Foreigners arriving in China should be aware that many Western social media apps and major websites are blocked in China by the “Great Firewall”. This country-wide internet filter blocks out Facebook, Google, Youtube, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram and many other apps and websites. In this guide, we’ll teach you the best ways to stay connected for FREE.
Unblock the web with a VPN in China
A VPN (virtual private network) service is basically an app that lets you securely route your internet traffic through an intermediary server. This allows you to get around censorship that blocks certain servers (like Facebook’s) when inside China. Almost every foreigner or expat uses a VPN in mainland China. VPNs also the added benefit of protecting internet privacy and securing your internet traffic when you are using public shared WIFI. You can also use a VPN to access geo-specific content from providers like Netflix and iBBC or Hulu. Check out our China VPN Guide / Mega Review for more info.
Getting a Free VPN for China
In order to get around this internet censorship to use Facebook and other websites / apps, you will need to use a VPN (virtual private network) app or something similar. There are a number of VPN apps / proxies that are “free”, however the exact nature of what “free” means can be broken down into three categories:
Totally 100% Free with no restrictions — but what’s the catch?
VPN services cost money to operate because they are effectively routing your internet traffic through their servers — and traffic bandwidth costs money. VPN apps that are totally 100% free with no bandwidth caps or usage restrictions must find another way to supplement the cost or offset it in some way. Sometimes these offsets can be dangerous, so watch out! Most things in life are not free.
For example, Opera offers a free VPN service built into their web browser and also a separate VPN app for both iPhone and Android. In exchange for offering you a free service, Opera gets you to use their browser, which could make money through mining user data etc. Not exactly what you might want from an app that is supposed to protect your privacy.
You should beware that some free VPN apps make use of peer-to-peer bandwidth routing. Basically instead of routing your traffic through a VPN company server, your traffic is routed through another user’s computer. That also means someone else’s traffic could be routed through your computer. While this may seem clever, you have no control over who might be abusing the way traffic is routed. HolaVPN, one of the most infamous peer-to-peer free VPNs was caught selling user bandwidth to third parties — basically hijacking your computer as part of a botnet. Very sketchy!
The bottomline is 100% free VPNs can be hard to trust. VPN services need to pay for user bandwidth somehow — and often the ways they balance their costs can be dangerous to your online privacy or security. In our opinion, these VPNs are best to stay away form.
Free VPN app — with data bandwidth restrictions
Some VPN apps are free to download and use, but will restrict your daily or monthly data usage to some miniscule amount like 100 MB. They will then offer a premium upgrade for a cost which will allow unlimited usage. These so called “freemium” models can be a good way to get a free VPN if you don’t really need a lot of bandwidth (just email). However, in today’s High Def age you will be sure to burn through 100 MB of data bandwidth quite quickly. A single high-res image can easily take up 5 – 10 MB of data.
When using a freemium VPN, make sure you do your due diligence. VPN traffic is often logged so your VPN provider will know what websites (domains) you are visiting. Make sure your VPN (even if free) is from a provider that is trusted within the industry. Hotspot Shield seems to be a good choice for a freemium VPN.
Free Trials / Money-back Guarantees
Most premium VPN service apps offer some sort of free trial or money back guarantee that usually last anywhere from 1 week to 1 month. If you are coming to China for a short trip then you can easily make use of a free trial / refund the service before the refund period is over. ExpressVPN currently offers a 30-day money back guarantee.
Long stay? Bite the bullet.
If you are planning to stay in China for more than one month, then you are probably not going to be able to cheat the system. You are going to need to pay for a VPN service — sorry! This practical reality is unfortunate but necessary.
Since your are going to fork over the money to buy a good VPN you should definitely make sure you are getting the best VPN for use in China. Cheap VPN services can be found everywhere on the web, but ones that work well in China to defeat the sophisticated VPN-blocking censorship are harder to find.
Some VPNs that we have reviewed in our China VPN Mega Guide (and are generally well recommended) include:
You can check out our full reviews here.