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The Best VPN for China: Our Top 3 Choices (Apr 2017)

After hours of extensive testing here in China, we’ve updated our Best China VPN guide to help you get around the internet censorship and unblock the web. If you are coming to China for work or travel, a fast and reliable VPN will be your most essential app for your smartphone or computer.

A Quick Summary: Best VPNs for China in 2017

1. ExpressVPN: Editor’s Choice

If you are looking for the best VPN for China that:

  • works reliably in China
  • has good speed
  • has great apps that are easy to use
  • allows you to connect multiple devices on the same account

then ExpressVPN should be your first choice. ExpressVPN has the best connection reliability and speeds out of all the VPN services we have tested. It’s easily our #1 recommendation for expats and travellers who need to connect to Google / Facebook etc while in China. Jump to ExpressVPN review…

2. Astrill: Fast Proxy

Alternatively, many users like to use Astrill as their go to VPN in China. While speeds are very good with Astrill’s China Optimized servers, the reliability can be hit or miss, especially during certain times of the year when service has been known to completely break down. Jump to Astrill VPN review…

3. 12VPN: China Specifc

12 VPN is another great VPN service that is dedicated specifically to China users. They offer a large number of different methods for bypassing the Firewall and speeds are decent. 12VPN works on mobile phones but ease of setup could be better since it does not have an official dedicated app. Jump to 12VPN review…

 

Top China VPNs Compared

Astrill

ExpressVPN

12VPN

Rank
Rating
# of devices 1 3 unlimited
VPN Modes OpenWeb Proxy, StealthVPN, OpenVPN, IPsec OpenVPN TCP / UDP, IPsec OpenWeb Proxy, StealthVPN, OpenVPN, IPsec, SSTP
Dedicated Mobile Apps?
Number of Servers 150+ servers, 50 countries 145 servers, 95 countries 16+ servers, 16 countries
Fastest Servers China Optimized USA, Los Angeles, Hong Kong Los Angeles, Hong Kong, Taiwan China Optimized USA, Hong Kong
Torrenting?
Trial 7-day trial 30 day money back trial 14-day money back trial
Website

Astrill

ExpressVPN

12VPN

Why you DEFINITELY need a VPN in China

Foreigners who arrive in China for work or travel quickly realize that many of their beloved websites and social media apps are blocked and inaccessible within the country.

Some notable blocked websites include: Google, Youtube, Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, Instagram, most Western news sites, and many others. This country-wide internet censorship is often colloquially referred to as the “Great Firewall of China”.

The vast majority of foreigners in China use a VPN (or virtual private network) app to bypass the Firewall and connect to blocked websites and apps. A VPN basically works as an (encrypted) internet traffic intermediary between a user and the blocked website they wish to access.

VPNs blocked within China

The demand of VPNs for Netflix, online privacy, and public Wifi hotspot security has led to a vast number of different VPN providers popping up in the market.

Unfortunately most of these VPNs do not work inside China. This is because the most basic VPNs tend to use a plain protocol called OpenVPN that is actively blocked by the Firewall.

How to choose a VPN specifically for China

Using a VPN in China has its own quirks. Most generic VPNs are not very effective for unblocking the web in China due to advanced censorship filter technology. Here are some things to look for when choosing a VPN for China:

1. Is it blocked? VPN masking and stealth technology

This it the first and most important criteria for selecting a VPN for China. Many small VPN providers intended for use with Netflix or online privacy will not work in China due to active VPN protocol blocking.

The Great Firewall has evolved over time and is very sophisticated. While its exact method of operation is not known, it is speculated the GFW uses Deep Packet Inspection to determine signatures associated with OpenVPN protocols. It can then either throttle or outright block basic OpenVPN connections.

The best VPNs for China will employ special methods to mask the VPN-use signal. Be on the lookout for VPNs that advertise “stealth”, scramble, shadow, extra SSL, stunnel, or shadowsocks options in their apps.

2. Connection Reliability

Nothing is more frustrating than having your VPN app drop your connection frequently or needing multiple tries to initially connect to a VPN server. A great China VPN will maintain a connection consistently with high speeds.

Be aware that some VPN services will be actively blocked during certain times of the year (such as Chinese New Year).

3. VPN Download and Upload Speeds, Latency

When using a VPN, you should expect that your download and upload speeds will be a bit slower than when not using a VPN. This is because your internet traffic is being encrypted and routed to another server before reaching the intended target.

The best VPNs for China tend to use servers that are optimized for users in China. Servers that are located geographically close to China (Hong Kong, West Coast US, Japan) with direct peering to the main Chinese ISPs (China Unicom, China Telecom) are generally the best.

