Can You Legally Be a Bookie Anywhere?

Map of the World, Guy Wearing Suit Thinking

Thanks to movies and TV shows, bookies are often stereotyped as unsavory mobsters who’ll break your legs for not paying up on a bet. Therefore, you may think that there’s no chance to legally be a bookie anywhere.

Of course, many states differ from each other when it comes to gambling laws. Some are more lenient than others in certain respects.

I’m going to discuss if any states are lenient enough to let you act as an unlicensed bookmaker. I’ll also detail how you can get your own bookmaking operation off the ground pretty much anywhere.

The Term “Bookie” Is Broad

When some people hear the word bookie, they think of an individual or small group accepting sports bets. This vision is often accompanied by thoughts that bookmaking is automatically illegal.

Of course, many states have legalized sports betting in recent years. The sportsbooks operating in these states are essentially bookies.

Therefore, the concept of being a bookie isn’t illegal. This is especially true when an individual or, more likely, corporation gains the proper licensing.

Again, though, many tend to think of bookies as underground figures. In almost every instance, these individuals operate illegally when they don’t acquire a license.

But as I’ll cover in the next section, one state does allow unlicensed bookmakers. The bookies just need to follow the proper parameters.

Florida Allows Unlicensed Bookmaking…With Some Catches

Florida is the one state where you can act as an unregulated bookie. However, the Sunshine State does attach some stipulations to the matter.

If you want to act as a legal Florida bookmaker, you must:

  • Not accept over $500 in bets per day.
  • Not accept over $1,500 in wagers per week.
  • Avoid accepting over five bets per day.
  • Avoid collecting any juice (a.k.a. vig) from the action.
  • Not work with somebody beyond yourself when bookmaking.

As can be seen, FL bookmaking isn’t a profitable venture…at least not legally. The only money you can make is anything that you win from bets against other people.

Nevertheless, you still might find being a Florida bookie to be fun. You’ll especially enjoy it if you want to make no-juice wagers with friends. Florida’s laws on this subject are designed to allow casual betting amongst friends and offices.


You’re allowed to act as a nonprofit bookmaker here. You just need to avoid taking too many bets and fight off the temptation to collect profits.

Like other states, Florida does have stiff penalties for what they deem to be illegal bookmaking. Assuming you cross any of the parameters described before, then you’ll be committing a third-degree felony.

This crime is punishable by up to 5 years in jail and a $5,000 fine. Again, though, you won’t have to worry about this so long as you follow the rules of legal FL bookmaking.

Other Routes to Becoming a Bookmaker

If you’re looking to make profits from being a bookie without going to jail, then you have a few options. Here are the available routes for opening a legal, or at least semi-legal, sports betting operation.

Open a Licensed Sportsbook

The easiest way to stay above board with sports gambling is to launch a licensed sportsbook. Around half the states in the US now feature legal sports betting. Therefore, you won’t have any trouble finding a market.

The difficulty, though, comes in when fronting the costs. You’ll need to go through an extensive application process and pay the necessary fees.

Some states also charge high taxes on revenue. Pennsylvania is among the worst of the worst, with a 36% tax rate.

You’ll need to have millions of dollars, or at least have an investing group, to successfully launch and run a legal sportsbook. Assuming you can handle the financial side, though, you’ll be fully legal and able to accept bets with no problem.

Launch an Offshore Sportsbook

Offshore bookmaking is a slightly cheaper alternative to licensed operations. It involves running an online sportsbook out of a foreign jurisdiction, such as Costa Rica or Antigua.

You will need to gain licensing in the jurisdiction where you operate. However, the application process is less strict and often times cheaper than US-based licenses.

Upon getting approval, you’ll be able to serve whatever countries and territories that your jurisdiction permits. Costa Rica is among the most lenient in this matter because they let operators serve nearly any market.

Offshore sportsbooks don’t gain licensing in the jurisdictions that they serve. They simply cater to markets that haven’t taken a strong stance for or against sports gambling. Therefore, they exist in something of a legal gray area.

