|Best VPNs for UAE|
|#1||NordVPN with [68% Discount]|
|#4||ExpressVPN with [49% Discount]|
Dubai, the largest city in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), is both a major business hub for Western Asia, and a major tourist destination. As such, the city has a huge number of visitors, with the total for 2020 expected to reach 20 million people.
At the same time, Freedom House rates the UAE as one of the least free places on Earth, with a score of 17 points out of 100. This development also erodes online freedom, prompting many people to use a good VPN for UAE to get around these restrictions.
One place where that lack of freedom is apparent is in their restrictions and outright censorship of internet use. This seriously affects anyone visiting the UAE and Dubai, as well as those who are living there full-time.
Using a VPN in UAE to hide your identity and activities is an absolute necessity. But the Emirates apply some pretty advanced technology in their censorship and digital restriction efforts. For a VPN to protect you in the UAE, it needs to have certain important characteristics.
What are the most important characteristics of a VPN for UAE and Dubai?
When using a VPN in a place that imposes heavy internet censorship and restrictions like the UAE, the priorities are a little different than usual, and the stakes could be much higher. These are the vital characteristics of a safe VPN for the UAE and Dubai:
- It is not based in the UAE, where the government’s desire to spy on you could override the VPN’s commitment to your security and privacy. This rules out any official UAE VPN services.
- It uses the OpenVPN protocol with a strong cipher for secure encryption.
- It includes a kill switch to prevent unencrypted data from leaking which could expose you to the local internet censors.
- It includes DNS leak protection and private lookups to shield your activities from Etisalat and other local ISPs.
- It offers obfuscated servers to disguise your VPN traffic as regular (HTTPS) traffic so no one even knows you are using a VPN.
- It keeps no logs that could be used to disclose your identity or your online activities.
Important: Not only must your VPN have these characteristics to be safe for use in the UAE and Dubai, but you must install your VPN before you arrive in the region. There are rumors that the act of visiting the website of a VPN services may in itself trigger additional scrutiny from the local authorities.
What are the best VPNs for UAE and Dubai?
Based on the characteristics listed above, this is our list of the best Virtual Private Networks for the UAE and Dubai:
- NordVPN [grab the 68% discount coupon for the best savings]
Now we’ll examine each of these VPN services more closely and show you exactly how to use them in restricted areas. Here are the best VPNs for UAE and Dubai:
1. NordVPN – Best all-around VPN for UAE and Dubai
|Logs||No logs (audited)|
|Support||24/7 Live chat|
NordVPN is an inexpensive, yet technologically-advanced VPN service that has all the characteristics of a safe VPN for UAE and Dubai. It is based in Panama, which is not part of any of the major international surveillance alliances and is a good privacy jurisdiction.
While NordVPN supports many VPN protocols, their default is OpenVPN with the strong AES-256 cipher. This combination is more than secure enough to keep your internet traffic secure anywhere in the world. The IKEv2 protocol is supported on Mac OS and iOS devices, as well as the newly-released WireGuard protocol on all operating systems.
The NordVPN apps include built-in leak protection with an internet kill switch. This will block all traffic if the connection to the VPN is lost for any reason. In our leak testing, NordVPN had no leaks at all, which is particularly important in a hostile environment like the United Arab Emirates. Make sure to turn on the Internet Kill Switch before you leave for the UAE to ensure no leakage at any point in your trip!
Combine NordVPN’s kill switch and lack of leaks with its private, encrypted DNS system, and you have a system which keeps you protected at all times in the UAE and Dubai.
NordVPN has dedicated obfuscated servers located in various parts of the world, including 20 that serve the UAE. Connecting to one of these servers will allow you to hide the fact that you even using a VPN. You will need to go into the Advanced settings of the NordVPN client and set Obfuscated servers (OpenVPN) to On before you can connect to the servers supporting the UAE.
Panama doesn’t force VPN services to retain any data about their users. NordVPN takes full advantage of that liberty and maintains a strict, no-logs policy. This was confirmed in an audit by PricewaterhouseCoopers AG, as explained in our guide on no-logs VPNs.
More things to know about NordVPN
In addition to these key characteristics so important for a VPN in UAE or Dubai, NordVPN has a lot more exciting features and capabilities. For example:
NordVPN offers you several advanced VPN technologies to enhance your privacy and security. Double-VPN servers and Tor-over-VPN servers give you ways to boost your security beyond the already potent defaults. NordVPN is also great when it comes to file-sharing, winning our award for the best VPN for torrenting.
The company’s CyberSec feature can easily block ads, trackers, and malware domains from connecting to your computer, protecting your from all that junk while simultaneously speeding up your browsing.