4. User Interface (dedicated apps)

Most VPNs are quite easy to install on your computer via download from an official website or app store. Setting up your VPN service on your smartphone is easy if your service offers dedicated official apps.

Unfortunately, not all VPN services offer official apps on both iOS and Android (or Windows phone). Some smaller VPN providers will require you to manually setup your VPN in your device settings or use a generic 3rd party app (which might not be free!).

Other things to look for when choosing a VPN

Other criteria you may want to consider include:

  • Price – most VPN services are between 5 – 10 dollars per month.
  • Number of simultaneous connections (most allow 2 minimum)
  • Security — most VPNs use 256-bit SSL or AES. Stay away from PPTP.
  • Logging – VPNs handle your internet traffic (but can’t see your actual data because of encryption). However, your VPN company can see what websites / apps you connect to. So if online privacy is a concern to you look for a VPN company that does not keep logs of internet traffic.
  • Server locations – more servers, the better. You will also want to choose a VPN that has many servers on the West coast of the U.S., Hong Kong, Japan, and Singapore, as these locations usually have the best performance for China users.
  • Payment with bitcoin – for extra privacy. Some VPN providers also allow payment with WeChat Pay or Alipay (Chinese mobile payments)
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#1. ExpressVPN – Our Top Pick

expressvpn

Pros

  • Fast China optimized servers
  • Reliable connections
  • Easy to use apps
  • Can use 3 devices at the same time on one account

Cons

  • Not the cheapest VPN

ExpressVPN is our number one recommended VPN app for bypassing the internet censorship here in China. The dedicated apps are reliable on all major platforms (iOS, Android, PC, Mac) and the speeds are reliably fast.

ExpressVPN also ranks consistently high in various China VPN speed tests conducted by expat reviewers in the country on both mobile and desktop.

ExpressVPN app features

The Windows and Mac apps are well designed and with great features. There’s a server speed tester that automatically tests the latency and download speeds of all the VPN servers so you can choose the best one for your specific location. No need to manually test every different server to guess which one is the best for your location. In our tests, we found that the Los Angeles servers and Hong Kong servers tended to have the best performance.

The PC / Mac app uses OpenVPN TCP / UDP (along with some sort of Great Firewall stealth technology). Encryption is a standard 256-bit AES, which is the same encryption used by the US government to protect classified information. You can be confident that your internet traffic is secure.

The ExpressVPN PC / Mac app also features an internet kill switch which will turn off your internet connection temporarily if it detects a dropout in the VPN connection. This nifty feature will ensure your privacy is never exposed at any time.

ExpressVPN allows 3 simultaneous connections on their subscription — good enough to use your smartphone, computer, and tablet all at the same time. ExpressVPN also provides support for routers and Linux.

The iOS and Android dedicated apps are simple but effective. The iOS app uses the IPsec protocol and automatically reconnects if the connection gets dropped, which is very handy in China as congested 4G networks can be very flakey.

Privacy and Security

ExpressVPN claims to keep no logs of the websites you visit and you can even pay for your subscription with Bitcoin, for those who are concerned about privacy.

Overall ExpressVPN is a solid choice for those looking for a reliably fast VPN app when in China. They offer a 30-day money-back guarantee which is quite generous. It is recommended you sign up for ExpressVPN before you arrive in China.

Signing up for ExpressVPN

Getting an ExpressVPN account setup is fast and easy. Follow these steps:

  1. Go to ExpressVPN’s website (thankfully it is not blocked in China) and sign up for a plan. You automatically get their 30-day money back guarantee.
  2. After filling in your details and paying, you will be given an activation key (a long string of random letters and numbers) Remember to copy this key!
  3. Download the ExpressVPN app for your desktop (PC or Mac) from the ExpressVPN website.
  4. Download the Express VPN app for your mobile device (iOS or Android) from the Apple App store or the Google Play Store. Android users in China will not be able to access the Google Play Store. You will need to manually setup your VPN connection before downloading the app from the Play Store. 
  5. When you first open the app, you will be prompted to give you security key. Copy and paste it!
  6. Select a server and turn your VPN on to enjoy uncensored internet access!

#2. Astrill – popular in China / fast proxy 

astrill

Astrill is one of the more well known VPN apps that are used in the expat community in China, and for a time it was the most widely used in China. Speeds are particularly good on the desktop app if you use the OpenWeb (technically it is a proxy — not a vpn — and only works on web browser).

Astrill VPN app Features

The PC / Mac app have some pretty nice features that are specific to China. “Smart Mode” allows the app to tunnel traffic to blocked sites, while doing nothing for unblocked sites — thus speeding up performance.

To make the most of Astrill in China, you will probably want to get the “Stealth” upgrade, which allows your PC / Mac to evade the Great Firewall on all internet traffic, not just your browser. The upgrade costs 5$ / month extra (but is free if you sign up for a 1-year plan).

