Who is this VPN guide for?
- You are coming to China for work or travel or living here AND
- You use the internet
Then this guide is for you!
- Everyone coming to China needs a VPN to access Google, Facebook, Youtube, and many other blocked apps and websites.
- Many VPNs don’t work in China or they are just plain slow (thanks Great Firewall!)
- As techies, we wanted to find the best VPNs for China to keep our internt connections fast, reliable, and unblocked. We’ve tested a lot of VPN apps and we share our user experiences in this guide.
- Best VPNs for China 2017: Feature Comparison
- VPN China Reviews
- Best China VPN Reviews Summary
- Are VPNs illegal in China? Will they be illegal?
- The future of VPNs in China — February 1st, 2018 crackdown?
- What’s a VPN? And why do I need one for China?
- FAQ- Frequently Asked Questions
- Last Words
Best VPNs for China 2017: Feature Comparison
This mega-review includes some of the best VPN apps for China, expat tested inside China. Here are our Top 3 Recommendations on a comparison table with their most important features. Read on for individual in-depth China VPN reviews. To go to a VPN provider’s website for more information, click on the button in the table below.
Connect 1 Device
Protocols: OpenWeb, OpenVPN, Stealth (extra fee), L2TP
Supports Mac Os / iOs / Windows / Android / Linux
150+ servers in 50 countries (Choose US West for Fastest Speeds)
Wiki, Support Ticket, Live Chat, and Remote Desktop Assistance
7-day Free Trial
Speed: Very Good
Connect 3 Devices
Protocols: PPTP, OpenVPN, L2TP, IPsec
Supports Mac Os / iOs/ Windows / Android / Linux
1500 servers in 94 countries (Choose US Los Angeles 3 for fastest speeds)
Instant Response Live Chat Customer Support, Email
30-Day Money Back Trial
Connect 3 Devices
Protocols: PPTP, OpenVPN, Chameleon, L2TP
Supports Mac OS / iOs / Windows / Android / Linux
700 + servers in 49 countries (Choose West Coast US for Fastest Speed)
Live Chat also available
30-day refund period
Verdict: ExpressVPN is our top choice for users looking to stay connected the web while in China. It is a bit pricey compared to some other VPN apps, but ExpressVPN’s stellar customer support and 30-day trial period makes it more than worth it. The desktop and mobile apps are the fastest we’ve seen, reliable, with plenty of server choices. Highly recommended. Read the full ExpressVPN below.
(The reviews in this guide are from the personal experience and opinion of our team here in China. Some of the services we personally use and confidently recommend to our readers employ affiliate links, which help our blog to continue to publish awesome content — at no extra cost to you!.)
VPN China Reviews
Over the past few months we have been personally testing many different VPN China services on our computers and smartphones from inside China (Guangzhou). Here are our top China VPN reviews. Disclaimer: Other areas in China / other internet service providers may result in different levels of VPN performance.
Here are my internet benchmarks (using speedtest.net):
Broadband Internet Speed (without VPN): 11 mbps (China Telecom, Guangzhou)
Mobile Phone Internet Speed (without VPN): 12.8 mbps (China Unicom, 4G).
Pro Tip: ExpressVPN offers a 30-day Money Back guarantee so you can use it for a month and if you don’t like it or don’t need it anymore (i.e leaving China after travel) you can get all your money back! ExpressVPN is also currently running a 35% off deal so make sure you get it before it’s gone!
BONUS: Our readers also get an extra 3 months FREE when you sign up for ExpressVPN for one year.
Speeds: 6 – 7 mbps ( of 10 mbps Max on China Telecom)
Best Server: (**UPDATE** Use LA 2.) Use a server in Hong Kong of Los Angeles, US for best performance in China.
Reliability: Excellent, rarely ever encounter connection drop outs.
- Very fast speeds, reliable, strong encryption
- Unlimited Bandwidth
- Connect up to 3 devices simultaneously
- Very smooth dedicated apps for Mac / Windows / iOs / Android
- Mobile apps reconnect automatically
- Site is not blocked in China (easier access and customer support)
- Works with Netflix
- OpenVPN initial connection can be a little slow
There’s a lot of cheap VPN apps out on the market today. Unfortunately, many of these VPNs are not designed for China’s internet filter. These cheap VPNs are hastily put together apps with only a basic OpenVPN type connection and limited server choices and bandwidth. This is a problem since the Great Firewall internet filter in China is sophisticated enough to block basic OpenVPN connections, and regional Internet Service Provider variations require careful selection of VPN server locations.
I’ve used ExpressVPN quite extensively in China, and it is my go to VPN service that I recommend to my friends. I particularly like the clean and simple dedicated desktop and mobile apps they offer. They work well and I can usually get a decently fast connection (7 mbps on desktop from 10 mbps max) if I connect to the US Los Angeles or Hong Kong servers, which are specifically optimized for China users. Connection drop-outs are rare unlike many of the other VPN apps I have tested. Encryption is a pretty standard 128-bit or 256-bit OpenVPN with an unspecified kind of stealth layer.
