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A 2021 VPN travel guide to the United Arab Emirates

To curb cybercrime and terrorism, the United Arab Emirates has cracked down on internet content and freedom of expression online. Citizens, online activists, and journalists have all been prosecuted for criticizing the state on the internet.

Zen Bahar

Zen Bahar

Jul 20, 2021 · 4 min read

A 2021 VPN travel guide to the United Arab Emirates

Below you will find a list of banned websites, along with a checklist for using a VPN in the UAE.

Why is the internet so censored in Dubai and the UAE?

With political parties banned, judicial authority rests with seven hereditary rulers who follow Sharia law (laws based on Islamic precepts). These laws prohibit things like pre-marital sex, alcohol, and gambling, which is why online content promoting these behaviours are banned.

For this reason, the censorship policy concentrates on terrorist or criminal activity, pornography, dating, gambling, certain VoIP services like Skype, and other culturally or religiously offensive internet content. This is supposedly to protect public morality, public order, and national security.

How does censorship work in Dubai and the UAE?

According to the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA) of the UAE, 1,600 websites were banned in the UAE in 2019, 542 of which were blocked for obscene content. And a quarter of those were blocked for fraud.

To protect young people from “vulgar” and “unethical” websites, 500 undisclosed search terms were banned this week, based on decisions between the Dubai Police and the country’s Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA).

Websites using the HTTP rather than HTTPS (encrypted) protocol may also be banned. For example, Wikipedia was banned until it defaulted to HTTPS. This is mainly to anticipate sites that could be fraudulent and unsafe since they lack encryption.

What content is blocked in the UAE?

    1. VoIP services, like FaceTime, Skype, WhatsApp and Snapchat video calls, and Facebook Messenger calls: VoIP services must register with state-owned ISPs, but, as we all know, ISPs are free to share your data with the government.
    2. Dating websites: Dating sites are blocked, but matrimonial sites aren’t.
    3. Porn sites: Producing and distributing porn is illegal in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and the UAE. TRA regulations prevent ISPs from granting you access to it.
    4. Gambling: The UAE bans gambling. Accessing online casinos carries a prison sentence of up to two years and a potential fine of up to 20,000 AED ($5,444).
    5. Content critical of religion: UAE ISPs block any site or online content that criticizes religion.
    6. LGBT content: Following the Federal Penal Code of the UAE and Sharia law, sexual relationships other than a hetrosexual marriage are a crime. The TRA and ISPs block any LGBT content and monitor chat rooms, instant messages, and blogs.

How to avoid censorship in the UAE

When a website appears blocked, it's because your ISP has determined your location by scanning your IP address. So, if you’re in Dubai, your device will automatically be assigned a Dubai IP address when you go online.

But there is a way to hide your IP address and location and access all your usual content legally – by using a VPN in the UAE.

The NordVPN app hides your IP address, which means that the ISP won’t be able to see what country you’re in. So, you could be in Abu Dhabi operating with a UK IP address, or in Dubai operating with a US IP address. This means, if you use a VPN in Dubai or any other part of the world, local geo-blocks won’t apply to you, and you’ll be free to access your usual websites.

Using NordVPN in the UAE

NordVPN is an online security app. It keeps you private and secure online by encrypting your traffic and hiding your IP address along with your location. To switch your location, all you need to do is connect to any country of your choice from the in-app menu. There are 59 countries to choose from and over 5,000 servers.

Here’s how to bypass geo-blocks with NordVPN:

    1. Get a VPN subscription. You can find NordVPN subscription plans here.
    2. Download the NordVPN app to your device.
    3. Launch the application and enter your credentials to log in.
    4. Click the “Quick Connect” button to instantly hide your location and traffic from your ISP.
    5. To switch your location to a different country in order to access content available only in the country, drag the country pin on the map to the location of your choice, and voila! You now appear as though you were in that country.

Is a VPN illegal in the UAE?

  • The UAE’s TRA has publicly stated that there are no laws prohibiting using a VPN in the UAE for businesses, corporate institutions, and banks to securely access their networks.
  • Using a VPN in the UAE is not illegal unless you are found to have used a VPN to commit a serious crime or prevent the discovery of one.
  • The laws around VPN usage are largely to prohibit online behavior harmful to the community.

As Article 9 of the Federal Decree-Law No. 5/2012 on Combating Cyber Crimes states, whoever uses a fraudulent computer network protocol address by using a false address or a third-party address by any other means for the purpose of committing a crime or preventing its discovery shall be punished.

The article warrants imprisonment and a fine of no less than 500,000 AED and not exceeding 2,000,000 AED.

A checklist before traveling to the UAE:

    1. Plan how you’re going to communicate with your loved ones while you’re away: Choose an app that isn’t blocked in the UAE and make sure they have the same one installed.
    2. Get a trusted VPN before you go: Always use a VPN with a no-logs policy and a global network of servers. Also, make sure it has apps for laptops, smartphones, and tablets.
    3. Don’t use public Wi-Fi without a VPN: Public and hotel Wi-Fi isn’t secured, so it can be hacked by cybercriminals who might plant viruses on your devices to steal your personal information.

Online security starts with a click.

Encrypt your internet traffic with a VPN