When it comes to the gambling laws in the United States, things have always been a bit confusing. Historically, there have been some federal laws on the books that grant exemptions to individual states, Indian reservations with rules of their own, and a confusing set of online gaming regulations that leave players in a bit of a gray area. Furthermore, after a 2018 Supreme Court ruling, sports gambling has become a state’s rights issue, meaning we’re now dealing with fifty distinct gambling jurisdictions across the country.
In recent years, gamblers were able to access offshore casinos and sportsbooks without much concern, legally. While there are federal laws in place banning banks from processing betting transactions and rules against operating an online operation within the borders, there wasn’t anything criminalizing wagering done by the individual. The existing laws only made things a bit less convenient and gave us fewer consumer protections.
In many ways, this is still the case. However, things appear to be headed in the right direction, at least with regards to sports gambling. In the meantime, we want to paint a clearer picture for our readers so that they know exactly what laws are currently in place. We’ll give you the overview of gambling in the USA here, and then provide links to dedicated sections for each individual state. There you can find which specific betting activities (land-based casinos, track betting, sports gambling, online wagering, poker games, etc.) are allowed in each jurisdiction, what laws are currently enforced, and what you can look forward to in the near future on a state-by-state basis.
Gambling in the United States is currently in an exciting transitional period. If you want to stay up to date on what you can do and where, you’ve come to the right place! But first, let’s look at what the federal government has to say about this before you look up a particular state.
Overview of US Gambling Laws
Because gambling laws in the United States can be such a complicated and confusing topic, we’ve worked diligently to organize all of the relevant information into an easily digestible format for our readers. At LegitGamblingSites.com, we score each jurisdiction based on the stringency of their gambling laws. We then provide an easy-to-read scale to simplify the information as much as possible.
While the US is realistically fifty different jurisdictions, we can also judge the country as a whole since there are several federal betting laws that are relevant to this day. Compared to countries like England, numerous island nations in the Caribbean, multiple South American countries, and Australia and New Zealand, a good portion of the United States is far behind when it comes to gambling. However, the lack of severe punishments and the ability for individual states and tribal reservations to still provide betting options stops the US from scoring too poorly on our strictness scale.
Furthermore, the forecast for betting in the states is looking very positive. While a vast swathe of the country will still be forced to seek out offshore betting options for the time being, a movement seems to be starting to legalize more gambling activities in many states. With the federal ban on sports gambling being overturned, it’s only a matter of time before sportsbooks are a fixture in most cities, and once that tax money begins pouring in, other forms of gaming will be following close behind.
Legislative Restrictions on Online Gambling
Online gambling, in particular, exists in kind of a gray area in the states. The existing federal laws prohibit operating an online casino or sportsbook from within the states, and it’s against the law for banking institutions to process transactions between US citizens and known gambling operations, but there’s very little explicitly said about individual bettors.
Even the Federal Wire Act of 1961, which technically makes placing bets over a wire or the internet a crime, only applies to making sports bets, not other forms of gambling. So, while there are some laws in place, a United States citizen engaging in offshore sports betting or playing in online casinos has almost nothing to worry about from a legal standpoint. Here are some of the most relevant federal laws dealing with online gambling:
- Federal Wire Act of 1961 – This bill was enacted by Robert F. Kennedy in an effort to stop the transmission of bets across state lines, with the intention of shutting down organized crime operations. Bookies tied to the mob were taking bets from across the country and placing them in Vegas. This bill made transmitting sports bets over a wire, and later the internet, illegal, but it was not extended to include casino games and other forms of wagering.
- Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act – This bit of legislation prohibits gambling operators from accepting money from residents in locations in which gambling is illegal under state or federal law. However, the offshore gambling websites do not fall under the US legal jurisdiction, making it ultimately useless these days.
- Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992 – This law made sports gambling illegal for all but four states, who were grandfathered in. After New Jersey attempted to legalize sports betting, they were sued by the NCAA, NBA, NHL, NFL, and MLB in an effort to prevent the law from being applied. After a six-year court battle full of numerous appeals, in 2018 the Supreme Court decided that it was unconstitutional to prohibit this activity at the federal level since it’s a state’s rights issue. PASPA was overturned, and now each state gets to decide sports gambling’s legal status and how to regulate the industry within their borders.