The layout of the server list in the apps make it very easy to choose and select your favorite go-to server. ExpressVPN also has a really useful automatic speed test feature that systematically goes through each of its servers to find the one with the most optimal performance for your specific location.
The mobile iOS app is particularly great. It only connects on demand (when you need it), so it saves battery by not always running in the background. Furthermore, the ExpressVPN app will also automatically reconnect if you lose your connection. This really helps in China, where the cellular data networks can be pretty spotty. Other VPN mobile apps I have used require you to manually reconnect every time you lose your signal — a major annoyance.
ExpressVPN now allows up to 3 connected devices (at the same time) per account. This is a great feature for those who want to use their VPN account on their phone, tablet, computer, or other devices without needing sign out and sign back in.
Setup is a breeze and will take you only a couple minutes to get everything running on desktop / mobile.
- Sign up for ExpressVPN (you automatically get a 30-day money back trial)
- They will send you an email with a link to a setup page. This page will have an activation code which you will copy.
- Download the ExpressVPN app for your device / computer.
- Open the app – follow install instructions. Start the app.
- Paste the activation code when prompted. Done!
ExpressVPN is one of the more pricier options for a VPN, but I think the money is well worth it. The service is reliable and their quick customer support is adept at resolving issues specific to China VPN users.
Can you imagine being cut off from Gmail, Youtube, Facebook, Instagram, and pretty much all your favorite sites/ apps for even one day? For just a little more money you can have the peace of mind that you will be able connect to the things that matter most, when you need it. Don’t take chances with your internet sanity!
Overall, ExpressVPN is our top choice for those living in China or travelling to China. Reminder: Make sure you sign up for the 30 day money back trial before you enter China! BONUS: Our readers also get a special extra 3 months FREE if you sign up for a one year plan. Just click on any of the ExpressVPN links in this article (affiliate links). As of this writing, their website is not blocked, however this can change at any time! It’s a good idea to get your VPN all set up and tested before you get to China.
Deal:3 Months FREE!
EXCLUSIVE OFFER: VyprVPN is what I have personally used in China. When searching around, I found a sneaky deal on VyprVPN that gives you 25% off a yearly account! You can also cancel anytime during the 30 day money back refund period, so if you don’t like it you have nothing to lose! Free yourself from the Firewall today!
Speed: 4 – 5 mbps (of 10 mbps max with China Telecom)
Fastest servers: Hong Kong (mobile) or US Los Angeles, Japan is also good.
Best Protocol: Chameleon and PPTP 128-bit encryption
VyprVPN (by Goldenfrog) is a smaller company but by far the one of the most reliable and fastest VPNs. Forget the big names like Astrill and Private Internet Access. They used to be fast maybe two years ago, but because so many people use them the servers get targeted by the Chinese censorship. As a result speeds have been throttled and many users (including myself) have noticed the slowdown — particularly in the past few months. Smaller VPN companies can fly under the radar and do not incur the mighty wrath of the Great Firewall!
Some quick features:
- Unlimited bandwidth
- Dedicated smartphone apps for iOs and Android
- 700 servers is 49 in countries
- 3 devices simultaneously
- All 3 main protocols + Chameleon protocol
- 15 min response Customer Service + Live Chat
- Now accepts Alipay
TIP- I can usually get 4 mbps through the Japan servers. It is fairly reliable, but at peak hours it can be a bit slower. I rarely experienced random disconnections. US West Coast is also a good choice (Usually 5 mbps). For mobile, I like to use the Hong Kong servers, as they seem to be the most stable.
I particularly like the VyprVPN User Interface for your computer. It is clean, quick, and very easy to change servers (no need to type in each address!), protocol type, or view all the ping times from all the many different servers around the world. Account management and customer service has worked very well for me. You can even pay with Alipay (zhifubao) now.
VyprVPN has the three main VPN protocols (OpenVPN, LT2P, and PPTP) as well as their own proprietary “Chameleon” 256-bit protocol which is supposed to allow you to stealthily slip by the firewall. I have tested all of the protocols and have found PPTP 128-bit to be the fastest.
Bandwidth is unlimited and you can use 2 devices simultaneously with one account (Vypr Pro account). The service works well on my Android smartphone and Iphone. Speeds are about 5 mbps (of a 10 mbps max on China Unicom 4G network in Guangzhou).
They offer a 30 day refund period, so check it out! (Update: They are also running a special 40% discount off yearly accounts right now. No idea when this special will stop so get it before it’s gone!)
Speed: 4 – 6 mbps (of 10 mbps max on China Telecom, Guangzhou), 9 mbps browser (OpenWeb) surfing only
Fastest Servers: US China Optimized 1 – 4
Best Protocol: IPsec or OpenWeb (OpenWeb is a proxy — only works for web browser) or Stealth Mode (paid upgrade)
Astrill is a big name in the VPN market, but for China it can be a huge hit or miss. A few years ago Astrill was working great but now it is somewhat of a mixed bag. It appears that the Firewall is targeting Astrill, rendering the OpenVPN protocol totally useless. Other users have been complaining about the slow VPN service these past few months in various forums like reddit.com/r/china.
