The Essentials

Are VPNs Legal? VPN & Censorship Laws Around the World

Simon Migliano
Simon MiglianoUpdated

In this guide, we look at 10 countries where VPNs are illegal or restricted, as well as 17 other countries with laws that significantly affect users' digital freedoms.

DISCLAIMER: While this guide has been thoroughly researched, we are not legal professionals and cannot guarantee that this information is accurate. If you wish to clarify VPN legality or the specific laws of any country, seek professional legal advice.

Is it Legal to Use a VPN?

Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) are legal to use almost everywhere in the world. As well as protecting users from government surveillance, they help to circumvent censorship, bypass geo-restrictions, and stay safe on public WiFi networks.

The legality of using a VPN will depend on the country you’re physically located in.

Even then, laws and restrictions surrounding online activity can often be vague or misleading.

In this guide, we cover the 27 most digitally restricted countries and their relevant laws on VPN usage, censorship, and surveillance.

We investigated VPN laws and restrictions worldwide and found that VPNs are legal everywhere in the world except for in 10 more complicated countries.

If your country is not mentioned below, VPNs are perfectly legal there.

We also found laws that significantly restrict digital freedoms in 17 other countries.

These countries are shown below in our tables on VPN and digital rights restrictions, with each country name linking to a more in-depth analysis of specific laws and events regarding digital rights.

As well as reading this guide, it’s also sensible to familiarise yourself with your country’s local laws and the Five-Eyes, Nine-Eyes and 14-Eyes alliances.

These are international data sharing agreements that see the world’s most powerful nations pass your personal data and online activity between themselves, even aiding in the prosecution of internet users across borders.

If you’re in the UK, US, Australia, Canada or New Zealand, VPNs are perfectly legal.

That being said, these countries often have intrusive surveillance and data retention laws which might be worth considering. You can learn more about this in our guide to VPN jurisdictions.

Regardless of your location, using a VPN for illegal purposes is illegal everywhere, though what is considered illegal in one country may be legal in another.

Summary of VPN Restrictions

Top 10 most restricted countries

Country VPN Status Social Media Blocks Censorship Surveillance
Belarus Illegal Moderate Extensive Extensive
China Restricted Extensive Extensive Extensive
Iran Restricted Moderate Extensive Extensive
Iraq Illegal Moderate Moderate Minor
North Korea Illegal Extensive Extensive Extensive
Oman Restricted Minor Extensive Moderate
Russia Restricted Moderate Extensive Moderate
Turkey Restricted Moderate Extensive Extensive
Turkmenistan Illegal Extensive Extensive Extensive
UAE Restricted Moderate Extensive Moderate

A table summarising VPN legality and infringements on digital rights in the 10 most restricted countries

17 countries with notable digital rights restrictions

Country VPN Status Social Media Blocks Censorship Surveillance
Cambodia Legal Moderate Extensive Extensive
Cuba Legal Minor Extensive Extensive
Egypt Legal Moderate Moderate Moderate
Eritrea Legal Moderate Moderate Moderate
Ethiopia Legal Moderate Extensive Moderate
Indonesia Legal Moderate Extensive Extensive
Kazakhstan Legal Moderate Extensive Moderate
Malaysia Legal Moderate Extensive Extensive
Myanmar Legal Minor Extensive Moderate
Saudi Arabia Legal Moderate Extensive Extensive
Sudan Legal Moderate Extensive Moderate
Syria Legal Minor Extensive Extensive
Thailand Legal Moderate Extensive Extensive
Uganda Legal Extensive Extensive Moderate
Uzbekistan Legal Moderate Extensive Extensive
Venezuela Legal Moderate Moderate Moderate
Vietnam Legal Moderate Moderate Moderate

A table summarising VPN legality and infringements on digital rights in 17 other notable countries

Key: The countries in these tables are labelled accordingly for each category, with ‘extensive’ being the strongest, followed by ‘moderate’ and ‘minor.’

For example, a country labelled as ‘extensive’ in the censorship column has a large number of related laws and practices in place, while a country labelled ‘moderate’ will only have some. A country labelled ‘minor’ will have a low number, but still enough to negatively affects users’ rights.

Where Are VPNs Illegal or Restricted?

Belarus

VPNs are illegal in Belarus.

Belarus has blocked VPNs as it sees them as a method to undermine the law. Tor, which enables anonymous communications and access to the Dark Web, has also been blocked in Belarus since 2016.

In February 2015, the country’s Communications Ministry decreed specifically against anonymized services like VPNs. However, it is unclear how much ability the government has to contain the expanding VPN market.

There is an unspecified fine for anyone caught using a VPN in Belarus.

Related laws & practices:

This same law requires all internet providers in Belarus to register users and censor sites on the national blacklist, which includes sites with pornographic and “extremist” content.

  • However, officials in Belarus are now frequently blocking other sites, such as independent news agencies like Nasha Niva.
  • The 2018 Amendments to the Law on Mass Media gave the Ministry of Information in Belarus complete control over all online resources, and instruct all owners of content to check it for defamation or false information.
  • The amendments to the Mass Media law also forbid users contributing to foreign media without special accreditation from the Belarussian Ministry of Foriegn Affairs.

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China

China, 2010. Google closes its site in the country following disputes over censorship with the government. Credit: Wenn Rights/Alamy

Only government-approved VPNs are legal in China.

VPN providers have to gain strict approval from the Chinese Communist Party before they can operate in the country. This often involves agreeing to conditions that undermine the purpose of a VPN, such as logging, making it pointless when it comes to privacy.

Using a VPN “without authorization” in China can result in fines of up to 15,000 yuan (roughly $2,200).

