Internet freedom in Pakistan leaves a lot to be desired. The Freedom on the Net 2016 report sharply criticizes the regulatory framework in the South Asian country, giving it a ‘Not Free’ status and pointing to worrying developments such as the arrest of bloggers as well as large scale restrictions on content.
This massive violation of human rights means there’s ample reason for using a VPN. Short for Virtual Private Network, a VPN encrypts all the internet traffic to and from your device and tunnels it via a remote server outside your location. Sturdy VPNs render it impossible for government agencies, internet service providers, or hackers to monitor your browsing habits and are an excellent choice for maintaining your privacy and anonymity.
At the same time, a VPN can also unlock geo-restricted content such as Netflix and Hulu as well as freemium porn sites like Xhamster and Pornhub. It’s a sturdy option for people visiting the country as it’ll help them access content from back home as well as residents in Pakistan traveling abroad looking to unlock content like PTV Sports.
Our list of the best VPNs for Pakistan is ranked on the following factors:
IPVanish offers fast speed, strong encryption protocols, and a strict ‘zero logs policy’.
Over 850 servers are spread across 60 countries, so finding a suitable connection should never be a problem.
It comes with 256-bit encryption on the OpenVPN protocol and accepts Bitcoin as a payment method.
The company is headquartered in the United States, which some users may find unsettling, but its commitment to zero traffic logs should ease concerns. IPVanish doesn’t outsource any of its servers and prefers to maintain them with its own resources. That means it has total control over traffic, preventing any 3rd-party leaks or compromise.
There are apps for both Android and iOS as well as desktop support for Windows and MacOS. It isn’t able to unlock content on Netflix or Hulu, but does make our list of the best VPNs for BBC iPlayer.
NordVPN operates 976 servers in 56 countries making it a fairly robust choice for the entire gamut of your web activity. There are servers optimized for anti-DDoS, video streaming, double VPN, Tor over VPN, and dedicated IP–ideal for video streaming, strong encryption, and stringent privacy.
The company has a strict “no-logs policy” meaning it doesn’t track user sessions at all. There’s no way of tracking web history as servers don’t retain any data. It’s also headquartered in Panama and hence out of the reach of data retention laws.
All traffic flowing through Nord’s VPN servers is encrypted via the 256-bit AES protocol by default and uses 2,048-bit SSL keys. DNS leak protection is enabled. A single subscription grants access to six devices, with support for Windows, MacOS, iOS, and Android.
Our review of NordVPN displayed uninterrupted video playback and fast browsing. It’s also one of the few VPNs that’s able to bypass the Netflix ban with ease, as well as a recommended choice for BBC iPlayer and Hulu.
PureVPN has over 500 server locations spread across 121 countries, making it one of the larger VPNs out there today. Pakistan is included in the list, which mean it’s possible for residents of the country to access local content like PTV Sports while traveling abroad.
PureVPN uses 128-bit encryption to secure your connection and includes an internet kill switch – meaning it’ll halt all web activity if the connection drops unexpectedly. The company is headquartered in Hong Kong – which means it’s not subject to unwieldy data retention laws.
Our review of PureVPN displayed robust speed in North America and Europe, with slight dips in traffic when connected to a server in the Middle East. There are apps for both iOS and Android as well as desktop support for Windows and MacOS.
It’s not capable of skirting around the Netflix ban on VPNs, but does work well with BBC iPlayer.
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ExpressVPN ranks very highly on our list of the top VPNs for security and privacy because of its impeccable service, blazing fast speed, and minimal downtime.
There’s over 1,500 servers to choose from spread across 94 countries, including Pakistan. It uses OpenVPN connections encrypted with 256-bit AES as default. 4,096-bit DHE-RSA keys are identified by a SHA-512 hashing algorithm.
The company itself is incorporated in the British Virgin Islands which means it’s out of the jurisdiction of the UK. Privacy concerns are now rife in England, thanks to the controversial Snooper’s Charter. Thankfully, this doesn’t force ExpressVPN to fork over user data at the behest of British authorities.
At the same time, it’s unlikely that this will ever be a scenario with ExpressVPN due to its policy of not storing any web session data.
Our review of ExpressVPN gave it top marks for speed, design, and security parameters. It does work out to be slightly more expensive than competing services, but the experience is worth the extra cash.
There are apps for both Android and iOS as well as desktop support for Windows and MacOS. It’s capable of unblocking content on Netflix, as well as Hulu and BBC iPlayer.
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5. Zenmate Premium
Zenmate premium is the paid version of the popular VPN Chrome extension bearing the same name.
It offers sturdy 128-bit AES encryption to secure your traffic. The company doesn’t specify how many servers it runs, but there are locations spread across 19 countries in total. If you subscribe for a year, it works out to be a reasonable US$4.99/month.
Zenmate is headquartered in Germany but it claims to store no traffic sessions or logs of any kind. That should ease worries about western data retention laws.