That being said, if all you care about is surfing the web on your computer, then Astrill might still be a good choice. The OpenWeb mode in the Astrill App is actually quite fast! But if you use any other web related apps on your computer (torrents, twitter, insta etc) these will not be supported by Astrill’s OpenWeb.
If you need to be able to send all web traffic (not just web browser) over the Astrill VPN you will need to use Stealth Mode, which unfortunately you need to pay for as an upgrade. Stealth Mode is effective at disguising your VPN connection in order to bypass the GFW, but it is pricey.
If you REALLY need the fastest possible speeds, you can try Astrill’s VIP addon, which connects you directly to special servers in China. This results in lower latency (for online gaming, video and voice chat) and faster download and upload speeds. While the boost in speeds can be pretty decent, it comes at a cost — an extra 10$ per month! If speed is crucial, this is probably the fastest option for VPN users in China. You can try it out by paying for 3 months of the addon if you don’t want to commit to a full year of VIP servers.
Mobile: Astrill has had big issues in the past trying to maintain service for mobile devices. This is in part due to the fact that iOs devices don’t have a lot of different protocol options. The official Astrill app is minimalist but can get the job done. It uses the IPsec protocol on iOS devices. The Astrill iPhone app has been updated alongside iOS and I find the new app to be much more stable and rarely disconnects. However, when switching from wifi to 4G (and vice versa) you will usually need to turn the VPN on and off.
- OpenWeb (proxy) mode is fast and fairly stable if you only need to browse the web on your computer
- Dedicated Apps
- Unlimited bandwidth
- Super fast VIP addon (but pricey!)
- Allows only one simultaneous connection (can’t use your smartphone and computer and the same time)
- OpenVPN does not work in China, need to pay for StealthVPN upgrade
- Default OpenWeb mode will not hide your IP for torrents, or other web related apps on your computer
- Mobile app needs to be reset when switching from WIFI to 4G
BOTTOMLINE: Astrill is good if you only plan on doing surfing on your computer’s web browser (Chrome, IE, Safari, Firefox). The mobile experience is not very good at all. Since you can only use one connection at a time under the standard package you might need to upgrade or get a second VPN.
If you are already in China you may find that you cannot access the Astrill website. No fear! Here are some other links to get you to Astrill:
Buy Astrill using Taobao: http://www.astrill-china.com/
Astrill Mirror (copy) Site: https://getastrill.com/
Best servers: United States (Los Angeles)
Pro Tips: Make sure you use the obfuscated server mode for best performance
Deal Alert: Currently offering 52% off a yearly plan.
NordVPN is one of the few VPN services that works well in China thanks to its purpose-built obfuscation technology that masks VPN connections from the prying of the Great Firewall. The custom apps have great clean user interfaces that allow you to connect on all the major computing platforms. NordVPN also stands out from the typical VPN services in the market by offering an advanced suite of privacy features that will please the most hardcore cyber-privacy adherents. Overall, NordVPN is a solid choice
- Obfuscation servers are excellent for unblocking the web in China
- Custom apps for mobile, PC / macOS, router
- Extra advanced privacy features such as Onion, double-layer VPN encryption
- Allows 6 simultaneous connections
- Obfuscation only offered on select server locations
Setting yourself up with the NordVPN app is a breeze. Simply signup for an account (you can pay using PayPal, credit card, Bitcoin, Alipay, and more) and download the software from their website or from your app store (Google Play / Apple). Their website has tutorials to help you setup NordVPN on Windows, macOS, iOS, Android, Linux, router and much more.
After following installation instructions you can launch the VPN app. For users in China, it is highly recommended to turn on the “Obfuscated Servers” mode in the “Advanced Settings” area. This obfuscation masks your VPN traffic so it cannot be detected by the internet censorship technology used in China and other countries like Iran. Without this obfuscation mode turned on the app will be very slow or totally unreliable in China.
NordVPN boasts over 1000 servers in countries all over the world . The app has a server list which lets you see the current server load on all of the different servers which helps you choose a less busy server to connect. Note: If you enable the Obfuscated Servers mode, only a select few server locations can be chosen.
Download speeds with the NordVPN app were quick and the connection was stable thanks to the advanced obfuscation mode. Currently, NordVPN allows six simultaneous connections with a single account, which is great for those with many connected devices at home.
NordVPN is one of the most privacy-centric VPNs on the market. They offer a suite of advanced features such as:
- Double-encryption – wrapping an encrypted VPN connection inside another VPN connection to ensure extra protection
- Onion-over-VPN – this technique is useful for those using TOR for extra privacy and security
- DNS kill-switch (with selective option)
- CyberSec – an option to block malicious ads and malware
NordVPN also has many privacy-oriented company policies such as zero logs and a warrant canary.