Many people still wish to use VPNs in China despite this. If this applies to you, we recommend you visit our guide to the best VPN for China .

Related laws & practices:

  • According to Freedom House , the 2015 Amendments to the Criminal Code introduced prison time of up to seven years for those found guilty of spreading ‘misinformation’ on social media. It’s unclear what counts as ‘misinformation,’ meaning that authorities can justify unfair arrests.
  • The 2015 Antiterrorism Law prohibits Chinese users from spreading information or images about terrorist acts via social media. It states that company employees must delete terrorist content in order to avoid detention, and puts pressure on private companies to hand over user data to Chinese authorities.
  • The 2017 Cybersecurity Law strengthens the obligation of internet companies to make sure users are registered under their real names, and that user data is stored within the country.
  • The Cybersecurity law requires Chinese internet companies to assist authorities with investigations or risk losing their license.
  • The Cybersecurity law also confirmed the role of the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) as responsible for enforcing laws relating to telecommunications and online activity.
  • The Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) are responsible for monitoring online content and behavior, and continually introduce new laws that affect users online activity.

In 2017, the CAC introduced 176 new rules concerning online behavior in China.

  • Any online activity seen to be going against the interest of the CCP will likely be illegal in China. Censorship guidelines established by China’s CCP are highly secretive, while the criminal code is often used to justify sending individuals to prison.
  • China is widely regarded as the leader in surveillance and censorship technology, and many are concerned about the exportation of this technology to other countries.

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Iran

Only those VPNs sanctioned by the state are legal in Iran.

Iran has been blocking unsanctioned VPNs since 2013, while sanctioned VPNs are heavily monitored. The penalty for using a non-sanctioned VPN in Iran is up to one year in prison.


Related laws & practices:

Among restricted sites in Iran are those belonging to human rights groups, foreign news outlets and political opposition groups.

  • Domestic and foreign sites are even priced differently to encourage users to access only state-sanctioned, local content. Those accessing approved sites in Iran receive a 50% discount.
  • Authorities are now increasing their own involvement with censorship circumvention tools such as MTProto, which uses the technical infrastructure of Iran’s Ministry of Information Communications Technology.
  • Because of the government’s involvement with these censorship circumvention tools, users now have no way of knowing whether data sent via these apps is safe, or is being viewed and stored by the Iranian government.
  • Iran blocked domestic internet companies from hosting banned websites on 8th October 2019. This means that banned websites must move to foreign hosting companies to remain accessible.

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Iraq

VPNs are illegal in Iraq.

VPNs have been banned in Iraq since 2014. The government claims this ban is to keep terrorist organizations, chiefly ISIS, from influencing the public via social media.

ISIS is no longer operating in Iraq, but the country’s harsh censorship laws remain.

Government officials in Iraq use VPNs too, despite ‘no exceptions’ being the official rule.

Related laws & practices:

  • The 2019 Law on Information Technology Crimes [Draft] punishes online government critics in Iraq with harsh prison sentences such as life imprisonment.
  • Amnesty International have criticized this new laws’ broad wording.

    The law prohibits acts that undermine Iraq’s “independence, peace and political, military security and economic interests,” which could easily encompass any form of online expression authorities do not agree with.

  • While Iraq has few laws that directly reference censorship, the country frequently carries out internet shutdowns. One reason commonly cited by the government for this is to prevent students cheating during exam season, though this seems unlikely.
  • In 2018, Amnesty International reported that authorities were shutting down the internet in Iraq to prevent the sharing of videos or images that showed state violence against protestors on social media.
  • Social media in Iraq has faced frequent blocking, such as in 2014, and most recently during anti-government protests on 2nd October 2019.
  • As of 3rd October 2019, Iraq authorities have implemented a complete internet shutdown that is affecting 75% of the country’s population. This is as a result of anti-government protests.

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North Korea

VPNs are illegal in North Korea.

No foreign media is allowed at all in North Korea, so it’s not surprising that VPNs are illegal. The penalty for VPN use is unknown as North Korea is so secretive.

The country’s internet is also heavily censored, with foreign diplomats prohibited from using it.

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Oman

Only VPNs permitted by the Sultanate are legal in Oman.

Since 2010, Oman has banned all VPNs except those permitted by the Sultanate. These exceptions only apply to corporate use in Oman – plus, they must be applied for and the logs are kept.

Personal VPN use is illegal in Oman to prevent efforts to bypass censorship. Attempting to circumvent these laws is punishable with a fine of $1,300.

Related laws & practices:

  • The 2002 Telecommunications Act forbids the monitoring of telecommunications in Oman, unless there has been a violation of “public order or morals or infringements on the rights of others.”
  • The wording of the Telecommunications Acts is broad, meaning it could be used to justify unfair arrests by authorities.
  • This same law established the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority in Oman. The TRA is committed to “regulating and maintaining the telecom services” of Oman and enforcing the Telecommunications Act.
  • Criticism of Sultan Qaboos is strictly prohibited in Oman, preventing the development of genuinely independent media.

Media outlets that aren’t run by the state are known to accept money from the Omani government and practise self-censorship.

  • If outlets don’t self-censor, they’re at risk of being blocked, shut down or having their licenses revoked by authorities, while journalists can face prosecution.

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Russia

Moscow, Russia. March 10th, 2019. A protestor marches against increasing internet censorship, holding a sign that reads “you will not switch off the internet.” Credit: Elena Rostunova

Only government-approved VPNs are legal in Russia.

This ban on unapproved VPNs in Russia is supposedly to prevent access to “unlawful content.” Russian ISPs enforce the VPN ban, blocking websites that offer their services.