The standard Astrill plan only allows one connection at a time — which is very stingy seeing as most VPN providers allow a minimum of 2 connections. You can upgrade by purchasing the “Family Plan” addon, which allows up to 5 connections at the same time However this will also cost an additional 5$ / month.

Astrill offers a pretty basic but very useable iOS and Android app. Simply choose a server and press the “ON” button to connect. The Iphone app uses the IPsec VPN protocol which will automatically reconnect to the server if the connection is dropped.

Astrill boasts a large number of server all over the world (including China!). The best servers are the China Optimized servers based in the USA. Other servers such as Los Angeles and Fremont are also quite fast.

Astrill offers a free 7-day trial if you sign up outside of China. If signing up with an IP address within China there is no offer for a free trial.

#3. 12VP – designed for China stealth options

It’s very clear that 12VPN is a VPN service designed specifically for users in China — as there are multiple Stealth protocols and China optimizations. 12VPN is not a very well known VPN app, but that can sometimes be an advantage. While other VPNs are actively being targeted and blocked by the Great Firewall, 12VPN can remain inconspicuous.

12VPN App Features

The Mac / Windows app are very plain but manage to get the job done. 12VPN offers an OpenWeb proxy (for web browser) and also StealthVPN protocols — all included in the standard app.

12VPN allows for unlimited simultaneous connections as long as they are all your own personal devices (no account sharing). Torrenting is not allowed with 12VPN.

Speeds are fast when using OpenWeb on the China Optimized servers. We recommended using the Hong Kong or US servers for best performance. 12VPN does not have a huge selection of servers / country locations (only 16 countries) compared to bigger VPN providers. However, the vast majority of people will find their server selection more than adequate. Few people will need servers outside the US / UK.

The one major flaw of 12VPN: Dedicated apps for smartphones are lacking. In order to use 12VPN on your smartphone or tablet, you must download a generic 3rd party app such as OpenConnect (Android) or VPN ON (iOS) and manually installing each VPN server configuration profile by signing into your 12VPN account through your browser. Obviously, this is a huge hassle compared to the app experiences of other more polished VPN services.

12VPN currently offers a 14-day money back guarantee.

Other VPNs for China – Honorable Mentions

These are some other VPNs that didn’t quite make the cut. You might want to keep this list handy in the event that one of our Top 3 Choices, gets blocked in China.

  • VyprVPN – Very Easy to use apps and great customer service
  • StrongVPN – Stealth / scrambling technology to mask VPN connections.
  • AirVPN – has SSL stealth VPN protocols which are great for evading censorship in China
  • PureVPN – also has VPN servers located in China if you want to use Youku / Sohu etc

Free China VPNs

There are a number of “free” VPN solutions that exist out there, however we do not recommend relying on them for the following reasons:

  1. Free VPN services either have poor performance or poor features due to the lack of revenue they generate for the providing company. Poor performance usually means the free VPN will be blocked in China. Poor features usually mean a restrictive data cap (100 MB or similar), which makes it very hard to use comfortably.
  2. Lack of data privacy: Tech companies providing free services usually make money by selling your usage data and marketing data to advertisers. Since a VPN is supposed to protect your privacy, we would not recommend using a free VPN provider who sells your data. Some free services use a peer-to-peer method of tunneling data. This is not very secure as you never know who is handling your traffic. There have been reports of free peer-to-peer VPN networks being used by botnets to do illegal or spammy activities.

As usual, you get what you pay for. Free VPNs will be prone to performance and privacy issues. It is definitely better to pay for a quality VPN service that you can depend on and trust. If money is really an issue then you can consider cycling through the many VPN services that offer free trials / money-back guarantees. Just remember to cancel your subscription before they start charging you!

If the above reasons are still not enough to deter you from using a free VPN you can check out the services:

  1. Opera VPN (built into the Opera browser. They also offer a free iOS VPN app — but it is usually blocked in China)
  2. Freegate
  3. Green VPN (iOS)

Note: We DO NOT RECOMMEND USING THESE SERVICES. USE THEM AT YOUR OWN RISK!

Chinese VPNs

There used to be a number of VPN services sold on Taobao.com (the Chinese Ebay/Amazon) but they have suffered crack downs. Nowadays those services are not openly advertised as VPNs, but as “internet services” or “wall jumping” apps — basically secret code for VPNs. Unless you can read Chinese, we recommend you stay away from these services.

One homegrown method of internet censorship circumvention is the use of something called “Shadowsocks”, which is a type of VPN / proxy that is popular among gamers in China. Unfortunately, the use of Shadowsocks is pretty hit or miss these days. You’ll have better luck using a VPN for most applications.