If you have a problem with your app you can easily contact NordVPN customer support through their live chat system. Alternatively, you can send them an email or message through a contact form with a 48 hour response time. NordVPN currently offers a 30-day money back guarantee.
BOTTOMLINE: NordVPN is a great VPN choice for those coming to China for work or travel. The app features highly effective masking technology that evades the Great Firewall and in addition has a ton of extra features that protect your privacy — which is becoming more and more important these days.
Other VPNS Worth Checking Out
Speeds: ~3 mbps
Fastest Servers: US West Coast, Hong Kong
Best Protocol: Default App (OpenVPN)
Buffered is a VPN company based in Hungary that offers a clean VPN user experience with all the features you would expect from a top-notch VPN service. They offer custom native apps for all the major platforms (iOS, Android, macOS, Windows, Linux and even DD-WRT and Tomato routers) which are easy to install and use.
- Custom native apps for iOS, Android, macOS, Windows, Linux, router
- 5 simultaneous connections
- 43 server countries
- 30-day money back guarantee
Buffered currently offers VPN server locations (IP addresses) in 43 different countries. In our usage tests in China, we found the speeds for the US West Coast server to be quite decent as well as speeds from the Hong Kong locations. Sometimes initial connections to VPN servers can timeout so you have hunt for another server location that connects quickly.
Currently, Buffered offers a 30-day money back guarantee so long as you don’t exceed 100 sessions, 10 GB, or 10 hours of usage. This limit should be more than enough to try out the service to see if it works for you.
Speed: ~4.0 mbps
Fastest Servers: Japan (stealth proxy) + US Asia optimized (VPN)
Best Protocol: Stealth VPN + Stealth Proxy Setting
TorGuard is well known for their work in protecting users who like to use P2P file sharing and torrenting services, however they are also making headways in fighting internet censorship. TorGuard recently (October 2015) released an update to their VPN app that specifically addresses the Great Firewall issues that users encounter in China. Most plain VPNs use a basic OpenVPN connection that is easily detected and throttled.
By using an extra “stealth proxy” layer on top of their Stealth VPN, TorGuard’s VPN connection is extra undetectable by the Chinese DPI (deep packet inspection) filter. While this adds a small slowdown, the proxy is layer is usually faster than other heavy duty double-layer encryption methods (SSL or SSH). The upside is that the connection tends to be more stable and unaffected by the firewall.
TorGuard has apps that run on all the major mobile and desktop platforms (iOs, Mac, Windows, Android) and also allows a whopping 5 simultaneous connections, which is great if you want to share your subscription with your family or friend. It also also good if you have a lot of devices (Xbox, media center, tablet, phone, PC, notebook etc)
- Unlimited Bandwidth
- OpenVPN + stealth proxy protocol, PPTP, L2TP, IPsec, SSTP
- Supports OS X / Windows / Android / Iphone
- 1200+ servers in 42+ countries
How to use TorGuard in China:
- Sign up for the TorGuard’s VPN Pro package, the stealth proxy option is automatically included.
- Launch the Torguard app and select a VPN server, this will determine your IP location (i.e use US for Netflix etc)
- Click on “Settings” a click on Stealth Proxy. You can now choose a Japan or US server for the proxy layer. In my tests, the Japan servers work best.
- Press connect.
I have been using the Torguard VPN + Stealth proxy setting for the past few days and I can tell already it is a huge improvement over the last version. Most other VPN service OpenVPN connections are slow to initialize, which makes switching servers a major pain. The use of the Stealth Proxy makes TorGuard’s initial server load time noticeably faster than other OpenVPN-based services I have tried.
Torguard is definitely worth checking out. They also have a Socks5 proxy that I am in the process of testing here in China. Their innovative VPN-Proxy technology is certainly great progress in the fight against internet censorship, and I look forward to further updates to their app in the future.
Speed: 4 – 6 mbps
Fastest Servers: California (US west), Singapore or Japan
Best Protocol: PPTP works well for both desktop and mobile
PandaPow is a VPN service based in Hong Kong with a focus on helping users in China break past the firewall. They offer a “classic” VPN software service for desktop and mobile but also a VPN enabled wifi router, which is perfect for families or people with a large number of connected devices. The PandaPow wifi router also comes with 3 months of the VPN service for free!
I have used PandaPow pretty extensively in China, but primarily for my Iphone. The PPTP connection is usually fast, but sometimes I can experience periods of slowness, though that could just be from normal network congestion here in the land of 600 million smartphone users!
Here’s some quick stats about PandaPow:
- Unlimited Bandwidth
- Apps for Android, iOS, Windows, and Mac Os
- 3 simultaneous connections (awesome!)
- 7 -day money back guarantee
I highly encourage you to check out PandaPow since they are dedicated to supporting China customers. The 7-day money back trial period is perfect for people who want to try it out before committing to a subscription.
Speed: 2 – 4 mbps ( of 10 mbps max with China Telecom)
Fastest Servers: US, sometimes Japan.
Best Protocol: Go with PPTP. I have had nothing but extremely slow service with their OpenVPN and “Stealth” protocol.