US Federal Gambling Laws
Despite gambling primarily being treated mostly as a state’s rights issue, there’s still a lengthy history of federal oversight concerning the practice. The majority of the applicable laws were signed in an effort to weaken organized crime syndicates in a time before the internet, and online gambling was even a consideration. Since gaming was a significant source of income for the mafia, these laws were utilized to catch and convict mobsters, notably the RICO Act of 1970.
Now the US is dealing with a changing world and a web of ultimately toothless gambling laws which only partially cover various activities. Regardless, there are still some important bills and acts which have been passed that are worth being aware of until individual states take on a more significant role in this industry. Here are some of the most important laws in the United States’ and gambling’s shared histories:
- Wire Act of 1961 – A bill making transmitting sports bets across state lines illegal, though it only applies to the bookmaker, not individual bettors
- Travel Act of 1961 – Same as the Wire Act, only it pertains traveling across state lines with the picks or bets rather than wiring them
- Interstate Transportation of Wagering Paraphernalia Act of 1961– Also related to the Wire Act, but this time pertaining to the devices and tools used for bookmaking, including computer disks and betting slips
- Illegal Gambling Business Act of 1970 – This legislation was aimed at the mafia, meant to shut down illegal casinos operating in states without legalized gambling
- Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act of 1970 – Another bill designed to attack organized crime by going after their money and turning it against them. Makes it illegal to receive an income from racketeering
- Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992 – The federal ban on sports gambling which was overturned and deemed unconstitutional in 2018
- Interstate Wagering Amendment of 1994 – This interstate commerce law makes it illegal to operate a business selling other states’ lottery tickets outside of said states
- Amendment to Interstate Horseracing Act – This law allows interstate pari-mutuel betting over the internet or telephone, as long as both states involved have legalized track racing
- Illegal Money Transmitting Business Act of 1992 – This law makes it unlawful to own any percentage of an illegal money transmitting business. This was enacted to prevent money laundering
As you can see, none of these laws specifically pertains to an individual bettor gambling online. They all either deal with organized crime and the illegal movement of money or the more significant operations themselves. But as far as a person in the US looking to place some wagers on an offshore gambling site is concerned, there’s nothing to worry about.
Murphy v. National Collegiate Athletic Association
In 2011, New Jersey passed a referendum that would ultimately legalize sports gambling in the state. The Garden State was then sued by the NCAA, with the lawsuit eventually being joined by all of the major professional sports leagues. The leagues pointed out how the state’s new law violated PASPA, which both the U.S. District Court and U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit agreed with, forcing the next appeal to be heard by the Supreme Court.
Finally, on May 14, 2018, the Supreme Court made their decision. It was decided that the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, signed into law by President Bush in 1992, was unconstitutional. It violated the anti-commandeering doctrine of the Tenth Amendment since it prevents states from creating their own gambling laws. Also, since four states were already grandfathered in for sports gambling, and the federal government has a duty to treat all fifty states equally, the law was struck down.
This opened the floodgates to allow states to legalize and regulate sports gambling as they see fit. Next, we shall see how many states choose to adopt this recreational activity. It is expected to spread like wildfire through the country, similar to medicinal marijuana recently before it.
US Gambling Laws by State
What makes the United States interesting is that besides the generally weak federal gambling laws, the country is actually comprised of fifty individual gambling jurisdictions. Each state currently has their own laws regarding the legality of activities such as track betting, poker, online gambling, pari-mutuel betting, and casino games. While the overall status of gaming in the US may seem confusing, each state is more clear on what they will or won’t allow.
The following map provides links to each state’s individual page, where you can find the specifics regarding each jurisdiction’s betting laws. You will also notice our strictness scale that we’ve created for each region, which will give you a quick overview of what you can expect from that area. Hover over a state on the following map for a brief overview of each location’s betting legalities, or click the picture to link to the page, where you’ll get a detailed breakdown of their betting laws.
As you can see, gambling’s status throughout this country is somewhat inconsistent. As we continue moving towards increased states rights, like what happened with PASPA, we can expect to also find increased availability for additional forms of gambling as time goes on. New locations will have their own online casinos and sportsbooks shortly, offering US citizens more regulations and consumer protections than they’ve had previously. While the legitimate offshore gambling sites behave ethically and honestly, there are also scammers out there who take advantage of novice bettors. In the future, the state-regulated options will make finding the best sites much more manageable. But in the meantime, we’ll still be here to show you the trustworthy offshore websites!