The punishment for using an unapproved VPN in Russia is 300,000 RUB ($5,100) for the user and 700,000 RUB ($12,000) for the service provider.

If you’re travelling to Russia and need to use a VPN, we recommend you visit our guide to the best VPN for Russia.

Related laws & practices:

  • The 2016 amendments to the Yarovaya Law introduced harsh prison sentences of up to seven years for endorsing or advocating “terrorism” online. It’s broad wording leaves the law open to misuse by Russian officials who can determine what counts as “terrorism.”
  • Under the Yarovaya Law, inciting calls to extremism online can land you in prison for up to five years, while inciting hatred can get you up to 6 years.

    In Russia, “extremism” includes humiliation of national dignity, propaganda of exceptionalism and public justification of terrorism. These terms are broad and open to misuse by Russian authorities.

  • The 2019 Fake News Bill was passed into law in March and bans the posting of ‘fake news’ online by digital media outlets and other websites. Those found guilty are liable to be fined up to 400,000 rubles ($6,000).
  • Roskomnadzor (Russia’s telecommunications watchdog) issue takedown requests to those caught posting fake news’ online. These must be abided by ‘instantly,’ usually within 24 hours.
  • The 2019 Internet Insults Bill bans insulting Putin and Russian authorities, as well as posting content online that shows “disrespect to society, the state and government organs of the Russian federation.”
  • Punishment for violating the Internet Insults Law is a fine of up to 100,000 rubles ($1,570) or a prison sentence of up to 15 days.
  • The 2019 Sovereign Internet Bill formalized Russia’s plan to create a domestic internet. This has been portrayed as a necessary security measure in case countries like the US cut them off from the internet.
  • Many suspect that the Sovereign Internet Bill was passed to increase the government’s ability to suppress dissent.
  • The Russian government are aiming to route all internet traffic domestically over the next few years. If this goes as planned, users will be at increased risk of monitoring, surveillance and censorship because of the government’s use of Deep Packet Inspection (DPI). DPI is currently used by China as an effective blocking tool and to carry out mass censorship.
  • Russia blocks a large number of sites including messaging app Telegram. Telegram is blocked in Russia because the company refused to hand over encryption keys to authorities. Many users across Russia have continued to access Telegram through the use of a VPN.
  • Political opposition sites, LGBTQ content and sites that cover Russia’s conflict with Ukraine are other examples of blocked sites in Russia.

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Turkey

Istanbul, Turkey. May 15th, 2011. Press release during protest against the government’s decision to introduce content filtering. Credit: Evren Kalinbacak

VPNs are legal in Turkey, but their use is restricted.

The Turkish government have been restricting VPN use since 2016, justifying the crackdown as necessary to protect national security and to “fight terrorism”. Tor was also blocked in Turkey in 2016 along with 10 VPN providers.

As watchdogs in Turkey have noted, it is often people critical of the government who end up being penalized and censored by authorities.

If you need a VPN before visiting the country, you can read our guide to the best VPN for Turkey.

Related laws & practices:

  • In November 2011, Turkey’s Information and Communications Technology Authority (BTK) introduced a new internet filtering system, the “Secure Usage of the Internet” project. This gives internet subscribers a choice of profiles to access the internet with.
  • Initially, these profiles were ‘family,’ ‘standard, ‘children’ or ‘domestic.’ However, following mass protests after the plans initial announcement, these plans were changed to optional ‘family’ and ‘child’ profiles. If chosen, these automatically apply a BTK determined whitelist, blocking out content the government does not approve of.
  • The 2014 Amendments to the Law on State Intelligence Services and the National Intelligence Organization grant the Turkish National Intelligence Agency the right to access all personal and business communications data without a court order.
  • The Intelligence Services law also grants Turkish agents immunity from prosecution if they commit any unlawful behavior in the course of their work.
  • Reporting on the actions of the Turkish National Intelligence Organization is also prohibited, and journalists can go to prison for up to nine years if they publish material leaked from intelligence sources.
  • The 2016 Law on Regulation of Content Posted on the Internet (a.k.a The Internet Act) prohibits defamation of the founder of the Republic of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
  • The Internet Act also led to the blocking of Wikipedia in 2017 to prevent users from accessing pages citing Turkey’s involvement in the Syrian conflict.
  • Sites and content can be blocked in Turkey under the Internet Act if they’re considered a “threat to national security.” This can be interpreted at will by the government, and has been used to censor independent news sites.
  • The Internet Act also requires hosting and access providers in Turkey to keep all data traffic for up to a year.
  • The 2018 Anti-Terrorism Law criminalizes ‘legitimizing, glorifying, or inciting violent methods or threats’ in Turkey for the ‘propaganda of a terrorist organization.’ This law also endorses permanent State of Emergency powers such as detaining suspects without charge.

    The broad wording of the Anti-Terrorism Law has been used in Turkey to punish journalists and academics for insulting the government. Those found guilty of criticizing authorities can face up to five years in prison.

  • The 2019 Amendments to Internet Regulations have made it a requirement that all online content providers in Turkey, from Netflix to independent news sites, get a license from Turkey’s Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK).
  • Content providers that don’t obtain a license from the RTÜK face being blocked. Providers with a license will be monitored and blocked if they post anything the government does not approve of.
  • Social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have also faced blocking in Turkey. Facebook and Twitter frequently receive requests to takedown content.
  • Twitter reports show that it has been issued more takedown requests from Turkey than any other country in the world.
  • Turkey regularly blocks LGBTQ sites and content on the grounds of obscenity.

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Turkmenistan

VPNs are illegal in Turkmenistan.