VPNinja is a pretty good service. It is generally reliable once connected to a server, however finding a good server that works can take a couple tries. The speeds are not so great compared to VyprVPN. I maybe have seen a max of 5 mbps.
Here’s some other stats
- Allows 2 connections simultaneously
- Supports PPTP, LT2P, and it’s own OpenVPNinja Stealth protocol
- Unlimited bandwidth
- Free trial
VPNinja used to be superfast in my old apartment and old Internet Service, but it definitely is not as fast on China Telecom in Guangzhou!
Speed: PIA is hit or miss. Desktop connection very slow or completely blocked. We currently do not reccommend PIA.
Fastest Servers: us-california.privateinternetaccess.com (but use the IP address!)
Protocol: Use PPTP. The PIA application you download uses OpenVPN which can be very slow nowadays.
This used to be our first choice VPN until the PIA servers started to get blocked by the Great Firewall of China. This blocking seems to depend heavily on your ISP and also your region. Now the only thing that works is the mobile app and even then it won’t work on my wifi (China Telecom), only on 4G (China Unicom)!
TIP- When setting up a PPTP connection, use the server IP addresses (169.51. etc etc) instead of the names (us-east.privateinternetaccess.com) as the names are blocked in China. You can do this easily by opening Terminal or Command Prompt and typing: nslookup us-east.privateinternetaccess.com. You can do this for any server address to get the IP.
- Allows up to 5 connections on a single account, so you can connect all of your devices (phone, tablet, computer, xbox, etc) and maybe share your account with a friend too! Most others VPNs only allow 2 connections.
- PIA VPN has unlimited bandwidth,
- Supports all the major VPN protocols
- Has easy to use Iphone and Android apps so you can
- Has major gigabit servers in nearby Hong Kong and the US.
If privacy is important to you, you will be happy to know that they record no logs and you can even pay for your service using any major gift card, thus keeping your details confidential!
I really like the 5 device connection ability, low price, and privacy, but the deterioration of the server speeds and targeting by the censorship makes it a no-no at the present. Hopefully PIA can make a comeback in the future.
Some other services you may want to checkout:
AirVPN – In the process of reviewing this service, and will report back later!
NordVPN – NordVPN is a VPN service with many advanced features including obfuscated servers which help your VPN sneak across the Great Firewall of China undetected.
PureVPN – I have heard good things about this VPN, but had trouble setting it up myself.
12VPN– According to some China blogs, it is one of the best VPN services for China because they are one of the few VPNs made specifically for China users. We’ve tried it out, and though it is basic, it can get the job done. What’s missing is native apps, but you can still use 12VPN on Android / iOS through the phone settings or 3rd party apps like OpenConnect or VPN ON.
Best China VPN Reviews Summary
There are a lot of VPN providers and we have tested a large number of them here in China. This list will continually be updated as we test more VPNs. All of the VPNs in the list are paid services, for free solutions check out our Free Best VPN for China Facebook un-blocking guide.
Best VPN for China Feature Comparison Overview
|VPN Service||VPN Rating||Mobile Download Speed (mbps)||Simultaneous Connections||Encryption Protocols||Subscription Price ($USD/month)|
|ExpressVPN||4.7 / 5||4.29||3||OpenVPN, Ipsec, L2TP||8.32|
|VyprVPN||4.5 / 5||3.33||3||PPTP, OpenVPN™, Chameleon, and L2TP/IPSec||8.33|
|Astrill||4.5 / 5||2.53||5||OpenWeb, OpenVPN, PPTP, L2TP/IPSec, Cisco IPSec, SSTP, IKEv2||10.83|
|PandaPow||3.5 / 5||1.43||3||UDP and TCP||7|
|Torguard||4 / 5||2.11||5||OpenVPN/SSTP/L2TP/Ipsec||9.99|
|IPVanish||2 / 5||0.49||2||OpenVPN, PPTP and L2TP/IPsec VPN protocols||10|
|12VPN||4 / 5||3.48||5||Chrome, OpenVPN, Stealth, OpenWEB, IPsec, SSTP||8.25|
|Private Internet Access||3 / 5||unstable||5||OpenVPN/IPsec/PPTP/L2TP/SOCKS5||6.95|
|VPNinja||3 / 5||1.1||2||PPTP, L2TP and OpenVPNinja (OpenVPN)||6|
|AirVPN||3.5 / 5||N/A||3||OpenVPN + SSH/SSL||7.94|
The table above is a feature comparison of the most popular VPNs used in China. All of the VPNs listed in the table have unlimited bandwidth and unlimited server location switching, as this is becoming the norm for all VPN apps in the market today. Trials include free trials and money-back guarantees. The VPN speeds were tested using iOS on a China Unicom 4G network in Guangzhou with a max non-VPN speed of about 11 mbps. ExpressVPN is currently our recommended best VPN for China.
Are VPNs illegal in China? Will they be illegal?
There have been many developments in the past months regarding the legality and restriction of use of personal VPNs in China.
