New online casino gamblers from the United States often have questions about the industry. I come from the school of thought that the only dumb question is the one you didn’t ask. So I’ve tried to make this U.S. online casino FAQ as comprehensive as possible. These are the most frequently asked questions related to playing casino games on the Internet from the USA.
Some people don’t distinguish between online casinos and other types of online gambling sites. For example, they might think a site like Pokerstars is an online casino. It’s not. It’s an online poker site. The difference between a cardroom and a casino is that poker players are playing against each other. Casino gamblers are playing against the house. A sports book is also different from a casino. Placing a football bet is not the same thing as betting on a hand of blackjack.
But some sites offer the entire suite of products—casino games, poker games, and sports bets (in fact, previously-mentioned PokerStars is moving closer to this area). The reason that I’m pointing out this distinction is that in some jurisdictions, some kinds of Internet gambling are clearly illegal, while others aren’t. Some activities are riskier than others, too. In the United States, betting on sports online is clearly against the law. Playing slot machines for real money is treated differently from a legal perspective because the nature of the activity is different.
Downloading online casino software is an option for U.S. players, but it’s not a requirement. It depends on the casino, too. Most casinos offer multiple options, though—a downloadable casino client that runs on your computer and instant play games which run in your Internet browser. Some online casinos also have specific apps for their mobile compatible games.
You don’t “have” to download software to play casino games for real money. But there are some casino games which are only available via the software client. This is often the case with progressive slots, for example. And some online casinos, especially really old-fashioned ones, might only have availability as a client download.
Most online casinos allow real money gambling from players who are 18 years or older. Some casinos have a stricter requirement of 21 years old. These are policy-based restrictions for the most part. Casino gambling on the Internet with offshore casinos is still a legal gray area in most states. As such, the laws for who can legally gamble online are vague and vary by state.
In a few states, online casinos have been legalized and regulated (Delaware, Nevada and New Jersey). In those states, the law requires that you be 21 or older to gamble. The casinos operating in those states are invariably associated with land-based casinos and follow laws regarding a player’s age closely. Penalties for violating these laws are harsh for U.S. based corporations.
All online casinos offer their games available in both free and real money versions. Some games (especially progressive slots) are exceptions and aren’t available in free versions. But for the most part, casinos welcome the opportunity to dazzle you with how great their games look and sound.
Their hope is that you’ll enjoy playing the free games enough to eventually make a deposit. This is one aspect of playing online that’s better than playing live. Since you have a limited amount of floor space and dealers in a land-based casino, you’ll never see games that you can play for free. But on the Internet, you just have servers sitting there anyway. Offering free games has almost no cost and provides a great incentive for new players to get started playing for real money.
Online casinos have no need to cheat. The games aren’t rigged, either—you have the same chances of winning games at online casinos that you would have in Las Vegas. Once you understand how an online casino game works, you’ll understand why it’s not even necessary for a casino to cheat. All casino games are set up to pay out at odds lower than the odds of winning. The difference in the payout odds and the odds of winning is where the casino makes its profit.
An example might help you understand this concept. Consider roulette. A single number bet pays off at 35 to 1 odds. But the actual odds of winning are 37 to 1. (There are 38 numbers on the wheel, and only one of them can win—the other 37 lose.) If you play a mathematically perfect set of 38 spins, you’ll lose 37 times and win once. But the one time you win, you only get paid off at 35 to 1. The other 2 spins are just profit for the casino.
All casino games work like this, although the math might be a little more complicated for some of them. The difference between the odds of winning and the payout odds is called the house edge. That’s the percentage of each bet that the casino expects to keep on average over a nearly-infinite number of spins. Since the casino is dealing with large numbers (hundreds of players placing thousands of bets 365 days), the house edge works to its advantage. But since the player is dealing with smaller numbers, he can sometimes walk away a winner. After all, it’s just him playing, and at most he’s placing a few hundred bets per hour, and most of the time, he’s not playing every day all year long. So he occasionally beats the odds. The player is happy, and the casino is happy, too.
UIGEA is an acronym for Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act. It’s a piece of legislation that was added to the Safe Port Act in late 2006. UIGEA made it illegal to facilitate the transfer of funds for the purposes of illegal Internet gambling. Some people think (erroneously) that the law made it illegal to play casino games for money throughout the United States, but that is not the case. This law only applies to the companies which process financial transactions.
