of gambling it allows within its borders, where the gambling can be located and who may gamble. Each state has created different laws pertaining to these topics. The laws have been compiled here.
Each state has defined the legal gambling age differently, with some states giving the same age to all types of gambling, while others have different age limits on different activities. For example: in New Jersey, an 18-year-old can buy a lottery ticket or bet on a horse race, but cannot enter a casino until age 21.
Online Gambling in the USA
The popularity explosion and information revolution fueling the Internet and World Wide Web in the mid-1990’s created both brand-new industries and reinvented old ones. Secure transmission technologies and the credit card combined to fashion a powerful lure for the online consumer. Internet transactions for goods and services, once considered risky propositions, are now commonplace, as seen in the success of Amazon.com and eBay. The very same factors that have led to growth in online consumer transactions, combined with the unregulated nature of the Internet, have attracted commercial online gambling.
Online gambling appears to represent a complete end-run around both government control and prohibition. A site operator need only establish itself in a friendly offshore jurisdiction, such as the Bahamas, and begin taking bets. Anyone with access to a web browser can find the site and place wagers by credit card. Confronted with this blatant challenge to local policies, regulators and lawmakers have explored the applicability of current law and the desirability of new regulation to online gambling. The issues include whether a person, located in a state that prohibits commercial gambling and accessing an offshore Internet site from a home-computer, violates either state or Federal law and further whether the site operator is as well.
Since current Federal gambling law (18 U.S.C. §1084) focuses on wire transmissions, its application to the Internet is far from explicit. Legislation has been proposed to address the problem, but it hasn’t yet passed. Until it does, an uncertain mix of Federal and state law must cope with these issues’ complexities.
According to §1084(a), anyone in the “business of betting or wagering” is at risk of fine and imprisonment under this statute. Enacted under Congress’s power to regulate interstate commerce, the statute prohibits knowingly using a wire communications facility to transmit interstate or foreign bets and wagers. Transmitting information assisting in betting and wagering as well as transmitting the proceeds of bets and wagers to the winners also falls within the statute’s ban.
The key term “wire communications facility” is cross-referenced in §1081. “The term ‘wire communication facility’ means any and all instrumentalities, personnel, and services (among other things, the receipt, forwarding, or delivery of communications) used or useful in the transmission of writings, signs, pictures, and sounds of all kinds by aid of wire, cable, or other like connection between the points of origin and reception of such transmission.” This definition appears to embrace the nation’s entire telecommunication’s infrastructure, and therefore, render online gambling illegal so long as the transmission travels interstate. §1084(a) requires proof of the content of the transmission which may present problems in the case of transactions conducted using encrypted transmissions.
In any case, legislation has been offered to correct any deficiencies in the Federal law. The Internet Gambling Prohibition Act of 1997 would have added a “§1085 Internet Gambling” to Title 18, and criminalize any betting or wagering in any State via the Internet. The Act failed in Congress, due to lawmakers’ fears of the law being extremely difficult to enforce like Prohibition was in the 1920s.
§1084(b) states that “Nothing in this section shall be construed to prevent the transmission of information assisting in the placing of bets or wagers on a sporting event or contest from a State or foreign country where betting on that sporting event or contest is legal into a State or foreign country in which such betting is legal.”
As stated earlier, Congress has given the individual States the power to regulate gambling within their own borders. Since the Federal statute focuses on interstate commerce, gambling is permitted as long as the activity remains within the state. Congress emphasizes the State’s power in §1084(c)–“Nothing contained in this section shall create immunity from criminal prosecution under any laws of any State.” Since States are free to regulate within their borders, they are free to regulate online gambling.
For instance, the State of New York investigates and prosecutes online gambling companies for promotion of gambling activities under Article 225. Currently, such prosecutions are limited to companies physically located within the state’s borders. State prosecution of online gambling providers located out of the state, but accessed by state residents may be possible, given Missouri’s efforts to prosecute the Coeur D’Alene Tribe of Idaho. The Coeur D’Alene operated an Internet lottery service accessible from Missouri residents’ home computers. The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act governs gambling activity on Indian reservations, but the extent to which it preempts state action in the Internet arena is uncertain.
The House of Representatives recently passed HR 2143, the Unlawful Internet Gambling Funding Prohibition Act, which would make it illegal to use any kind of bank instrument (credit cards, wire transfers, etc.) to fund internet gambling activities. Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona has pushed a similar bill in the Senate, S 627, which has yet to come to a vote. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has sent a letter to members of the Senate urging them to oppose the bill in the wake of a ruling by the World Trade Organization that a restriction on internet gambling would be an illegal trade barrier. Another bill is circulating in the House that would create a gambling licensing and regulation commission.