This service is fast, and can connect you to many geo-blocked Netflix libraries and other streaming video services from around the world that is not affected by the UAE’s strict internet censorship policies.
And speaking of fast, there is NordLynx, NordVPN’s custom VPN protocol that combines the high speed of the new WireGuard protocol with an enhanced security and privacy measures. While NordLynx is really fast and really secure, it does not work with the Obfuscated servers. Therefore we recommend you stick with OpenVPN while in the UAE, and experiment with NordLynx when you are in a less repressive environment. Nonetheless, even when using OpenVPN, NordVPN outperforms the leading competition with speeds, as seen in the NordVPN vs IPVanish test report.
NordVPN offers a full 30-day money back guarantee and 24/7 live chat support directly through their website. This company offers one of the best VPN values today, with a subscription coming out to only $3.71 per month when you use this 68% off coupon.
- Meets all essential characteristics of a safe VPN for UAE and Dubai
- User-friendly and reliable desktop and mobile apps
- 30-day money-back guarantee
- Many server types for enhanced privacy and security
- CyberSec ad and malware blocking technology
- 24/7 live chat support in case you have problems
- No-logs policy verified by PricewaterhouseCoopers AG
- Works with many Netflix libraries worldwide plus other streaming services (one of the best VPNs for BBC iPlayer)
- Multi-year subscriptions offer excellent prices
- Huge network of VPN servers worldwide, including obfuscated servers for UAE
- Big discounts only available for long-term subscriptions
- No dedicated VPN router app, but still works on routers
To learn more about our top pick among VPNs for Dubai and the UAE, check out our complete NordVPN review.
2. Surfshark – A low-cost VPN that works in UAE
|Based in||British Virgin Islands|
|Support||24/7 Live chat|
Surfshark is based in the British Virgin Islands (BVI), another country that is not part of any of the major international surveillance alliances. Like Panama, the BVI are an excellent jurisdiction for VPNs. The BVI are also the home of ExpressVPN, number 4 on our list of the best VPNs for the UAE and Dubai.
Surfshark supports the OpenVPN protocol along with IKEv2 and Shadowsocks. Encryption is carried out with an AES-256 cipher, the gold standard. By default, their clients automatically select the best protocol for your real-time circumstances. Unfortunately, the Surfshark Mac OS client only supports IKEv2, rather than OpenVPN, but there are other recommended Mac OS VPNs to consider.
Surfshark includes a kill switch, but it is not activated by default. You’ll need to go into Settings to turn in on. Doing so is mandatory if you want to surf the web safely while in the UAE.
According to our chats with Surfshark Support, they switch to one of the OpenVPN protocols when they detect that obfuscation is necessary. That is great for travel in places like the UAE, but there is one more thing you should do. Turn on the NoBorders feature before you even leave for the UAE.
NoBorders is a Surfshark feature that, automatically connects you to one of their special servers when in a restrictive environment like the UAE. These special servers are designed to get you connected to the internet in situations where you would normally be blocked.
With NoBorders set to On, you can safely connect to the du ISP in Dubai. At the time of this review, it appears that Surfshark is hit or miss with Etisalat. So if you are an Etisalat user, you may want to verify with Surfshark before signing up.
Our Surfshark leak tests found no leaks, a prerequisite for any VPN you intend to use in the UAE or Dubai. Because we weren’t able to learn all the details of NoBorders (such as which VPN protocol it uses), we expanded our testing regime. We leak-tested each supported VPN protocol with NoBorders turned On, and still found not a single leak.
Surfshark includes private DNS lookups on each sever with DNS leak protection to ensure that your activities cannot be determined by your UAE Internet Service Provider spying on your DNS lookups.
More things to know about Surfshark VPN
Surfshark has a lot to offer besides those key UAE VPN characteristics we discussed earlier. They include:
Surfshark has many features that are similar to NordVPN. They offer multi-hop connections (like double-VPN) as well as CleanWeb (like CyberSec), and Surfshark + TOR (like Tor-over-VPN). And again like NordVPN, Surfshark can connect you to many Netflix libraries, Amazon Prime and other streaming video services, allowing you to view content that the UAE’s censors. It is currently one of the best VPNs for Netflix with numerous Netflix regions being supported.
Surfshark offers a full 30-day money back guarantee and 24/7 live chat support. At only $2.49 per month with the two-year plan, it is one of the best cheap VPNs you will find.
There are a few things that hurt Surfshark in our rankings. One is that their network is smaller than that of NordVPN. Surfshark has 1,700+ servers, while NordVPN has 5,200+ servers. All other things being equal, more servers is better. Another thing is that NordVPN’s server network is generally faster and delivers more consistent speed than Surfshark’s network.
