Is it Illegal to Look Through Someone’s Window With Binoculars?

The sitcom neighbors can grab binoculars and spy on folks. If you’re wondering whether or not that’s ok in real life then you aren’t alone. You got the binoculars at a regular store, so they’re legal to own. Looking through them should be legal too. The law can be convoluted though, so I went digging to see what it says.

Is it illegal to look through someone’s window with binoculars? Most of the time, you can look through windows with your binoculars. You can use a telescope too if you have one. The trick to getting away with this is where you are. If you are home, or on public property, whatever you can see with your eyes or distance viewers is legal. If you had x-ray specs or your binoculars have a thermography/heat vision setting to look through curtains then you might be in hot water. You can als get in trouble for stalking and other related activities.

Peeping Tom, Voyeur, Stalker or Nosy Neighbor

With so many terms for watching people, it’s hard to sort them all out. Do you get arrested for all of it? For that matter can you be charged with something for just looking at a person through your binoculars? Does it matter how you know the people or if you know them at all?

Toms’ Backstory

The term “Peeping Tom,” dates back to the story of Lady Godiva who famously rode through town nude to protest excessive taxes. She asked the people not to watch. Everyone honored her wishes save one man, named Tom. In the story, he either goes blind or dies for his misdeed. Regardless, he gave his name to this crime.

There are, however, some differences between the tale and our reality. If they had lived today Tom would be a free man and Lady Godiva would probably be charged with public indecency. Modern Peeping Toms have to be trespassing or at least on private property they don’t own. Conversely, if you go streaking, with or without a horse, you are going to get in trouble.


Unlike a regular invasion of privacy, voyeurism is a sexual act. When your ‘peeping, watching or stalking,’ is for the purpose of sexual kicks it changes the situation. Whether you look, photograph or record, sexual watching is voyeurism. If you do it for business or revenge and distribute the images to someone else who gets a sexual thrill from the images it still counts.

Revenge porn is special, but not the good kind of special. If you post naked pictures of someone on the internet you’re asking for trouble. Yes, even underwear pictures, or images of when you were with them consensually, anything they don’t know about and consent to qualifies. The penalties in some states can include up to five years in jail and as much as $100,000 in fines.


Stalking can include a surveillance element, but there’s usually a lot more involved. When you show a malicious intent and a pattern to the behavior you could be stalking. If the person you watch is afraid or upset, and maybe even asks you to stop, then it’s over the line.

You could end up charged with stalking if you spend too much time watching the same person, even from a legal location. Though it’s occasionally hard to prove, anyone can be charged with stalking. This doesn’t mean you can’t be the nosy neighbor with binoculars, it means you can’t scare people and you need to be careful.

Neighborhood “Watch”

When all is said and done, you can watch people with those binoculars if you want to. You can climb the roof and look into other people’s yards with opera glasses if it makes you happy. As long as the roof is yours and you aren’t overtly causing fear, recording nudity (or otherwise pushing the limits) then your eccentric habits are just that.

It’s a very blurry line to walk. You should be sure to look up your relevant local laws first. Be extra cautious if you happen to live in an area that borders another jurisdiction. Stay updated on any changes in legislation. Keep a low profile for the best results. Letting the world know you’re keeping an eye on them is the path to being labeled and outed as the local crazy or worse.

How To

So you genuinely want to watch the neighbors (legally) with your binoculars. If you’re set on it, for whatever reason, then you could probably use the crash course in how to do it well. You will want something better than the cheap souvenir binoculars you got from the circus as a kid. So, first, collect your materials. Fortunately, there’s not a lot you need to get started.

  1. Decent Binoculars- Spend the money on an upgrade and the warranty to go with it.
  2. A Comfortable Seat- Whether you go with a top of the line rolling office chair or a custom pillow that’s more portable and offers lumbar support, you want to be comfortable. You may be seated for long periods.
  3. Invisibility- Invest in two-way mirror film for your home. If no one can see you watching it’s hard to complain.
  4. Snacks- Grab your food and drinks before you set up to surveil people. You don’t want to have to make a sandwich just when your cute neighbor is starting her Zumba routine with the curtains open.
  5. Writing Materials- A notepad or laptop to take notes can help. Not everyone wants to keep a record of what they see. However, it can be an excellent idea just in case something noteworthy happens. That way, if you see anything to be concerned about, you’ll know who, what, when and where it happened precisely.

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Getting Down To Business

You will want to consider your comfort. If you plan to do your spying from home, dress in something loose that you can relax in. Spying can be fun, intriguing and much better than whatever is on TV tonight. Unfortunately, if you have the sort of clothing that digs into skin or doesn’t breathe, things won’t go as well.

Patience and discretion are the keys to good spying. Take your breaks when the opportunity presents itself. There will be times when the action is too riveting to look away. Even so, don’t hesitate to drop everything if you think someone is on to you. After all, you don’t want to get tagged as the neighborhood creep.

Taking Your Show On The Road

If you’re outdoors, then carry a big purse or backpack. You’ll need it for equipment. You may want to put a bird watching book in your bag, it makes a decent cover story in a pinch if someone wants to know what you’re doing. Keep in mind this trick won’t always work. Consider using a telescope if you’re at home. Alternately you could choose a portable camera with a good zoom or telephoto lens in place of the binoculars.

If you are following someone who has left the window you were initially watching through and they go out, make sure you have a change of clothing. Get a second jacket, a different hat or even just a lightweight flannel shirt to pull on. It helps to have a disguise, just not an outlandish or memorable one. Changing your look is the key to going unnoticed.

Watching through a window is safer, but there are times when the action may take you away from where you started. Always be mindful of this. Bring your wallet, house-keys and anything else you might need in a hurry.

If your spying is less than casual, such as when you need evidence for a court case, consider hiring a professional investigator instead of taking the risk yourself. They know the laws and they have a license for this stuff. If you spook someone they may retaliate. If a PI spooks them, it’s generally ok. Pros may even have a backup plan so someone else they work with can pick up where they left off.

Final Thoughts

People watching can be so intriguing you never want to stop. Keep your new hobby low key. Don’t tell people what you’re up to, especially not the ones you’re watching.

All kinds of folks decide to watch people. It can be something you do for safety in your neighborhood. You can even use your binoculars to build a legal case or a new career. Whatever made you want to do it in the first place, be aware that it can be intense and consuming. Don’t let it get to you, and (if applicable) just have fun with it. Here is another highly rated binocular you might want to use. Click Here for more details. 

Additional Questions

Is it illegal to look in someones’ car windows? Where is the car parked? This is a vital question. If the car is in a public parking lot or on a roadside then it’s fine. Loitering around in a threatening manner isn’t your best plan. On the other hand, if the car is on private property, say a covered parking space in someone’s driveway, things are different.

Is it legal to look over a fence into someone’s yard? If you’re looking from a public space then it’s questionable behavior, but not illegal. When you are on your own property, perhaps this is doubly the case. Under the wrong circumstances, it can contribute to proof for a stalking and harassment case against you. Be careful.

Is it legal to go through someones’ trash? Sure, you can go through trash. There’s no law against it. If you’re not on private property then the trash is abandoned. Any useful information you might find may be illegal to use, but you can look for it. You can even keep what you find.

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