California is the most populous state in the US, which means if it were to legalize online casinos, it would unquestionably leap to the top of the revenue list of states with online gambling. Casino gambling is already popular in California thanks to dozens of tribal casinos in the state. There’s little doubt that online casino sites could attract significant traffic from those wanting to play slots, table games, video poker, and other casino favorites on their computers and mobile devices.
However, the Golden State has yet to legalize online casinos, which means there are no licensed and regulated real money online casinos available to Californians. Previous legislative efforts have all focused on online poker only, though none of those efforts have proceeded very far. Online casinos in California may be a tall order, but there is always a possibility that lawmakers and other interested parties could find common ground. Here at PlayCA, we’re keeping a close watch on that possibility.
For now, sweepstakes and social casinos are a legal options available to Californians wishing to play casino games online. Read on for an overview of what might happen next with California online casinos and where you can legally place a bet and play a slot now.
Play slots online in California
Are online casinos legal in California?
California has not legalized online gambling, so online casinos are not legal in the state. California Penal Code 330a defines various examples of illegal gambling, including those involving “any slot or card machine, contrivance, appliance or mechanical device.” Violating the law is a misdemeanor, and the section outlines the penalties for doing so. Those start with fines of up to $1,000 and potential imprisonment lasting up to six months, with the amounts and jail time increasing with subsequent offenses.
You will occasionally read stories about individuals facing arrest for violating this law. Typically such incidents involve operating illegal gambling machines, although the law also applies to operating an online casino in the state.
Is it illegal to play at an online casino in California?
What about playing games at an online casino in California? Is that illegal, too? While you don’t necessarily hear stories of anyone facing arrest for playing on such sites, California gambling law covers that, too.
California Penal Code 330 states that anyone “who deals, plays, or carries on, opens, or causes to be opened, or who conducts” any type of prohibited gambling game is “guilty of a misdemeanor” and could likewise face a fine of up to $1,000 and up to six months imprisonment.
Technically speaking then, the answer is yes, it is illegal to play at an online casino in California. Players who play at such sites are taking another sort of risk. Since such sites are not licensed or regulated in California, players have no legal recourse should they run into any difficulties with their funds, suspect fraud, or the like.
When will California regulate online casinos?
Don’t hold your breath. If California ever legalizes online gambling and thereby licenses and regulates online casinos, it will likely take several years at least.
When it comes to gambling expansion in California, there are numerous stakeholders with competing interests. The tribes, the card rooms, the racetracks and the California Lottery all have opinions and strongly held positions on how any new gambling might look in the state. Some of these groups are strongly opposed to one another, too, such as the tribes, which believe California card rooms violate their tribal-state compacts.
That means any talk of gambling expansion stirs up already existing conflicts, with some stakeholders only willing to engage on the condition that others are excluded.
Current discussions about gambling expansion focus primarily on sports betting, both retail and online. It stands to reason that California probably will not legalize and regulate online casinos until after it has made a decision on legal sports betting. In particular, online sports betting would likely have to launch first before any other forms of online gambling.
Should California legalize online casinos, it would need to amend the state constitution to reflect the change. The California Penal Code will also need changes to clarify what exactly is legal in the state when it comes to online gambling.
Can the tribes just launch online casino sites on their own?
Largely speaking, California tribes have opposed online gambling as potentially having a negative impact on their retail casinos’ revenue. For example, during the current debates over legalizing sports betting in the state, the tribes have shown no enthusiasm for any plans that would authorize online sportsbooks.
One California tribe, the Iipay Nation of Santa Ysabel, did attempt in 2014 to launch its own online gambling site, Desert Rose Bingo. The site offered real money bingo games, and when it first went live, the tribe indicated an intention to add poker at a later date. With servers located on reservation land, the tribe argued it had the right to offer the games online as allowed by its compact with the state.
However, a legal challenge swiftly forced the tribe to shut down the site. The case went to court, and finally in 2018 the Ninth District Court of Appeals ruled that the tribe could not operate Desert Rose Bingo as the UIGEA prohibited it from doing so. According to the judge, while the tribe did have jurisdiction over gambling on its land where it received bets on the site, the initiation of those bets occurred elsewhere and thus violated the UIGEA.
Sweepstakes and social casinos in California
Californians wishing to play online casino games do have options at sweepstakes and social casinos. These sites use virtual currencies rather than real money in their games, thereby making them legal for Californians. Additionally, sweepstakes casinos allow players the option to try to play for real cash prizes.
Slots are the primary focus at these sites, with some also offering table games, video poker and other options. You will not, however, find any live dealer games at such sites.
The three most popular online sweepstakes casinos in California are Chumba Casino, LuckyLand Slots and Funzpoints.
Owned and operated by Australia-based Virtual Gaming Worlds, Chumba Casino features more than 80 casino games, including slots, roulette, blackjack and video poker. Chumba also offers players a range of bonuses and other incentives. These include numerous ways to accumulate Sweeps Coins, the virtual currency that allows players to redeem winnings for cash.