Turkmenistan banned VPNs in 2015 to censor foreign media. Any use of proxies or VPNs is detected and blocked by Turkmenistan’s sole, state-run ISP, Turkmenet.

Turkmenistan’s internet is deliberately priced out to discourage people from using it, with a monthly subscription costing $213 for 8Kbpsd, more than the country’s average monthly salary.

Using a VPN in Turkmenistan can bring an unspecified fine and an intimidating summons from the Ministry of National Security to have a “preventative conversation” .

Related laws & practices:

Independent news and social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are blocked in Turkmenistan.

  • Messaging apps WeChat, Viber and WhatsApp have been blocked since November 2013.
  • All internet activity and correspondence in Turkmenistan is monitored by the authorities.

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UAE

Only government-approved VPNs are legal are in the UAE.

The United Arab Emirates has only permitted government-approved VPNs since 2012, during the Arab Spring. This was to discourage the use of VoIP services like Skype, WhatsApp and Facebook.

The blocking of VoIP services in the UAE was for both economic and political reasons. It aims to encourage local residents to pay the (quite expensive) subscription fee for local telecom services, Etislat and Du.

However, corporate entities in the UAE are able to use VPNs unrestricted.

If a VPN is used to commit a crime in the UAE, the user could face prison or a fine of between AED 150,000 (roughly $41,000) and AED 500,000 (roughly $136,000).

For those in need of a VPN before traveling to the UAE, we put together our guide to the best VPN for the UAE

Related laws & practices:

  • The 2017 Amendments to the 2012 Cybercrime Law bans language that offends religion, the state, it’s rulers and symbols, as well as online gambling or pornography. The law also criminalizes using the internet in the UAE to call for protests.
  • The 2017 amendment to the Cybercrime Law criminalized expressing “sympathy for Qatar” with prison time of up to 15 years for those who do.
  • ISPs in the UAE must block and censor content considered pornographic or a threat to the power of the state, as well as content related to gambling or terrorism.

Posting social, political or religious opinions online in the UAE is enough to send users to prison.

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Countries with Digital Rights Restrictions

The following countries have online surveillance and censorship laws that are worth considering if you’re concerned about your online privacy and security:

Cambodia

VPNs are legal in Cambodia.


Related laws & practices:

  • The 2015 Law on Telecommunications criminalizes planning a criminal activity or damaging property, punishing those that do with fines of up to KHR40 million (US$8,800) and up to six months in prison.
  • This law also punishes the use, installation or building of telecommunications equipment that leads to “national insecurity.”
  • The law offers no clarification of what counts as “national security” and can consequently be misused to penalize government critics, journalists or activists.
  • The 2018 Proclamation of Website and Social Media Control orders all ISPs in Cambodia to install surveillance technology.

This surveillance technology allows authorities to easily block social media accounts, or pages considered discriminatory or a threat to national security.

  • The 2018 Fake News Law criminalizes posting misinformation online, and punishes offenders with up to two years in prison and a fine of US $1,000. This law also requires that websites register with Cambodia’s information ministry.
  • The 2018 Amendments to the Criminal Code introduced punishments for insulting the King under lèse-majesté law. Any person or media outlet guilty of producing or sharing content that “affect[s] the dignity of (the King)” can be punished with up to five years in prison, and a fine of up to 10 million riels ($2,500.)

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Cuba

Trinidad, Cuba. February 10th, 2019. Tourists and local Cuban people waiting in line at door entrance to Cuban government controlled ETECSA telecommunications company office. Credit: Autumn Sky Photography

VPNs are legal in Cuba.


Related laws & practices:

  • Cuba’s very constitution asserts that freedom of speech is secondary to promoting socialist ideals. Expressing views that go against “the revolution” is banned.
  • The Penal Code in Cuba can put individuals in prison for up to 20 years for activities that threaten public order. It can also be used to detain, reeducate or surveil those that go against socialist norms.
  • The 1996 Decree-Law 209 bans the use of the internet for violating “Cuban society’s moral principles or the country’s laws.” The laws also prohibits emails that “jeopardize national security”
  • The 1999 Law to Protect Cuba’s National Independence and Economy law bans the distribution of content or material that goes against the government or shows support of the U.S. embargo on business deals, with a prison sentence of three to eight years for those that do.
  • In 2007, Cuba introduced Resolution 127. This bans spreading information that threatens national security, social norms or an individuals integrity. It also grants internet and data providers the right to monitor the internet and report any criminal behavior to the authorities.
  • Resolution 179 , was introduced in 2008. This consolidates the role of ISPs censoring the internet, stating that they must “take the necessary measures to prevent access to sites the contents of which are contrary to social interest, morality and good behavior; as well as the use of applications that affect the integrity or security of the state.”

    Cuba only granted home internet access to its citizens in 2017 and rolled out mobile data plans in 2018. As well as these services being expensive, Cuba’s only service provider, the state-owned ETECSA, exercises significant censorship controls . On request from the Communist Party of Cuba, the ETECSA is legally obliged to block and restrict access to content critical of the government.

  • Monitoring and surveillance in Cuba is pervasive, with the ETECSA made to cut off a users internet access if they partake in any activity that violates social norms promoted by the government.
  • During the referendum held earlier this year, critical news websites from both inside and outside the country were blocked in Cuba. This reduced citizens ability to access unbiased information, and helped the Communist Party of Cuba enforce its “yes” vote propaganda.

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Egypt

VPNs are legal in Egypt.

It’s surprising that VPNs are legal in Egypt, given the extent of internet monitoring, surveillance and censorship in the country.

