The Internet is a remarkable invention. Using the Internet, we can stay connected to a friend living in Japan, organize our finances and pay bills, fire off a note to the boss, and order just about any food or grocery item we can think of. It's harder to come up with a list of things you CAN'T do online than it is to list every possible Web-based option at our disposal.
But that's boring. Let's face it - gone are the days when sitting around being amazed at the variety of things we can accomplish online was a novelty. When people find out that they can gamble online, the reaction is typically little more than a disinterested shrug. We're just not as thrilled with the many options available to us online as we were in the early days of the World Wide Web.
If you've never logged in to an online casino and looked around, you're in the minority. Most people are at least curious about the possibility of placing real-money bets on their home Internet connection. For total newcomers to Web-based casinos, the task can appear a little daunting.
This page is designed to teach people the ins and outs of gambling at online casinos. You may have never placed a wager via the Internet before, but after reading a few thousand words below, we are confident that you'll be a seasoned veteran in no time. We start with a generic FAQ to clear up some common misconceptions, then offer a description of the most popular online gambling games. A section on Web-based casino deposits and withdrawals is included to teach you how to send money to and from your online betting account. We've also added a section on Web-based game designers plus in-depth information about claiming online bonuses. The goal is to prepare you to place online bets with confidence over the course of roughly half an hour of reading.
What is an online casino?
An online casino is a version of a casino optimized and designed for use over an Internet connection. Think of online casinos as online banks - the physical bank doesn't have to exist in order to offer Web-based banking services. At the same time, whatever banking service hosts the online bank service has to obey laws and regulations put in place by the financial sector. Their use of the Internet to provide a service is controlled by a government agency. We think it's an apt analogy, considering that money is exchanging hands, and a set of existing laws governs the behavior of both casinos and banks.
Online casinos host gambling games that are designed for display over an Internet connection. Some online casinos create software bundles which players download to their computer. More common these days are streaming online casinos, which provide their games in a streaming format that does away with the need for a download.
Online casinos host all the games you'd expect to find at a land-based casino: blackjack, craps, roulette, table games, slot machines, video poker, even bingo and baccarat, all are available at the Internet's various casino sites. These games look and act like typical console or computer games - except that an extra layer adds money to the equation. You don't HAVE to place real-money bets at these online casinos; almost all of them host free-play games as well as real-money contests.
Is online casino gambling legal?
No federal law exists declaring online gambling illegal in America. That issue has so far been left up to the states. A few US states have outlawed all forms of online gambling. Still others have outlawed any form of online gambling not regulated by the state. But most US states have no law on the books governing online gambling, leaving the practice in a legal grey area.
A 2006 law, the UIGEA (Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act) made it a crime for US banks and credit card companies to process payments to known gaming websites. That's made it a bit tougher to get your money to your chosen online casino, and it forced the retreat of several of the world's top online gaming companies from the US market, but it hasn't made it illegal to place an online bet or visit an online casino.
Why would I want to play casino games online?
Most people who play online casino games do it because it's convenient. If you live next door to a big Vegas Strip casino, you probably don't want to play online casino games. If all your betting needs are met from a quick drive to a neighboring states, you probably won't need to play online casino games. But if you (like many Americans) can't get in an hour of blackjack or video poker at the drop of a hat, because casinos aren't legal in your state or because they don't offer the games you like, online casinos offer a way to get instant access to those games.
Still others simply enjoy online casino games. Designers have had a couple of decades to refine Internet-style games of chance and skill, and most of these games are a total blast to play, designed to be addictive, and with high replay value. Since many online casinos allow a wide range of wagers, some online gamblers wager very little and get hours of entertainment without the need for a costly plane ticket or road trip.
Are there people who gamble online solely to chase a big payday? No doubt. We don't generally recommend Internet casino play as a money-making scheme. Casino gambling is a form of entertainment, and most people aren't good enough at having fun to turn pro. Do online casino games offer big payouts? Sure - like any gambling environment, you'll find your share of million-dollar promises at online casinos. But the vast majority of people will never turn a profit playing online casino games. Playing for profit is a dangerous (but still valid) reason for trying out online casinos.
Aren't online casinos a scam?