Currently, VPN usage is not illegal in China. It is now illegal, however, to run an unlicensed VPN company in China and many Chinese VPN services (such as Green VPN) have been recently forced to shut down as a result. This is all in accordance with new cyber security laws that took effect in June. As most popular VPNs used by expats and travellers have their company headquarters outside of China, this will have little effect on these users at the moment.
The future of VPNs in China — February 1st, 2018 crackdown?
A recent report by Bloomberg suggests that the Chinese government has instructed the major Chinese Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to block individuals from accessing VPN services starting on February 1st, 2018. However, there have not been any official announcements as of yet. It is therefore unclear whether a full VPN ban will ever be a reality.
UPDATE: The Chinese government has refuted the reports of a personal VPN ban, instead clarifying that the instructions given to Chinese ISPs was regarding the operation of VPNs by companies in China for non-company use.
UPDATE 2: Apple has started to remove VPN apps from the Chinese Apple store at the request of the Chinese government. This only affects users with a Chinese App store / iCloud account. Users with non-China accounts can still download VPN apps from the app store.
From a technological standpoint, such a ban on VPNs is certainly possible. Most OpenVPN connections are already automatically blocked in China via the Great Firewall Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) and VPN providers currently have been forced to use special “stealth” technologies (obfsproxy, SSL tunnels) to mask VPN traffic. Despite these technologies, popular VPNs have still been known to suffer from complete shutdowns during Chinese New Year and the major political meetings in March. Chinese ISPs could also simply block the IP addresses of major VPN servers.
How would a VPN ban affect me?
If the government really follows through with a total ban of VPN usage by February 1st, 2018 this will have a very negative effect for foreign companies and individuals in China. Nearly all foreign expats working in China rely on VPN services for their daily work, communication, and entertainment. 6 out of the top 10 most used websites in the USA are inaccessible without a VPN in China. Critical information sources like Wikipedia and major foreign news outlets would be blocked, essentially leaving internet users in the dark.
Internet users who crucially need Google and other blocked services may have to resort to more expensive options such as data roaming with a Hong Kong SIM card or satellite internet. Many expats may just simply choose to leave for a less hostile environment. Chinese companies may then find it more difficult to hire foreign workers. Manufacturing and education (International Schools and ESL) will be hit the hardest as they employ a large number of foreign workers.
Personally, we at Startup Living China will experiment with all possible alternative internet options in the event of a VPN ban. But at some point the cost and hassle might prove to be too prohibitive and some of us unfortunately may consider leaving China as well.
How to prepare for a potential VPN ban
It is important to have backup internet solutions in case of a total VPN shutdown in China. Here are some steps you can take to reduce interruptions in your daily cyber activities in the event of a VPN shutdown.
- Make sure you have an alternative email provider other than Gmail. If VPNs are blocked, you will not be able to access your Gmail. We suggest opening up a Microsoft web email account as it is not blocked in China. Make sure to have copies of your incoming email at your Gmail account forwarded to your Microsoft account.
- Make sure you have access to your cloud backups. Dropbox and Google Drive will be inaccessible in the event of a VPN ban. Backup your important files on a physical hard drive or another provider that is not blocked (Skydrive).
- Consider using a Hong Kong SIM card with roaming. You can access the unblocked web on your smartphone without a VPN in China by purchasing a China Mobile SIM card in Hong Kong and using data roaming. This unfortunately will be much more expensive than China data rates. 1GB of data will cost you around $180 USD.
- Deploy your own VPN. If the VPN ban is only implemented via IP address blocking of major VPN services (and not blocking VPN protocols) it may be possible to run your own VPN through a VPS or Cloud server service (Amazon, Digital Ocean, etc).
- Get used to Bing. Not as good as Google but better than nothing.
- Follow us for updates. As tech addicts, you can be sure that we will be monitoring the VPN situation in China very closely. Follow us for updates on what VPNs are working, and what’s not.
What’s a VPN? And why do I need one for China?
If you have never been to mainland China before (i.e not Hong Kong or Macau) you may be surprised when you get there and find out that you cannot access most of the sites that you love and use on a daily basis. This is because of the so-called “Great Firewall” of China — a countrywide imposed internet filter that restricts the access of certain websites when you are in China. More than 2600 major websites are blocked in China. Some of these blocked sites include:
- List of other sites
Just recently the UK’s most read online newspaper, The Guardian, was also added to the block list.
UPDATE July 22,2017: Internet users in China are reporting that Whatsapp is now facing blockage and censorship within China. Click here for a full list of websites blocked in China.
Obviously, being unable to use the above sites represents a huge barrier.
Most of us rely on these websites for our social interaction, management of tasks, work, and communication. Maybe you can survive a couple days without using these websites, but for those of us who intend on staying in China for an extended period of time, we need a solution to this problem– our livelihood, relationships, and sanity depend on it!
How to unblock / access Facebook in China?
Easy. Use a Virtual Private Network or VPN.
