Whether you’re a sun seeker or a history buff – or both – Egypt is an incredible destination. It blends resort luxury, breathtaking historical sites, and all the modern conveniences tourists need – including, of course, internet access and public Wi-Fi.
But Egypt isn’t your average holiday destination. We’re used to free and easy internet access back home, but the Egyptian government has a different take on the matter. In fact, it’s been known to basically switch off the internet – something that would be unthinkable in the US or UK.
This guide isn’t intended to alarm you. But it makes sense to be fully aware of the situation before you travel. And if you’re already aware of the situation, and you just want the travel tips, you can skip to section 3 now.
Egypt tracks online activity. It’s not alone in this. The UK is rolling out a similar kind of system and we all know about the Snowden revelations in the US.
But it has made significant progress in extending its surveillance tools over the last 5 years, which suggests that it’s very serious about snooping.
Additionally, the authorities have an alarming track record of arresting people that use social media and messaging:
- In 2014, researchers in Toronto found that the Egyptian government uses spyware, including Finfisher and RCS.
- In 2016, police carried out random domestic raids to check people’s Facebook accounts.
- Egyptians have been jailed for social media comments.
- The Egyptian police are trying to scan Facebook, Twitter, Viber, and WhatsApp.
In Egypt, telecoms operators pass information about users to the Armed Forces and national security personnel.
It’s normal in Egypt for telcos to share information about users with domestic security forces
If this makes you feel nervous, welcome to the club. There is no regulation, and you could be caught in the net unwittingly.
Now before you cancel your holiday and go hide in the garden shed, let’s put this in context. Tourists that post holiday snaps on Twitter will likely not be troubled. But IT users, journalists, and students have been arrested for activity that British tourists might consider relatively benign, such as organizing LGBT meetups. There is a potential safety issue here.
We don’t want to frighten you, but we don’t want you to be too cavalier about this either. Read on to section 3 to find out what you can do to avoid accidentally attracting the attention of the authorities.
The Egyptian authorities have blocked websites and apps on many occasions. For tourists, this can be seriously annoying (and more than a little sinister):
- Facebook and Twitter were blocked in 2011.
- The next day, most of the internet was suddenly unavailable. The ban lasted for a few days, and raised eyebrows among Western leaders.
- The issue of censorship raised its head again in 2016. First SSH was blocked, and soon after, HTTPS followed. When that happens, you wave goodbye to every secure site on the web.
- Tor is blocked, so anonymous usage is difficult. (Tor is often used by whistleblowers and leakers.)
- Signal and Telegram are completely blocked in Egypt; their strong encryption is no coincidence.
This is not an extensive list of internet or app blocks in Egypt. Outages are brief, but ongoing. We almost certainly haven’t seen the last of this extensive censorship.
Want to call home via Skype or WhatsApp when there’s no Wi-Fi or it’s too slow? In Egypt, you’ll be breaking the law.
Crazy as it sounds, it is technically illegal to make long-distance calls over cellular connections.
And using Wi-Fi throws up its own set of problems, which we’ll look at in section 5.
Beware: it’s illegal to use VOIP over cellular connections in Egypt even if the law doesn’t seem to be enforced.
Don’t panic. At the time we’re writing this article, Article 72 – the anti-VOIP law – doesn’t seem to be enforced.
So you aren’t going to have your hotel door broken down for a video call with your family.
But there’s nothing to stop this law being enforced at any time in the future. Given Egypt’s track record, we’d say it’s a foregone conclusion.
So what’s the alternative? Fixed-line internet connections are not commonplace, and speeds can be poor due to the ageing telephone network. So Wi-Fi could be problematic even when it works.
The only way you can be completely safe is to use a VPN to disguise your activity.
Tools and Techniques
Forgive us for painting a bleak picture of the internet in Egypt. It isn’t all bad. There are things you can do to mitigate the risk. And the average tourist is unlikely to fall foul of the authorities.
Even if you aren’t too bothered about government snooping, content blocks are a major inconvenience. So read on anyway for tips on how you can get around them with the right tools.
Only Use Secure Wi-Fi
Your best bet for secure Wi-Fi is your hotel, assuming the network is password-protected. Beware of lobby Wi-Fi that is open to anyone that’s hanging around.