Some online casinos have been guilty of ripping off customers. You can find examples of this behavior with a quick Google search. But describing all online casinos as rogue operations would be a huge mistake. As we said at the beginning of the page - the Internet is a remarkable invention. Online gamblers have created a number of forums and websites where they discuss things like blacklisted casinos. Reviews of online gambling sites often include specific information designed to assuage fears about a site's ability to scam you out of your socks. In other words, so long as we use common sense and look out for each other, it's easy to avoid those casino websites that aren't operating above-board.
What sorts of games do online casinos host?
The online gambling industry is a curious thing, in that it's both a reflection and an extension of traditional casino offerings. What we mean is - online casinos are designed in imitation of traditional brick and mortar betting venues, but over time have developed a unique way of doing business that sets them apart from the casinos in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, and Tunica, Mississippi.
This section is entirely dedicated to a description of the sorts of gambling games you're likely to find at a modern American casino website:
The world's favorite non-poker card game, blackjack is a centuries-old gambling game with a strong skill element that makes it one of the best bets in any casino. Online casinos have hosted blackjack since the beginning of the industry - that's how popular this comparing card game is. Since blackjack is played against the dealer, rather than against other players, it was a natural fit for Internet casinos. The game's simple layout and rules also made for an easy transition into the world of Internet wagering.
Craps is the only dice game in most casinos. Craps' unique playing style, based on the roll of a pair of dice, made it a difficult game to translate to the online world. After all, a big part of the appeal of this game is the social aspect, whereby the majority of bettors back the shooter with their wagers, so the table lives and dies together. Online craps games can't replicate that social experience, so they've never been one of the more popular contests in the Internet gaming world.
Roulette is another difficult game to translate into a one-user, one-display experience. Roulette is all about props, flash, and ceremony. The bouncing ball and spinning wheel lend the live game an air of excitement that's not possible to replicate on your smartphone, tablet, or laptop. Even so, designers have remixed the game's betting layout so that it's easier to fit onto a screen and gone out of their way to try and animate a wheel well enough to keep users interested. The fact that most US-facing online casinos still host the game at all is a testament to its popularity more than a statement on its desirability on the part of online gamblers.
The bulk of most US-facing online casino's "table games" sections, casino-style poker has long been a favorite of American gamblers. The sheer number of poker table games in land-based casinos in America is supporting evidence enough. Games like Let Em Ride, Caribbean Stud, and Tri-Card Poker are popular because they're easy to understand, easy to play, and some offer progressive jackpots and other bonuses that gamblers are familiar with from the ever-popular slot machines. Online casinos host these games because people clamor for them. They're also relatively-easy to translate to a computer or smartphone display.
Video poker is a perfect game for translation to a computer screen, because that's how the game exists in casinos. If you walk into a land-based casino today, the video poker game machines you'll see don't differ all that much from the versions produced by online casino game designers. Video poker is meant to be played on a display screen. Online video poker games are also wildly-popular, justifying the dozens of variants now available. Not every online casino that accepts US customers hosts a variety of video poker titles, though some seem to specialize in hosting a number of entertaining variants, catering to the video poker crowd. We discuss this more in the section on game designers below.
If there's anything like a true online gaming phenomenon, it's in the world of online slot machines. Just as slots are the most popular game in casinos all over the world, they're by far the most popular online game. Like video poker games, they're a natural fit for the displays of our laptops and smartphones. Slot machines in the casino look exactly like online slot machines. These games are popular because they can be played for very little money, promise potentially-huge jackpots, are easy to understand, and are familiar to gamblers from the real-world casinos they've visited.
Many online casinos launched poker rooms in the wake of the Texas hold'em boom of the late 90s and early 2000s. These games are vastly-different from the casino-style poker table games we discussed earlier. The house doesn't participate in these poker contests, earning money instead by taking a percentage of each game's pot. Poker rooms are often reviewed and considered separately from online casinos, and deserve a crash course of their own.
Hundreds, maybe thousands of online casinos accept American customers. From large-scale operations run by global gaming firms to more humble slot casinos run by a smaller name, American customers are a hot commodity in the online gaming industry, even after the restrictions imposed by UIGEA.
What this means for people interested in gambling online is that you have way too many casinos to choose from. Reviewing a website can take hours - we should know, we make our living writing about the online gambling business. If you want to compare just two online casinos, you'll spend four or five hours going back and forth, sending emails to customer service, checking the websites, and driving yourself crazy.