Say you want to connect to Facebook (or any other blocked site) while you are travelling or living in China. Instead of starting up your web browser and connecting to Facebook’s servers directly, whose IP is blocked in China, you can connect to a VPN server, which then connects you to Facebook. You can think of a VPN as a trusted and secure middle-man who acts as a mediator as you exchange information with a blocked website when you connect to the web through a VPN. (More about VPNs)
If you want to use a VPN, you are going to need to pay for a service– but trust me it is well-worth it. Note: you will want to sort out your purchase of a VPN service before you come to China, because often many of the websites selling these VPN services are themselves blocked within China.
How much does a Chinese VPN service cost?
While there are some free VPNs you can use, they are highly questionable and potentially dangerous or not secure. I would highly recommend paying for a service.
A paid VPN will usually cost you between 5$-15$ USD / month. Most companies offer a discount on yearly plans, generally 65-100$ USD / year. This is really quite affordable. Additionally, you can usually split the cost among a couple friends, as most VPNs allow sharing on one account.
Even if you decide to leave China, your VPN is still useful. A VPN helps keep your information secure when you are using public wifi networks at hotels, cafes, and airports. You can also use a VPN to change your apparent IP location, allowing you to access streaming sites that might be only accessible by certain locations (such as Comedy Central, iBBC etc). Furthermore, a VPN can allow you to torrent or download stuff anonymously.
What to look for in a VPN service plan for China
Here a couple important factors to consider when choosing a VPN for your stay in China:
# of Simultaneous Users / Sharing
Can a single VPN account be used by multiple devices like your computer, phone, and tablet? Simultaneously? How about sharing among your friends? Sharing a single VPN account among your friends or flatmates can also help save on costs.
Broadband speeds in China aren’t really the best, so you want to cutdown on bottlenecks by having a fast VPN. If any of your work relies heavily on the internet — i.e building websites, SEO, blogging, E-commerce, or online media, then you will want to get the fastest VPN you can afford.
This refers to how much data (in GB) you are allowed to download (this includes streaming!) and upload, each month. If you are sharing an account you will be sharing bandwidth as well. Make sure you buy more than you think you will need so you don’t get stuck without internet. Ideally try and get a VPN plan that offers unlimited bandwidth. Dedicated bandwidth usually means faster speeds, but at the cost of an allowance of a fixed number of gigabytes each month.
How consistent is the service? Some VPNs are flakey and require you to constantly re-connect to different servers. This can be extremely frustrating. Pay a little extra for the best and you can maintain some semblance of sanity!
Ease of Setup
Different VPNs have different procedures to connect your devices to the uncensored internet. Sometimes this can take a while to setup, or can be very confusing for those who are not tech-savvy. Make sure you can setup the VPN to be used on all your devices easily.
Dedicated APPs for Mobile
Some smaller VPN companies don’t offer their own APP for mobile devices (Android, Iphone, Ipad etc). Instead you need to manually enter in profiles, download 3rd party apps, or download server profiles one-by-one. This is a huge hassle. It’s much better to choose a VPN service that has their own dedicated Apps.
This is extremely important. If you have problems using your VPN, you will want to be able to sort out the issue right away. Some VPN companies have live chats or phone lines you can reach them at. Make sure that the method of contacting customer service is available without a VPN otherwise you might not be able to receive help behind the Great Firewall of China.
Most VPNs have servers all over the world. Having a server closer to your location will ensure speedier connections. Look for a service that will have a server located in a country close by– such as Hong Kong, South Korea, Japan, or the West Coast of the United States. Having a VPN with multiple servers and IPs is also important in case the Great Firewall blocks one of the VPN IP addresses.
Is the VPN compatible with Windows? Mac OS? Linux? iOs? Android? What about your tablet? You should make sure you can connect all your devices to your VPN before you buy, otherwise this can cause a huge headache. Some VPN services have free trials, which is a great way to test if all your devices can connect before you buy.
Look for a VPN that uses a protocol that has at least 128-bit encryption. Higher encryption strength is nice, but results in slower performance. 256-bit is typically the considered the standard in most VPNs.
There are many different plans from different companies. Choose the one that fits your budget but do not skimp on security features or speed / reliability. Often you get what you pay for in life, and if you end up
Free Trial / Money-back Guarantee: Does the company offer a free trial? A free trial is a great way to test out the speed, reliability, and compatibility of your VPN service before you commit to buying.
Secure encryption is a very important factor while using a VPN service. You don’t want anyone snooping on your emails, sites, or online banking information, while you are browsing the web through an intermediary. Do not try and save money by going with the cheapest or free VPN if you are going to compromise security.
VPN Protocols: Why you should get a VPN that supports multiple protocols
Most VPN services will have different options for your VPN protocol (basically the “language” or method in which your internet data is transferred by the VPN server). The 3 most popular protocols you will encounter are:
It is highly advantageous to have a VPN service that supports multiple VPN protocols. The Chinese authorities are fully aware of VPNs and the Firewall is constantly being updated to close down connections to them. Sometimes a certain protocol will be targeted and can result in slow speeds or the inability to connect to your VPN. If your VPN supports multiple VPN protocols, then you can just simply switch to re-connect to the web.
