Since the early 1990s, online casinos have been legal in many countries located throughout Europe, Asia, and Latin America. However, playing casino games on your smartphone or PC is still illegal in most U.S. states. Online casinos offer just about every gaming option found in live casinos. In some cases, online casinos even showcase games and features unavailable on the traditional gaming floor.
There are thousands of options and getting started can be confusing. Which casinos offer the best games? Which have the best odds? What types of bonuses are available? Who has the best loyalty and signup offers? Which casinos are safe and can guarantee that their games are fair? Finally and perhaps most importantly, which online casino can be trusted to pay out in a timely manner?
Player's Guide to Online Casinos
This guide is an introduction to the fundamentals of online casino operations. It is designed to help players choose for themselves which games to play. Importantly, the time invested now in learning the intricacies of online gaming will save the player time and money later.
There are important factors to evaluate when deciding on an online casino, not the least of which is the company’s reputation and its government oversight. Additional factors include the type of gaming software, the outside testing used to verify fairness in games, money transactions and bonus structures. There are also many different ways to access these online casinos and each method has its pros and cons.
Online Gambling Policies
Each casino will have their own policies regarding which countries they allow. For the most part, all countries and territories will be allowed unless they have local laws in place that forbid online gambling. Casinos have also sometimes temporarily or permanently banned certain regions due to high rates of attempted fraud and money laundering.
The biggest exception to the online casino world is the United States. The country forbids online gambling, but the actual prosecution of individual cases is very spotty and selective. Many online casinos will thus welcome United States players in spite of their legal status.
Transferring and withdrawal funds from casino providers are the biggest sources of frustration for players from the United States. A United States bank or credit card company may shut down transactions that appear to be with an online casino.
Online Casino Laws and Regulations
First, determine whether or not it's legal to play at an online casino. Laws are interpreted differently from country to country and in some cases between different jurisdictions within a country.
Laws vary widely and change often. So check periodically for the most recent statutes. If a country prohibits gambling that law must be easily available to the public to view. It is usually defined as a “gaming act” or “gambling act” and is readily accessible on the internet.
The largest countries that prohibit online gambling are the United States, China, Russia, Australia, Canada, and Germany. However, there are exceptions to Federal law, in that specific territories within a country may allow gambling online. For example, in the United States, online casinos are permissible in the state of New Jersey. In Germany, they are legal in the state of Schleswig-Holstein.
Many people from the United States and countries with similar anti-gambling laws still play at online casinos every day, even though it is technically illegal. Most of these countries do not prosecute individual players. They enforce the laws by punishing banks that facilitate transactions between residents of the country and online casinos. To avoid a fine, the bank then blocks any activity it suspects may involve online wagering.
There are a handful of exceptions that do prosecute individual players, however. The largest among these are the UAE, Poland, and Turkey. International travelers need always be mindful of local laws and regulations.
How Do I Connect to Internet Casinos?
There are two major means of connecting with online casinos — entirely through a Web browser, or by downloading special front-end software or a mobile app from the casino.
Generally speaking, more games will be available if the player downloads the front-end software or the app from the casino. Many online casinos have both software and a Web interface, but the Web interface offers significantly fewer gaming options.
Ways to Access Online Casinos
A desktop computer, laptop, tablet or mobile phone are the gateways to online gaming; the method depends upon the device. If the player uses a desktop or laptop computer, the casino requires a download of their front end software which allows access to the online casino. This option usually gives the player full access to the casino's games.
To play on a mobile device, the casino provides an app for each particular operating system (Android, Blackberry, Windows or Apple). This is similar to downloading software for a computer but more streamlined.
Another option available to both computer and mobile device users is to play the casino games through a web browser. Many online casinos make this option available, though this route often has a limited number of available games. But mobile users who can't get find a compatible app for their device may have no other option but to access the casino this way
How Are Funds Transferred?
Most casinos accept all the major electronic forms of payment for deposits. That includes major credit cards such as Visa and Mastercard, and online payment systems such as PayPal and Skrill.
Withdrawal options are usually more limited. Most reputable online casinos will allow you to withdraw funds in the form of a wire transfer or a mailed bank check. They also pay out through select e-wallet services such as Neteller and InstaDebit.
Online casinos almost always have a daily or weekly withdrawal limit set somewhere in the single-digit thousands of dollars.
Safe Deposits and Withdrawals
If an online casino is regulated by a reputable government agency, it must adhere to strict financial guidelines in terms of fund deposits and withdrawals.
To initiate play, funds need to be deposited in a proprietary account. Players receive disbursements by requesting a withdrawal, which can take several days. Deposit and withdrawal options vary among casinos, but most allow wire transfers and a variety of e-wallet transactions. Many also allow players to fund accounts with a credit card payment. Generally, online casinos do not accept personal checks but may disburse winnings by check or money order by mail.