There are apps for both Android and iOS as well as desktop support for Windows and MacOS.
Best deal for Zenmate Premium: The yearly deal is the pick of the bunch, it currently offers a 44% discount here and has a 30 day money-back guarantee so you can try it and cancel if you’re not happy or just need access for a short period.
Free VPN Options
It’s not difficult to find a free VPN option – a bit of digging around on Google, DuckDuckGo, or Reddit should do the trick.
However, we recommend you use these services only as a matter of last resort.
VPN companies aren’t charities. They need money to manage their servers, hire programmers to fine-tune code, and pay for general office upkeep.
So if the VPN service advertises itself as free, it’s probably using some dubious means to generate cash on the side. At the least you’ll be inundated with spammy referral links and loads of obtrusive advertisements. There’s a very real possibility of contracting a malware infection which can lead to data corruption and loss.
There are also numerous instances of free VPN services mining user data and selling it to third-party companies. Not only is that supremely unethical, it undermines the paradigm of surfing the web securely and privately.
Is using a VPN legal in Pakistan?
There was a flurry of activity back in 2011 when the local telecommunications regulator sought to block the use of VPNs. This was roughly around the same time as the Youtube ban took effect – as VPN usage surged, authorities woke up to the possibility that the software could be used to access a bunch of other blocked content, too.
Since then, however, the ban has only been imposed half-heartedly. Some services like Private Internet Access remain blocked, but all the ones mentioned on the list are good to go for users in Pakistan.
There’s no specific legal terminology in existing Pakistani laws that outrightly prohibits the use of VPNs, either. It’s a grey area for sure, but no one has been prosecuted so far for downloading and accessing a VPN. Please not this shouldn’t be taken as legal advice and as always you should do your own research.
What’s the future of internet freedom in Pakistan?
Roughly a million people are coming online for the first time in Pakistan via their phones, making it one of Asia’s fastest growing internet markets. There’s about 45 million internet users in the country, representing 22.5 percent of the population. The vast offline market indicates loads of untapped potential – it’s likely that the figure will go up as broadband services expand their geographical coverage of the country.
However, if history is any judge then it’s unlikely that we’ll see greater freedom and liberty for netizens in Pakistan. Things will, most likely, get worse.
Security considerations have also forced authorities to block cellular networks in the country on multiple occasions. These resulted in nationwide 3G/4G blackouts, with only fixed-line broadband networks available for connectivity.
In April 2016, the National Assembly of Pakistan approved the controversial Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act which severely impinges on individual rights and grants sweeping powers to regulatory bodies to censor content on the web.
The bill is poorly drafted and uses vague terminology, which activists argue can be twisted to incarcerate individuals at will. For example, there are statues in the act which allow for prosecution of citizens if “they attempt to create panic, fear, or insecurity”, for “pursuit of wrongful gain”, or acts that are “likely to cause damage and harm”.
Similar rhetoric is used for provisions that allow authorities to block content. The bill actually forces the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) – the regulator of internet service providers – to prevent access to any media that calls into question “the glory of Islam or the integrity, security, or defense of Pakistan […] public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court or commission of or incitement to an offence under this Act.”
Last month a Pakistani court sentenced a man to death for allegedly making blasphemous remarks on Facebook. Blasphemy carries the death penalty in the conservative Islamic country, but this was the first instance of someone arrested for an online comment. In two separate cases, anti-terrorism courts have previously ordered individuals to be imprisoned for 13 years after finding them guilty for promoting racial and sectarian hatred online.
Liberal commentary on Pakistani blogs and publishing sites is particularly targeted. Topics related to criticism of the army or the state are despised. Other things like LGBT issues, ethnic and religious problems, or social commentary is also frowned upon and faces censorship.
In January, five secular bloggers in Pakistan were arrested by the shadowy Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) – or the military’s intelligence wing. They were not allowed to speak to their friends or family for three weeks, and were only heard from after being released under mysterious circumstances.
One of them later told Voice of America that he was tortured for days on end and threatened with dire consequences if he continued criticizing the “establishment”. His blog remains unaccessible in Pakistan.
Pakistan’s love affair with blocking popular websites like Youtube and Facebook also continues in its usual deranged manner. Access is available right now, but all it takes for the authorities to clamp down is one misguided post or video to be uploaded.
Youtube was finally unblocked in 2016 after a hiatus of over three years. The outrage stemmed from an obscure movie that was deemed to be blasphemous and derogatory to Muslims. It took the world’s largest video streaming platform and the Pakistani government months of excruciating negotiations to figure out a solution. It finally culminated with Youtube agreeing to block access to the film for users within the country. You can read more here about using a VPN to unblock Youtube in countires where it is still blocked.
To maintain your security, privacy, and anonymity we recommend you use a VPN while surfing the web in Pakistan.