If your accommodation doesn’t offer secure Wi-Fi, local bars or cafés are your next stop.
It may not be free but you can pop into a McDonald’s restaurant for secure Wi-Fi and fries.
In Egypt, McDonald’s restaurants charge for Wi-Fi access, so that’s another option. Generally speaking, providing you log on with a password, secure networks are better than the alternatives.
Don’t wander off the beaten path in search of Wi-Fi though; it may not be safe to linger in remote areas. Use an unsecure public Wi-Fi hotspot with a VPN instead. We’ll come to that shortly.
Use Internet Cafés
Cyber cafés are plentiful, busy, and potentially pretty interesting places to hang out. One quarter of Egyptians use internet cafés as their primary means of getting online, and they commonly camp out there for the day.
Internet cafés are still very popular in Egypt – just be sensible using them.
You will have no trouble finding an internet cafe in an urban area. Again, stick with the neighborhoods you know.
When using a cyber cafe:
- Assume that the computers are not secure.
- Assume that malware is installed that is capturing what you type. While many cyber cafes are wise to hacking, you don’t know that for sure.
- Expect CCTV to be recording you as you browse, and expect to be watched by people looking over your shoulder.
Internet cafes are cheap, so they’re better than nothing if you find yourself in a pinch. But if you log onto your bank account in a cyber café or use your credit or debit card, you might not like what happens next.
Buy a Local Sim or MiFi
Mi-Fi routers (also known as portable hotspots) are popular in Egypt, and can be purchased or rented. 4G is only just being rolled out in Egypt though, so you’ll be stuck with 3G in urban areas, and no data signal at all once you venture beyond.
(We cover the pros and cons of using a local SIM in section 6, towards the end of this guide.)
Install More Than One Messaging App
We’ve already looked at the issues with social media and messengers in Egypt. Signal and Telegram are completely blocked. Others have been deactivated with no warning.
Be prepared: Egyptian authorities could block yet another big messaging app at any time.
Most people have more than one messaging app installed. In Egypt, this is doubly important.
Alternatively, using a VPN is an easy way to ensure your favorite messaging app continues to function, regardless of government meddling.
Choosing a VPN
So here’s the good news. A good VPN (Virtual Private Network) will solve pretty much every issue we’ve identified so far.
In Egypt, your VPN will keep your activity private and secure from state snooping, while getting you around inconvenient content blocks. And it need not cost more than a few dollars for your entire trip.
If you want a quick overview on how they work (don’t worry it’s not too technical), check out our beginner’s guide.
We’ve compiled a list of the top 10 VPNs for Egypt to make choosing the right service easier (because that’s what we do). But if you prefer to do your own research, these are the main features that you should look for:
- ObfuscationA VPN with additional obfuscation features, like proprietary protocols, will have a better chance of bypassing content blocks, like those the Egyptian government is fond of. Additionally, these VPNs are more difficult for the government to block completely, if they ever decided to bring in a ban (note: they haven’t yet).
- Server locationA VPN will typically slow down your internet access a little, and Egypt doesn’t have the fastest infrastructure at the best of times. So choosing a VPN with servers in Egypt, or in a country close by, can make the most of the speed you’ve got(the closer the VPN server to your physical location, the faster your connection tends to be).
- No activity logsAs a bare minimum, look for a provider that does not log activity or better yet, not even session metadata (ie the basic details of your VPN server connection, such as timestamps or IP address). In the worst case scenario, it’s best that there’s no data at all for the authorities to demand access to. No VPN answers to the Egyptian authorities but if you’re concerned about US or EU snooping then choose a VPN that is incorporated outside those jurisdictions (such as the British Virgin Islands or Panama).
Here’s one further tip. Buy a one-month subscription to a back-up VPN service, just in case your primary VPN doesn’t work, or the speeds are catastrophic. If you don’t use the secondary VPN, cancel it before it renews. The provider may even give you your money back if you’re quick enough.
Public Wi-Fi is a both welcome convenience and a massive risk. Unfortunately, we tend to prioritize the former over the latter.
With the backdrop of surveillance and censorship in Egypt, it’s even more crucial to understand the considerable security risks of a public Wi-Fi network.
