From Syria to Senegal: the 10 countries that searched for VPNs most in 2023

Looking at global statistics around VPN (Virtual Private Network) usage, it’s easy to build up a picture of the average VPN user.

They’re probably male (57% of VPN users are), with an income of $25,000 to $49,000; most likely degree-educated, too. The latest data also tells us what those people are using VPNs for: namely, to protect their privacy on public wifi (51%), safeguard their browsing anonymity (44%), communicate securely (37%), and mask their browsing from authorities (Techopedia).

But recently, research has demonstrated that it’s not just who you are that determines whether, or how, you use a VPN. It’s where you are in the world, too.

So – which countries serve as the highest predictors for VPN usage? In which parts of the planet were searches for VPNs most fervent and frequent in 2023 – and, perhaps, most importantly, why?

Let’s take a look.

Which 10 countries searched for VPNs most in 2023?

In Techopedia’s guide to the countries that searched for VPNs most, it analyzed Google Trends data. The goal? To ascertain which countries had the highest proportion of VPN-related online searches (as a proportion of total searches) in 2023 – and how much these had increased compared to 2022’s figures.

The findings revealed that the countries most interested in VPNs in 2023 were:
  1. Turkmenistan
  2. Ethiopia
  3. Iran
  4. Myanmar
  5. China
  6. Syria
  7. Afghanistan
  8. St Helena
  9. Senegal
  10. Uganda
Almost invariably, these countries are under the thumb of governments (typically, totalitarian ones) with a penchant for internet censorship; whether that’s China’s blanket ban, or the more selective, reactive approach countries like Senegal and Uganda take to combat civil crises.

Below, we unpack the top three talking points from Techopedia’s VPN findings – and what’s happening in those countries to have caused VPN usage to spike so dramatically.

Afghanistan’s VPN searches are the fastest-growing

In Techopedia’s research, all but three of the countries in the top 10 for VPN searches saw an increase in online VPN-related queries vis a vis 2022 levels. (The three outliers were Turkmenistan, which stayed consistent, plus Ethiopia and Senegal – both of which were new entrants in the rankings.)

Myanmar observed a 27% increase in VPN interest, while St Helena – a remote British territory located almost 2,000 km off the coast of southwestern Africa – saw a 60% boost. Familiar culprits such as Iran and China (both +93%) saw even greater growth in VPN searches, as did Uganda (+106%) and war-torn Syria (+108%).

But the most jaw-dropping increase in 2023 VPN searches compared to the year prior – and by some margin – was in Afghanistan, where VPN-related queries grew a staggering 156%.

How come?

Since the Taliban seized power in 2021, the country – and its internet – has remained in the lethal grip of the militant group’s forces. Since then, Afghanistan’s relationship with online freedoms has been a complex one. Early in the Taliban’s reign, the Pashtun organization imposed an outright ban on the internet, although this soon gave way to a more lenient approach – perhaps after the Taliban realized that they could turn the internet into a weapon.

They soon set about doing that, and 2022 saw the group block 23 million websites: surgically and strategically severing its citizens’ access to anything it leaders deemed ‘anti-Islamic content’. To this day, the militant group also monitors social media for posts expressing similar views or ‘immorality’ – or, indeed, simply anything anti-Taliban.

However, Afghanistan’s stringent internet controls haven’t yet made their way into the realm of law – and in 2024, VPNs remain legal to use in Afghanistan.

Turkmenistan has the highest proportion of VPN searches

Techopedia’s research found that, while internet searches for VPNs in 2023 grew most in Afghanistan, they were highest (as a proportion of all online queries) in Turkmenistan – a position the country also held in 2022.

To those already familiar with Turkmenistan’s overzealous approach to policing the internet, this comes as no surprise. This central Asian country’s internet is widely considered to be the most censored in the world, with a dictator-led government controlling the flow of information through a sole internet provider.

That, of course, is for Turkmen citizens who have access to the internet – most don’t.

Turkmenistan's internet penetration rate of 38.2% is central Asia’s lowest. Further complicating the picture is the fact that VPNs – the main method the country’s internet users have of circumventing its government’s iron fist on information – are illegal.