In fact, there is no federal law which outlaws casino games for money. The Wire Act has been cited as an example of a federal law that makes it illegal to gamble online, but the prevailing legal opinion is that it only applies to sports betting. Bets on casino games and poker don’t fall under the purview of that law.
Where things get tricky from a legal standpoint is when you start looking at state laws regarding gambling in general and online. Many states have laws forbidding any kind of gambling that uses a device that isn’t approved by the state for such purposes. In those states, it’s not a huge leap to surmise that gambling on a laptop or desktop computer—or even on a mobile device—constitutes illegal gambling. Other states have explicit laws making it illegal to gamble on the Internet.
In those states, UIGEA applies, because that type of gambling is illegal. Remember that the law applies to “illegal” Internet gambling only. In the event of legal gambling on the Internet, UIGEA is irrelevant. It’s a subtle but meaningful distinction.
One of the ways online casinos entice new players from the U.S. to sign up at their sites is to offer signup bonuses. These are offers of free money to new players at online casinos. These promotions can take different forms, but the most common is a deposit-matching promotion. You deposit a certain amount of money, and the casino matches that amount and puts extra money in your account. For example, if a casino is offering a 100% bonus of up to $500, and you deposit $500, you’ll have $1000 in credits to play with.
An example of a casino bonus at Slots.lv.
If you’re unfamiliar with this practice, you might think it’s insane on the part of the casinos. After all, aren’t they just giving away money? Not so fast. All casinos implement wagering requirements for their players. These are also sometimes called playthrough requirements or rollover requirements, but no matter what you call them, they work in more or less the same way. You’re required to place a certain number of wagers before being allowed to cash out your winnings. This amount is often high, 25X or 35X the amount of your deposit plus bonus.
These requirements make it mathematically unlikely that you’ll walk away a winner after taking advantage of one of these bonuses. Here’s why: Let’s say you deposit $500 and get a $500 bonus, so you have $1000 to play with. You’re required to make $25,000 in wagers before cashing out. You play slots, which have a house edge of about 6% at this particular casino. Your expected loss is $1500, which is more than your starting bankroll, even with the bonus.
Yu would be better off playing a lower house edge game like blackjack, sure, but most online casinos restrict you from clearing bonuses with games like blackjack because of its low house edge. They might not count wagers at the blackjack tables at all, or they might only count 10% of the wagers you make toward your wagering requirements. There was a time when you could make a tidy profit taking advantage of casino bonuses, but those days are gone.
But signup bonuses are still fun. You get that much extra action for your money, which is not something you’ll see—at least not on the same scale—in a traditional land-based casino. You can also find variations on this signup bonus concept. Some casinos offer signup bonuses of nominal amounts like $5 or $10 for new players just to try out their software. The odds of walking away a winner after starting with such a small amount are low, but it’s still possible.
Most online casinos start by refunding your deposit amount back to the credit card you used to make your deposit. Of course, if you used something other than a credit card to deposit (like Moneygram or Bitcoin), this doesn’t apply to you. Winnings beyond the starting deposit are usually paid off via check which is delivered by courier. The faster you get your payouts, the better the casino.
In fact, earlier I answered a question about whether or not casinos cheat. I answered that they don’t, because the math of the games is in their favor. But casinos that are unethical exist, and their modus operandi is to delay processing your withdrawal as long as possible in the hopes that you’ll eventually just decide to bet the money. You can learn a lot about an online casino’s reputation just by reading some reviews on the Internet, but be careful—a lot of Internet sites are publishing advertisements disguised as reviews. The difference is almost always easy to spot.
Safe is a relative term.
For the most part, if you stick with reputable casinos, online gambling is safe. But risk is involved with online gambling in ways you might not expect. For example, you might be dealing with an unethical casino that’s going to delay your payouts. This is inconvenient, but it’s probably not “dangerous”.
Or you might run into an online casino which has run afoul of the U.S. government, and they’ve shut down the site’s operation. This actually happened with several online poker sites a few years ago, and players suffered lengthy delays in getting their money back from those sites. But for the most part, if you stick with money you can afford to lose, online gambling is as safe as most other Internet activities.
Author: Steve Mitchell