If you are travelling to Egypt and want to use a VPN during your stay, we recommend you visit our guide to the best VPN for Egypt.

Related laws & practices:

  • The 2013 Amendments to the Constitution state that censorship is illegal “in any way.”
  • However, there are significant exceptions to this rule. These exceptions include during “times of war or general mobilization,” or when content is “intended” to incite violence or is discriminatory. The broad wording of these exceptions can be manipulated to punish government critics, restricting freedom of speech.
  • The 2015 Anti-Terrorism Law broadens the definition of ‘terrorism’ in Egypt to include threatening public order. It also allows authorities to monitor the internet and social media for terrorist content.

The Anti-Terrorism Law punishes groups that advocate for the “obstruction” of laws with life imprisonment or the death penalty. This directly impacts the work of human rights groups and activists in the country. The law also punishes the creation of websites seen to promote or support terrorism with a minimum prison sentence of five years.

  • Not only that, the law has introduced the death penalty for those seen to be setting up or leading a terrorist group. It also protects officers or military members who use force on civilians.
  • The 2018 Amendments to Media and Press Law criminalized the sharing of publications from both in and outside Egypt when they contain material seen as promoting violence, racism, hatred or intolerance, or which disturbs the public peace.
  • Under this law, social media accounts with 5,000 followers or more can be suspended for spreading fake news or promoting violence. The owners of these accounts are also liable to go to prison.
  • The 2018 Cybercrimes Law permits authorities to legally block sites seen as a threat to ‘national security,’ and Egyptians who visit banned websites can be sent to prison for up to a year. The creators of banned sites can be sent to prison for up to two years.
  • Worryingly, Egypt’s Cybercrimes Law also requires ISPs to hold onto user data and pass it over to authorities when required.
  • During Egypt’s constitutional referendum in April, authorities blocked the page of an oppositional petition named Batel (“void”). This demonstrates the reach of Egyptian authorities and their disregard for digital rights and freedoms.

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Eritrea

VPNs are currently still legal in Eritrea.

Labelled by CPJ as the world’s most censored country due to it’s press and speech restrictions, Eritrea’s authoritarian rule has also affected user’s access and use of the internet.

Related laws & practices:

CPJ cite a report by the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa, noting that the authoritarian regime in Eritrea is so “brutal or commanding” that further disruption to the country’s internet is almost unnecessary.

  • Despite this, Eritrea has taken some moves to limit access to perspectives that may paint the government in a bad light. The Press law of 1996 states that the media must promote “national objectives,” while all independent media was banned in 2001.
  • The government did block access to social media on May 15th 2019. This was supposedly to prevent the organization of a protest in the run up to the country’s Independence Day, on May 26th.

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Ethiopia

VPNs are legal in Ethiopia.


Related laws & practices:

  • The 2008 Mass Media and Freedom of Information Proclamation confirms freedom of expression and the press. However, it weakens this by handing out harsh fines for defamation.
  • It also makes the registration and licensing process for media outlets unnecessarily complex.
  • Organizations such as CPJ have previously written to Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed pleading for reconsideration of the Mass Media law.
  • The 2009 Anti-Terrorism Proclamation was extended by the 2012 Telecom Fraud Offences Law to apply to electronic communications.
  • These laws criminalize any communications or statements made online seen to be encouraging terrorism. The Telecom Fraud Offences Law also bans VoIP services like Skype, and has made it mandatory for users to register their devices with the government.
  • The 2016 Computer Crime Proclamation criminalizes online actions like sharing content that “incites fear, violence, chaos or conflict among people.”
  • The Computer Crime law punishes sharing ‘inflammatory content’ with up to three years in prison. It significantly restricts freedom of speech as it can be used to silence government critics.

Ethiopia’s Computer Crime Proclamation allows the government to monitor and intercept digital communications. It has also made it a requirement for ISPs and other telecom service providers to store user data for at least a year.

  • The Hate Speech and Misinformation Law , drafted in April 2019, criminalizes ‘hate speech’ and ‘fake news’, with punishments of up to five years and three years respectively.
  • The legislation’s broad wording has concerning ramifications for free speech, as it can be used to punish those critical of the government as well as independent media outlets.
  • In the past, Ethiopia frequently carried out internet shutdowns and social media blocks. However, since Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has come to power, the country has experienced more press and internet freedom.
  • In April 2018, CPJ recorded no journalists to be behind bars for the first time in 14 years, and over 260 websites were unblocked. Ethiopia’s previous ban on media outlets was lifted, meaning journalists could return from exile.
  • While Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has brought Ethiopia greater freedom, the repressive laws which were introduced under previous governments remain.

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Indonesia

Yogyakarta, Indonesia. March 8th, 2019. A protestor holds up a sign calling for the end to LGBT discrimination as part of the 2019 Women’s March. Credit: Billy Hanggara

VPNs are legal in Indonesia.


Related laws & practices:

  • The 2011 State Intelligence Law criminalizes knowingly or negligently leaking confidential information concerning the country’s intelligence activities. Individuals found guilty of this can go to prison for up to 10 years.

Indonesia’s State Intelligence Law also gives authorities permission “to prevent and/or to fight” any activity or individual that is harmful to “national interests or national security.” This is open to misuse by authorities as its broad wording legalizes the use of violence against those convicted.

  • The 2016 Amendments to the Electronic Transactions Law allow government agencies to block content seen as “negative” and/or a threat to public order. The law punishes hate speech, defamation and inciting violence online with up to four years in prison and a fine of IDR 750 million ($54,000).
  • As a result of this laws broad wording, it can be used to penalize users for tagging someone in a Facebook post the government disagrees with.
  • The 2016 amendments to Indonesia’s ETL also increased content restrictions without offering any transparency or way for websites to appeal.
  • 2018 Amendments to the 2003 Eradication of Criminal Acts of Terrorism Law . This law gives authorities the right to intercept online and mobile communications sent by, or to, anyone suspected of involvement with a terrorist act.

