The idea that Iran is digitally isolated from the world is a myth.
You just need to plan ahead on how to use the Internet in Iran before your arrival.
Read on. I explain what I mean.
Is Internet access widely available in Iran?
The Internet is now as widespread in Iran as electricity and running water. It’s everywhere because Iranians are prolific Internet users. Iran’s internet penetration is at nearly 80% of the population.
4G connections are available even in many remote locations. When you’re bored in your tour bus in the middle of nowhere, you might be pleasantly surprised to find out you can get decent Internet on an Iranian SIM card.
Download speeds for fixed Internet stink. But mobile speeds averaged 36 Mbps in April 2023, which is night and day compared to the poor speeds of just a few years ago. The global average for mobile download speed is about 42 Mbps, according to SpeedTest.com
Also, internet data packages are inexpensive in Iran. A 10-gig package goes for $2 USD or less.
So what is the problem with the Internet in Iran?
The problem is that access to social media and many websites is restricted in Iran. The irony is that it’s not just Iran’s government restricting access. The rest of the world also actively bans Iranian IP addresses because of International sanctions (even after Washington realized its faux pas and softened the sanctions on Internet services.)
Internet Apps that are banned in Iran
Many social media and communication apps are “filtered” (banned) in Iran, including Facebook, Facebook Messenger, YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, Telegram, SnapChat, TikTok and WhatsApp.
So when you arrive in Iran, suddenly you can’t send or receive messages on WhatsApp or tweet or watch or upload YouTube videos.
So you go to the app store on your phone to download alternatives.
But Apple Store and Google Play are filtered also. So you can’t update the existing apps on your phone or download new ones.
Tourists should prepare in advance for using the Internet in Iran
This is why you should install whatever app you’ll be using in Iran before you come here.
And make sure you coordinate with friends and family so they don’t panic if they can’t reach you in Iran.
After WhatsApp was censored here in late 2022, my mother panicked when her calls to Iran went unanswered. It took me a while to explain to her why I can’t take WhatsApp calls anymore. Took more time to get her accustomed to using Google Meet instead.
The communication apps that do work with the Internet in Iran
You are NOT shutoff from friends and family after you arrive in Iran. You can make voice or video calls using Skype, Google Meet, IMO and Discord. Of these, I would say Meet and Skype are the most reliable.
Western sanctions also aggravate problems with the Internet in Iran
People grumble about the government restricting social media here. But the West is also complicit in isolating Iran’s Internet users too.
Many online destinations abroad ban connections from Iran because of the international sanctions.
Thankfully, all the search engines such as Google and Bing, as well Google Maps and the office tools on Google Drive work here. Email apps and most photo apps such as Google Photos all work here as well.
Companies and Internet services that ban Iranian users
But Google won’t allow you to use many other services, such Google G Suite, Google Earth and Google Analytics.
Zoom also was not available to Iranians until Washington issued a relief on sanctions in September 2022. Until then, Iranian had to use privacy circumvention apps to attend Zoom meeting and classes abroad.
Millions of other online services and pages remain inaccessible to Iranian users because of the international sanctions. It is impossible to list them all. There is simply no logic to how firms and Internet companies ban Iranian IP addresses. Some do and some don’t. Has nothing to do with the sensitivity of content.
Because some hosting companies universally ban Iranian connections and tell no one, many bloggers and businesses aren’t even aware that they can’t be reached from Iran. Sometimes accessing something as innocuous as a cooking recipe is not possible!
Some companies have the good manner to at least inform the hapless Iranian user why they can’t use the website. Like Amazon:
The vast majority of websites say nothing. You get some cryptic message, like “Forbidden”.
This is Google’s way of explaining itself:
EscapefromTehran.com used to be inaccessible from Iran because my hosting company banned Iran connections until late 2022.
Don’t go to your bank from Iran!
You also cannot do any online banking with banks outside Iran. Don’t try it. Some banks will immediately shut down your account if you attempt to login from Iran. Personal experience.
How to get access to banned Social Media in Iran
You can get past the internet censorship in Iran by using the same privacy software that Russian and Chinese citizens and millions of others around the world use to get their government’s Web censorship, communicate anonymously, avoid snooping by their Internet provider, and download pirated media. Search online.
Should I buy Internet privacy software before travel to Iran?
Don’t buy any apps to bypass censorship before you arrive in Iran.
Privacy and censorship circumvention software use various protocols to defeat the particular filtering technology used in each country. What works in China most likely doesn’t work in Russia and vice versa.
The vanilla flavors used in Europe and north America typically don’t work in the countries where robust means are being used to censor the Internet.
As of late 2022, almost all the privacy software sold outside Iran (or the free versions offered in the app stores) stopped working here. Iran radically altered its networks and began a whac-a-mole policy of hunting and banning privacy servers. Only particular protocols and particular server setups now work here.
How to get Privacy software that works with the Internet in Iran
Wait to ask someone in Iran after you arrive, like your tour leader. It would be like asking about the weather. Everyone here would know what you’re asking about. The software is by far the most common on the smart phones here, using the the protocols capable of bypassing the latest filtering schemes. It’s an ongoing tragicomic cat-and-mouse of which firms outside Iran are largely clueless.
Take what influencers say about Iran’s Internet with a grain of salt
Many influencers who visit Iran set up pages with advice about travel to Iran. Many have affiliate links to sell you things. Their ideas about Iran are always positive but often simplistic too. That’s understandable. How much can you figure out about a country on a 2-week junket?
The influencers’ advice on the Internet in Iran is now totally outdated. Ignore any links for the purchase of software. Many are peddling services that stopped being effective in Iran months ago.
Let us know what you think
Internet in Iran: there’s a bright side too
Because of the filtering, building a website like this can be frustrating. Things take longer and there are more interruptions. Internet connections on mobile are fast but they are unstable and suffer from high latency. Upload speeds are difficult. Even a small video clip can take a while to upload and sometimes it just can’t be done.
But I’ve learned to also look at the bright side: the digital woes of Iran force me to remember the analog world.
And for that, well, I’m reluctantly thankful.
“Damn it. That’s not fair,” I yell when a problem with the Internet stops me from attending a Zoom meeting.
Suddenly there’s no meeting at all, as if it’s siesta time in the Spanish countryside.
But then something weird happens. I get up and walk away from the laptop. It’s new behavior that feels odd – as if I’m exercising a new muscle – albeit begrudgingly.
I’ve been going on more strolls in the wonderful Vakilabad Garden near my home.
I don’t pull out my phone at the dining table.
Last night, eating dinner at a relative’s home, I felt more connected with the conversation, probably because I just didn’t bother with pulling out the phone.
Satellite TV also target of censorship in Iran
The government here also jams some news channels broadcast from satellite, although it is done sporadically. BBC’s Persian broadcast, for example, is jammed on occasion. (BBC’s websites are also filtered.)
Most Iranians I know get their news from satellite TV, something I don’t have and never thought I might need.
Nearly half a century ago, during the unusually cold winter of 1978/79, my family huddled around a shortwave radio in the living room to catch BBC’s Persian broadcast. The announcer’s voice modulated wildly, like someone shoved him under the water occasionally.
That was the only source of relatively objective news about the Islamic Revolution that was about to engulf Iran. The memory feels like of another world, ions ago.
Internet problems in Iran not paralyzing
As I’ve written often, I don’t think living is Iran is bad. Far fewer distractions here. I get more work done here, even with the Internet woes. And, in any case, we’re all only a sun storm away from digital apocalypse, anyway.