At this point, no new restrictions have been placed on internet gambling, but they may be on the horizon. Until then, the internet gambling industry will continue to grow, as it has for the past decade.
In regards to your right to pursue whatever it is that you want without the government telling you what to do, one gray area would be gambling. To those not fully aware, gambling is considered illegal in most parts of America except in Las Vegas, Nevada and in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Anyone caught participating in any gambling-related transactions outside of these jurisdictions will be penalized accordingly.
Yes, gambling is not permitted by US laws, but does that deter people from getting involved in millions of gambling transactions each day? The answer is a big NO. Back in the day, people who have the love for gambling discovered a way to gamble and play their favorite casino games even without leaving the comforts of their homes. Enter the advent of online gambling–where people from all walks of life can play casino games online as long they have a means to deposit payments into their online accounts (a debit or credit card), a working computer, and a decent internet connection. Business was booming; everyone was happy, except for maybe the federal government, who came up with ways to curb the increase in the number of US-based residents who are participating in online gambling activities.
Then, in 2006, the US government signed the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA) and made it illegal for banks and other financial institutions to support the processing of payments associated with online gambling. This move effectively cut the financial connections between regular players, especially those who are US-based, and the online gambling world. This resulted in a lot of online gambling sites pulling out of the US and transferring their businesses offshore to places where gambling laws are a lot less stringent.
As of this writing, a lot of things have changed in the US gambling laws. What was once considered illegal on a federal level is now being made “legal” by certain US States, provided that casino operators, and in some cases online gambling operators, apply for the necessary permits and licenses within the jurisdiction in which they wish to operate. If gambling was only allowed at Vegas and Atlantic City before, now states like Delaware, California, and Pennsylvania are also coming around, with more and more US states following suit.
When it comes to gambling, be it at a land-based casino or via online, it helps to know the gambling laws of the US state you are in because they all have different stances when it comes to the issue. What may be considered legal in one state may not be necessarily legal in another, so it pays to know more about these things lest you want to wake up one day being charged with illegal gambling with no easy way out.
Exploring More of the US Gambling Scene and the Current Gambling Laws
In the United States, gambling is restricted almost everywhere, except in Las Vegas and in Atlantic City, New Jersey. If you do not know this and unwittingly participated in a gambling scheme that turned out to be illegal, you can still be charged with a gambling crime and may be slapped with significant penalties that may result to some serious repercussions. In these kinds of scenarios, knowing your rights and the gambling laws of your state can spell the difference between a safe trip home and a one-way ticket to prison.
The laws related to gambling are not only important for those involved in the industry operating such games like poker, bingo, and other casino-type games, but also for all those regular Joes who want to know whether he or she can start a fantasy football league, a card group, or an NCAA tournament betting pool at the workplace.
During the past decades, gambling used to be illegal almost in every part of the continental US, again, except for Nevada and New Jersey. However, as time flew by, more and more states have made various types of gambling legal, ranging from Indian casinos, bingo and poker rooms, off-track horse race betting, and more. While some states have approved certain types of gambling, there are other types that have remained “illegal”, so to speak, like online gambling. In fact, almost all states have laws that ban at least some form of gambling.
The words “gamble” or “gambling” are used generally to discuss an activity that may go against applicable criminal laws. Hence the word “gaming” is usually being used for those instances where the activity has already been legalized by applicable laws or where it is exempted from criminal law prosecution. Thus, if you happen to play a casino-style game at a for-profit website in the United States, then you are considered “gambling”– because no state has yet to finalize a gambling law that grants authority to for-profit website operators to offer any casino games to their visitors.
Online gambling has been more stringently regulated by the US government. Some of the laws that encompass online gambling include the Federal Act Wire of 1961 and UIGEA (Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act) of 2006. The former outlaws interstate wagering on sports but fails to address the other forms of gambling. The latter did not specifically ban online gaming, however it disallowed US-based payment processors from participating in any financial transactions involving online gaming services. These rigid regulations made most online gaming operators decide to move their businesses offshore where they can be left untouched by US federal laws.
Gambling may be defined in a multitude of ways but will always require wagers or bets on outcomes that are at least partially based on chance, and done so in the hopes of winning something. Illegal gambling is gambling of any type that is specifically prohibited by the laws of the state.
While on most occasions gambling may involve monetary bets, the courts have ruled that gambling can still occur whenever anything of value is put up as a bet. The amount of bet does not matter. As long as something of worth is at stake, then that activity is considered gambling.