- Supports an unlimited number of connections
- Easy-to-use apps for UAE (possible exception with Mac OS, as noted above)
- CleanWeb feature to block ads, trackers, and malware domains
- Works great with streaming websites like Netflix, BBC iPlayer, and Amazon Prime VPN streaming
- Live chat support is available 24/7
- Strong AES-256 encryption and solid leak protection
- May not function with UAE’s Etisalat ISP
- Generally not as fast as NordVPN
- Use of WhiteLister (split tunneling) not recommended for UAE
- No OpenVPN support for Mac OS possibly impairing the ability to function safely in UAE for Mac users
You can learn more about Surfshark in our complete review of Surfshark VPN.
3. VPN.ac – A good VPN for UAE with strong encryption
VPN.ac is a little-known, yet high-performance VPN service based in Romania. This puts them well outside the big surveillance alliances in a jurisdiction that doesn’t force them to keep any logs. Twice now, first in 2009, then again in 2014, attempts to impose the EU data retention regulations onto Romania were declared unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court of Romania (CCR).
VPN.ac supports these VPN protocols: OpenVPN, IPSec/L2TP, and IKEv2. Their default is OpenVPN with AES-256. You won’t have to worry about anyone cracking their security. And of course, the VPN.ac apps include a kill switch (make sure you activate it) to prevent any of your data from leaking out where the ISP can see it if you lose your VPN connection for any reason.
VPN.ac aced our leak testing, with no leaks at all. To make this as useful to you as possible, we did this testing with VPN.ac set up in the obfuscated configuration you should be using when in the UAE (details below).
We included tests for DNS leaks and found none. VPN.ac passes your DNS lookups through the VPN to its private, encrypted DNS system, where they are mixed with millions of randomly-generated lookups, making it virtually impossible for anyone who somehow hacks into their DNS to figure out which lookups belong to users.
Obfuscate your VPN connection for UAE
With VPN.ac you configure your own obfuscated connection by selecting the VPN protocol and port that will be used to connect to the VPN server. Note that this configuration is only intended for countries or networks that are highly restrictive.
Here are the steps to set up VPN.ac for maximum protection in the UAE (we recommend you do so before connecting to any UAE ISP for the first time):
- Launch the VPN.ac client and select the Advanced option. That will take you to a page that looks something like this:
- Set the Protocol to OpenVPN XOR.
- Set the Port to TCP-443.
- Select Kill switch.
- Select I am in China or other censored country. This gives you access to VPN.ac’s servers configured for China or other restricted countries. They will appear in the VPN.ac client as “China Optimized” servers.
- If you are using a computer that runs Microsoft Windows, enable your Windows Firewall and select Block IPv6.
- With these settings configured, click the Connect button at the bottom of the VPN.ac window.
- Open the China Optimized list, and select any of the servers in that list for the maximum safety when using VPN.ac in the United Arab Emirates.
More things to know about VPN.ac
VPN.ac was founded by a group of network security professionals, and offers good performance, lots of security options, and a competitive price point. They provide a good selection of specialty servers, with double-hop and P2P optimized servers in addition to the China Optimized servers we were just talking about.
One thing we particularly like about VPN.ac is their use of bare metal servers that they don’t overload with users, resulting in a fast, stable network that doesn’t get bogged down because too many subscribers happen to be online at the same time.
One thing we don’t particularly like about VPN.ac is that they do keep some limited connection logs. According to their website, they keep some connection logs for security and support purposes. Those logs are stored on a separate server that is encrypted and resides in an undisclosed location. The logs are automatically erased daily. While we aren’t fans of any kind of logs, this logging seems pretty innocuous and shouldn’t cause you any problems.
- Supports up to 6 simultaneous connections
- Dedicated bare-metal servers with high-bandwidth channels
- Their network provides good speeds and reliability
- Double-hop, P2P-optimized, and obfuscated servers available
- User-configurable obfuscation options to help you evade UAE censors
- WireGuard support to test when not in UAE
- Professional and prompt tech support
- Secure browser extensions for Chrome, Firefox, and Opera browsers
- You will need to manually configure VPN.ac for operation in the UAE
- They keep limited connection logs which are automatically erased daily
- Their support for streaming media services is very minimal
Discounted trial: You can get a discounted one-week trial for only $2.00 (see the FAQ page).
See the VPN.ac review for detailed test results and analysis.