Are Electronic Casinos Regulated?
Not every online casino is regulated, so it is important to check for a statement to that effect.
Most reputable online casinos will be regulated by a company or commission where they are based, however. One entity you'll very commonly see is the Isle of Man Gambling Supervision Commission.
The Isle of Man has a local independent government but is a territory of the United Kingdom. You'll see similar arrangements in Caribbean territories of European nations such as Curacao (Netherlands) and the Cayman Islands (UK).
Online Casino Regulation and Safety
When choosing a trusted gaming partner, experts recommend first identifying legitimate casinos and adding them to you personal “blacklist” or list of casino sites that you should avoid. Nefarious online operations may refuse to pay out winnings, pay them out too slowly, run rigged games or even disappear entirely, usually with the players’ deposits.
There are two ways to determine if an online casino is safe. The first is government oversight and regulation. Remember, not all countries and territories regulate online casinos that operate within their borders, and the level of regulation varies greatly between them.
UK Casino “Whitelist”
The United Kingdom is regarded as the current gold standard for online casino regulation. It maintains a “whitelist” of casinos that are allowed to operate within national borders. These casinos operate in the UK or in one of its territories or dependencies. Many are based in places like the Isle of Man or Gibraltar where the tax structure is more advantageous. But even if the territory has an independent government, it is still subject to the same level of regulation by the UK Gambling Commission (UKGC).
While UKGC oversight is regarded as the strongest, it isn't the only national regulatory agency with a good reputation. The Malta Gaming Authority, the Antigua Division of Gaming, and the First Cagayan Leisure and Resort Corporation all have strong track records for licensing ethical casinos and intervening on behalf of players with legitimate disputes.
Fair Play Rules
Another primary component to look for is the reliability and fairness of the casino's games. Most casinos do not create their own gaming software. Instead, they license it from a major software provider such as NetEnt, IGT or PlayTech. An online casino’s use of software by a reliable “big name” provider with a good reputation ensures that the games are based on a fair model and that technical issues will be relatively rare.
Provably Fair Certification
Finally, there are ways to verify that a casino maintains fair games and does not alter their gaming software surreptitiously. In addition to having national oversight, casinos can opt to contract with a third-party testing agency such as eCOGRA. These agencies perform random tests on casino games and review their data logs to ensure the games operate properly. Some casinos offer a “provably fair” feature, which allows players to independently certify that the game has not been manipulated. However, the “provably fair” security measures only work for games that are played by one player at a time, such as slot machines.
Online Casino Bonus Offers
A sizable advantage to playing online is the unique bonuses offered by the casino, which positively and directly impacts the odds and payback percentages.
Bonus offers can be complex, however, especially the initial sign-up bonuses. There are often strict terms and conditions required for cashing out, and accepting the terms can sometimes complicate the process of recouping winnings. Fraudulent casinos sometimes use misleading bonus offers as a way to attract unsuspecting players. The guide to online casino bonus scams goes into much greater detail on this subject.
Online casinos also offer loyalty programs to ensure repeat business, just like their traditional counterparts. At a live casino, these programs usually reward players with points, otherwise known as “comps”, that can be used for free meals and hotel rooms. Naturally, most online casinos can't offer that benefit, so they give players free credits and free spins. On slot machines, these benefits can improve expected payback percentages to levels a live casino can't match.
Online casinos very frequently offer a welcome bonus to new players. It's important to understand that these bonuses don't consist of a lump sum of free money, however.
They are very comparable to either “free play” or “match play” offered by brick-and-mortar casinos. They will almost always either require you to play through an equivalent amount first before you can withdraw any of it. What is different about online casinos is that they don't necessarily equate dollar-to-dollar as a regular casino would, however.
Games with the most unfavorable odds, like keno, may be the only ones where a $1 wager counts toward a full $1 of your bonus amount. Games that are more favorable to the player like video poker or blackjack may only count a fraction of each wager toward the bonus. As always, it is very important to read and understand the casino's rules and terms before starting.
Many online casinos are now offering a loyalty program and comps similar to their real-world counterparts.
Each will have their own particular terms, but a common structure is to offer one point per $10 wagered on the games with more unfavorable odds (like slots and keno). 100 points can then be redeemed for $1 in free play.
It's important to keep in mind that even the best of the online casinos are still not as tightly regulated as casinos in places like Nevada.
For example, pay tables and odds are not required to be displayed for each game. You may also have less recourse and a harder time getting a satisfactory resolution when a technical glitch occurs.
Get Out There and Play!
The best online casino is one that falls under the oversight of a reputable regulatory agency, has adequate deposit and withdrawal options, good bonus offers and a large variety of games compatible with the player’s device.
Still need assurances? Check out player reviews online and see if there are any significant complaints against the casino or disappointments with its business practices.