If you’re planning a trip to Turkey, you’ll be one of around 9 million people that will visit the country this year. And for good reason. Turkey blends rich culture and historical sites with some of the finest white sand beaches in Asia. There’s certainly a degree of political upheaval at the moment, but tourists generally are not exposed to that side of Turkish life.
Whether you’re visiting for sightseeing, or simply to soak up the sun, reliable internet access will be a must-have facility on your trip. Restrictions on mobile phone usage are strict, so you need to prep in advance to make sure you can call home uninterrupted.
If you don’t need detailed background info, and you just want help with getting online securely, skip to section 3 now.
The Turkish authorities are not going to be interested in your beach selfies and sunset vistas. The probably won’t care about the Skype calls you make. But you don’t want to get in trouble for reposting a cheeky #Turkey meme on Facebook.
Even if you’re just visiting for a few days, posting content that is critical of President Erdoğan may attract the wrong kind of attention.
Criticising Turkey’s authorities is an absolute no-no – even if it’s just a joke on social media.
Journalists have been sacked over something as minor as a critical tweet. And as far as holiday downers go, a night in Turkish cells is around the top of the list.
The Information and Communication Technologies Authority of Turkey (BTK) is a new government department that will speed up the implementation of surveillance orders, and internet service providers in Turkey are required to retain connection logs for up to 2 years. You might not be a resident, but you’re going to be caught up in the monitoring anyway. Can you be sure that you know what’s offensive to Turkey’s authorities and what isn’t?
It’s thought that they already capture usernames and passwords for unencrypted websites, plus IP addresses and browsing histories. Yikes.
Double trouble: Turkey is not only known for actively snooping but also for leaky data security.
If the thought of having your digital footprints sitting on a government database makes you feel uncomfortable, there’s worse to come.
Turkey also doesn’t have the best track record for data security; data about 47 million people was leaked last year.
The best way to deal with this is to bypass surveillance completely with a VPN. We’ll come on to that in section 4.
At home, most of us enjoy unfiltered internet access. We take it pretty much for granted. When you land in turkey, the heavy internet censorship might come as a bit of a surprise.
Turkey’s expert internet blockers are not quite as adept as their Chinese counterparts. When they tried to block cached websites on Google, they blocked – well, pretty much all of Google.
So we aren’t talking about a finely-tuned machine here. We’re talking about random, sudden, and fairly blunt blocking tools that could stop you from searching the web or backing up photos.
A recent internet crackdown inadvertently shut down all Google services.
If your Google account stopped working, that could stop many of the features on your phone working as well.
Right now, experts believe that around 100,000 websites are blocked in Turkey. There may well be more. It only takes one person to complain, and bam, that site is cut off for everyone.
The blocks have been known to affect all kinds of services, including:
- Some (but not all) VPNs.
- The Tor network (which is used for anonymous browsing).
- Apps for Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube.
- Cloud storage and sync, including Google Drive, Dropbox, and OneDrive.
No website is too big for the Turkish censors. In April 2017, Wikipedia was blocked without warning in Turkey. It remains blocked despite court appeals.
Not all of blocks turn out to be permanent. But they could be. It just depends on the whims of the government on any given day.
All internet traffic passes through state-controlled Turk Telecom, which means the Turkish government can literally shut down the internet.
All traffic passes through Turk Telecom, and that means that authorities can switch off or slow down access for all users at once, without warning, and for as long as they like.
Sure, most of us can get by for a week without posting on Twitter. But if an internet block stops you from calling friends, or catching up with a bit of work by the pool, that’s going to be a serious inconvenience.
Of course, you could use your SIM card from home to browse without any kind of blocking. But your phone bill won’t be pretty, that’s for sure.
Tools and Techniques
Planning ahead in Turkey is tough. It’s very difficult to predict what the political situation will be. You could find yourself caught up in an internet clampdown with zero warning.
But there are ways to browse privately and access blocked sites, and it’s not a difficult or expensive thing to set up. Here are some tactics you can deploy.
Only Use Trusted Wi-Fi
Do you know the difference between secure and unsecure Wi-Fi? The little padlock next to the network name is your first clue. Avoid any network without the padlock at all costs. And take care when connecting to secure networks you don’t completely trust.
This is where a little prep will help you. The Wi-Fi network provided by your hotel could be secure in the room, but not in the lobby. There’s no point taking the risk of connecting to an unsecure network if you could walk around the block for a trusted one.
We’re going to look at public Wi-Fi in more detail later. But do err on the side of caution. Look for secure networks provided by local cafes and restaurants. Coffee is cheap, and it’s well worth buying a cup just to get online securely.
Use Mobile Data in Turkey
Here’s a little internet 101 while traveling: never log on to your bank on unsecure WiFi. It’s a good idea not to fill in any name and address forms either. And leave the online shopping for when you get home.
If you really, genuinely need to get onto your bank’s systems, your mobile data connection will be secure. But roaming costs are going to be extortionate. Turkey isn’t in the EU, so there are no caps on charges. Your bill will quickly spiral out of control.
If you want to buy a Turkish SIM, that’s a whole other ball game. Skip to section 6 where we discuss it in more detail.
Use a Disposable Number
Many hotspots, such as those around public squares, require that you register using your phone number. Anyone who’s registered for a network like this knows that spam will surely follow.
Here’s a tip. Use a spare SIM card, and throw it in the trash on your way to the boarding gate when you leave.
Try a Cyber Cafe
Turkish cyber cafes should not be considered secure. They can be furiously busy, hectic places, and many users hang around in there all day, watching people come and go. But if you’re in a pinch, they offer a convenient and cheap way to get online.
Here’s the disclaimer, though. Any public computer should be considered unsafe. Don’t start downloading credit card statements or logging into PayPal. Keyloggers, malware, and old-fashioned eavesdropping are all a risk.
