Is it legal to tape record conversations?

Updated March 23, 2017

Private citizens as well as various professionals such as government officials, investigators and journalists record telephone and in-person conversations. Regardless of the reasons for the recordings, federal and state laws apply to taped conversations. Improperly taping someone can result in civil and criminal action being taken against you.


According to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, federal law permits you to tape record a conversation if at least one person agrees to the taping. States have additional laws connected to conversation taping. For example, in Michigan you can receive up to two years of jail time and a maximum fine of £1,300 if convicted of illegally eavesdropping and recording a conversation prior to gaining the consent of all parties in a communication. More than half of the states allow people to file civil lawsuits if there is consent from at least one person involved in the communication. Twelve states allow you to file a civil lawsuit if all parties involved in the communication have not given their consent prior to the taping. Additionally, recording conversations without permission of at least one person, whether the recording happens over the telephone on in person, is a criminal misdemeanour or felony in many states. Rhode Island has some of the strictest laws concerning recording conversations without consent. The state mandates that any person who intercepts or who gets another person to intercept a non-consensual conversation via wire, electronic or oral communications or makes public such communications can be sentenced to up to five years in prison.

Purpose of the Taping

Even if you gain the consent of the person whose conversation you are recording, you must have a clear and non-criminal intent for taping the conversation. It is not permissible to tape record a conversation with the intent of gathering information to be used for illegal purposes. Law enforcement officials must typically engage in other methods to obtain investigative information prior to resorting to wire taping. Officials must also gain court approval prior to tape recording conversations for investigative purposes. The Electronic Privacy Information Center reports that 1,891 applications for state and federal court-approved tapings were filed in 2008, which is a decrease from the 2,208 requests that were filed in 2007.

Privacy Expectations

Privacy is the key factor. Taping a person without their consent might be a violation of her privacy. Making the information public via venues like a television, radio or Internet program can carry additional penalties. All but nine states assess additional penalties for publishing the conversation. Even if you did not tape a conversation illegaly, you could be punished for making the conversation public. However, states like Tennessee allow you to record and disclose the contents a conversation after you gain the consent of the other party on the call as long as the intent of the recording is not illegal.

Recording Equipment

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) requires that you inform the other party that you are using recording device if that person is in another state or country. Interstate and international conversations are not allowed to be recorded unless you gain oral consent of everyone who is to be recorded. You must also notify those involved when the recording begins. The recording device being used must be able to be turned on and off and provide a signal such as a beeping noise that the recording has begun.

Cell and Cordless Telephones

In 1986 and again in 1994 federal laws associated with using cell and cordless telephones to tape record conversations were amended. Akin to landline telephone conversation recordings, the consent of at least one party to the conversation must be gained prior to taping. The laws were amended to allow for differences in how cell, cordless and landline telephones transmit and receive information.


People who think that their conversations are being tape recorded without their consent can file a complaint with the FCC by completing an online form through the federal agency's website or by calling 1-888-CALL-FCC. It is free to file a complaint. Complaints should include your contact information and the contact information of the person or organisation you think is illegally tape recording your conversations.

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About the Author

Rhonda Campbell is an entrepreneur, radio host and author. She has more than 17 years of business, human resources and project management experience and decades of book, newspaper, magazine, radio and business writing experience. Her works have appeared in leading periodicals like "Madame Noire," "Halogen TV," "The Network Journal," "Essence," "Your Church Magazine," "The Trenton Times," "Pittsburgh Quarterly" and "New Citizens Press."