Countries Where You’ll Need a VPN to Bypass Censorship

If you live in a country with free and open Internet, you probably take it for granted that you can open any site you want and expect that you can say whatever you want without censorship. This is not the direction the Internet is headed in, though; the number of countries implementing content filtering and censorship is actually growing.

This may be largely invisible to many travelers since a lot of the blocking tends to be related to domestic politics, but depending on the country, you may find a lot of foreign news sources and services blocked as well. Facebook and other social media are common targets, and depending on the country, many VPNs may also be inaccessible.

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These controls are not impenetrable, however. Many countries’ blocking measures can easily be bypassed by connecting to a VPN outside the country. Of course, many countries with restrictive Internet policies also take a dim view of VPNs and try to block them and/or outlaw them, but short of blocking the entire Internet and forcing the country to use a domestic intranet instead, there’s no way for them to catch everything.

Technically, you should have a VPN no matter which country you’re in, since it helps secure your data when you’re on a public connection, can help you access geoblocked content, and keeps your browsing private, but if you’re visiting any of the below countries, a VPN is an extra-good idea.

China

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What’s blocked: Many major apps and web services, from Google to Discord, are inaccessible.

Surveillance: Very high.

VPN legality: Only government-approved VPNs allowed (they keep logs), but this is loosely enforced.

You probably knew this one already. China’s “Great Firewall” has essentially fueled the development of a whole separate Internet ecosystem, with Chinese apps and services replacing their blocked counterparts. Visitors to China will definitely need a VPN if they want to continue using services from their home country. Non-approved VPNs are technically not allowed, so it would be wise to double-check that whatever VPN you choose to use is guaranteed to work.

Russia

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What’s blocked: LinkedIn, Telegram, and other sites that got on the government’s bad side.

Surveillance: Very high.

VPN legality: Non-approved VPN users/providers may be fined.

The Russian Internet is gradually becoming more closed: the government habitually blocks sites and services it doesn’t like (most famously LinkedIn and Telegram) and does not allow unapproved VPNs to be operated or used. Plans for a China-like closed-off Russian Internet are currently in discussion, as are increasingly restrictive laws concerning user data, VPNs, and encryption.

Iran

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What’s blocked: Most major services and apps, as well as some keywords.

Surveillance: Very high.

VPN legality: Non-approved VPN users may get jail time, but this is mostly enforced on political dissenters.

Iran is a fairly closed-off country in many ways, and their Internet is no exception. They maintain a large list of blocked foreign content, banned for moral and political reasons, and also censor content based on certain keywords that it doesn’t like. This can result in some unintended consequences, such as the banning of sites containing the word “embassy” due to “ass” being part of the word. They have their own domestic intranet, which is much cheaper than foreign Internet access, and throttle users’ speeds down to a few megabits per second, both frustrating users and making it easier for them to conduct deep surveillance. Technically, accessing a non-approved VPN is illegal, but this rule is usually enforced as a way to suppress political dissent.

Saudi Arabia

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What’s blocked: A rotating list of websites and services, particularly ones critical of the Saudi government.

Surveillance: Very high.

VPN legality: Not illegal, but may be blocked

Saudi Arabia censors a lot of content, much of it reported by its own citizens for being immoral or politically dissident, though popular services such as Skype and WhatsApp have also been banned at certain times. All its traffic is routed through a single main hub, where it is filtered by IP, domain, and keyword. Using a VPN shouldn’t raise any legal issues, but the government would naturally prefer that you not circumvent its measures, so they block many VPNs as well.

Pakistan

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What’s blocked: Politically dissident and “immoral” content, occasionally including social media.

Surveillance: High

VPN legality: Legal

Pakistan filters a lot of sites based on keywords as well as blocking individual addresses. Most major foreign services, like YouTube and Facebook, are usually accessible, but have been blocked in the past.

Turkmenistan

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What’s blocked: A lot. Most social media is inaccessible, alongside dissident websites and news media.

Surveillance: High.

VPN legality: Mostly blocked, probably illegal, but many still work.

This central Asian country doesn’t get a lot of attention, but it runs a fairly authoritarian (and expensive!) Internet regime. A lot of major foreign websites are blocked, and the government continues to add sites to the list as it finds new unapproved content. Travelers should be safe using VPNs, but the government has expressed a desire to crack down.

 (Dis)honorable mentions

  • Vietnam: Ranks very low on measures of Internet freedom but doesn’t block outside content as much as it does domestic political content.
  • Syria: Very authoritarian Internet policies, even blacking out the Internet for the whole country at times, but it’s not much of a travel destination at the moment.
  • Uzbekistan: Very much not free Internet, but it doesn’t block much outside content.
  • North Korea: It’s not so much censorship as it is “no Internet.” Most of the country can’t even get on the outside Internet, and not many people travel there. Even if you were to go, using a VPN might not be advisable.

Finding the right VPN

Every country uses different filtering software and blocks different things, so a VPN that works in one may not work in another. If you’re travelling to a country that you know has strict Internet controls, you’ll want to look for a VPN that has been specifically tested and shown to work in that country (like ExpressVPN and NordVPN). Many of these countries also engage in high levels of Internet surveillance and may or may not impose penalties on VPN use, though, so be sure you know about local laws before you try getting online. It’s unlikely that travelers using VPNs could be identified since the traffic should be encrypted and anonymous, but long-term residents and locals should take care.

Image credits: Freedom House Freedom on the Net Report 2018

6 comments

  1. Gulf countries from my personal experience. In some of them, even VPNs are government controlled and trying to bypass is probably illegal. But, it is impossible to catch up with a legitimate high quality VPN provider with traffic encryption and zero knowledge DNS which means your personal data is not stored on any servers.

    Just remember to install the VPN and Tor browsers on your computers before arrival in the country.

    1. Totally agree, I’ve tried quite a few providers, found NordVPN and PrivateVPN to be the best ones in general, but Nord takes the top spot regarding bypassing geo-locked content and so on.

    2. That’s the issue, yeah–as governments get more tech-savvy, VPN laws are likely to change for the worse in a lot of places, so it’s important to stay updated before you try to connect and end up getting a visit from the authorities. Tourists should mostly be fine, since they’re not really the targets of the censorship, but actual enforcement can be fairly subjective in a lot of countries.

  2. In Most Countries Of The Region #PERSIAN_GULF Control the contents of the World Wide Web But In The IRAN We Are Need The VPN To Play Video Game Like ” Origin ” “Apex Legends ” “BFV” .

  3. This list is incomplete without Uganda where one needs to pay 200 shs. To access any social media site for 24hrs.
    And during elections, all social media sites are turned off.

    1. That’s good information to have! It’s definitely censorship in the form of “obstacle to access.” I’m assuming a VPN will help you get around that 200 shilling fee and the election-time shutdowns?

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