Also from Virtual Gaming Worlds, this is a sister site to Chumba. As the site name suggests, the focus of LuckyLand is slots. There are currently around 40 slot titles available, all exclusive to LuckyLand. The site offers incentives, including giving players bonuses just for logging onto the site each day. You’ll also find scratcher and instant win games. Like Chumba, LuckyLand Slots offers multiple ways to collect Sweeps Coins.
A newer sweepstakes casino is Funzpoints. Operated by Woopla Inc. of Nova Scotia, Funzpoints has more than 30 slot titles from which to choose, as well as one keno game. The site additionally features daily jackpot drawings. Players can play in standard mode just for fun, or premium mode to use and potentially win Premium Funzpoints, the virtual currency that they can exchange for cash prizes.
Legal online gambling vs. offshore sites
A quick internet search might lead you to real money online casinos inviting California players to deposit funds and play their games. These sites might even describe themselves as legal in California, but in actuality they are not.
Such “offshore” sites operate outside of the state (and outside of the US) and thereby are not bound by state or federal laws or regulations. They may or may not have licenses with other regulatory bodies, but they do not fall under the oversight of the California Gambling Control Commission or any other US-based entity.
As such, these offshore online casinos present a significant risk to Californians. If players run into any difficulty on such a site, they have no legal means to address it. If they find a problem with the games, suspect fraudulent activity, become uncertain about the security of their account information and/or funds, or even just seek a clearer explanation of a service or feature, they can only hope the sites will respond adequately to their queries.
Legal, regulated online casinos, on the other hand, are licensed from state regulatory bodies and can only keep their licenses if they abide by a long list of rules ensuring the games are fair and players’ information and funds are secure.
California players are much better off waiting for legal and regulated online casino sites to come to their state than risk playing on offshore sites. Sweepstakes and social casinos are a good and safe alternative until legal online casinos in California become reality.
If California ever does legalize online casinos, there will likely be a ready appetite for them. Already, the state is home to nearly 70 retail casinos. Only Nevada and Oklahoma have more casinos among US states.
All retail casinos in California are tribal-owned. California further features nearly 100 card rooms, some of which are large enough to appear to be casinos, although technically they are not.
Elsewhere here at PlayCA you can find comprehensive lists detailing the best casinos in Northern California and the best casinos in Southern California. Meanwhile here is a snapshot look at five of the state’s largest casinos.
Pechanga Resort Casino
- City: Temecula (between San Diego and Los Angeles)
- Phone: 888-PECHANGA (888-732-4264)
- Tribe: Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians
- Number of Slots: 5,000
- Live Poker? Y
- Unique Games or Amenities: With close to 200,000 square feet of gaming space, the Pechanga Resort Casino is the largest gambling facility in the state. In addition to slots, the property features over 150 table games, a 38-table poker room and a 700-seat bingo venue. There are also numerous restaurants, bars, pools, spas and a highly rated golf course.
Yaamava Resort & Casino
- City: Highland (east of Los Angeles)
- Phone: 909-864-5050
- Tribe: San Manuel Band of Mission Indians
- Number of Slots: 6,500
- Live Poker? N
- Unique Games or Amenities: While Pechanga is physically larger, Yaamava has the most slots of any casino in California. Formerly known as the San Manuel Casino, the newly expanded facility has over 120,000 square feet of gaming space with 135 table games. The expansion also includes a new 3,000-seat event center.
Morongo Casino, Resort & Spa
- City: Cabazon (near Palm Springs)
- Phone: 800-252-4499
- Tribe: Morongo Band of Mission Indians
- Number of Slots: 4,000
- Live Poker? Y
- Unique Games or Amenities: A recent expansion increased the Morongo Casino’s gaming space to 195,000 square feet to rival Pechanga as the state’s largest facility. In addition to slots there are 80 table games and a 13-table poker room plus a high-stakes 600-seat bingo venue. There’s an additional casino located just across the parking lot as well featuring another 400 slots and blackjack.
Thunder Valley Casino Resort
- City: Lincoln (northeast of Sacramento)
- Phone: 918-408-7777
- Tribe: United Auburn Indian Community
- Number of Slots: 3,400
- Live Poker? Y
- Unique Games or Amenities: With close to 145,000 square feet of gaming space, the Thunder Valley Casino Resort is the largest casino in the northern part of the state. Besides slots, the casino offers 110 table games and a 24-table poker room next to which resides an 800-seat bingo room. There is a spa, an affiliated golf course, and Pano Hall, a 5,000-seat outdoor amphitheater, soon to be replaced by a new indoor venue of similar size presently under construction.
Cache Creek Casino Resort
- City: Brooks (west of Sacramento)
- Phone: 800-992-8686
- Tribe: Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation
- Number of Slots: 2,300
- Live Poker? Y
- Unique Games or Amenities: Another favorite casino destination in the northern part of the state, the Cache Creek facility features close to 75,000 square feet of gaming space, high-limit blackjack and baccarat, a 14-table poker room and a golf course.
Types of games at California casinos
Most of the tribes that operate casinos in California have Class III gaming compacts with the state, while a few only offer Class II gaming. The difference is that Class III casinos feature Vegas-style games, while Class II facilities only have bingo and non-banked card games.