We've come up with four categories you can use to compare online casino offers and find one that fits your specific needs:
Every casino maintains a list of countries which are blocked from their services. Some countries block all forms of gambling - this is especially true in parts of Africa and the Middle East. Other countries make deals with online casino operators, allowing only those groups to operate within their borders. Whatever the reason, not every online casino operates in every jurisdiction around the word.
When you are considering an online casino, the first thing you should do is find their list of restricted countries and territories. Since the passage of the UIGEA bill in 2006 in America, restrictions against the United States and Canada have become more common. At some US-facing casinos, specific states are restricted, due to the variety of laws on the books in different parts of America.
One issue you may run into - not every site posts their list of restricted areas prominently. You may not discover that you aren't allowed to play at a site until you attempt to register. It can be a headache.
For most gamblers, a site's software (the program that runs the actual games you play) and a site's design (the way the site looks and behaves) are the most important aspects to consider.
Most US-facing casinos use a set of software put together by a single design firm. More common in recent years are software platforms (game libraries) stitched together from a number of different game designers. Whether you prefer a single piece of software or a hybrid library is really a matter of personal opinion. Keep in mind that different designers specialize in different games. For example, two companies (NetEnt and Betsoft) are roundly-considered the best producer of slot machines. At the other end of the spectrum are producers like Microgaming and RTG, which put out tons of titles, prizing variety over quality.
When it comes to casino design, this also comes down to personal opinion. A site that a friend of yours finds easy to navigate and well-organized might totally flummox you. That's why we recommend playing a few rounds of your favorite games in the casino's free-play mode. If a casino's design doesn't suit you, you'll know after just a few tries.
This one's obvious - you can't play at a casino that doesn't accept your payment method or methods. This is a common problem for US-based gamblers these days, since many popular payment methods are unavailable to American customers. Luckily, this one's easy to research.
Every online casino we've ever reviewed offers a list of accepted deposit and withdrawal methods. It may be a bit tough to find, or you may have to contact customer service for the specific details, but it's available. When you're researching a new casino, considering opening a new account, take note of the available payment methods, and compare them to what options you have available to you.
As an added bonus, if a site doesn't make its list of available methods easy to find, you might get worried about its reliability. The world's best-reviewed gambling websites prominently list their banking methods. The trick is to find a few casinos that accept a method you have available, and focus your research on those sites.
Bonuses and promos are so important to the online gambling industry, we created an entire section dedicated to them. You'll find that further down on the page. But for now, know that comparing promo offers is a popular and effective way to compare and choose an online casino.
Bonuses and promotions refers to any number of special offers made by casinos to attract customers and convince people to make another deposit. Most casino bonuses exist as a match of your deposit. Yes, online casinos reward customers just for loading their accounts, but plenty of terms and conditions exist regulating the use of these bonus dollars, as well as how you earn them.
If you're not the type of player who worries about getting a few free bucks from the casino here and there, you don't have to compare these offers at all. Having said that, looking at casino bonuses is a good way to learn about a casino, even though you don't plan on taking advantage of any bonuses. That's because legitimate casinos tend to have robust bonus programs with lots of reviews from real players. Unfortunately, modern casinos tend to host bonus programs that closely resemble one another, which has pretty much wiped out the utility of comparing these offers for the heck of it.
Can't you just depend on casino reviews for all this information? We get this question a lot. Though we write casino reviews for a living, we don't recommend that anyone choose a casino based solely on a review. For starters, it's hard to find a truly unbiased review. Plenty of casino reviewers are paid to write positive information, regardless of the facts. While reviews should be a part of your casino search, they shouldn't by any means be the only thing that pushes you in the direction of one casino over another.
If you're planning on betting real money at an online casino, you need a crash course in payment methods. Online casinos don't operate exactly like brick-and-mortar casinos on land. At a traditional land-based casino, you can play many games with cash, or exchange your cash for chips or other tokens. Online casinos can't accept cash, for obvious reasons. They need a unique way for customers to send and receive money from their online casino accounts.
The unique method that has developed is actually a bunch of unique methods rolled into one. Online casino payment methods range from conventional pay-by-check and money transfers to more modern features like eWallets and eChecks. This section is dedicated to describing the most common payment methods used by online gamblers to add money to their online gambling account, and to process withdrawals should they win big.
