Can You Buy Lottery Tickets Online?

Is It Legal (and Safe) to Buy Lottery Tickets Through the Net?

Image of a Keyboard with the word "Gambling" in green and a pair of rolling dice
Buying Lottery Tickets Online Is Still Not Easy.

Image (c)  onurdongel / Getty Images

When lottery fever sweeps the nation, everyone seems to want to get their hands on a potentially record-breaking lottery ticket. But sometimes, it's just not easy to run out and pick up lottery tickets.

If you are homebound, out of the country, or otherwise can't get to the store, buying lottery tickets over the internet seems like a simple solution. But is it possible to buy lottery tickets online? Is it legal? Is it safe? Here's what you need to know.

The Dangers of Buying Tickets Over the Internet

The United States government, like most governments worldwide, heavily regulates how lottery tickets can be bought and sold because the risk of fraud is so high. U.S. citizens alone spend billions of dollars on lottery tickets every year, so it's important to be sure that the tickets are valid and the prizes are really awarded as promised.

Without these protections, there would be many more cases of people buying forged lottery tickets — for example, where the seller simply pockets the money, or where retailers only sell losing tickets to customers.

To prevent these scams, lottery retailers need to be licensed. The requirements for getting a license vary by state, but retailers often need to have a criminal background check to ensure that they haven't been involved in any felonies or illegal gambling schemes and they have to post a hefty bond to ensure that their tickets are awarded fairly.

So retailers who sell lottery tickets in person are carefully vetted. But how can you ensure the same caution when websites sell tickets online? It's much more difficult to know who is really selling those tickets and to hold them accountable when something goes wrong. It's easier to shut down a website on short notice versus a convenience store or gas station.

Buying lottery tickets online opens doors to fly-by-night organizations that take advantage of customers, then disappear when they are close to being caught.

Because of this high risk to consumers, laws in the United States (and many other jurisdictions) restrict or prohibit online lottery sales. However, that doesn't mean that it's totally illegal or impossible to buy a lottery ticket online in the United States.

U.S. Laws Governing the Purchase and Sale of Lottery Tickets Online

Two kinds of laws govern lottery sales in the United States: federal and state laws.

Federal law is pretty clear that buying or selling lottery tickets through postal mail is illegal and punishable by fines or jail time. 18 U.S. Code § 1302 states:

"Whoever knowingly deposits in the mail, or sends or delivers by mail... any lottery ticket... [or] any check, draft, bill, money, postal note, or money order, for the purchase of any ticket... shall be fined... or imprisoned not more than two years."

But the internet has opened up new ways for people to buy tickets remotely. The internet isn't covered by the postal code, so does that mean that federal law doesn't apply?

Not quite. For many years, the Interstate Wire Act of 1961 prevented lottery tickets from being sold online. It states:

"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, or for the transmission of a wire communication which entitles the recipient to receive money or credit as a result of bets or wagers, or for information assisting in the placing of bets or wagers, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than two years, or both"

However, in December of 2011, the Department of Justice released an opinion that the Federal Wire Act applies specifically to sports betting, not lottery tickets,

Their ruling stated:

"In a 13-page opinion, dated September 20, 2011, the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) concluded that the federal Wire Act's anti-gambling provisions do not bar states from selling lottery tickets over the Internet because the act's prohibitions apply only to Internet transmissions that relate to 'sporting events or contests.'"

This ruling made it possible to let states decide whether they want to offer online sales for their lottery tickets.

States That Allow Online Lottery Sales

Even if federal law allows online lottery sales, many states are reluctant to go forward with making online lottery ticket sales possible. There are other problems along with the fraud risks; for example, it's much harder to ensure that tickets aren't sold to people under the age of majority when the tickets are sold online.

Plus, states are reluctant to lose the tax income from people who go to a convenience store or gas station to buy a lottery ticket... and end up making a few other purchases while they are there.

In 2014, Minnesota became the very first state to offer lottery games online; however, a year later, they pulled all the games and stopped selling lottery tickets online.

Currently, the following states are the only ones that let you legally buy lottery tickets online:

  • Georgia
  • Illinois
  • Kentucky
  • Michigan
  • New Hampshire
  • North Carolina
  • North Dakota
  • Pennsylvania

Many of the participating states have tight restrictions about ticket sales; for example, some only allow residents of their state to buy online tickets. Other states allow anyone who is physically present in their state to buy their tickets online. These laws treat online lottery sales much differently from in-person sales, where you need to be physically present, but you don't have to live in the state or even be a U.S. resident.

Furthermore, most states offer only a few games for online purchase. In-purchase sales offer many more types of lottery games to play.

Some states also offer the possibility to buy lottery tickets semi-online. For example, residents of some states can use a lottery app to have someone physically buy Powerball tickets for them.

How to Stay Safe When Buying Lottery Tickets Online

If you decide to try buying lottery tickets over the internet, be sure to do your due diligence before buying tickets.

For example, watch out for websites that seem to let you buy tickets, but actually offer the "opportunity" to bet on the outcome of the lottery draw instead.

Don't fall for hype or for promises made by lottery apps and websites. Your safest option is to go through an official state lottery website. Make sure that you know which company you are handing your money over to, and research any website thoroughly before you commit.