That said, California is a special case when it comes to what types of games casinos can offer. State law allows slots, video poker and all the usual card games, but prohibits casino games that use dice or a ball to determine the game’s outcome. That means for games like roulette and craps, the casinos have come up with creative workarounds to offer games that are similar to their traditional versions. The games use cards instead of dice or a ball.
- Video poker
- Casino poker games (e.g., Pai Gow, Ultimate Texas Hold’em, Three Card Poker)
- California craps (or “card craps”)
- California roulette (or “card roulette”)
- Off-track betting on horse racing
Responsible gambling in California
With so many retail casinos and card rooms plus a state lottery, horse race betting and other forms of legal gambling available, California also has a number of organizations and programs designed to help promote responsible gambling and prevent and treat problem gambling. Such resources would likely receive added support and perhaps some expansion should California legalize online casinos.
State level resources for learning about responsible gambling and getting help with problem gambling include the following:
- Bureau of Gambling Control — part of California’s Department of Justice purposed to promote responsible gambling practices in the state.
- Office of Problem Gambling — part of the California Department of Public Health, this office provides various treatment programs, counseling and self-help resources, and administers a 24/7 toll-free hotline.
- California Council on Problem Gambling — an affiliate of the National Council on Problem Gambling, CCPG promotes awareness of problem gambling and supports research and treatment services.
- California Gambling Education and Treatment Services — a program of Walden House (a statewide organization dedicated to a variety of behavioral health services), CalGETS provides free and confidential treatment options for gambling disorders from licensed specialists.
- California Gambling Control Commission — the state’s regulatory body for gambling that also administers a voluntary self-exclusion program (for card rooms and racetracks).
For more details and links to resources, see our responsible gambling in California page.
History of casinos in California
Students of 19th century American history know that California was a gambling capital of sorts during the Old West era. The California gold rush of the late 1840s sparked both migrations to the northern part of what would become the state and the appearance of numerous gambling establishments where successful prospectors could play games of chance with their newfound wealth. By some estimates, there were at least several hundred gambling houses in California, and perhaps as many as a thousand.
Of course, these establishments were by no means casinos in the traditional sense, and indeed in most cases operated without any legal authorization. In 1872, California banned house-banked gambling games, though it permitted player-to-player games like poker. A few years later, in 1879, the state amended its constitution to outlaw all forms of gambling, although interestingly it listed only stud poker and not draw poker as illegal.
Further updates to the law continued to make an exception for draw poker, which later enabled the rise of Gardena card clubs during the middle decades of the 20th century. It would still be many years before legal casinos came to California, however. In fact, it was a Californian, Thomas Hull, who was responsible for building the first full service casino resort in Nevada (and indeed the US), the El Rancho Vegas, which opened in 1941.
A lawsuit involving a California tribe of Native Americans in 1987 led to the creation of tribal gambling as we know it today. It was California vs. Cabazon Band of Mission Indians lawsuit that led directly to the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, the 1988 federal law permitting tribes to make compacts with states to offer gambling and casinos on their lands.
Despite California’s central role in enabling the IGRA, it would take another decade before California tribes won the right to operate full-fledged casinos. In 1998, voters supported the Tribal-State Gaming Compacts Initiative (aka Prop 5) to allow tribes to offer slots and banked casino games on their lands. That proposition was actually overturned on a technicality, but a second one passed in 2000. The first tribal casino to open was the Pala Casino near San Diego in April 2001.
Now almost 70 tribal casinos offering Class III gaming operate in the state. There are a handful more tribal-owned facilities that have Class II gambling only.
Is online gambling legal in California?
No, online gambling for real money is strictly prohibited in California. You can play online casino games at social and sweepstakes sites that use virtual currencies, but cash-based online gambling sites are not legal.
Will any of these ballot initiatives I’m hearing about legalize online casinos?
None of the current ballot initiatives that voters might be able to vote on in November 2022 would legalize online casinos. All are focused on sports betting, either retail only or retail and online. Even if one or more of the initiatives passes, the legislation would have to follow for any gambling expansion to occur.
Who will oversee online casinos in California?
The California Gambling Control Commission (CGCC) currently oversees all gambling in the state, including at the tribal casinos. Should online casinos become legal in California, it is likely the CGCC will act as the regulatory authority issuing licenses and exerting oversight to ensure legal compliance.
Can I play from California at online casinos in other states that have legalized them?
No, you cannot. Several states have legal online casinos, including Connecticut, Delaware, Michigan, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia. However, in each case, you must be physically located in the state in order to play real money games at that state’s online casinos.
How many retail casinos are there in California?
There are nearly 70 tribe-owned casinos in the state that offer Class III gaming including many Vegas-style casino games. There are also several Class II gaming venues that have bingo and non-banked card games. California additionally features nearly 100 card rooms, some quite large with hundreds of tables.
How old do I have to be to gamble at a California casino?
The minimum age to gamble in a tribal casino in California is 18 years old, although in many cases the casinos require patrons to be 21 or older to enter because they serve alcohol on the gaming floor. Check before you go to see if the casino you are visiting is an “18+” casino where the minimum age is 18 to gamble. Meanwhile, the minimum age to gamble in California card rooms is 21.