IMPORTANT UPDATE 1st August 2016: A new law has made use of a VPN illegal in Dubai / UAE, with the possibility of significant fines and / or prison time. We recommend you refer to our news item and only use a VPN in Dubai at your own risk.

As the most populous city of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Dubai is a thriving cultural and economic hub for the Middle East. Unfortunately, however, the internet in Dubai (and indeed, the whole UAE) is heavily censored.

In addition to this, VoIP and SIP (internet telephony) services are blocked. This is thanks to moral concerns over young people being able talking freely to each other regardless of their sex. Perhaps a little surprisingly, Facebook is not blocked. But beware what you post there.

Dubia UEA Freedon House not free

In its 2014 report, Freedom House assesses the UAE as “Not Free”

Last year both an Australian woman and a man from Florida were arrested in the UAE for comments they posted to Facebook. And in 2014 a US citizen was sentenced to for a year for uploading a spoof video about Dubai youth culture  to YouTube! The Florida man wasn’t even in the country at the time he made the post!

The good news is that censorship in Dubai and the UAE is fairly easy to evade using a VPN service. The UAE government is aware of this, and does try to block access to VPN websites. This has not, however, dented the popularity of VPN in the country, and simply using a VPN service will not get you in trouble.

Best VPN for Dubai Summary

Disclosure: compensated affiliate: click here for more information

Rank Company Score Price Link

1

ExpressVPN Logo
Read Review10/10
$8.32 / monthVisit Site

2

IPVanish Logo
Read Review8.4/10
$6.49 / monthVisit Site

3

VyprVPN Logo
Read Review8/10
$8.33 / monthVisit Site

4

BolehVPN Logo
Read Review7.6/10
$6.67 / monthVisit Site

5

VPNArea Logo
Read Review7.2/10
$4.92 / monthVisit Site
Editor's Choice Award

Winner

ExpressVPN

5/5

Best VPN for Dubai

  • ProsPROS
  • 30-day money back guarantee
  • No usage logs
  • Servers in 78 countries
  • Great customer service
  • P2P: yes
  • ConsCONS
  • Connection logs
  • A bit pricey

ExpressVPN is a great all-round performer that caters to a mainstream audience, but also cares enough about privacy to keep all but the most rabid privacy enthusiast happy. It has servers located in an impressive 78 countries, including Egypt and Turkey. Although designed primarily for users in China, ExpressVPN’s Hong Kong-based “stealth” servers will help if  your VPN connection is blocked in Dubai.

Its no quibble 30-day money back guarantee is particularity generous, and gives you plenty of time to confirm that this nippy service meets your VPN needs. ExpressVPN offers easy-to-use desktop software for Windows and Mac OSX, plus has great apps for Android and iOS. ExpressVPN is not the cheapest service around, but with the inclusion of its new Smart DNS service thrown in for free, it works out as very good value for money.

Additional features: 3 simultaneous connections, “stealth” servers, free SmartDNS.

Get the best VPN for Dubai now!

Visit ExpressVPN »

30-day money back guarentee

2nd place

IPVanish

4.2/5

IPVanish

  • ProsPROS
  • No logs (at all)
  • 2 simultaneous connections
  • Android and iOS apps
  • Servers in 61 countries
  • P2P: yes
  • ConsCONS
  • Based in US

IPVanish is another high-profile US company that makes a great all-round choice. It keeps no logs at all, uses first-rate encryption, allows P2P, and has nifty apps for iOS and Android. Its smart-looking desktop client for Windows and Mac OSX sports advanced features such as IPv6 and DNS leak protection, a kill switch, and port changing.

Of potential use to visitors and residents of Dubai, IPVanish features “scramble” technology to obfucate your use of a VPN . This feature is also available for the Android app). Perhaps the biggest draw with IPVanish is servers in a whopping 61 countries, including India, Moldova and Romania.

Additional features: DNS leak protection and kill switch, changing IPs, “scramble obfuscation technology.

Visit IPVanish »


3rd place

VyprVPN

4.-/5

VyprVPN

  • ProsPROS
  • Very fast due to own infrastructure
  • 36 countries
  • Accepts Alipay
  • Port Selection
  • “Chameleon” stealth servers
  • ConsCONS
  • Connection (metadata) logs
  • Under US jurisdiction
  • P2P: no

Run by global internet consortium Golden Frog, VyprVPN is a great choice for users in Dubai. This is especially true as it runs its own data centers, and therefore has excellent speeds. It keeps no usage logs (although it does keep some connection logs), and allows P2P downloading. Encryption is rock-solid at 160-bit to 256-bit OpenVPN, and the fact that you can connect up to 2 devices at once (or 3 for the premier package) is really good. Note that these comments only refer to the slightly pricey Pro plan. The the PPTP-only basic version should be avoided.