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China VPN Tips and Tricks

  1. Always setup your VPN (on ALL your devices) before you arrive in China. The Google Play store is blocked in China, so Android users will be unable to download apps after arrival. Some VPN company official websites are blocked as well in China, though there are usually unblocked mirror sites that can be used.
  2. Test your VPN app before arrival. Contacting customer service might be difficult if your VPN’s company website is blocked in China.
  3. Choose servers based in Asia or the US West Coast. These servers tend to be faster and have lower latency.
  4. Different cities, ISPs = different performance: China is a BIG country and is served by different ISPs (China Unicom, China Mobile, China Telecom). A certain VPN server might work well in Beijing but it might be really slow in Shenzhen. Switch things up to see what works best for your specific location and Internet Service Provider.
  5. Try different VPN protocols – If one VPN protocol / mode stops working, try switching modes. The Great Firewall filter is constantly evolving, so what worked in the past may not work in the future.
  6. If you arrive in China without a VPN and cannot access the Google Play Store or iOS App Store, try setting up your VPN manually first. (IPsec or OpenVPN, your VPN provider should have instructions).
  7. If you spend a lot of time between China mainland and Hong Kong, you might want to consider getting a cross-border SIM Card in Hong Kong. These SIM cards allow data roaming in China with uncensored internet.
  8. Use multiple free-trials to cover a short trip or vacation in China. Or, if you are generally concerned about data privacy and security (which everyone should be!), you might want to consider buying a VPN subscription full-time anyway — it is a security tool that has many uses even outside of China.

As always, depending on your specific device, router, ISP setup, your experience will vary. If in doubt, contact your VPN service provider through customer or technical support to get the best tips for your specific setup.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is using a VPN illegal in China?

No. VPNs are used all the time for internal networks of companies and schools. However, operating a VPN company inside China requires registration.

What should you do if your VPN stops working?

Some quick fixes include restarting your VPN app, restarting your Wifi, or restarting your device. You should also try switching servers or VPN protocol (in the settings) if you have the option. Some VPNs allow changing ports, which could help too. If all else fails, contact customer support.

Should I setup a VPN on my router? 

Many serious VPN companies offer the ability to setup a VPN directly on your home router. This can be really useful because it eliminates the need to install apps of all your devices and allows you to connect a virtually unlimited number of devices.

Do I need a VPN for Hong Kong or Macau?

No, the internet is uncensored there.

Does Snapchat work in China?

Unfortunately, no. Most, if not all, social media apps are blocked in mainland China.

Can I use Netflix in China?

Yes… sort of.

At the moment, Netflix does not operate in China. In theory, using a VPN with the proper server will mask your IP address and fool Netflix into thinking you are in your country of origin (US, Canada, Europe, etc).

Unfortunately, Netflix itself has been trying to crackdown on users trying to access different country libraries with VPNs. Many of the big name providers of VPN services have had their server IPs blacklisted and any attempt to connect to Netflix with those VPNs will show an error message.

The bottomline: If you use a small rather unknown VPN service, you probably can still use Netflix while you are in China (or travelling in other countries). Well known VPN services probably are blocked. We suggest using various VPN free trials to test out which ones will work for your specific needs.

What’s the difference between a Proxy and a VPN?

Sometimes when you shop around for internet censorship circumvention tools you will come across something called a proxy. A proxy works much like a VPN (a secure intermediary server) but only handles HTTP or HTTPS traffic (i.e web connections from browsers like Chrome, Safari, Internet Explorer / Edge).

A proxy can be a great alternative to a VPN if all you need is your web browser. However, people wanting to torrent on their computer, use other web apps or smartphone apps, will need to use a VPN.

Does SSH tunneling work in China?

Tech savvy individuals that do a lot of secure server connections with SSH will be shocked to find that the Great Firewall will throttle and close SSH tunnels that show unusual amounts of traffic. This means if you are transferring any large files via SSH, you are going to need a good VPN to mask your SSH connection.

Using a VPN to get into China

Many expats returning home and Chinese people going overseas will realize that certain Chinese websites (usually video or music streaming sites such as Youku and iQiyi) are not functionally usable from outside China. This is usually because of copyright issues since some Chinese streaming sites stream full movies, albums, TV shows without paying royalties.

A VPN with servers located within China will enable you to use these streaming sites even if you are not in China. By masking your IP address with a China IP address, Youku/Sohu/etc will be fooled into thinking you are in China and you can use those websites normally.

Both Astrill and PureVPN offer a VPN service with servers located inside China. Speeds are usually decent but not the greatest.

Written by chinaSMACK

Welcome to chinaSMACK. This is an archive of announcement posts and other posts without a specific author.