Ever since the UIGEA was passed way back in 2006 it's been an up-and-down era for online poker in the USA. Some international poker sites left the USA entirely; some poker sites chose to stay in the USA during the boom years and paid the price with indictments from the US Department of Justice.
As of today state-by-state legislation is slowly bringing back USA online poker but it's still a work in progress. For now, though, there are at least a few good options for online poker in the US. Here they are!
As mentioned the past decade has been a tumultuous one for online poker in the USA. When the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act was tacked on to a port security bill by George W. Bush it set in motion a splintering of the USA online poker market that's still being pieced back together today.
In its immediate aftermath well established, licensed, publicly traded and respected online poker sites that operated in the UK such as partypoker, bwin Poker and 888 Poker chose to not accept American players while the legal situation sorted itself out.
Some poker sites, such as PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker and Absolute Poker, continued to accept US players despite the legal uncertainty and reaped huge rewards in a booming market but were eventually forced off the table by the US DOJ in April 2011 (see below for more).
Now, well ... some are back (partypoker, PokerStars and 888poker all now offer online poker games legally in NJ). Some are not. And online poker in the US is still restricted (for now) to the 4 states where it has been legalized (Nevada, New Jersey, Delaware and Pennsylvania) alongside a few "rogue" sites still flying under the radar and offering games to other US residents.
If you're an online poker player in the US we can tell you that the options for playing online in the US are slowly but surely growing. How long it will take until there is full, nationwide online poker in the USA is still anyone's guess though.
Our toplist above only includes the safest and most reliable online poker sites available to U.S. poker players at any given time. Two things that are absolutely certain, however, when it comes to online poker in the US:
1) It is NOT ILLEGAL to play poker in most states in the US. Current legislation restricts the transfer of money to offshore gambling sites, but it has never been technically illegal to play poker.
2) Americans can and will always play poker online.
Millions of people play poker as a hobby, it's an inherent right as an American citizen and it's likely only a matter of time before full, licensed, nationwide online poker in the US returns. So keep the faith! Online poker in the US is coming back.
Every poker site on our toplist has gone through a detailed review process. Our experienced editors have put each site through its paces and ranked it on a number of factors including usability, reliability, support, game selection, software, bonuses, reward programs, security and more.
Every poker player's preferences are different and what features some like will obviously not be loved by all. But we try and give an overall rating that estimates how well that site's offerings will meet the needs of the average US online poker player.
We also keep in mind that the game of choice for most beginner-to-intermediate poker players is decidedly Texas Hold'em. Basically that means the sites above have good-to-great software, a legitimate and quick-responding customer support department and, most importantly, a variety of Texas Hold'em games and stakes to keep you entertained.
Another big difference with our reviews is we also rank sites according to the number of “soft” games we can find. Finding games that are easy to beat are an essential part of building your online poker bankroll, so we put a lot of weight on soft games in our rankings.
Sometimes the best poker sites can have pretty average software, for example, or a clumsy interface, but because they are home to thousands of terrible players you can make a profit off of, we'll rank them fairly high.
By the same token the help desk should be better than terrible but they don’t necessarily have to knock at your door with a box of chocolate. In other words, don’t discount a site just because the graphics are a little rough or the support team isn't the best. If you find yourself raking in huge pots, those things won't make much difference to you.
If it’s possible to download and install the software, enjoy a good game of poker, turn a profit and deposit and withdraw funds fairly easily, you're likely on a good poker site regardless of where its customer base is located.
In the US that's currently restricted to 4 US states - Nevada, New Jersey, Delaware and (soon) Pennsylvania. If you're of legal age and reside in (or are within the borders) of any of those states you can legally play online poker on any of the licensed online poker sites in that state.
As of 2018 the player pools for all states have now been merged as well, meaning you have a much larger base from which to find games and opponents.
Outside of those states you can still play online poker in the US but you will be playing on unlicensed, "offshore" poker sites that can't legally offer their games in the US at the moment.
While these are licensed poker sites in other jurisdictions around the world they have not been officially sanctioned in the US so you are taking a small risk. Playing online poker is not illegal so there's no risk of arrest or anything; it merely means you have no overseeing regulatory body to protect the fairness of the games or guarantee proper payouts.