OpenVPN tends to be the favoured VPN protocol because it balances between speed and security. Also, it is more compatible with a variety of devices / operating systems. Unfortunately, the Great Firewall is now capable of detecting basic OpenVPN connections and will either block or throttle them. Thankfully, many VPN service providers offer additional layers of security on top of OpenVPN to specifically get around the Firewall. Look for VPNs that offer things like:
FAQ- Frequently Asked Questions
Q: What is the Best VPN for China in 2017?
- ExpressVPN – fast speeds, reliable connection, great custom apps for all devices
- VyprVPN – proprietary Chameleon VPN protocol, good custom apps
- Astrill – fast web browser proxy and stealthVPN protocol, custom apps, limited connections
- NordVPN – obfuscated servers, double VPN, custom apps
- AirVPN – OpenVPN over SSL + SSH encryption tunnels
- 12VPN – web proxy and stealthVPN, no custom mobile apps
- Torguard – stealth proxy layer, custom apps
- Buffered – custom apps, connecting can be difficult
- PandaPOW – uses OpenVPN / Tunnelblick, custom mobile apps
Q: Are VPNs illegal in China?
No. VPNs are not illegal. In fact, they are often used in businesses and enterprises and are essential to more than just people looking to access Facebook or Google. That being said, it is illegal to operate a VPN company inside China without the proper registration. All of the VPN apps used to jump around the Great Firewall are based outside China.
Q: What is the best VPN protocol to use in China?
Mobile iOS: IPsec
Mobile Android: OpenVPN
Desktop: OpenVPN + some extra layer (SSL, Obfsproxy, etc) or if you only use the browser you could use a proxy.
PPTP should always be your last choice if possible, since it is known to have security issues.
Q: What’s the difference between a proxy and a VPN?
A proxy is a network encryption method that usually only works on your browser (Chrome, IE, Safari, etc). A VPN encrypts all the network traffic on your device. Proxies are usually faster but won’t cover you for any web apps outside the browser such as torrents, Spotify, etc.
Q: My VPN isn’t working? My VPN is slow! Why?
If your VPN doesn’t work, you should contact the support team of your VPN provider. Most of the more established VPN companies have 24 hr support.
If you have some generic VPN downloaded on your device, chances are it won’t work in China because of the extra sophistication of the internet filter here. If your VPN is slow you should try connecting to another server first to see if that changes anything.
Q: Which VPN server / country IP should I use when in China?
The best server / country location will vary from different VPN service provider, but there are generally two metrics to consider for best server performance:
- Download / Upload speeds (mbps)
- Latency (ms)
Download and uploads speeds are usually faster with servers that are closely connected to the same internet backbone as the major Internet Service Providers (ISPs) in China: China Unicom, China Telecom, and China Mobile. Some VPN providers specifically offer China Optimized servers that make use of such close connection (peering). In general, major internet hubs located geographically close to China (Japan, Hong Kong, West Coast USA) should have better bandwidth connections.
Latency refers to the delay time when sending data from the VPN server to your device. This is usually dependent on distance. Lower latency and shorter distance to servers are usually preferred. Having low latency is important for those who want smooth video chatting, Skype, or gaming.
Q: Does TunnelBear work in China?
In short, yes — but not well. Tunnelbear offers a free VPN plan that limits you to 500 MB per month of transfer, which is definitely not much unless you just plan to do emails. On top of that, the service is not very fast and is not optimized to handle the Great Firewall in China.
Q: What if I want to watch Youku from outside China? Are there any VPNs servers in China?
Yes! Many Chinese content (video / music) websites won’t function properly if you access them from outside China. In this case you will need a VPN to tunnel your connection back inside China. Astrill is one VPN service that has servers inside China.
A VPN is a super useful tool that will allow you to access to the uncensored Internet while you are living in China. Make sure you sort out the purchase of your VPN, and set it up / test it, before you arrive to China. Many of the websites of the VPN companies are blocked or could become blocked at any time. It helps to have your VPNs customer support email saved somewhere on your computer.
If you have any VPN suggestions or questions we would love to hear them — just drop us a line in the comments section!
Send us your speeds
It would be nice if you could tell us how fast your VPN is going so we can aggregate this information for all our readers. Please leave a comment in the comments section below with the following:
- Internet speed without VPN (use speedtest.net)
- Internet speed with VPN
- Your City
- Your Internet Service Provider (China telecom, China unicom etc)
Great Firewall of China — Type in a website and it will tell you if it is blocked in China.
CNET Asia’s review of 5 VPNs for China — A review of some VPNs for China.
Lifehacker’s Info on VPN services — Pretty informative stuff if you want to learn more about VPNs
chinaSMACK’s detailed review of VPNs for China – more information about using different VPN apps in China.
The reviews above are from the personal experience and opinion of our writing team here in China. Some of the services we personally use and confidently recommend to our readers employ affiliate links, which help our blog to continue to publish awesome content.