Using a Virtual Private Network (VPN) in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) sits in a legal gray area. While VPNs are not outright banned, there are laws restricting their usage – but the specifics are somewhat vague. This has left many UAE residents and visitors unsure about the legality and risks of using a VPN.
This guide examines the laws around VPN usage in the UAE, cases of VPN restrictions being enforced, and provides tips on staying secure if you need to access blocked content.
What is a VPN and why are they used in the UAE?
A VPN encrypts your internet traffic and routes it through a server in another location. This hides your IP address, location, and online activities from surveillance. VPNs are commonly used globally to:
- Access region-restricted content when traveling
- Improve privacy and security on public WiFi
- Bypass censorship and access blocked websites
The UAE government actively censors certain websites and services – especially VoIP apps like WhatsApp calls, Skype, FaceTime etc. Many expat residents rely on VPNs to communicate with family abroad. VPNs also allow accessing news, social media or sites related to LGBTQ+ issues that are blocked in the UAE.
Relevant laws on VPN usage in the UAE
There are a few key laws relating to VPN usage in the UAE:
UAE Cybercrime Law No. 5 of 2012 – this makes it an offense to use any means to access blocked services or websites in the UAE. Penalties include fines from AED 500,000 up to AED 2,000,000 or imprisonment.
Federal Law No. 15/2020 – specifically bans using VPNs to make calls over blocked VoIP services. Fines from AED 100,000 to AED 500,000.
TRA Resolution No. (7) of 2012 – prohibits advertising or selling VPN services within the UAE.
So in summary, although VPN ownership itself is not illegal according to UAE cyberlaws, using it to bypass censorship or access prohibited sites/apps can be prosecuted. There are always risks depending on how or why you use a VPN.
Recent enforcement cases
There have been sporadic cases in recent years of VPN restrictions being enforced:
In 2016, UAE telecom providers blocked VPN access without warning for several days.
Some UAE residents have reportedly been fined for using VPNs to call overseas.
Dubai resident Dhruv Gupta was jailed for using a VPN in 2018.
So while most residents use VPNs safely, there are instances of the law being applied especially if usage violates the UAE‘s censorship policies.
Can police or ISPs detect VPN usage?
The UAE‘s Telecom Regulatory Authority (TRA) owns the main ISPs Etisalat and Du. They have sophisticated systems to monitor and block VPN usage:
- Deep packet inspection equipment can potentially identify VPN traffic
- Machine learning systems flag suspicious usage patterns
- TRA maintains a list of known VPN server IP addresses that are blocked
"[Authorities] have all the tools to see whether people are using VPNs, but mostly turn a blind eye," an anonymous TRA official told CNN. They focus efforts on blocking the major VPN providers.
Police do not have direct access to monitor real-time encrypted traffic. But VPN providers may be forced to comply with authorities if they have offices or servers within the UAE. Some providers explicitly state they can‘t protect against UAE monitoring.
Paid vs free VPNs in the UAE
Paid VPNs are generally more secure in the UAE context compared to free providers. Here‘s why:
Paid VPNs invest more in technology and staff to stay ahead of UAE blocks. They optimize servers and build custom protocols tailored to evade deep packet inspection.
Free VPNs survive by selling user data, have bandwidth limits, may lack advanced evasion tactics.
Major paid brands like ExpressVPN or NordVPN are motivated to protect user privacy. Free/smaller brands may cooperate with authorities if pressured.
Large providers can move servers outside the UAE easily if needed. Local startups may have infrastructure within reach of law enforcement.
A quality paid VPN like ExpressVPN or NordVPN costs about $10/month. The peace of mind and reliability is worth it for many UAE residents regularly accessing censored content.
|Higher security and privacy standards
|Business model involves selling user data
|More advanced technology to evade blocks
|Can quickly relocate servers if blocked by authorities
|More likely to comply with authorities
|Motivated to protect users privacy for reputation
|Potentially logs activity which could be shared if pressured
|24/7 customer support
Tips for using VPNs safely in the UAE
Here are some tips for minimizing risks if you choose to use a VPN in the UAE:
Don‘t use VPNs linked to UAE companies as they may comply with law enforcement requests. International providers are safer.
Use reputable paid providers like NordVPN, ExpressVPN, Surfshark etc. They have a business incentive to protect your privacy.
Enable "kill switch" feature which blocks internet if the VPN drops connection unexpectedly, preventing IP leaks.
Double VPN routes your traffic through two servers which provides an extra layer of anonymity.
Use VPN browser extensions in addition to VPN apps for enhanced privacy.
Don‘t publicly promote VPN usage. While many use them quietly, advocating VPNs publicly could prompt a crackdown.
Don‘t use VPNs to commit other crimes – authorities can still track fraudulent activities like scams or hacking even if you use a VPN.
Ethics of VPN usage in the UAE
There are reasonable ethics arguments both for and against using VPNs in countries like the UAE:
For: VPNs allow residents to access information, stay in touch with family abroad, and circumvent invasive online surveillance. Restricting these rights could be considered unethical.
Against: Laws reflect cultural values of a country. Ignoring laws by using VPNs could be disrespectful even if you disagree with them.
Expats who relocate to the UAE must make a personal decision on using VPNs by weighing pros and cons of each ethical view. There are reasonable points on both sides of the debate.
While VPN usage in the UAE sits in a legal gray area, there are safe ways to access blocked content. Paid VPNs from reputable international brands give the best privacy protections if you respect other UAE laws. Technically using a VPN itself is not illegal – but accessing prohibited sites can carry fines or imprisonment as per cybercrime laws. Be aware of these risks, use a VPN cautiously and selectively, and avoid public promotion of bypassing UAE internet regulations when residing in or visiting the country.