Some online poker players in the US feel it's worth it to take that risk; others clearly don't and restrict themselves to playing on legal sites in legal states. The choice, ultimately, is yours. But we do recommend sticking to the legal sites for now.
As mentioned above, since the passing of the UIGEA and the introduction of stricter legislation for the transfer of funds to online gaming operators, many standard ways of depositing money into an online poker account have been closed to US players and US poker sites.
In the states where online poker has already been legalized, though, making deposits and withdrawals is as easy as making any online transaction with major credit cards (Visa, Mastercard, AmEx), eWallets (Skrill, Neteller), bank transfers, pre-paid debit cards and even PayPal all viable options.
For non-licensed sites the options are more restricted although some still accept major US credit cards. Bitcoin is another popular option. For more advice and tips on this, see our article on online poker funding options for US players.
On April 15, 2011, the U.S. government indicted three of the biggest U.S. poker sites (PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker and Absolute/UB Poker) and seized their domains. All of the above sites were shut down, forced to exit the U.S. market and were only allowed to continue offering games primarily to Europe, Canada and Asia.
Many saw this as the Department of Justice clearing out the competition to level the playing field for American casinos in advance of new US legislation fully regulating online poker. All 3 poker sites eventually paid gigantic fines to the US DOJ and only one, PokerStars, is still a functioning online poker site.
After paying its massive fines PokerStars now again offers legal online poker cash games and tournaments in the US but only (for now) in New Jersey. While the site is still re-building its US player base the tournament offerings on PokerStars in New Jersey are growing.
The recent NJCOOP (the US-only version of the SCOOP), for example, had over $1.5 million in guaranteed prize pools.
The popular Zoom Poker games are also available on PokerStars in New Jersey as is their highly rated mobile app. As more and more states pass online poker legislation, expect PokerStars to apply for licenses and offer games there as well.
The Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA) of 2006 is a measure that still has many U.S. online online poker players shaking their hands and up in arms.
Although online poker (and online casino gambling as well) would seem to be a free market enterprise it was actually a Republican Congress that sneaked the act through on an unrelated bill related to port security.
It was passed quickly under the guise of preventing the transfer of funds to "possible terrorist operations" and had little, if anything, to do with online poker in the US.
As of 2018 it is still in place in the United States although legalization and licensing in several states has taken some of the teeth out of it. Once more and more states full legalize online the UIGEA should cease to be relevant.
Will international poker sites ever allow US players to play against and with their entire player base again? Will US online pokr players be allowed to play against the rest of the country? Will US online poker site ever allow foreign players to try its games?
At least some people are fighting for the return of at the least a national if not fully international online poker industry in the USA. Spearheading the first efforts to take down the UIGEA was Barney Frank, U.S. Representative for Massachusetts’ 4th District.
Representative Frank introduced the Internet Gambling Regulation and Enforcement Act in 2009 to do just that. Representative Frank’s proposed act was designed to satisfy both the online poker players in the U.S. and those concerned about the proliferation of unregulated online gambling.
The act would create a Federal Regulatory Commission that would be in charge of the licensing of online wagering companies that service U.S. players. The regulations would contain measures to fight underage and compulsive gambling as well as fraud and money laundering, the main concerns that opponents of online gambling seem to have.
Frank has since left his post but several other representatives including Congressman Joe Barton have carried on the intentions of the IGREA in similar bills.
The new bill put forth by Barton post-Black Friday and co-sponsored by over a dozen other bi-partisan US representatives is called HR 2366, the Online Poker Act of 2011. At the root of the bill is consumer protection and creating an interstate licensing program for internet poker sites. As Rep. Barton says on his website:
“Poker is an all-American game, and it’s a game that requires strategy and skill. Millions of Americans play poker online. Although it’s legal to play for money, it’s illegal to process the transactions that allow players to collect their earnings.
"We want to have an iron-clad system to make sure that those who play for money are playing in an honest, fair system where they can reap the benefits of their winnings. To put it simply, this bill is about having the personal freedom to play a skill-based game you enjoy without fear of breaking the law.”