Start a Pay Per Head Operation

A Pay Per Head (PPH) service is essentially the same as an offshore sportsbook. The difference, though, is that a PPH operator runs their mobile sportsbook for bookies’ clients.

A bookie with an extensive client list may be looking to serve the customers without as many headaches involved. They can use a PPH site to do exactly this.

The PPH service, meanwhile, sets the odds, provides different markets, and offers various bet types. It also delivers the convenience of online sports betting.

For their part, the bookie extends credit where needed, accepts wagers, pays winnings, and collects losses. They also pay fees to the PPH websites, ranging from $5 to $10 per head.

PPH sites are similar to offshore bookmakers in that they operate in legal gray areas.

The bookies, meanwhile, may be violating the laws in their respective jurisdictions, depending upon where they’re located.

Some Bookies Go the Illegal Route

As can be seen, plenty of legal and semi-legal routes exist for starting a sportsbook. Many bookmakers have turned to these options as a result.

Nevertheless, some bookies still continue operating in illegal fashion. They don’t even bother messing around with the PPH model.

Instead, they use the old style of bookmaking. They find/accept clients, take wagers, pay winnings, and collect losses.

The latter sometimes involves intimidation tactics when bettors don’t/can’t pay up. This is where the whole threatening to break someone’s legs stereotype comes into play. These are exactly the type of bookies that law enforcement goes out of their way to bust.

Of course, non-mobsters can also act as illegal bookmakers. The movie Big Shot: Confessions of a Campus Bookie provides some insight into this world.

What Are the Penalties for Illegal Bookmaking?

The penalties for illegally running a bookmaking operation vary by state. As mentioned before, Florida considers this matter a third-degree felony.


Every other state also classifies illegal sportsbooks as a felony. The only difference is in how severe each jurisdiction treats the crime.

Generally, those who are successfully prosecuted for bookmaking will pay thousands of dollars in fines. They’ll likely go to jail for anywhere from a few months to a few years.

Is It Worth Becoming a Bookie?

I certainly don’t recommend acting as an illegal betting operator. The penalties just aren’t worth the crime, especially when considering that bookmaking is more competitive than ever today.

However, you might consider one of the other routes discussed here.

An offshore sportsbook is the cheapest way to get started if you’re serious about having a big operation.

Costa Rica, for example, doesn’t even require you to get a specific betting license. Instead, you just need to have a business license to operate.

The downside, though, is that you’ll only be legal in your home jurisdiction. As the offshore aspect indicates, you’ll be operating out of a foreign country without getting licensing from the jurisdictions you serve.

Bookies who use PPH services may be violating laws in their respective jurisdictions. After all, they are recruiting gamblers to bet under them at offshore sites.

As for Florida, you can run a small nonprofit bookmaking operation here. Of course, the only reason you would do this is for entertainment purposes. You may consider it when looking to start a small sports betting ring with friends.


Despite what Hollywood has portrayed, bookmaking isn’t always seedy and illegal. It can be perfectly law-abiding under the right circumstances.

You can set up licensed sportsbooks where permitted. Regulated betting is becoming more common across the US. Of course, you’ll need a lot of funds to get this venture started.

You could always simply invest in a corporation that has a sportsbook as an alternative. Many prominent sports betting companies are listed on one or more stock exchanges.

Assuming you want to be a solo bookie, you can live in Florida and accept bets. The only drawback, though, is that you can’t legally take any juice from these wagers.

Jim Beviglia
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About Jim Beviglia
Jim Beviglia has been a gambling writer at since 2018. During that time, he’s written just about every type of article related to gambling, including reviews of betting sites, guides to popular casino games, betting tips on both casino and sports betting, sports and casino blog posts, and game picks. In addition to online gambling, one of Jim’s other major interests is music. He has been doing freelance work for various music sites and magazines for two decades. Among his outlets past and present are American Songwriter, VinylMePlease, Treble, and The Bluegrass Situation. Jim has also written five books on music that were published by Rowman & Littlefield.