Games of Chance vs. Games of Skill
State gambling laws prohibit games, wagers, or bets that have outcomes that rely at least partially to some element of chance. However, if a competition or game rewards prizes to winners based on skill, such as shooting competitions or car racing, then it is not considered gambling. (Some other restrictions in the law may still apply in order for these activities to be considered legal).
How you differentiate a game of chance from a game of skill depends on which of the two elements have the biggest impact on the game’s outcome. If chance is the bigger factor, then it will be referred to as a game of chance and wagering on games like these will be considered gambling.
And even though some forms of gambling now are considered legal in most states, it is still highly regulated. Therefore, those private betting clubs, though already in wide proliferation, are often still deemed illegal. For example betting pools, small-time poker clubs, and fantasy football leagues are likely to be seen as technically illegal in a lot of jurisdictions, though enforcement is rather difficult and a bit lax. Some of these small ventures though will go against gambling laws such as the UIGEA should they decide to take their business online, normally because the operators either fail to recognize what constitutes illegal gambling or because they are simply not aware of the legal restrictions when it comes to online gambling.
Some Interesting Facts About US Gambling Laws
- The Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (2006)
This Act does not make it illegal for players to make wagers or bets. However, this applies to the financial or credit institutions that process monetary transactions for gambling purposes. “Bets” as defined on Section 5262 of this act constitutes:
- The staking of property in order to gain or win something of value based on the outcome of a competition, a sporting event, tournaments or any games of chance.
- The purchase of lottery tickets for a chance to win prizes which is mostly subject to chance
The Internet Gambling Regulation, Consumer Protection and Enforcement Act (2009)
This is a bill that provides licensing to certain forms of internet gambling provided that operators pass the necessary state requirements. Licenses will be issued for a five-year period and exempts payment processors from liabilities for processing monetary transactions for such gambling activities. Sports betting is still prohibited under this bill, taking the Wire Wager Act into consideration. The use of cheating devices to rig the outcomes of games is also strictly prohibited to ensure fairness in operations.
- Games of Skills versus Chance. There is a lot of ongoing debate whether playing online poker and fantasy sports leagues can be considered gambling and illegal. Arguments are based on whether skill or chance predominate each contest. For example, Fantasy Sports League contests require a certain skill set in order to assess players, and strategy to be able to properly make drafts and trades. Nonetheless, a significant amount of chance is also present. A participant can draft or trade the most talented of players but the offhand chance that a particular player may get injured will throw away his opportunity to win the league. Also, because the operators of such fantasy sports leagues are yet to be formally prosecuted under the existing anti-gambling laws in place, then the legality of fantasy sports betting is yet to be resolved.
It may seem that the United States has been very slow when it comes to reacting to online gambling. In fact, when online gambling sites started appearing in the early ‘90s, there were not even any legal guidelines set in place to regulate the operations of these sites, even though their services are easily accessed by US–based players.
This, however, changed in the year 2006, when then-US President George Bush signed the Safe Ports Act – a law that had a section that made it illegal for US banking institutions to allow their customers to send money to gambling sites offshore.
The fact is, before 2006, any US resident could quite easily gamble online by using any of their US issued debit or credits cards to fund their accounts. Then again, when the aforementioned law took effect on that year, all US banking institutions were legally required to block all these types of payments, making it extremely difficult for US-based players to fund their online gaming bankroll.
As the years have gone by, many US States have started to look at online gambling sites, and several of them have placed their own robust sets of regulations that will allow gambling sites located in certain US states to operate legally after applying for and being granted a gambling license, but only within state boundaries.
There are still a lot of websites offering casino-type games that are located offshore that accommodate US-based players, though. However, sending and requesting money from those sites might take some time and in doing such, players are encouraged to exercise extra vigilance in checking where the gambling site of their choosing is licensed and regulated before they start playing, because they will have very little protection should they encounter any kind of issues or problems with an unlicensed and offshore gambling website.
Understand the Gambling Laws in Your State
Click on a state below to learn that state’s gambling laws.
Online Gambling in the United States: Frequently Asked Questions
1. Are these US online casino and/or poker sites offering fair play?
This is perhaps the most important question anyone who wants to dabble in online gambling may have in mind. Over the years, there have been some sites that have been exposed as offering rigged outcomes, and this is the very reason why you need to take caution when playing in unregulated offshore online gaming sites and stick only with legal and US-based gambling sites as much as possible.
2. Is there a way to tell if a gambling site is legal or not?
One way to ascertain the legality of a site is to look for the logo of the licensing authority that issued the site its license to start its gambling operations. If it is licensed in any US state, then you will find it listed on the gaming board’s website.