Organizations such as Human Rights Watch have identified how the broad definition of ‘terrorism’ in Indonedia’s Terrorism Law could be misused to unfairly surveil government critics, environmental advocates or religious groups.

  • In 2017, a National Cyber and Encryption Agency was established in Indonesia which has the job of censoring the internet by monitoring and filtering content.
  • The Ministry of Communication and Information (MCI) released “Cyber Drone 9” in January 2018, an A.I. system designed to automatically filter and block banned content.
  • Blocking is reliant on each ISP’s software, meaning that ISPs can add additional sites to blacklists at will. This further restricts freedom of information in Indonesia.
  • Indonesia frequently blocks LGBTQ content, websites and any content seen to be offensive to Islam. Tumblr and other social media sites have faced content blocks, with an Instagram account removed in February 2019 for depicting the struggles of gay Muslims.
  • Reddit, YouTube and Vimeo are completely blocked in Indonesia, and some VPNs have also been subject to blocking.

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Kazakhstan

VPNs are currently still legal in Kazakhstan, despite frequent internet disruption.


Related laws & practices:

  • The 2014 Amendments to the Criminal Code increased penalties for libel in Kazakhstan. They also introduced harsher punishments for spreading fake news and insulting public officials.
  • As a result of these amendments, four journalists were interrogated by Kazakhstan authorities because they worked for Forbes.kz, a site seen by authorities to be spreading misinformation.

The law also expanded the definition of “inciting social discord,” which is criminalized in Kazakhstan and condemns any call to change or overthrow the constitutional order. As a result, human rights groups, activists and independent media organizations can be punished for their online behaviour.

  • The 2018 Ban on Material relating to the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan makes it illegal to publish or share content, including private messages, related to The Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK), who became classified as a terrorist group in Kazakhstan in 2018.
  • The 2018 Decree on Internet Blocking legalized site blocking in Kazakhstan, even though authorities had been doing it for years. The decree allows authorities to block websites during “emergency situations.” This broad terminology can be used to block any website not inline with government opinion.
  • The Authorities in Kazakhstan frequently carry out internet shutdowns and site blocking during times of political unrest.
  • Facebook, Instagram, Telegram, YouTube and independent media sites were blocked in Kazakhstan during oppositional protests held in May 2019.
  • In June 2019, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev became president. During this election, some VPN services became blocked in Kazakhstan. It’s therefore reasonable to suspect future VPN blocking in Kazakhstan, or a complete ban.

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Malaysia

VPNs are legal in Malaysia.


Related laws & practices:

  • The 1997 Computer Crimes Act criminalizes hacking or ‘misuse’ of computers in Malaysia. It also gives authorities the right to obtain and search through the devices of anyone suspected to have committed either of these crimes.
  • The 1998 Communications and Multimedia Act makes it illegal to spread or produce content online that is seen to be offensive, threatening, obscene, false, indecent, or a threat to national security in Malaysia.
  • Malaysia’s Communication and Multimedia Act also allows authorities to intercept communications if they are believed to relate to a crime such as the improper use of services (listed above) or fraud.
  • The 2012 Security Offences (Special Measures) Act grants authorities in Malaysia wide-reaching interception capabilities for online and mobile communications. It criminalizes behavior that goes against the state or incites ‘terrorist’ acts.
  • This law also allows police officers to intercept communications if they are believed to relate to criminal activity.
  • The 2015 Amendments to the Sedition Act allows authorities to block all electronic content considered to be inciting rebellion against the state. The maximum prison time for those guilty of sedition in Malaysia is now up from three years to seven.

In 2018, the preacher Wan Ji Wan Hussin was given a prison sentence of 12 months for posting supposedly ‘seditious’ comments about the Sultan of Selangor on Facebook in 2012.

  • Malaysia’s Sedition Act is problematic as it can be used to penalize any anti-government rhetoric and valid government critique. However, replacing the act has recently been discussed by the government, and this could increase freedom of speech in Malaysia.

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Myanmar

VPNs are legal in Myanmar.

Though VPNs are legal in Myanmar, the country has a poor digital rights record, encouraging self-censorship through overly broad laws and harsh prosecutions.

There are also no data protection laws in Myanmar.

Related laws & practices:

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Saudi Arabia

VPNs are legal in Saudi Arabia despite the country’s harsh censorship laws.


Related laws & practices:

  • The 2007 Anti-Cyber Crime Law bans sending or producing material that “harms public order, religious values, public morals, [or] the sanctity of private life.” Those who do can be fined up to SAR 3 million (US $800,00) or sent to prison for up to five years.
  • The 2017 Anti-Terrorism Law forbids individuals from using their “social status or media influence to promote terrorism,” with those that do liable to receive a prison sentence of up to 15 years.
  • This law also criminalizes describing the king or crown prince in a way which shames religion or justice. Those found guilty can be punished with five to 10 years in prison.
  • In 2017, the government urged citizens of Saudi Arabia to report others for posting content that undermined the state. They were told to do this via the Kolonna Amn (“We are all security”) app.
  • Following the legalization of VOIP services, authorities in Saudi Arabia announced in 2017 that they would begin monitoring and censoring all calls.

Surveillance is carried out on a mass scale in Saudi Arabia, with the government claiming it’s a necessity to protect ‘national security’.

