The United States of America has always been home to gamblers. Some of the earliest American settlements were bolstered by income from municipal lotteries. Since America was settled, developed, and run by people from all world cultures, various world gambling traditions have come to call America home. Charitable gambling, in the form of raffles, games of bingo, and full-fledged “Casino Nights” are as American as apple pie and performance-enhancing drugs. In short, the United States is a hotbed for bettors.
Curiously, though, the legal status of various forms of gambling is still very much in doubt. The online gambling industry in general has faced a ton of strife in recent years when it comes to their business dealings with American customers. Sportsbooks in particular have been a target of the US Justice Department since at least the 1960s and the passage of the Federal Wire Act.
But sportsbook betting is alive and well, even though most of the major sites that allow sports betting have long since removed themselves from the purview of American customers. It’s difficult, isn’t it, to choose a US-facing sportsbook website. How are you to know if the site is offering legitimate services or designed to do little else besides separating you from your money?
The guide below will help you select a USA online sportsbook, based on years of experience in the industry and a common-sense approach. Let’s start with a discussion of the legalities of American sports wagering.
Are USA Online Sportsbooks Legal?
The short answer is: Yes. But with several caveats.
Let’s start with a rapid-fire analysis of the two major legal roadblocks to legal sportsbook bets in the US:
- The Interstate Wire Act of 1961
You’ve probably hear of this one if you’ve done any research on the legality of American sports wagers. Here’s the relevant section of the Wire Act:
Whoever being engaged in the business of betting or wagering knowingly uses a wire communication facility for the transmission in interstate or foreign commerce of bets or wagers or information assisting in the placing of bets or wagers on any sporting event or contest … shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than two years, or both.
It’s pretty clear from the language in that quote that wagering on sports via “a wire,” is illegal, and punishable by a fine and/or a jail sentence. But wait a minute – that law was passed in 1961, decades before Internet communication was a reality. Surely this law doesn’t apply to bets placed over a Wi-Fi connection to an offshore site? If only that were the case. In 2011, officials from the Justice Department further clarified the Wire Act with a formal legal opinion on its scope, saying “… interstate transmissions of wire communications that do not relate to a ‘sporting event or contest’ fall outside the reach of the Wire Act.” In other words, the Justice Department sees wire communications used to wager on sporting events as separate from those used to play games like slots and blackjack. That’s good news for our casino gambling friends, but not great news for sports bettors.
- The SAFE Port Act of 2006
What the heck is a law related to port safety doing here? Believe it or not, nestled in the bosom of this can’t-miss anti-terrorism law is a bill called the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act. The UIGEA bill, as it is known in the betting industry, was an attempt by certain segments of the US government to crack down on Web-based betting. Fortunately for us, the government went about this all wrong. All the UIGEA does is make it illegal for certain American financial institutions to do business with known gambling services. The law is full of loopholes and incompetent language, and its only effect was to make it a bit harder for Americans to fund their online gambling accounts.
If the Wire Act was recently clarified to aim EXCLUSIVELY at sports betting, how can I say that such wagering is legal in America? Two reasons – for starters, some states regulate sports betting like alcohol, providing it to their citizens in a government-controlled format. You can step into a casino in Vegas and find a big beautiful sportsbook just waiting to let you place a totally legal wager. Other states are getting into the act – the state of Delaware now sell parlay tickets during NFL season and is considering expanding these services as part of the state lottery system. Those are just two examples.
Another factor in my declaring that sports betting is legal in America – frequency of arrests. Or, in this case, LACK of frequency. How often are sports bettors prosecuted by the US Department of Justice? If you look back through history all the way to 1961, and the passage of the Wire Act, the answer is plain. The government almost never prosecutes an individual bettor for placing an illegal wager. Instead, the government is focused on shutting down illegal providers of games of chance and skill.
There’s a third factor at work – logistics. Do you think the government is capable of tracking the commercial activities of 350 million people? Do you think that, even if they were, busting individual sports bettors would be their priority? It’s not likely, considering that other American states make the practice fully legal.
Because some US states allow regulated sports gambling, and because so few bettors have ever been charged with any crime as a result of their gambling, AND because of the sheer size of the US population, I declare that online sports betting is safe, and (even if not explicitly so) perfectly legal.
The trick to being an American-based bettor is not outsmarting the Feds – it’s outsmarting the rogue operators looking to cash in on American’s need for a sports betting outlet.
What to Look for in a US-Facing Sportsbook
If you live in the United States and you’re looking for a place that accepts American sports bets, all you really need to worry about are three factors. Here’s a quick guide to each:
Check for Legitimacy & Security
The time to cover your ass financially is before you get sucked in by the offer of a fantastic bonus. The easiest way to protect your sportsbook deposit is to avoid sending cash to a scam site in the first place. Luckily, you can avoid rogue operators by poking around at one or two trustworthy review sites before you do any more research on a new US-facing sportsbook you’re considering.