VyprVPN offers special “Chameleon” stealth technology, which is perfect for the UAE!). It also offers use of UDP ports in its apps to defeat port blocking and throttling issues.

Additional features: no usage logs, uses UDP ports.

Visit VyprVPN »


4th place

BolehVPN

3.8/5

BolehVPN

  • ProsPROS
  • No logs at all
  • VPN through Tor
  • Client with VPN kills switch and DNS leak protection
  • “xCloak” servers
  • P2P: yes
  • ConsCONS
  • Somewhat techy and bare-bones

BolehVPN is based somewhere off the coast of Malaysia, and in addition to excellent encryption, offers “xCloak” servers that are great for bypassing government censorship in the UAE. It also supports VPN over Tor, allowing for true anonymity while using the service (great for political dissidents!). If rock-solid encryption, a dedication to privacy, and the option to use robust anti-censorship technologies are what you want out of a VPN service, then BolehVPN fits the bill.

The main downside of BolehVPN is that is somewhat “techy”, and is therefore not the most user-friendly service around. It does, however, offer an excellent Windows and Mac OSX client that supports useful features such as a VPN kill switch and DNS leak protection. The two simultaneous connection limit is also a little tight, but BolehVPN makes up for this by throwing in a SmartDNS service for free!

Additional features: P2P: yes, 2 simultaneous connections, free Smart DNS service.

Visit BolehVPN »


5th place

VPNArea

3.6/5

 VPNArea

 

  • ProsPROS
  • No logs at all
  • 5 simultaneous devices
  • Accepts bitcoin
  • 7-day money back guarantee
  • P2P: yes
  • ConsCONS
  • Did have have teething issues, but these may be resolved by now

VPNArea is a Bulgarian company that, despite being quite small, manages to offer servers in 54 countries, plus a host of features we might normally expect to see from a much more established provider. It keeps no logs (at all), allows up to 5 devices to connect simultaneously, and offers a 7-day free trial of its service. The Widows client is great (features a kill switch and DNS leak protection), and our speed tests showed excellent results. VPNArea also has a fantastic support team.

Visit VPNArea »


VPN for Dubai Considerations

Internet censorship

The UEA constitution guarantees freedom of expression, but in 2009 the OpenNet Initiative reported that,

The government of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) censors political and religious content and pervasively filters Web sites that contain pornography or content relating to alcohol and drug use, gay and lesbian issues, or online dating or gambling. Online privacy and circumvention tools, as well as some sites belonging to Nazis or historical revisionists, are blocked. Additionally, legal controls limit free expression and behavior, restricting political discourse and dissent online.”

Reporters Without Borders (RSF), which places the UAE at 119 out of 180 countries in its World Press Freedom Index, notes that,

The UAE have mastered the online surveillance of journalists, which are recurring targets of the scheme under the Law on Cybercrime (2012). Libel is considered a crime. The country’s constitution guarantees freedom of expression, but those in power can censor local or foreign publications if they are critical of the domestic policy of sovereign families, religion, the country’s relationship with its allies or of the economy, under the Federal Act of 1980 and printed publications.” (Google Translate).

According to official Telecom Regulatory Authority (TSA), the following categories of content are blocked:

Dubai UAE censorship details

  • Internet Content that contradicts with the ethics and morals of the UAE including nudity and dating.
  • Internet Content that contains material which expresses hate to religions.
  • Internet Content that is not in line with UAE Laws
  • Internet Content that allows or assists users to access blocked content.
  • Internet Content that directly or indirectly constitute a risk on UAE internet users such as phishing websites, hacking tools & spyware.
  • Internet Content that is relevant to gambling.
  • Internet Content that provides information on purchasing, manufacturing, promoting and using illegal drugs.

All Israeli websites (.il) are blocked, as are many Wikipedia entries.

How it works

Censorship is performed by the telecoms companies Etisalat and Du at the instructions of the TSA. There is a mistaken perception that it is the telecoms companies who decide what to censor, but this is incorrect. The notion likely came about due to the fact that some areas of the Du network appeared to have less censorship (or even no) censorship of the internet. For example, Dubai Media Zone and the TECOM area. Since 2009, however, the TRA has regulated censorship in these areas as well.

According to a 2103 report by Citizen Lab, ProxySG web filter systems, have been detected on networks belonging to the ISP Etisalat. These are supplied and maintained by US-based Blue Coat Systems. Blue Coat has been named as one of five “Corporate Enemies of the Internet” by Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

It appears that most of the filtering is fairly basic, and relies on simple IP blocks. Advanced Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) does not seem to be used (or at least not widely).