  • Those most likely to experience monitoring in Saudi Arabia are political, social and religious activists.
  • Other blocked sites in Saudi Arabia include ones deemed ‘immoral’ by the government, which largely targets pornography, gambling websites and those that promote Shia ideology or share LGBTQ content.
  • The infamous case of journalist Jamal Kashoggi demonstrates how far authorities in Saudi Arabia are willing to go to silence opposition voices. His murder serves as a reminder to all citizens of Saudi Arabia of what could happen to those who speak out against the country’s policies.

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Sudan

Khartoum, Sudan. 30th June, 2019. Sudanese protest against the ruling Transitional Military Council (TMC) during a total internet blackout. Credit: Mohamed Khidir/Xinhua/Alamy Live News

VPNs are legal in Sudan.

Access to the internet in Sudan is limited due to the high price of data and the country’s poor economy.

In 2018 it was reported that internet access in Sudan cost almost half the average users monthly salary. These high prices are an obstacle to internet access for those living in Sudan.

Related laws & practices:

  • The 2007 Informatic Offences Combating Act (I.T. Crime Act) bans websites that criticise the government or post content that’s defamatory or offensive to ‘public morals’.
  • This law restricts free speech as it allows for the Sudanese government to censor anything that goes against the party line.
  • The 2010 National Security Act gives the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) the ability to arrest and censor journalists who criticize the government. It also grants the NISS immunity from prosecution, meaning it can get away with violence when making arrests.

Amnesty International previously reported how the NISS have used torture, detention and intimidation on prisoners.

  • The 2018 Law of Combating Cybercrimes act criminalises the spreading of ‘fake news’ and criticizing foreigners, punishing those that do with up to two years in prison.
  • The 2018 Amendments to the Press and Publications Act (a.k.a the Media Law) require all journalists to register with the Journalism Council. They also extend press laws to affect digital media. This means that editors-in-chief are liable for all content posted on their site.
  • Sudan experienced an internet shutdown in July 2019 that significantly reduced the ability of users within the country to communicate. The internet shutdown was brought about by Sudan’s ruling military council as a method of suppressing pro-democracy protests.

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Syria

VPNs are legal in Syria.

However, in 2011 Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) was used by authorities in Syria to block VPN protocols OpenVPN, L2TP and IPsec.

This has made VPNs reliant on these protocols no longer effective for users in the country.

Related laws & practices:

  • The 2001 Press Law prohibits posting or sharing fake news, or news that threatens Syria’s “national unity” or national sentiment. This broad terminology can be used to punish journalists, political activists or opposition groups for merely posting their views online.
  • Syria’s Media Law , passed in 2011, criminalises posting content that threatens “national unity and national security,” incites “hate crimes” or is about the country’s military. It can therefore be used to punish journalists or those speaking out against the regime.
  • The 2018 Amendments to the 2012 Anti-Cybercrime Law , also known as Law Nine, established specialized courts for cases relating to the misuse of communication and technology.

    The 2018 amendment builds on the original Anti-Cybercrime law , which can punish “anyone who incites or promotes crime through computer networks” with a prison sentence of up to three years and a maximum fine of $600.

  • Threatening public or state stability has also been criminalized by the Anti-Cybercrime Law.
  • This law can be used to punish anyone who criticizes the Syrian government online, from journalists to bloggers, and has been condemned for violating digital rights and freedoms.
  • Internet shutdowns are common in Syria and a large number of sites remain blocked, including those of oppositional political parties, human rights organizations.

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Thailand

Bangkok, Thailand. May 6th, 2019. Thai King Maha Vajiralongkorn, Queen Suthida, Princeses and Prince are seen at the balcony of the Grand Palace as they greet the public.

VPNs are legal in Thailand, but they have frequently been blocked by the government.

Thailand is no friend of internet freedom, with online censorship carried out en masse. To make matters worse, authorities offer no transparency on which websites are blocked or why.

Platforms like Facebook and Google often receive requests to take down content by the Thai government. Pro-democracy activists, campaigners and oppositional political party members also face constant persecution for sharing their views online.

Related laws & practices:

  • The 2007 & 2017 Amendments to the Computer Related Crimes Act (a.k.a The Cybercrime Act) give authorities the power to block and remove online content and allows warrant-free searches of user data.
  • This law also restricts free speech in Thailand by encouraging censorship of material that offends “public morals.”
  • Thailand’s lèse-majesté is a specific section of Thailand’s criminal code that criminalizes defamation of the monarchy. Lèse majesté has been increasingly enforced in Thailand since the successful military coup of 2014. Many have been sent to prison as a result.
  • An 18-year prison sentence was given to a 61 year old man under lèse majesté for posting videos on Facebook that authorities considered insulting to the monarchy.

  • On October 8th 2019, the Minister of Digital Economy announced that shops or cafes in Thailand that offer WiFi services must keep a log of internet traffic for 90 days. This is so that officials can access the information under Article 26 of the Computer Crimes Act.

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Uganda

VPNs are legal in Uganda.

While VPNs are technically legal in Uganda, the government has asked ISPs to block them as they’re frequently used to bypass the country’s social media tax.

Ugandan ISPs must also block sites that are not registered by the UCC (Uganda Communications Commission.)

Related laws & practices:

  • The 2002 Anti-Terrorism Act prohibits the publication and spreading of content seen to support “terrorism.”
  • The broad terminology of this law leaves it open to misuse, as “terrorism” can be interpreted to mean anything that goes against the government. Those who break the law are punishable by death.
  • The 2010 Regulations of Communications Act allows Ugandan authorities to spy on the personal communications of civilians, as well as suspected terrorists.
  • The 2011 Computer Misuse Act criminalises “offensive communication” as well as using electronic devices to attempt to “disturb the peace, quiet or right of privacy of another person.” This can be used to target government critiques, and imposes punishments of a fine or prison time of up to one year.