The low-tech way to add money to your online gambling account is to send the casino's cashier department a check. Some online betting venues will accept a personal check, but most require a certified check, like a cashier's check or even a money order printed by the bank. The biggest thing that paying by check has going for it - low fees. Most casinos won't charge any fee for processing your check. The biggest downside is the length of time it can take for the casino to receive and then process your check. Depending on where you do your online betting, you could be looking at two or three weeks' waiting time, during which time you can't place real-money bets. Some US-facing online casinos will pay withdrawals via check, though this option is becoming less common, thanks to the restrictions of the UIGEA bill. You may pay a small fee ($5-$15) for this convenience, and it may take weeks or even months for you to get your paper check, but you'll avoid the hefty percentage fees of some other payout methods listed in this section.
For years, the easiest way to add and withdraw funds to and from your online gambling accounts was to link your credit or debit card and treat the transaction like any online purchase. Changes to US gambling law have made this all but impossible for most Americans. The legal landscape surrounding the use of traditional banking methods has gotten so bad in America that our neighbors to the north in Canada are all but restricted from using THEIR personal financial products from making deposits and withdrawals. If you do have access to using your plastic, you'll find that it's the fastest method, if not necessarily the cheapest. Deposits and withdrawals will likely both be hit with a percentage fee, something like 1-5%, capped at a maximum rate. It may be a bit more expensive to use your credit or debit card to make a deposit or withdrawal, but it's a lot faster and a lot easier than the other methods listed.
This method is almost totally unavailable to Americans, due to existing restrictions on how US banks can do business with known gambling enterprises. Once upon a time, sending money to your online casino account was as easy as sending money to a friend or a relative - you'd select how much then transfer it directly from your bank to your casino's cashier department. The fees were low or non-existent, and the transit time was usually short. Unfortunately, Americans don't have access to this method, and if they do, they count themselves lucky.
Sending money to an online casino via Western Union or MoneyGram is still a popular method used by Americans in the wake of changes to gaming law. For the most part, US-facing casino websites accept deposits by wire, and most of them will also arrange to pay you via a wire transfer. One problem - fees. Most casinos are charging a flat fee for these transactions, meaning a person who's funding their account with a quick $50 will pay the same fee as a whale depositing thousands of tens of thousands of dollars. Is the convenience worth the higher fee? That depends on how much of a premium you put on time.
eWallets are a relatively-new phenomenon. When you hear the word "eWallet" you should think of PayPal, by far the world's best known such service. eWallets connect a traditional financial product, like a checking account, to an online payment format that's much easier and more secure to use than a traditional "type your account number here" situation. Though PayPal is the best-known, it's far from the only such service. Hundreds of eWallets have sprung up over the years, many of them with the exclusive purpose of handling financial transactions for online gamblers.
Payments by eWallet are for the most part still available to Americans, though many of the world's most popular eWallets (those used by gamblers all over the world) pulled out of the US market due to fears over the changing legal landscape. What eWallets that still exist and do business with Americans aren't that well-known.
Online casinos use promotions the same way any business does. Online casino promos are similar to traditional casino comp and loyalty programs. These online programs were created for two reasons - to emulate the sorts of freebies available to traditional casino gamblers, and to drum up business and compete with the rest of the burgeoning online gaming industry.
Comps are an important part of the business of gambling. For many gamblers, taking advantage of comp programs means shaving off a bit of the casino's advantage. Having your play tracked by the casino, so that they can reward you for what they jokingly refer to as "loyalty," is a cornerstone of any sound money management system. Online casino promotions are nothing more than a logical extension of that program into the world of online gambling.
Bonus money at online casinos is a little tricky. Gone are the days when casinos would literally hand you free money to gamble with. These days, to combat bonus-chasers who made money off these promos without really gambling, casinos invoke all sorts of restrictions and conditions. The most important for a person learning via a crash course is the playthrough requirement. A playthrough requirement is an amount of money you're required to bet before any bonus cash is released. Typically, a casino bonus will have a 20x playthrough requirement, meaning for every $1 of bonus cash you want released, you have to bet $20, usually on a set of specific games.