3. Can a player still gain or earn comps while playing online?
The short answer is yes. However, you might find that player rewards from an online setting are a lot higher than what is being offered at most land-based casinos.
4. What types of games can players gamble on online?
Online gaming sites offer a slew of game categories like slots, poker, and bingo games, much like any other traditional casinos. In fact, most online casinos offer way better options when it comes to their game offerings.
5. Are there mobile gambling sites that are available to US residents?
Yes, as long as you are within the state boundaries of any of the states that have legalized gambling. In that case, you would not have any problems accessing those websites for mobile gambling on your phone. Just be aware though that most online gambling sites have geolocation tracking software to determine whether you’re trying to access their sites via an IP that’s outside the state. If you are, then you won’t be able to view and enjoy their games.
6. Is there a need to declare one’s winnings from gambling?
Yes, all winnings from an online casino should be declared just like what you’ll do with your winnings from a land-based casino. For taxation purposes, you’ll have, of course, access to your gaming history and win-loss ratios granted that you’ve played at a licensed US-based gambling site.
7. Is there a way to determine if online gambling sites conduct their games in a fair manner?
If you will be playing at US State licensed online sites, it is guaranteed that the games are random and checked thoroughly to ensure fairness.
8. My card keeps getting declined when I use it to deposit payments to gambling sites. Why is that happening?
A lot of US banking institutions have since put a block on card transactions that are made to fund gambling accounts online. Whilst most of the banks have now lifted those restrictions following the legalization of gambling at many US States, you are still better off contacting your bank representative should you encounter a block on your account to see if it can be lifted.
9. Can I use US Dollars as currency when I gamble online?
When playing with state-licensed gambling sites, you will always be asked to deposit payments in US dollars. However, should you decide to play at an offshore gambling site, you may be presented an option to deposit or play with a different currency, in which case you may be subject to a range of currency exchange fees and other charges.
10. How old should one be before being able to participate in online gambling?
One should be over 21 years of age before being permitted to gamble online. The gambling laws in US states are pretty rigid when it comes to the ages of its players. While casino gambling is only allowable to people over 21 years old, there are some states, New Jersey for example, that allow 18-year-olds to legally buy lottery tickets but not gamble at actual casinos.
11. Are there online poker sites offshore that allow entry to US-based players?
Certainly, but you need to exercise a lot of caution when doing so. Do a lot of research to find reputable sites that are licensed by the fair gaming commissions from their country of origin.
12. Will I face any legal consequences if I am caught gambling online in the US?
With each state having a set of laws that cover gambling, this is the kind of question that has no real or concrete answers. The shortest reply is that most states do not have specific penalties that can address the act of playing poker online. Most laws are created to penalize the operators of the games and not the players themselves. Furthermore, the gambling laws in the US were created prior to the invention of the Internet, which means that the laws regarding online activities are not completely settled just yet.
- U.S. Code: Title 15, Chapter 24: Transportation of Gambling Devices
- U.S. Code: Title 15, Chapter 57: Interstate Horseracing
- U.S. Code: Title 18, Chapter 50: Gambling
- U.S. Code: Title 18, Chapter 61: Lotteries
- 18 U.S.C. §1953 (Interstate Transportation of Wagering Paraphernalia Act)
- 18 U.S.C. §1955 (Illegal Gambling Business Act of 1970)
- 25 U.S.C. §§2701-2721 (Indian Gaming Regulatory Act)
- U.S. Code: Title 28, Chapter 178: Professional and Amateur Sports Protection
- Code of Federal Regulations: Title 25, Chapter 3: National Indian Gaming Commission, Department of the Interior
- Proposed Internet Gambling Prohibition Act of 1997 (not passed)
Federal Judicial Decisions
- Greater New Orleans Broadcasting Association, Inc. v. United States, 527 U.S. 173 (1999)
- Ratzlaf v. United States, 510 U.S. 135 (1994)
- Chickasaw Nation v. United States, 534 U.S. 84 (1999)
- AT&T Corporation v. Coeur d’Alene Tribe, 295 F.3d 899 (9th Cir. 2002)
- Joel Michael Schwarz, The Internet Gambling Fallacy Craps Out, 14 Berkeley Tech. L.J. 1021 (1999).
- “14 Charged in Internet Betting” (Washington Post, March 5, 1998)
- State Gambling Laws
- Website of Gambling Law Expert I. Nelson Rose
- General Accounting Office’s Overview of Internet Gambling Issues