If you’re planning to visit Turkey, it’s important that you can get online safely to contact friends and access websites. Turkey’s government actively restricts, controls, and monitors the internet, and its laws on phone use are strict. We show you how to get around blocks and use the internet securely.
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:
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.
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.
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 top VPNs for Turkey to streamline your research.
If you prefer to do your own research then we recommend you look for these five things:
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.
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:
It’s a complicated situation, and there isn’t an easy or cheap solution:
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.
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: