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. Here are some things to look for:
1. Is it blocked?
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 such 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.
Nothing is more frustrating than having your VPN drop your connection frequently or needing multiple tries to initially connect. 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).
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
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
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.
The Windows and Mac apps are well designed and with great features. There’s a 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.
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:
- Go to ExpressVPN’s website (not blocked in China) and sign up for a plan. You automatically get their 30-day money back guarantee.
- After filling in your details and paying, you will be given a security key (a long string of random letters and numbers) Remember to copy this key!
- Download the ExpressVPN for your desktop (PC or Mac) from the ExpressVPN website.
- 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.
- When you first open the app, you will be prompted to give you security key. Copy and paste it!
- Select a server and turn your VPN on to enjoy uncensored internet access!
Astrill is one of the more well known VPN apps that are used in the expat community 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).
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.
TIP: Android users will have trouble downloading and installing the Astrill VPN app in China since the Google Play Store itself is blocked in China (and needs a VPN to access it). To break out of this “chicken or the egg” scenario, you can setup a manual VPN connection in Android. All you need is your Astrill password, username, and the Astrill server address (can be found at the Astrill website when you log in).
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.
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.
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
As usual, you get what you pay for. Free VPNs will be prone to performance and privacy issues. Its 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:
- Opera VPN (built into the Opera browser. They also offer a free iOS VPN app — but it is usually blocked in China)
- Green VPN (iOS)
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.
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.
China VPN Tips and Tricks
- 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.
- Test your VPN app before arrival. Contacting customer service might be difficult if your VPN’s company website is blocked in China.
- Choose servers based in Asia or the US West Coast. These servers tend to be faster and have lower latency.
- Try different VPN protocols – If you
- 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).
- 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.
- Use multiple free-trials to cover a short trip or vacation in China. Or, if you are generally concerned about data privacy and security, you might want to consider buying a VPN subscription full-time anyway.
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.
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, Youku/Sohu/etc will be fooled into thinking you are in China.
Both Astrill and PureVPN offer a VPN service with servers located inside China. Speeds are usually decent but not the greatest.