How State Gambling Laws Affect You
At the moment, states’ gambling laws dictate the ease with which you can bet. They will not be able to stop you from going online and utilizing offshore gambling sites, but they also don’t make your life any easier. For instance, depositing and withdrawing money takes a few extra steps than it needs to, like converting your funds to Bitcoin or using certain transfer services rather than merely using your regular banking information, including your debit or credit cards.
In states with legalized gambling, the entire process is much more straightforward. You can walk into a casino or sportsbook with cash, or use a sports gambling application to place your bets. The consumer also has many more protections since government agencies monitor all gambling activity to ensure that no cheating takes place, the odds are set at fair rates, and you’ll always get whatever funds that you’re owed without worry.
As more states pass sports betting laws, the convenience and safety associated with gambling will increase exponentially. Following the successful rollout of sports wagering, states are expected to tackle online poker games and casinos as well. The more forms of gambling that are legalized, the more tax revenue the state governments will collect. Instead of billions of US dollars flowing offshore every year, this money will stay in the local economy and help fund schools, roads, police departments, and so on.
History of Gambling Laws in the US
The Colonial US
Before the United States fought for its independence, it was a network of colonies owned by the British. During the early years of the country, in the 18th and 19th centuries, lotteries were established to help raise revenue. They funded the establishment or improvement of hundreds of schools and universities.
The Continental Congress created a five-million-dollar lottery, which helped finance America’s Revolutionary War.
The Northwest Territory Act was passed. This stated that participants in gambling games were to be fined, and all contracts related to gambling debts were null and void.
The state of Louisiana outlawed all gambling, except for in New Orleans. Isolating all of the betting to one location resulted in a gaming boom in the city.
A law prohibiting gambling was passed in the Missouri Territory, making all table games illegal.
New Orleans began taxing and licensing their local casinos, using the revenue to fund charity works.
All lotteries were banned in the United States.
A law was passed in New York that mandated the destruction of all equipment tied to gambling and levied fines for operating a gambling establishment. These laws followed the establishment of the New York Association for the Suppression of Gambling.
Nevada’s territorial governor James Warren Nye maked gambling illegal in Nevada, with punishments of hefty fines and jail time.
Kentucky and Missouri became the only states not to ban lotteries.
Gambling or operating a gambling house was made a criminal act and prohibited by the Florida legislature.
Horse racing was banned in almost every state.
Kentucky and Maryland were the last two states left with legal horse racing.
Pari-mutuel betting was legalized in New York.
After the stock market crash of 1929, and in conjunction with the Hoover Dam project, Nevada legalized commercial gambling. This eventually made them an attractive location for investors, particularly for organized crime families, who moved out west to operate casinos.
New York State’s Racing Commission began licensing pari-mutuel betting at horse tracks.
Nevada passed a law taxing gaming revenue.
Congress passed the Johnson Act, making it illegal to transport or possess gambling devices in states without legalized gaming or where bringing such machines had not been made legal.
The Nevada Gaming Control Board was formed.
Robert F. Kennedy passed the Wire Act, Travel Act, and Interstate Transportation of Wagering Paraphernalia Acts of 1961. These mostly only affected bookmakers and organized crime syndicates.
New Hampshire re-established the state lottery.
The Corporate Gaming Act was passed. This allowed publicly-traded corporations to own casinos.
Off-track betting was legalized in New York State.
Montana legalized low-limit gambling.
The lottery was re-established in New York.
Gambling was legalized in New Jersey.
The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act was passed, allowing tribal reservations to open their own gambling establishments, even within states where gaming was otherwise illegal.
South Dakota legalized gambling in the city of Deadwood exclusively. Riverboat gambling was legalized in Iowa and Illinois.
Gambling was legalized in Colorado, but contained to only the towns of Black Hawk, Ripple Creek, and Central City.
Riverboat gambling was legalized in Lousiana and Missouri.
President Bush signed the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, making sports betting federally illegal, except for in four states who were grandfathered in.
Thirteen states had legal casinos in operation, thirty-five had state lotteries, and thirty-eight offered off-track betting.
Missouri legalized casino gambling in the state.
The Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006 was passed, regulating online gaming.
The Supreme Court struck down the 1992 PASPA bill, making sports gambling a state’s rights issue and taking it out of the federal government’s hands.