This section is designed to bring you up to speed on what sorts of promos you're eligible for when you sign up for an online gambling account:
Available to first-time depositors (new customers) only, a casino's welcome bonus is sort of like the calling card for its entire promotional program. Often, reviewers save time by reviewing only the casino's initial welcome bonus. It's an easy way to compare the overall value of two or more casinos' promo programs, though it can be deceptive. A welcome bonus works like this - the casino offers to match your first deposit with bonus money, up to a certain limit, and at a specific percentage rate. For example, a casino might offer you a 100% welcome bonus up to $200. That means that they'll give you a bonus amount equal to your deposit, capped at $200. If you deposit $50, they'll give you $50 in bonus cash. If you deposit $300, they'll give you the max amount of $200 in bonus money.
Some US-facing casinos appear to offer free gambling cash as an incentive for new customers to sign up. In other words, they make it seem like you're getting money to place bets with, at no charge to you, a la the old days of casino bonuses. We haven't yet found a single free-play bonus that doesn't invoke a playthrough requirement. Usually, you can gamble with the $20 or $25 the casino offers you, but to claim any winnings from those bets, you'll have to wager a set amount of money per dollar of winnings.
Another online bonus that you'll find at just about every online casino is the customer referral bonus. These bonuses are simple - the casino will offer you a specific amount of bonus money for each new customer you successfully refer. These days, casinos are offering a deposit match bonus based on the size of the referred customer's deposit, capped at a max of around $50. Playthrough requirements apply to these bonuses as well.
Reload bonuses are aimed at returning customers. Similar to a welcome bonus, reload bonuses aren't restricted to new accounts. The goal is to incentivize a person to add more money to the gambling account they already have open. Often, casinos make their reload bonuses equal to their welcome bonus, though you'll find plenty of reduced-value reload bonuses as well. They work just like welcome bonuses - you'll need to meet a playthrough requirement before the bonus cash you earn is released to your account. Reload bonuses may be offered with regularity on a weekly or monthly basis, or they may be a one-time, special, email only option made by a casino to its active members.
Some online casinos offer rebates on losses. This sounds too good to be true, and for good reason. For starters, you'll never find a casino rebate program that rewards players for their blackjack and craps losses. For the most part, rebates are limited to sportsbook and racebook options. These offers are also miniscule - bonus cash offers of a few percent of your losses, with attached playthrough requirements. A casino rebate sounds good until you realize that all promos offered by today's online casinos have major strings attached. Rebate offers tend to be made available on only those bets that give the casino a distinct odds advantage, which should really come as no surprise if you've been reading the rest of the bonus descriptions.
Casino gamblers know that joining the casino's loyalty program and swiping the plastic loyalty club card before they play every game is the only way to have their play tracked and earn comps. Online casinos have their own VIP or loyalty programs, which track your play and pay you in points, which can then be exchanged for merchandise, tournament entry fees, or even cash. Joining these programs is usually automatic at registration, though your VIP level won't improve to the level where you'll earn anything significant until you've played quite a bit of money through their games. Take note also that bets on many traditional casino favorites don't count towards accumulating VIP points, because they don't give the house enough of an edge.
Online gambling in America has had its share of ups and downs. America was responsible for the poker boom, creating a wildfire of Texas hold'em fandom that's still whipping its way around the world. On the other end of the spectrum, American gaming law is also responsible for a major dip in the online betting industry, thanks to the 2006 UIGEA bill and resulting Internet gambling chaos. To this day, many of the world's biggest names in online betting still won't deal with US customers, forcing Americans to do business with little-known names and occasional fly-by-night processors. The state of online gambling in America has been shakier than it is now - but not by much.
The good news is you've already taken the best step you can take to avoid being a victim of online gambling fraud. You've educated yourself. Now that you know everything there is to know about the online gambling business in America, you're more likely to avoid sending money to a rogue operator or putting your faith in a business that's bound to fail.
Like anything available online, Web-based betting is a convenience service. Most Americans don't live close enough to a casino to make a quick day trip to scratch their gambling itch. The Internet offers plenty of promise, though the intervention of the US government has complicated that promise to a great degree. Watch the news over the next few years - the future of online gambling could go one of two ways. The US could head further toward prohibition, or we could find ourselves with a network of regulated casinos all our own.