Choosing a VPN
Earlier in the guide, we briefly talked about VPNs in Turkey. It has started to block some services, but don’t let that put you off using one.
You may just need to try a few different ones when you arrive.
With a VPN, everything you do online will be secure. A VPN will bypass content blocks, keep your internet usage private, and make public Wi-Fi safe. It’s a one-stop solution for all of the issues we’ve talked about.
Choosing a VPN can be tricky. The last thing you want is to be messing around with settings when you arrive at your hotel. We’ve compiled a list of the best VPNs to streamline your research, or you could simply go with our recommended VPN for Turkey.
If you prefer to do your own research then we recommend you look for these five things:
- Free trialsSign up for at least two services to find out which one works best for you. Set up your VPNs just before you go so that you can try them without hassle.
- Money-back guaranteesIf your VPN doesn’t work, you need to be able to cancel it. Don’t sign up for a long contract initially. If you have issues, claim your refund under the guarantee terms as soon as possible.
- ObfuscationWe know Turkey is blocking some VPNs. Obfuscation makes it much more difficult for them to do this. Look for a VPN that has proprietary protocols. You don’t really need to know what this means; it just makes the VPN harder to block.
- Server locationInternet blocks in Turkey can cause the internet to be slow at the best of times. You can mitigate this by choosing a VPN with a server in Turkey (or a country in the immediate vicinity).
- LoggingWe recommend that you choose a VPN provider that does not retain any logs at all. Don’t rely on promises not to reveal data; if it comes to the crunch, a VPN provider can be compelled to hand over information. At a bare minimum, you need a provider that does not log your activity online. Even better, look for a provider that logs absolutely nothing.
Public Wi-Fi is a hacker’s dream, particularly if the network has no password. A public network with no password transmits your activity in plain text, so hackers can see what you’re doing and potentially intercept your browsing.
This risk exists in every country everywhere in the world. It’s more of an issue when you’re traveling because you aren’t going to know which networks are real. And if the network names are in a different language, you might just connect to them randomly, just on the off-chance that they’ll work. We all do it, but it’s a real risk.
- Any network that does not have a password is unencrypted. Assume everything you do is visible to someone else.
- Even “secure” networks with a password can be vulnerable if the router is an older model.
- Never download files on public Wi-Fi.
- Beware of accessing sites that could reveal your hotel location, address, bank details, or photo.
- Never use unencrypted forms (such as hotel enquiry forms or ‘contact us’ pages that are not served over HTTPS).
- Beware mysterious networks. Hackers can broadcast fake Wi-Fi signals with the express intention of snooping around on your devices. Ask the bar or restaurant owner to verify the network name if you’re unsure.
- You won’t find much Wi-Fi outside of urban areas, so have your phone’s data connection as a back-up.
If you use a network with a password or registration procedure, there are still risks, although they are not as great. But the only way to browse safely on public Wi-Fi is to use a VPN on every device.
Read our public Wi-Fi guide for the full lowdown on how to use it safely and privately.
Turkish SIMs are not expensive, and phone shops are everywhere. You may find it cheaper to buy a SIM in a town, rather than in an airport.
But be aware of the restrictions and blocks you will face:
- All traffic passing through Turkish mobile networks is subject to government censorship, which means some websites are going to be inaccessible unless you use a VPN. That may include social media sites, or the whole of Google if you’re really unlucky.
- If you want a Turkish SIM, you’ll only be able to use your phone for 120 days. You might find that your phone works for considerably less time; some tourists only manage a couple of days before it’s blocked.
- Once the block has been invoked, it’s permanent. So even if your smartphone worked last year when you visited, it probably won’t work on your next trip.
- Turkish SIMs expire after 6 months if not used. And if the SIM expires, that might cause your phone to be blocked, compounding the problem.
It’s a complicated situation, and there isn’t an easy or cheap solution:
- Some tourists report that SIM cards purchased in Cyprus work well as an alternative to a Turkish SIM.
- You could also rent a mobile 3G hotspot and have it delivered to your hotel, which is ideal for a short stay, and gets around the phone blocking problem.
- Look at ‘global’ SIM cards; they can be expensive, but get around blocking and registration issues.
Legal residents can register their phone and use it beyond the 120-day limit. If this is you, get ready for some serious red tape. You’ll need a document from the tax office, your identity card, and your Turkish passport. If you don’t have a Turkish passport, you need to use a special reference number. This is not a simple process, so it’s best to sort this out as soon as possible after your arrival.
Preparing to Go
Turkey is a beautiful country that welcomes tourists as an essential driver of its economy. The government is not out to get you. But the political context is real. While the country is less stable since President Erdoğan assumed office, most continue to visit and enjoy the country without any problems at all.
That said, the level of censorship and surveillance will be alien to many visitors. Awareness is key. With the right preparation, you can enjoy your holiday, upload photos, and chat to friends at home without problems.
Ready to leave for your flight? Here’s our final checklist:
- Sign up for two VPN services that offer all of the 5 features we mentioned in step 4 of this guide.
- Spend a little time setting up your devices so you can use them straight away when you land.
- If you’ve been to Turkey before, pack a different phone to the one you took last time, just in case you find that it’s blocked.
- Create accounts for 2-3 different messengers or social networks, just in case one of them is blocked.
- If you plan to do a little remote working by the pool, download the data you need before you go; don’t rely too heavily on cloud services if you can avoid it.
- Download a good Wi-Fi finder app, and locate your nearest secure hotspots.
- Check with your hotel to find out if secure Wi-Fi is on offer.
- Consider hiring a MiFi router for your stay.
- Check any existing Turkish SIM cards on arrival to ensure they hasn’t been cut off.