VPN services can be an extremely useful tool not only for gaining privacy, but also for accessing more content. With a VPN, you can access geo-restricted foreign services, blocked news content, and other restricted services not available in the UAE. However, depending on what you decide to unblock, you could be breaking the law.
Currently, there is some confusion regarding the legality of using the VPN in the UAE. So what is the actual legal status of using the VPN in the United Arab Emirates? And is it legal to have a VPN installed on your devices?
Is using a VPN legal in the UAE?
Virtual private networks (VPNs) have many legitimate uses and are often used by companies around the world to allow employees to remotely access work servers. For this reason, it is almost impossible to enforce a blanket ban on VPN technology.
The UAE is no different, and while there are reasons why using a VPN could get you in trouble, using a VPN itself isn't actually an offense.
This means that you are free to subscribe to a VPN and that you can install the VPN software on your devices. Installing a VPN to use it to access geo-restricted content like Netflix US is not an offense – and it won't cause you any problems.
If you use a VPN for anything other than committing a crime, you are not breaking the law.
Unfortunately, even websites owned by VPN providers are now blocked by ISPs in the UAE. This can make it difficult to get a VPN subscription and VPN software. In addition, not all VPNs work even when you manage to get a subscription (especially if you are subscribed to Etisalat).
On the other hand, it should be noted that we have never heard of anyone arrested or fined for accessing a VPN website or using a VPN to access services and content legally allowed.
Most people agree that the UAE is primarily interested in arresting terrorists, blackmailers, people selling bulk VoIP access and citizens who commit serious crimes. The general consensus is that you can safely use a VPN as long as it has a kill switch and obfuscation.
How can I get in trouble with the law?
In the United Arab Emirates, the government sets up blocks on all websites that provide access to content deemed incompatible with local laws, mores and customs.
When you try to access a restricted website, Etisalat customers receive the following notice:
This site is blocked … The site falls under the prohibited content categories of the UAE Internet access management policy.
This message is broadcast every time someone tries to access pornographic sites, for example, which are subject to strict blockages for religious reasons. Encounters, gambling and other culturally or religiously offensive content are also blocked. Israeli and Qatari websites are also sometimes restricted, for example.
Some people mistakenly believe that these restrictions are decided by ISPs like Etisalat and Du (both of which are majority controlled by the government). However, the reality is that all censorship is decided by the Telecom Regulatory Authority (TRA), which provides specific guidelines to ISPs like Etisalat regarding what to block.
In addition, the United Arab Emirates has a public telecommunications company. To preserve the profits of these companies, the government imposes blocks on VoIP services that would allow citizens to make free calls.
Bypassing TRA restrictions is illegal, and using a VPN can raise suspicion
Using a VPN to access any content or service that has been deliberately restricted by TRA is technically against the law. So it's getting around these restrictions – instead of using a VPN – that would get you in trouble. The problem is that using a VPN can be suspicious even if you are not using it to access that specific content.
Unfortunately, using a VPN to do something completely innocent could theoretically make you report as a potential cause of the problem. This is why we generally recommend people only use a VPN with strong security and privacy features that will allow subscribers to completely hide their VPN usage from their ISP (obscured servers and kill switches).
What is the punishment for using a VPN to unblock content in the UAE?
If you decide to use a VPN specifically to unblock gambling, dating, adult websites or any other TRA-limited content, you are using your VPN for technically illegal purposes and this could cause you troubles. So what exactly are the penalties you could face?
You could be fined up to 1 million AED or a prison sentence of 6 months +
Authorities in the United Arab Emirates are closely monitoring people who use the Internet to identify citizens who knowingly have access to blocked pornography and other content. If you are discovered using a VPN to access immoral content, you could end up being sentenced to a prison term of at least six months or you could be fined between 150,000 and 1 million dirhams.
The law states that a fine of 2,000,000 AED or a prison sentence can be imposed on anyone who uses obfuscation technology to obtain a false IP address with the intention of committing a crime.
Even people who accidentally come across inappropriate content could potentially be in trouble in the UAE, which is why it is essential to be extremely careful when surfing the web. Google Safe Search is enabled by default for all web searches in the United Arab Emirates, in order to avoid this incident.
It should be noted that a VPN can really help you. By encrypting your traffic so that your ISP can no longer track it, it becomes impossible for them to know which websites you are visiting. This reduces the risk of getting into trouble with “illegal” websites.
However, keep in mind that using a VPN 24 hours a day might make it too obvious that you are using a VPN. For this reason, it probably makes sense to create regular VPN traffic every day – so that your IP address appears like any other ordinary UAE home.
Is it illegal to use a VPN to unblock VoIP applications?
Yes. The government controls the local telecommunications infrastructure in the UAE and does not want to lose profit by letting people make free calls online. This is why Skype, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, FaceTime and other VoIP programs are limited.
Since self-isolation began due to COVID-19, the UAE government has been pressured to relax its VoIP restrictions so that people can work from home during the lockout. This has led the government to lift restrictions on the use of Microsoft Skype for Business and Google Hangouts.
Zoom, which is used by teachers to deliver distance courses, has also been made available. However, it is not clear whether these allowances will be revoked again after the lockout period has ended.
Anyone who unblocks restricted VoIP services does so at their own risk, and it is advisable to do so only with a VPN that provides strong security features such as a kill switch, DNS leak protection, and obscured servers. This will ensure that your ISP is unable to keep up with the fact that you are using one of these restricted services.
However, keep in mind that VoIP applications generally use small packets at the rate of around 50 packets per second. The size and frequency of encrypted packets allow ISPs to easily detect a VoIP call inside the VPN tunnel.
Certainly, using a VPN with obfuscation will ensure that the ISP and the government don't know which service you are using. However, they may be able to easily detect / suspect that you are using VoIP – which could lead to your being placed on a watch list.