4. ExpressVPN – Excellent VPN for UAE, but plan ahead
|Based in||British Virgin Islands|
|Logs||No logs (audited)|
|Support||24/7 Live chat|
ExpressVPN has all the characteristics of a safe, reliable VPN for use in the UAE. It is based in the British Virgin Islands and runs a very secure network of diskless VPN servers. ExpressVPN uses OpenVPN with AES-256 encryption, has a great kill switch, uses its own encrypted DNS system, and passes all of our leak tests. And they famously keep no logs of any sort, which has been confirmed by outside auditors.
But what about obfuscated servers? Looking at their website, it doesn’t appear that ExpressVPN promotes their obfuscation solution very prominently.
Although they don’t brag about it, ExpressVPN has a lineup of stealth servers to get around VPN restrictions and blocks. These servers should be able to defeat the UAE censors as well.
However, you’ll need to contact ExpressVPN Support to get the information needed to set this up, which is why you need to plan ahead. The support team will tell you exactly which servers are obfuscated. (This information is likely not advertised so that ExpressVPN can better avoid detection.
That said, ExpressVPN truly is one of the best VPN services in the world. If you are still considering using them for your trip to the UAE, we recommend that you check out our full ExpressVPN review before you decide which service you will take on your trip.
The ExpressVPN review has more details and test results.
About those important VPN characteristics for the UAE and Dubai
While we listed the most important characteristics a VPN should have if you want to use it safely in the UAE and Dubai, we glossed over the details to let you see our recommended VPNs faster. If you were hoping for more details on any of those characteristics, you’ve come to the right place.
Here are some more considerations when selecting the best VPN for UAE and Dubai:
The VPN is not based in the UAE
Because VPNs exist, “out there” on the internet somewhere, it’s easy to forget that they have real, physical locations as well. That is vitally important because a VPN is subject to the laws of the country it is based in. A VPN based in the UAE is subject to the UAE’s strict internet censorship laws. Regardless of what their marketing might say, a UAE VPN has to do what they are told by their government.
If you use a strong pro-privacy VPN that is not based in the UAE (like any of those we discuss in this post), the UAE government can’t compel the VPN to do anything. UAE law doesn’t apply in Panama, or the British Virgin Islands, or Romania, the countries where our VPN picks are based.
Not only are these VPNs not bound by UAE law, but they have a vested interest in not complying with requests for information unless compelled by their local government. Any VPN that gets a reputation for giving up information about its users will get a reputation as one that can’t be trusted. That is death for a privacy-focused company like a VPN.
The moral of the story is: If you plan on using a VPN for anything that is prohibited by UAE law, make sure the VPN you use is not based anywhere in the UAE.
The VPN uses the OpenVPN protocol with a strong cipher
While OpenVPN is the most popular VPN protocol these days, it is not the only available one. So why is it so important to choose a VPN service that uses the OpenVPN protocol?
One reason that OpenVPN is so popular is that several of the older VPN protocols are known to have serious security vulnerabilities, including apparently being compromised by the NSA to make it easier to spy on their users. You definitely don’t want to be using a compromised protocol, such as PPTP, in an environment like the UAE.
Another reason OpenVPN is so popular is that it is open source. Most people in the privacy community believe that open source software is safer to use because anyone with the technical skills can review the code and look for backdoors and other trickery that could compromise OpenVPN. This is also a bit of a virtuous cycle: The OpenVPN protocol is popular, so more people are likely to check its code. This makes it seem safer, which in turn makes it more popular. And the cycle repeats.
Another benefit of OpenVPN’s popularity is that developers develop for it first. When there is a new need (a way to obfuscate VPN data, for example) the chances are good that developers will concentrate their efforts on a fix for the most popular protocol first. OpenVPN and IKEv2 remain the most popular protocols, but WireGuard is also gaining popularity.
All of the VPNs we recommend for use in the UAE or Dubai provide strong encryption through the use of strong ciphers and secure VPN protocols. Could they ever be cracked? Perhaps sometime in the future. But we’ve seen calculations stating that even the fastest supercomputers today would need millions of years to crack the AES-256 cipher typically used by VPNs. That’s strong enough for us.
Note: There may be a performance tradeoff when using obfuscation that adds an extra layer of encryption. If you want the fastest VPN we’ve tested, we’d recommend going with NordVPN.
What is an obfuscated server and why is this important for UAE VPNs?
Normally when you use a VPN, your data is protected from outsiders by the encrypted tunnel the VPN creates. But what outsiders can see is that you are using a VPN service. That’s because the format of VPN data is different than the format of regular Internet traffic. Sophisticated hardware called packet sniffers can detect those differences using a technique called deep packet inspection, and notify the authorities that you are using a VPN.