Internet surveillance

In its report on the UEA, Access Controlled notes that,

There are government efforts to monitor Internet activities in public Internet cafes to ensure that connections provided there do not bypass national filtering. Electronic surveillance to monitor objectionable online activities is publically acknowledged by the authorities.

A common concern with VPNs is that they keep logs, which can then be accessed by government agencies. This should not be a major concern for most users in Dubai, however, as long as you use international VPN companies and connect to servers outside the UEA’s area of political influence (such as anywhere in Europe).

It is also worth noting that using a VPN will not protect you if you post social media content that is objectionable to the UEA government under your real identity. This assumes that you are in the UAE, or plan to visit it.

Netflix in Dubai

Netflix is now available in Dubai, and indeed makes content available that would normally be considered too racy for UEA’s censors. The catalog available to UEA residents (736 movies and 289 movie), however, is very small compared to that of the United States (4046 movies and 1137 series). Or even the UK (2404 movies and 635 series).

Using VPNs in Dubai

As we can see from the TSA’s own figures above, “content that allow [sic] or assist users to access blocked content” is itself blocked. This includes access to VPN websites. The good news, however, is that Deep Packet inspection is not widely used.

This means that once you have access to VPN software and an account with a provider, using a VPN is a very effective (and popular) way to evade censorship and government surveillance.

So is VPN legal in Dubai? Well… it’s not illegal, as such. The government tries to block VPNs, but you will not get into trouble to using them, for trying to access VPN websites.

If you are visiting Dubai, the easiest way to evade censorship is simply to signup to a VPN service and download its software before you leave home. If you are already in the UEA (or live there) then you can use tools such as Tor or Lahana to access VPN websites. From there you can signup and download the software.

Dubai

Unblocking VPNs

In the unlikely event that you find your actual VPN connection blocked, there are a number of tactics that you can try:

Use OpenVPN TCP port 443 – which is same port used by regular SSL traffic (the encryption standard used by the whole internet to make websites and web services secure). This makes OpenVPN traffic look just like regular SSL traffic. This both hides it, and makes it tough to block, as doing so effectively breaks the internet!

Some custom VPN clients allow you to select quickly TCP port 443. Even if this is not the case with your provider, it is worth contacting them about the issue, as TCP port 443 is often supported at the server level, and if so, can be easily enabled with a quick edit to your OpenVPN config (.ovpn) file.

Switch VPN protocol – for example from OpenVPN to L2TP or PPTP. Windows users (Vista SP1+) also have the option of using SSTP if your provider supports it (although most don’t). At least as secure as OpenVPN (and often sporting 2048-bit SSL encryption), the SSTP protocol is very difficult to block as it uses the same TCP port 443 as OpenVPN can. Please see PPTP vs L2TP vs OpenVPN vs SSTP vs IKEv2 for a full discussion on the various VPN protocols available.

Use “stealth” technologies – many VPN providers have started to use technologies specifically designed to evade government censorship. These typically use some version of obfsproxy (a technology used to hide Tor nodes), or hide VPN connections inside an SSL or SSH tunnel.  Special “stealth” servers are often located in Hong Kong, as their primary aim is to defeat the Great Firewall of China. They should work just as well, however, for users in Dubai and the UAE.

5 Best VPNs for Dubai Conclusion

If you want unrestricted access to the internet in Dubai, then VPN is by the far the best solution for most users (political dissidents and others whose life or freedom might be in jeopardy are always advised to use Tor instead).  Access to many VPN websites is blocked, but these blocks are not difficult to overcome.

Indeed, this account by a Dubai resident recalls how he was advised to use a VPN to overcome censorship by his own ISP!. In order to avoid government surveillance, be sure to use an international VPN service, and servers located far away from the UEA.

Best Dubai VPNs Summary

Disclosure: compensated affiliate: click here for more information

Rank Company Score Price Link

1

ExpressVPN Logo
Read Review10/10
$8.32 / monthVisit Site

2

IPVanish Logo
Read Review8.4/10
$6.49 / monthVisit Site

3

VyprVPN Logo
Read Review8/10
$8.33 / monthVisit Site

4

BolehVPN Logo
Read Review7.6/10
$6.67 / monthVisit Site

5

VPNArea Logo
Read Review7.2/10
$4.92 / monthVisit Site

Douglas Crawford I am a freelance writer, technology enthusiast, and lover of life who enjoys spinning words and sharing knowledge for a living. Find me on Google+

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