The short answer is no, gambling is not illegal in the US. However, the country has a long and complicated history with gambling. Specific forms of it have been barred at certain points in the country’s history, while at other times laws around it have been more permissive.
This back-and-forth around the legality of gambling, coupled with the fact that individual states have their own say over whether to allow it, has left a lot of people uncertain about its legality. In this article, we’ll explain what types of gambling are legal in the US and in what states.
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Federal laws around gambling in the US
Generally speaking, gambling is not illegal in the US. That’s because there is no federal law banning gambling throughout the country.
That said, the full story is a lot more complicated. The US does have specific laws, such as the Federal Wire Act of 1961, that prohibit gambling that takes place across state lines. So, placing a bet in a single state might be fine, but placing a bet with a bookie located in the next state over would be considered illegal.
On top of that, sports betting was until recently extremely limited because of the federal Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act passed in 1992. That law didn’t make sports betting illegal, per se, but it prevented states that didn’t already allow sports gambling from legalizing it in the future. The Supreme Court overturned that federal law in 2018, once again allowing states to make their own legislative decisions about whether or not to allow sportsbooks.
Online gambling is also a can of worms. The Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006 makes it illegal to operate an online gambling website anywhere in the US. But, it doesn’t make it illegal for individuals to place wagers on an online gambling website. As a result, there are a number of overseas gambling websites, such as Bovada and BetOnline, that accept wagers from Americans.
Note that online fantasy sports leagues, including daily fantasy sports platforms, are exempt from the 2006 Act.
State laws around gambling in the US
For the most part, the US government leaves it up to states to make their own rules about gambling within their individual boundaries. That means that whether gambling is legal and what forms it can take vary depending on where you are in the US.
Gambling is legal in some form or in some areas in 48 of the 50 states. The only two states that completely ban it are Utah and Hawaii. In Nevada, which is famous as a haven for gambling, it is legal to gamble almost anywhere in the state. Most other states fall somewhere in between, for example only allowing gambling at licensed casinos.
In addition, many states allow some types of gambling but not others. States like New Jersey allow betting on horse races on and off the track, sports betting, and casino games. At the same time, in Washington, horse race bets are allowed, but other types of sports bets are not. Furthermore, casino games are only allowed on Native American tribal lands in Washington.
We've gone into more detail in our dedicated advice guide on the subject of what states have made gambling legal.
It’s also important to note that local jurisdictions have their own say in whether to allow gambling if it’s legal at the state level. Individual cities and counties have the option to ban gambling or to prevent casinos from operating.
The legality of gambling - your quick takeaway
Broadly speaking, gambling is not illegal in the US. There are no longer any federal laws banning gambling, as long as it does not take place across state lines or involve an online betting platform based in the country.
That said, states are free to make their own laws around gambling, and many have enacted some form of restriction. While only Utah and Hawaii ban all forms of gambling outright, it’s important to check your state and local laws to find out what types of gambling are legal and illegal in your area.
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You probably don't need us to tell you that any form of gambling comes with serious risks and should never be undertaken as a silver bullet to solve your financial troubles. It's worth remembering the phrase...the house always wins!
If you suffer from a gambing problem or suspect somebody you know does, then we strongly suggest that you give the National Problem Gambling Hotline a call on 1-800-522-4700 to discuss it with a professional. It’s so important to make gambling safer for yourself and loved ones.
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Michael Graw is a freelance journalist and photographer based in Bellingham, Washington. His interests span a wide range from business technology to finance to creative media, with a focus on new technology and emerging trends. Michael's work has been published in TechRadar, Tom's Guide, Business Insider, Fast Company, Salon, and Harvard Business Review.