How to Use Telegram in Saudi Arabia

John Bennet Last Updated by John Bennet on August 18, 2019

For four long years between 2013-2017, Saudi Arabia blocked all Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) from such prominent apps as Line, Snapchat, FaceTime, Skype and Telegram.

Those bans came to an end, at least superficially, on 13 September 2017 when Saudi Arabia’s Abdullah Al-Swaha, minister of communication and information technology, made the announcement.

When the ban first came down in 2013, the Saudi government no mention of why the communication apps were being restricted. The country’s media speculated that the reason was twofold: to protect local telecom companies from losing revenue and to punish the apps for refusing to let the government monitor messages and calls.

This was a major downturn for the roughly 10 million foreigners calling Saudi Arabia home – about one-third of the country’s population. For residents from India (2.45 million), Syria (2.5 million), Pakistan (1.5 million), and The Philippines (1.5 million), this was a major change in the ability and the cost to communicate with relatives back home.

The same was true for foreign-based businesses. With the country’s strategic oil reserve hailed as the second-largest in the world, a massive amount of Western companies have offices in Saudi Arabia that were not allowed to use any VoIP providers for that stretch of time.

Telegram Ban Lifted with a Twist

Telegram is a cloud-based VoIP and instant messenger service built as open-source software. Both messages and media are encrypted on the client side, and there is end-to-end encryption for voice calls, along with so-called “secret chats” between two online users. Telegram received its ban from Saudi Arabia in 2013 over fears that the encrypted service would make it easy for protestors and terrorists to plot against governments. Telegram refused demands from the Saudi government to provide access to user data as well as individual communications.

In September 2017, the ban on Telegram, Skype, and several other apps was listed, but with a catch. Saudi citizens can use the app for online calls, but the government will both monitor and censor those calls as it sees fit. This announcement contradicts all of the security functionality that makes a VoIP provider like Telegram beneficial to users.

The amount of users who are comfortable calling friends, loved ones, and business associates knowing full well that the Saudi government could be listening in, looking for behavior or materials that go against its other censorship policies.  For this reason, Saudi citizens have looked for workarounds to use Telegram without “Big Brother” looking over their shoulder.

The VPN Solution for Telegram Users

The best way to avoid the mandated Saudi government monitoring and censorship of Telegram is to use a virtual private network (VPN) to utilize the software. A VPN is an app that connects your Internet-capable device with a remote server in another country. Using encryption, your requests for Internet usage are sent to the remote server, which sends them on to the Internet.

If you wished to employ a VPN to use Telegram, you would first download and install a reputable VPN software. The best of these are available on monthly or yearly subscriptions, although most have a small window of time available for free trials or money-back guarantees. This gives you the opportunity to try out several VPN services and establish which work best in your part of Saudi Arabia.

When you open your VPN software, you can pick which server you wish to connect to. Make sure and pick one outside of Saudi Arabia’s jurisdiction as well as making sure it does not fall in another country that censors VoIP services.

If you want to maximize the number of servers available to choose from, consider a company like NordVPN which is constantly adding them, and has more than 4,400 in 60 countries as of July 2018.

Once connected, the link between your Internet-capable device and the remote server can be best represented by a roadway that turns into a tunnel. An ISP would know you are accessing the Internet through the tunnel but cannot see what information you are sending or receiving. Considering how serious Saudi Arabia takes crimes regarding privacy and censorship, you’ll want a VPN that is serious about security. A good example is IPVanish, which uses 256-bit AES encryption and does not record your user logs.

When the server receives your data for using Telegram, it decrypts it and sends it on to the Internet using a new IP address according to the country the remote server is in. As you get responses and files back from your contacts, they travel first to the remote server, where they are encrypted and sent back to you for decryption. If you want to test out one of the fastest VPN services at no-risk for 30 days, give ExpressVPN a try. It has functionality for every platform and servers in 94 countries.

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John Bennet
John Bennet is an experienced data and communications engineer and cross-platform copy and content writer and editor with a keen interest in cybersecurity. He has been working with and researching, VPNs and other online privacy tools for many years.