Foreign business travel always brings new experiences. Some are pleasant, some are not. An annoying surprise awaiting travelers in some countries is restrictions on Internet access. For tourists, they may be just an inconvenience. For business travelers, they can severely impact the purpose of the trip.
Countries with Internet restrictions
Certain countries are especially restrictive. Business travel destinations that make using the Web difficult include:
- China. The “great firewall of China” is no myth. Its Internet services block many well-known sites. Other sites have censored versions.
- Russia. The Russian government has banned some sites, notably LinkedIn, that won’t put user data on Russian servers.
- Iran. The availability of websites in Iran fluctuates with the political situation of the moment. Sites may be available one month and blocked the next.
- Saudi Arabia. The government imposes national content filtering. The focus is mostly on content it deems objectionable on religious or cultural grounds.
When traveling to a country that limits Internet use, advance planning is important.
There are several ways to get around the restrictions. How well they work depends partly on how aggressively the local authorities try to stop them. Most of these countries welcome business visitors. Using workarounds is illegal in some places, but the authorities tend to look the other way when people are bringing in business and money.
Travelers should be discreet about how they circumvent the blocking. Some officials may be more zealous than others, and it’s easier for them to ignore what they don’t know.
Circumventing DNS blocking
Sometimes blocking is done by DNS servers. They return a dead-end IP address for forbidden domains. This is relatively easy to work around.
Business travelers may be able to connect to a DNS server in their own country. Network settings can specify the IP addresses of one or more servers. That may be enough to reach the blocked sites.
A more reliable way is to set up a local hosts file with the IP addresses of important sites. Any domains listed there won’t require the machine to make a DNS query. Editing the file requires administrative access, so it should be set up before starting the trip.
This works only with the simpler forms of domain blocking. Countries with sophisticated restrictions block access by IP address, so DNS workarounds won’t be enough there.
If a page isn’t directly accessible, there may be ways to view it indirectly. As long as the service being used isn’t blocked, it might provide an alternative path. Some examples:
- RSS feeds. If a site makes content available as an RSS or Atom feed, a user can view it through a website or application that operates as a feed reader. This makes it possible to read uncensored news.
- HTML converters. Several sites will accept a URL and convert the page to PDF. The PDF isn’t important as such, but the service is accessing the site, and hopefully it isn’t subject to the same blocking restrictions.
- Translation services. Translators such as the ones Google and Microsoft offer will translate a page, incidentally giving access to it. Google won’t do English-to-English “translations,” but translation to some other familiar language might be an option.
This approach is inconvenient for accessing a lot of material, and it’s not very private, but it may provide access to otherwise unreachable pages.
A browser can access the Web through a proxy service. All the requests will go through it, bypassing any local blockers. In principle, this allows access to any site.
Many proxies are available in many different countries. Some require a subscription and some are free. The free ones tend to be overloaded with traffic, so they’re often very slow. Travelers should use a trustworthy proxy, not just the first one in a list. By definition, a proxy is a “man in the middle,” and it can record or alter all the requests and responses that go through it. HTTPS access should be safe, except that the proxy will see what domain the request is going to.
Proxies are easy to set up and transparent to use. National filters may block known proxies, and privacy is a concern.
The best way to bypass local interference with Internet access is to use a virtual private network, or VPN. It gives you a connection that encrypts all traffic to a server in both directions. All requests to other sites will appear to originate from the VPN.
The traveler’s employer may have a VPN which can be used for all Internet access. All traffic going through it will be visible to the employer, and the VPN might have its own restrictions, so it may or may not be suitable for personal use.
If that’s not an option, a commercial VPN service could do the job. It works like a company VPN except that it serves just as an exit point for Internet access. The services vary in connection speed, reliability, and degree of privacy.
Surfshark’s VPN emphasizes privacy and simplicity, with a user-friendly interface and a no-logs policy. The user’s IP address is hidden from visited sites. It supports all major operating systems, including smartphones. A 2018 security audit gave it high marks.
Most services, including Surfshark, offer monthly and annual payment plans. The annual plan is a better deal in the long run, but a monthly plan is good for trying the service out or making occasional use. Surfshark offers a 30-day money-back guarantee.
VPN use is illegal in some places, and some countries use technical measures to block them.
Planning a strategy
No workaround is 100% effective. Governments that are determined to restrict information can find ways to prevent any form of Internet access. When going to a country with such policies, travelers should keep several options available. If one doesn’t work, another might.
Some homework is necessary when choosing a proxy or VPN. The best ones are very good, while others will cause problems. The cost of a service is tiny compared with other travel costs.
Discretion means safety. Talking too freely about having VPN access might attract unwanted attention.
A well-prepared traveler should be able to keep the Internet access you need almost anywhere in the world.