The 2018 Social Media Tax came into effect in July 2018 and introduced a tax of 200 Ugandan shillings per day (5 cents) for the use of social media. Over 60 social media sites are affected by this tax, including Twitter and Facebook.

  • The government claims the reason for the social media tax is to raise money for public services. However, a letter sent by President Museveni to the finance ministry in March last year urged the introduction of the tax as a means of stopping online “gossip.”
  • Censorship in Uganda is only on the increase, with authorities using any opportunity to penalize political opponents or government critics.
  • An example of increasing repression in Uganda is the recent court trial against opposition member of parliament, Bobi Wine. Bobi Wine was taken to court on 6th August 2019 under the charge of “annoying” President Museveni . This shows how laws can be bent to punish political opponents and critics in Uganda.

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Uzbekistan

VPNs are legal in Uzbekistan.

Nevertheless, the country still has a way to go to in protecting digital rights.

Skype, WhatsApp and Viber have faced frequent blocking in Uzbekistan, though access was restored in May 2018.

Related laws & practices:

  • Uzbekistan’s Criminal Code, amended in 2016, bans sharing content that incites hatred or is considered a threat to national security. The vague wording of the Criminal Code means it can be used by authorities to suppress freedom of speech and carry out arbitrary arrests.
  • The 2016 amendments to the Criminal Code extended imprisonment from five to eight years for those found guilty of publishing content that threatens national security.
  • Uzbekistan’s own state-run telecommunications and internet service provider, Uztelecom, has a monopoly on the market. This makes it easy for the government to implement an internet shutdown or carry out censorship.

Uztelecom and all other ISPs are required to install surveillance equipment on networks in order to obtain a license. This allows the government to carry out mass surveillance.

  • Uzbekistan has introduced a state-run search engine which automatically filters and hides content that authorities don’t wish to be seen.
  • The government has blocked the websites of human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. This means they can only be accessed by using tools such as a VPN.

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Venezuela

Caracas, Venezuela. 9th June, 2017. Youth in Venezuela demonstrate against censorship in the media and the persecution of journalists. Credit: EFE News Agency/Miguel Gutierrez/Alamy Live News

VPNs are currently legal in Venezuela.


Related laws & practices:

  • The 2010 Amendments to the Resorte-ME Law (Law of Media Responsibility) criminalises sending messages online that promote anxiety, disrupt public order, disregard or promote the violation of laws.
  • Under this law, websites can be heavily fined for failing to restrict or remove banned content, and those who post content seen as a threat to national security can get sent to prison.
  • Venezuela’s Law of National Security is vaguely worded and bans behavior that “comprise[s] the security and defense of the nation.” This law applies to both online content and messages, and those found guilty can be sent to prison.
  • The 2017 Law Against Hatred, for Tolerance and Peaceful Coexistence bans the promotion of “hate or intolerance” by media outlets, and allows authorities to remove licenses from offenders and block their websites. Those found guilty of inciting hatred can face 10 to 20 years in prison.
  • The vague wording of Venezuela’s Anti-Hate Law leaves it open to misuse by authorities who can use it to condemn the online behavior of journalists, activists and government critics.

In January 2018, authorities detained three teenagers under the Anti-Hate Law for calling for government protests via social media networks and messages.

  • In 2019, a Cyberspace Law was drafted which asserts the authorities control over cyberspace, and establishes a body to manage and control the country’s internet. The law would allow authorities to take “preventative actions” to “counteract hate,” which could legalize the use of violence by authorities. It also requires service providers to censor content that authorities disapprove of.
  • Numerous activists in Venezuela have expressed concerns about the extent of surveillance and potential hacking by the government.
  • In 2018, Venezuelan ISP CANTV blocked Tor in the country, which was used by many citizens as a way of circumventing censorship. This means VPNs are a popular way of getting around site-blocking in the country.

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Vietnam

Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam. November 2018. Police stand on the street in front of the Vietnam flag. Credit: StreetVJ

VPNs are legal in Vietnam.

Though VPNs are legal in Vietnam, authorities in the country do occasionally restrict access to the internet or phone networks during times of unrest.

Social media and networking sites such as Facebook and LinkedIn have also been periodically blocked in Vietnam.

Related laws & practices:

The Internet Law has also been a cause for concern among organizations like Human Rights Group and Reporters Without Borders. Both groups identified that the law can be used selectively to target individuals who speak out against the government.

  • The 2015 & 2018 amendments to Vietnam’s Penal Code ban subversion and anti-state propaganda. The penal code is consequently used by authorities in Vietnam to prosecute online activists and send them to prison.
  • The 2019 Cybersecurity law has blockquote implications for freedom of speech in Vietnam as it forbids criticising the state online.
  • The Cybersecurity law forces foreign as well as domestic internet companies to store user data inside Vietnam and hand it over to authorities if required. Sites must also censor content deemed “toxic” by the government.

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The countries in this guide are all significant for their restrictions on VPN use and other digital freedoms. If your country is not mentioned, VPNs are legal to use there.

If you’re looking for more information on VPNs and their uses, you can take a look at our other resources in our guides hub.

If you’re looking for a reliable VPN, you can read our recommendations for 2019 here.

About the Author


  • Simon Migliano Head of Research at Top10VPN

    Simon Migliano

    Simon leads our investigations into VPN safety and internet freedom research. His work has been featured on the BBC, CNet, Wired and The Financial Times. Read full bio