Open Wi-Fi is the riskiest option but even password-protected networks aren’t safe.
While the biggest risks are open networks without a password, even “secure” Wi-Fi can be vulnerable, it just takes a bit more effort from the hacker.
You’ll typically find these networks in coffee shops, restaurants, or perhaps your hotel lobby. Networks without a password don’t encrypt the data between your device and the router, and that gives malicious users the ideal opportunity to make mischief.
On open Wi-Fi, a hacker (which is essentially anyone with criminal intent and some simple software that’s readily available online) can:
- See every website that you visit.
- See all the data you type into unsecure forms.
- Trick you into visiting a fake website, downloading malware, or joining a fake Wi-Fi network that looks like a legitimate one.
- Change the content of the websites that you visit.
- See your apps and Wi-Fi networks, in some situations.
If a “secure” network uses an older router, a hacker can do the same thing by simply getting the password the same way you did, logging in and monitoring all the activity on the network.
A brazen hacker can simply log into a secure network using an older router and fish for sensitive data
The latest routers are much more secure but outside of upscale hotels and resorts, it’s highly likely that the Wi-Fi access point will be an older model.
You are also placing trust in the network owner is not a scammer themselves, which sadly is not guaranteed in tourist hotspots.
The real world consequences of a hack might be:
- Theft of your credit card details, or your address.
- A malware infection that goes on to blight every computer on your office network. (This is not a good way to get a promotion.)
- Access to your social media profile photo, home location, or hotel name.
- A handful of new loans taken out in your name without you knowing.
- Social media hacks. If you’re lucky, you’ll get away with a bit of spam for sunglasses. If you’re unlucky, your loved ones might never speak to you again.
These risks are well-known. They are well-documented. And yet tourists continue to ignore them. When we travel, we’re more likely to be seeking out any networks that function, rather than thinking about security.
Let’s be honest. All of us have logged onto a random open network in the hope of sending a quick email or WhatsApp message. Be warned. This is extremely unwise without using a VPN. (That applies whether you’re in Egypt or anywhere else.)
Many Egyptians rely on Mi-Fi routers to get online, since their phone systems are not advanced enough for decent broadband. Additionally, mobile phones are popular and relatively inexpensive.
If you want to buy a local SIM, you’ll need to show your passport in the mobile phone store. There are mobile phone stores within Terminal 3 at Cairo International Airport. Vodafone offers a holiday package designed for visits up to 40 days’ duration, and Etisalat has a plan designed for social media. Some tariffs include secure WiFi access as well, which is a bonus.
But cellular data isn’t perfect:
- 3G coverage in Egypt is concentrated in urban or resort areas, and quickly drops off to 2G outside those places. No 3G – no data service.
- As this unofficial coverage map shows, 4G is barely existent. So you won’t get the speeds you are used to, no matter which plan you buy.
- As we know, VOIP is illegal. If the authorities block phone calls over 3G or 4G, you might be stuck with roaming rates to call home.
- ‘Unlimited’ data plans usually have a data cap, and beyond that, speeds slow to a crawl.
Tourists report that mobile service interruptions are rare, and brief. But even then, coverage and speed are still an issue. Consider whether cellular networks will meet your needs before you spend any money on a SIM card. You might be better off paying for secure WiFi instead.
Preparing to Go
If you’ve made it this far, we hope we haven’t scared the life out of you and instead inspired you to travel to Egypt fully protected.
Here’s a final checklist of the things you need to do before heading off on vacation:
- Check for reliable and secure Wi-Fi hotspots in safe areas where you’re staying.
- Find out whether your hotel has secure or public Wi-Fi, and what the costs are.
- Explore options for using a local SIM card, and see if there’s reasonable 3G coverage.
- Purchase a VPN service without activity logging, as well as a back-up service that you can cancel if you don’t need it.
- Carry cash for a cyber cafe just in case you can’t get online any other way.
Pressed for time? The VPN is the killer tactic here. It will allow you to use any cellular or WiFi network without the risk of being tracked, blocked, or hacked. You can buy one in a few minutes, and set it up within half an hour. Honestly, is it worth the risk of traveling without a VPN?