That’s right: Turkmenistan is one of a mere handful of countries (which also includes North Korea, Iraq, Belarus, and Oman) to outlaw VPNs altogether. Among the punishments to be handed out to offenders? Cautions, fines – and lengthy prison sentences.

Yet, if the latest data is anything to go by, that hasn’t deterred Turkmenistan’s internet users from seeking out VPNs to restore their access to unfiltered internet.

Senegal’s VPN demand spike was the largest in 2023

Despite Senegal only entering Techopedia’s rankings in 2023, it did so with a bang – placing a global ninth for VPN-related searches that year.

Leading the west African country’s surge into the standings was a remarkable 60,000% increase in VPN demand in 2023 – the biggest uptick of the year, and one made all the more extraordinary by the fact it took place in a single month, from June to July.

So, what happened?

In brief, Senegal’s VPN uptick can be traced back to the fate of Ousmane Sonko – the leader of the country’s opposing party, PASTEF – who was sentenced in June 2023 to two years in prison by a court, on the charge of “corrupting youth”. The judgment was immediately denounced by Sonko’s supporters, who branded it a plot to prevent the politician running for election the following February.

Violent clashes broke out, leaving nine dead – and it wasn’t the first time violence had gripped the country that year. A mere month earlier, protests in the Senegalese capital, Dakar, killed one and wounded 30, with those involved pushing back against the state’s increasingly repressive attitude towards its citizens. (Schoolchildren demanding schools to be built, rather than police stations, were met in the streets by police kitted out in full riot attire.)

The Senegalese government – in response to this string of high-profile clashes and ever-increasing public dissent against it – shut down social media. Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, and WhatsApp all disappeared, and VPN searches in the country exploded. Despite these bans being lifted just a week later, recent developments in Senegal’s ongoing struggles suggest that Senegal’s first appearance in VPN searches’ global top 10 won’t be its last.

In February 2024, Senegal’s president, Macky Sall, postponed the country’s elections (scheduled for that month) to December. In the aftermath, three people were killed in bloody clashes between protestors and police, and Sall’s government (one with a history of internet censorship that far predates June 2023’s social media blacklists) pulled the plug on mobile data, citing “the dissemination on social networks of several subversive hate messages.”

Senegal’s late entrance into the global top 10 for VPN searches suggests that, when it comes to circumventing online censorship, its internet users are relatively late to the party.

But, if their relationship with VPNs isn’t such a longstanding one now, it certainly promises to be going forward – so watch this space.

VPNs and internet freedom: a crystal-clear correlation

While the correlation between VPN usage and low levels of internet freedom has always felt, intuitively, to be strong, only recently have we had the data to prove it.

That’s because Techopedia’s findings map neatly with data from Freedom House’s Freedom of the Net Report 2023, which measures the extent to which the internet is freely available and unrestricted in 70 countries. According to Freedom House, the least free internets are those in:
  1. China (9/100)
  2. Myanmar (10/100)
  3. Iran (11/100)
  4. Cuba (20/100)
  5. Russia (21/100)
  6. Vietnam (22/100)
  7. Belarus (25/100)
  8. Saudi Arabia (25/100)
  9. Uzbekistan (25/100)
  10. Ethiopia (26/100)
So in total, four of the 10 countries with the most obfuscated online environments – China, Myanmar, Iran, and Ethiopia – are also those where VPN searches are continuing to soar.

And one thing is clear. As governments in these countries conduct their ongoing flirtations with increasingly authoritative and oppressive approaches to rule, internet freedoms are emerging as a key battleground; and VPNs a major player.

Looking to the future, how VPNs are accessed and used will continue to be a major avenue of escape for internet users in countries with degenerating records of internet freedoms. Though it remains to be seen how these jurisdictions’ governments will respond to block those routes off in the form of regulation and recrimination; with statutes and sanctions.

Through policy – and through punishment, too.

Read next: Study Shows ChatGPT's Rapid Adoption at 55%, 33% Raise AI Usage Despite Lingering Privacy Concerns
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