An obfuscated server is a VPN server that not only protects your data like a regular VPN server, but also attempts to hide (obfuscate) the fact that you are using a VPN at all. The goal is to make it appear to the authorities that your suspicious VPN traffic is innocuous regular internet traffic.
This video from NordVPN offers a good explanation:
Without diving deep into the technical side of things, here are some of the tricks VPNs can use to make your VPN data look like normal Internet traffic:
- Apply an obfuscation algorithm such as OpenVPN Scramble or Obfsproxy to hide telltale indications that the message was encrypted with OpenVPN.
- Use STunnel or the SSTP Protocol (Windows only) to hide your data in an SSL tunnel so it looks like HTTPS data.
The exact mix of tricks and techniques used to obfuscate your data varies from VPN to VPN, as do the naming conventions. Look for names like Obfuscated servers (NordVPN), Camouflage Mode (Surfshark), Chameleon or Stealth mode, China Optimized (VPN.ac), or For China Users (ExpressVPN) to see if a VPN service provides obfuscation.
As you can imagine, there is an ongoing obfuscation battle pitting privacy advocates and VPNs against oppressive governments and law enforcement. Sometimes the pro-freedom forces are ahead (obfuscation is working) and sometimes their opponents have the advantage (they can see past the defenses). But it is clear to us that in places like the UAE, taking advantage of the best obfuscated VPN servers (regardless of name) is the safest way to use the Internet.
FAQs: VPN for UAE and Dubai
Here are some of the most frequently asked questions about VPNs for UAE and Dubai…
…along with their answers. Note that we are not lawyers and certainly not experts on the UAE’s legal system. What you see here is our best understanding of the legal situation, but always check the laws in your respective country.
Is using a VPN in the UAE illegal?
Using a VPN is legal in the UAE. Indeed, many business people rely on them to connect to their corporate servers while on business in the UAE. However, the UAE censors many types of websites, and accessing them with a VPN is illegal.
Some of the types of content that are censored/restricted in the UAE are:
- Pornographic sites
- LGBT sites
- Anti-religion sites
- Anti-government sites
- Gambling sites
Of course, using a VPN to unblock websites is one of the reasons so many people rely on VPNs in the UAE.
In addition, the UAE government is heavily involved in the communications sector of the economy, and the use of any VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol) services is prohibited. This means using a VPN to connect to services like Skype and Viber is illegal.
But even with the restrictions, UAE citizens are among the heaviest VPN users in the world. According to Statista, fully 25% of internet users in the UAE used a VPN in the second quarter of 2017, putting them in the top 10 for worldwide usage.
What happens if you use a VPN in UAE?
As you can see from the preceding statistic, VPN usage in the UAE is very common. It appears that there is no problem using a VPN, as long as you aren’t caught doing anything prohibited with it. On the other hand, we have been hearing rumors that the country has been trying to block certain VPN service providers and that downloading a VPN while in the UAE could put you on some sort of list for additional scrutiny.
If you are planning to visit the UAE and will need to use a VPN while you are there, the best way to avoid any problems is to choose one of our recommended VPNs, and install it before arriving in the country.
Can I use a VPN in Dubai?
Dubai is part of the UAE, and as far as we can determine is governed by the same laws with respect to VPNs. That means you can use VPNs, as long as you don’t use them in any of the myriad ways prohibited by local laws. For a local perspective on the situation, see this 2018 Gulf News article.
Which VPN are people using in Dubai?
Given the confusing laws governing the use of VPNs in Dubai, it is no surprise that we have not been able to find any statistics on which VPNs people are using the most in Dubai.
However, given the fact that ExpressVPN and NordVPN are the leading VPN services in the world, and both are extremely well suited for use in Dubai and the rest of the UAE, it is a safe bet that they are the VPN services used by the most people in the emirate. While the UAE government has approved VPN services available, it is hard to imagine that very many people use them.
Best VPN for UAE and Dubai – Conclusion
In these days of ever-increasing surveillance, choosing the right VPN for your situation is important. It is doubly important when you are going to venture into a highly-censored and restricted environment like the United Arab Emirates. If you expect a VPN to protect your Internet activities there, you need one that has certain characteristics that can counter the threats you will encounter.
Each of the VPN services in this review has the characteristics you need to use the internet safely on your trip. But we strongly recommend you don’t leave your decision for the last minute, as you will want to get the VPN configured for that hostile environment before you ever set foot in the Middle East. The last thing you want to be doing is configuring your VPN to be invisible to the authorities while they are watching you!
Be safe. Get yourself an excellent VPN for the UAE and Dubai, and get it set up now, before you go.
UAE VPN Comparison Table
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