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Illegal vs. Illicit: Know the Difference

Shumaila Saeed
By Shumaila Saeed || Updated on December 25, 2023
Illegal refers to something prohibited by law, while illicit implies that something is not morally or socially acceptable, often also illegal.
Illegal vs. Illicit

Key Differences

Illegal actions are those that directly violate specific laws or regulations. Illicit, while often overlapping with illegal, typically refers to actions considered morally or socially inappropriate or unethical.
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Nov 30, 2023
Illegal is a term strictly used in legal contexts, referring to actions against the law. Illicit has a broader scope, encompassing both legal and societal norms.
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Illegal carries a clear-cut connotation of law-breaking. Illicit, on the other hand, often carries a moral or ethical judgment, suggesting impropriety or taboo.
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Nov 30, 2023
Illegal activities include actions like theft or speeding, which are clear violations of statutes. Illicit activities could include things like unreported income or black-market dealings, which may be both unethical and illegal.
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The perception of illegal activities is often straightforward – they are actions against the law. Illicit activities, however, are sometimes seen in a more nuanced light, as they can involve ethical or moral dimensions beyond legal boundaries.
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Comparison Chart

Definition

Prohibited by law
Not morally or socially acceptable
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Usage

Strictly legal contexts
Legal, moral, and social contexts
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Connotation

Law-breaking
Moral or ethical impropriety
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Example Activities

Theft, speeding, illegal drug use
Unreported income, black-market dealings
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Societal Perception

Clear-cut legal violation
Often involves moral or ethical judgment
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Illegal and Illicit Definitions

Illegal

Not authorized by the official rules or laws.
Selling counterfeit products is illegal.
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Nov 23, 2023

Illicit

Not morally or socially acceptable.
They were accused of engaging in illicit activities.
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Nov 23, 2023

Illegal

Prohibited by or against the law.
Driving without a license is illegal.
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Nov 23, 2023

Illicit

Forbidden by law, rules, or custom.
Selling illicit goods on the black market is risky.
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Nov 23, 2023

Illegal

Contrary to or forbidden by official regulation.
Building a structure without a permit is illegal.
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Nov 23, 2023
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Illicit

Involving activities that are not legally authorized.
The company was involved in illicit financial transactions.
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Nov 23, 2023

Illegal

Involving illegal activities or substances.
He was arrested for illegal drug possession.
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Nov 23, 2023

Illicit

Morally questionable or unethical.
His illicit use of company funds was discovered.
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Nov 23, 2023

Illegal

Prohibited by law.
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Oct 19, 2023

Illicit

Disapproved of or not permitted for moral or ethical reasons.
Illicit relationships often lead to social complications.
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Nov 23, 2023

Illegal

Prohibited by official rules
An illegal pass in football.
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Oct 19, 2023

Illicit

Not sanctioned by custom or law; improper or unlawful.
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Oct 19, 2023

Illegal

Unacceptable to or not performable by a computer
An illegal operation.
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Oct 19, 2023

Illicit

(Linguistics) Improperly formed; ungrammatical.
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Oct 19, 2023

Illegal

A person who is not legally authorized to live and work in a country.
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Oct 19, 2023

Illicit

(legal) Not approved by law, but not invalid.
The bigamous marriage, while illicit, was not invalid.
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Oct 19, 2023

Illegal

Contrary to or forbidden by law, especially criminal law.
This is illegal, you know!
Nearly 40 million people live in UK areas with illegal air pollution
Their illegal mining operations in Asia, Africa and elsewhere, are protected by officials and police paid to look the other way – and powerful customers in the construction industry who prefer not to ask too many questions.
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Illicit

Breaking social norms.
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Illegal

Breaching certain enacted statutes of positive law; not lawful, not legal (cf. immoral, unethical)
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Oct 19, 2023

Illicit

Unlawful.
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Illegal

Forbidden by established rules.
Moving a pawn backward is an illegal move in chess.
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Oct 19, 2023

Illicit

A banned or unlawful item.
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Oct 19, 2023

Illegal

Totally fictitious, and often issued on behalf of a non-existent territory or country.
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Oct 19, 2023

Illicit

Not permitted or allowed; prohibited; unlawful; as, illicit trade; illicit intercourse; illicit pleasure.
One illicit . . . transaction always leads to another.
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Oct 19, 2023

Illegal

Being or doing something illegally.
Illegal immigrant
Illegal logger
Illegal pilot
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Illicit

Contrary to accepted morality (especially sexual morality) or convention;
An illicit association with his secretary
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Oct 19, 2023

Illegal

Being an illegal immigrant; residing in a country illegally.
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Oct 19, 2023

Illicit

Contrary to or forbidden by law;
An illegitimate seizure of power
Illicit trade
An outlaw strike
Unlawful measures
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Oct 19, 2023

Illegal

(obsolete) An illegal act or technique.
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Oct 19, 2023

Illegal

Contraband, esp. illegal substances such as drugs.
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Oct 19, 2023

Illegal

An illegal immigrant.
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Illegal

(espionage) A spy working abroad illegally and undercover, without visible ties to his or her country’s authorities.
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Oct 19, 2023

Illegal

Not according to, or authorized by, law; specif., contrary to, or in violation of, human law; unlawful; illicit; hence, immoral; as, an illegal act; illegal trade; illegal love.
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Oct 19, 2023

Illegal

Prohibited by law or by official or accepted rules;
An illegal chess move
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Oct 19, 2023

Illegal

Forbidden by law or statute.
Hacking into someone's computer is illegal.
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Nov 23, 2023

Repeatedly Asked Queries

What is the meaning of illicit?

It implies actions not acceptable morally or socially, often also illegal.
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Can something be illegal but not illicit?

Yes, some legal violations might not be seen as morally wrong.
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Can an action be illicit but not illegal?

Yes, some actions might be morally frowned upon but not against the law.
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What does illegal mean?

It refers to something that is prohibited by law.
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Are illicit relationships illegal?

They might not be illegal but are often seen as morally wrong.
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Are illicit activities always illegal?

Not always; they can be either illegal, unethical, or both.
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Can the perception of what is illegal change?

Yes, as laws and regulations evolve.
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Is illegal drug use also considered illicit?

Generally, yes, as it's both against the law and often seen as unethical.
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Is illegal strictly a legal term?

Yes, it specifically pertains to violations of law.
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Does illicit have a broader meaning than illegal?

Yes, it encompasses moral and social norms as well as legal aspects.
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Does the perception of what is illicit vary?

Yes, it can vary based on cultural and societal norms.
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Are illegal actions always unethical?

Not necessarily, as legality and ethics don't always align.
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Is illegal downloading also considered illicit?

Yes, as it is both against the law and generally seen as unethical.
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Can a business practice be illegal but not illicit?

Yes, if it violates law but not necessarily ethical standards.
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Are there grey areas in what is considered illicit?

Yes, as moral and ethical standards can be subjective.
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Can a business practice be illicit but not illegal?

Yes, if it goes against ethical standards but not specific laws.
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Nov 30, 2023

Is it possible for an action to become less illicit over time?

Yes, as societal and moral norms change.
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Are there grey areas in what is considered illegal?

The law is usually clear, but interpretations can vary.
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Can the legality of an action change over time?

Yes, laws can change, making previously illegal actions legal.
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Can the ethical perception of an action change?

Yes, societal and cultural changes can alter ethical perceptions.
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Nov 30, 2023

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Shumaila Saeed
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Shumaila Saeed
Shumaila Saeed, an expert content creator with 6 years of experience, specializes in distilling complex topics into easily digestible comparisons, shining a light on the nuances that both inform and educate readers with clarity and accuracy.

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