The casino blacklist maintained at Casinomeister will almost always be helpful when hunting down information on a sportsbook, since most sportsbook sites have casino and poker games attached. The same goes for AskGamblers, a compendium of information and real user reviews (and official complaints) that focuses on casinos but usually includes some details on sportsbook sites as well. If I see a lot of unaddressed customer complaints at AskGamblers, or notice a mention of a sportsbook anywhere near Casinomeister’s Black or Reservation lists, I’m definitely going to reconsider opening an account with that service.
You can find your own sites you’re comfortable with – those two work well for my needs. Honestly, just passing the book’s name through Google and browsing the first few pages of results will probably tell you all you need to know in terms of a site’s legitimacy.
Check for Viable Payment Methods
You want to find a site that offers payment methods that you, as an American customer, have access to. It sucks that you can’t really shop around as an American sports bettor, thanks to restrictions in place against the American market, but that’s just how it is. Generally speaking, the more deposit and withdrawal methods that a US-facing site offers, the more likely you are to have a solid and inexpensive way to fund your account.
Check for Solid Bonuses and Promotions
You may think that this doesn’t apply to you – maybe you aren’t the type of bettor that ever chases bonuses or even thinks about them. The truth is, I use a site’s promotional offers as a barometer of its overall services. Even if you don’t care about free bets, free cash, or other goodies, you should care that a site’s general attitude towards bonuses is a mirror of its attitude toward players. In my ten years of experience as an active sportsbook customer and reviewer, I’ve seen time and again that a US-facing site without decent bonuses is probably going to take forever to pay your winnings and jerk you around about bonus terms.
Top Deposit Methods for USA Online Sportsbooks
The US gambling market is a special case, different from any other part of the world I’m familiar with. Outside of the United States, gamblers can take their pick of dozens of eWallets and other payment processors, shopping for the best perks, lowest fees, and other features. Thanks to the UIGEA bill, the American payment method market is a smoking crater.
Here are three methods used commonly by American sports bettors to add funds to their online sportsbook accounts:
- Western Union/Money Gram
By far the easiest way to send money to a sportsbook’s cashier department, the downside of sending money via wire is the relatively-high associated fees. Plenty of US-facing sportsbooks accept deposits using one of these two methods.
- Credit, Debit, and Gift Cards
Though access to this payment method is heavily-restricted for Americans, many US-facing online sportsbooks advertise that they accept this deposit method, and even suggest procedures for US bettors to take to ensure that the deposit goes through. Though you may not be able to use your debit card to make a deposit, it’s worth a shot.
- Check by Mail
Though it’s not the most convenient way to send money, requiring that you issue a personal check to a gambling website and wait for the postal service or a professional courier to deliver your money, check by mail is often the easiest way for US sports bettors to fund their accounts.
The Best USA-Facing Online Sportsbooks
Here are brief reviews of the five best online sportsbooks for players from the United States:
GTBets is a relative newcomer, compared to the longevity of the world’s top online sportsbooks. The site launched in 2011, and has expanded to include live in-play betting, a mobile service, and an attached casino and racebook. All new signups at Picks.org earn a free $10 Super Bowl futures bet. But that’s not all – sign up through Picks.org and you’ll also be eligible for the site’s 100% sign-up bonus, worth up to $250.
>> Restricted States: Louisiana, Maryland, Oregon, Missouri, New York, and Kentucky.
BetOnline has been around since 2001 – and it was originally a sportsbook only site, before it added combination facilities. They have a long tradition of doing fair business with US players, and you can earn a special 50% bonus up to $1,000 using the bonus code “NFL15.” Bettors from all fifty states are allowed to open a BetOnline account.
Bovada was originally the US-facing arm of popular global brand Bodog, but now it’s run independently of that site and brand. Bovada is pretty much a Bodog clone, which is one of the reasons I recommend it so heavily. The other reason – a solid promotional lineup, including a 50% welcome bonus up to $250.
>> Restricted States: Delaware, Maryland, Nevada, New Jersey, and New York.
5Dimes has been in the business since 1996 – that’s one of the longest tenures in the bookmaking industry. The site also operates a casino and a few other gaming options, though the sportsbook is the main focus. Join now and you can take your pick from this long list of available promotions and bonuses.
>> Restricted States: Maryland, Washington, and New York.
Though the legal status of online sportsbook play is often brought into question, I think it’s clear from legal precedent that the last thing an American-based bettor needs to worry about is the Department of Justice showing up at their door. Far more nefarious are the fly-by-night books taking advantage of a difficult situation for American bettors.
The sites listed above are all legitimate operators offering solid bonus programs, US-friendly payment methods, and full-fledged sportsbook betting to customers living on American soil. Stick to those options and you’re guaranteed to bet safe.