In the United Arab Emirates, the two primary telecommunications companies - Etisalat and du - are majority-owned by the government. To preserve the profits for those companies, the government blocks access to a large number of VoIP apps.
UAE VoIP blocks are designed to stop citizens from being able to make free calls and ensure that they spend their hard earned cash using mobile networks or landlines. The only way to regain access to VoIP safely is to use a VPN.
The most well-known VoIP apps that have been blocked by the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA) in the UAE are:
- Facebook Messenger
Are VoIP apps illegal in UAE?
Not all are, however, It is illegal to use any of the restricted VoIP that are currently being blocked in UAE. There are legal options available for customers who pay for a special Internet Calling Plan with Etisalat or Du.
VoIP apps are banned in UAE to stop people making free calls. This is done to protect profits for the country’s two main telecoms companies. As a result, anybody who purposefully unblocks a restricted VoIP service could face prosecution.
What VoIP are actually available in UAE?
The good news is that people living in the UAE can legally use certain VoIP apps that have not been blocked by the government.
In fact, due to the COVID-19 lockdown, the government has relaxed some of the pre-existing blocks. Whether the newly-unblocked services will remain available once UAE citizens are allowed out of quarantine remains to be seen. However, for the time being you can legally use all the video conferencing apps below:
- BOTIM - This is an officially permitted VoIP app that is available on the Google Play and Apple App Stores. Anybody can use it to make VoIP calls, but it does cost 50 AED per month (approximately $13.50). Users must also have an Internet Calling Plan with Etisalat or du.
- Hiu Messenger - This is a VoIP app that is officially supported by both du and Etisalat networks. Users who pay for unlimited data with an Internet Calling Plan subscription can use Hiu Messenger.
- C’Me - This is a VoIP app that is officially supported by both the du and Etisalat networks. Users who pay for unlimited data with an Internet Calling Pack subscription can use C’Me Messenger.
- Microsoft Teams - The restrictions on this app have been lifted to allow employees, students and teachers to communicate during lock down.
- Zoom Cloud - This popular app has been unblocked by the government to allow companies to conduct meetings of up to 100 people.
- Google Hangouts - This popular app has also been unblocked due to COVID-19. Users can voice and video call as well as group chats.
- Voico UAE - This is a UAE based VoIP service that is currently available for voice and video calls. The service is freely available on the Google Play and Apple app stores. However, some users have reported that it only works when connected to WiFi.
- Smoothy - This video chatting app is primarily marketed at young people and is currently available in the UAE.
- Houseparty - This was a previously relatively unknown video conferencing app that has risen to massive popularity during COVID-19 lock down. At the time of writing it was available in the UAE. Users can join chats with up to eight people and play games.
The TRA has stated that the VoIP restriction-lift is likely to only be temporary, and that it will be reviewing the list of allowed VoIP services regularly. As such, the list above is subject to change, and it is likely that the list of available VoIP services will alter in the coming weeks and months.
Can I access blocked VoIP apps?
Yes, it is possible. However, if you want to access restricted VoIP apps, you will need to break the law and unblock those services with a Virtual Private Network (VPN).
A VPN works by allowing you to pretend to be in a different country. This is achieved by connecting to a VPN server located outside of the UAE. The connection to the VPN is established using encryption so that your Internet Service Provider is unable to track which VoIP service you use.
Unfortunately, since 2019, the UAE government has also restricted many VPNs. This means that both Etisalat and du are blocking many VPN websites. This can make it hard to access those websites in order to get a subscription. As a result, many popular VPNs do not function properly - particularly for Etisalat customers.
What VPNs will unblock these services?
If you want a VPN that works, we recommend taking a close look at our best VPNs for UAE page for more details and a closer look at the recommended services below. We have tested the VPNs in the list, on the ground in the UAE, which means that you can trust our recommendations.
- ExpressVPN - is the best VPN for unblocking VoIP apps in the UAE. It is one of the fastest VPNs and obfuscated servers to securely unblock websites and apps.
- NordVPN - is a fantastic VPN service, It has great security features including double VPN feature which encrypts traffic twice.
- PrivateVPN - is a great service for protecting your privacy. It implements OpenVPN to a high standard and has a no logs policy.
- IPVanish - is a fast and secure service that is great for accessing censored VoIP apps and websites.
- Surfshark - is a low cost VPN, that is packed with features. It's "camouflage mode" ensures your ISP doesn't know what you're up to.
All of these VPNs have risk-free money-back guarantees or free trials, so you can double-check if they are working on your network.
What does a secure UAE VPN need?
In order to unblock illegal VoIP services in the UAE it is essential to get a VPN that has certain important security features:
- OpenVPN encryption - This is a secure form of VPN encryption that ensures your ISP is unable to tell what you are doing online. The ISP can see that you are using the internet, but it does not know what you are doing thanks to the encryption.
- A kill switch - This cuts your internet connection and stops you from leaking unencrypted data to your ISP if the VPN connection drops out. Without a kill switch, you could accidentally end up revealing that you are using a VoIP service.
- DNS leak protection - This ensures that your DNS requests are all being handled securely by the VPN provider and that you are not accidentally leaking DNS request data to your ISP.
- Obfuscation - This is used to disguise VPN traffic as regular internet traffic so that the ISP cannot tell that you are using a VPN. When you use a VPN, it is impossible for the ISP to know what you are doing. However, they may be able to tell that you are using a VPN unless you disguise the traffic as regular HTTPS.
Our recommended VPNs all provide secure encryption, DNS leak protection, a kill switch, and obfuscation. This will theoretically allow you to unblock VoIP services without your ISP knowing you are using a VPN.
However, please bear in mind that VoIP traffic tends to use small packets, at a rate of about 50 packets per second. The size and frequency of the encrypted packets makes it quite easy for ISPs to detect that a VoIP call is taking place inside the VPN tunnel. Using obfuscation ensures that your ISP does not know you are using a VPN, but the packet frequency rate can still reveal VoIP use is occurring, unless you manually add noise to the connection.
If you do decide to unblock VoIP services with a VPN, you do so at your own risk.
Is it illegal to unblock VoIP services?
Installing and using a VPN is not illegal in and of itself, with businesses often using them to access remote servers. If you use a VPN to spoof your IP overseas to unblock your internet banking, or to access Netflix US, you are very unlikely to get in trouble with the law. This is because you are not using the VPN for any illegal purposes.
As soon as you use a VPN to unblock VoIP services, gambling websites, adult content - or any other content that has been restricted by the TRA (on moral and religious grounds) - you are breaking the law and you could be prosecuted.
Admittedly, we have never encountered evidence of anybody having been arrested for using a VPN to make a VoIP call in UAE. However, the law is very clear and legally speaking, you could be arrested, fined, or put in prison for changing your IP for the purposes of breaking the law.
Anybody who is discovered using a VPN to bypass government enforced blocks can face fines of up to 1 million Dirhams or a jail sentence of at least six months. And anybody who is caught using a VPN for criminal reasons could potentially be fined up to 2 millions AED.