Gmail is the most popular web email service used by both individuals and businesses, with a total of over 1.4 billion users worldwide. Unfortunately, Gmail is completely blocked in China along with virtually all other Google services, Youtube, Facebook, Twitter, and other popular websites and apps through a sophisticated internet censorship filter nicknamed the “Great Firewall”.
Some methods you can use to access Gmail in China include:
- Use a free VPN app
- Use a free VPN trial (short term)
- Create your own VPN with a VPS (hard! requires some technical know-how)
A VPN securely encrypts and tunnels your web traffic so you can access blocked websites in China. VPNs also work well to access different Netflix country libraries and protect your internet connection when using public Wifi.
Note: VPNs can help bypass internet censorship, but not all VPNs work in China!
If you are coming to China for work or travel, you will need to follow these steps in order to unblock Gmail:
How to access Gmail in China (totally FREE solution)
- Download a free VPN (virtual private network). We recommend TunnelBear. Using your computer, go to https://www.tunnelbear.com/ to and sign up for a free account by clicking on the “Get Started for Free” button on the home page.
- Enter your email and choose a password. If you are already in China, make sure to sign up with a non-Gmail email address since you will need to open a confirmation email before you can use your TunnelBear VPN account. You can create a a new email account with Microsoft (https://outlook.live.com/) since it is not blocked in China.
- Check the email of the address you used to sign up. Click on the confirmation. Once you click on the confirmation link / button in the email you can start using your free TunnelBear account.
- Download the TunnelBear app by selecting your operating system. After you signed up for a TunnelBear account, it should have automatically started downloading the appropriate TunnelBear app for your system. If not, go to the downloads page (https://www.tunnelbear.com/download) to get the app. TunnelBear has apps for both Windows and MacOS. There are also mobile apps for Android and iOS which you can download from the Google Play Store or Apple App store. Important note: The Google Play store is blocked in China, so make sure you download a VPN before you arrive.
- Follow the installation instructions. Setup is quick on Windows and macOS / OS X.
- Launch the TunnelBear App. Login using the email address and password you used to register your TunnelBear Account.
- Select your VPN server location. TunnelBear will route your web traffic through this location. United States or Hong Kong will work well for China.
- Turn on your VPN. The TunnelBear app might need to make some changes to your network settings to allow the VPN to work. Just click “okay” or “allow”.
- Start browsing the unblocked web! TunnelBear and other VPN apps allow you to bypass internet censorship. Make sure your VPN is working by going to Gmail, Google, Facebook. Youtube, etc and testing it out.
The problems with free VPNs
Although TunnelBear is a great free VPN app, there are some catches — as with almost all free VPN apps. You can only use 500 MB of bandwidth every month on the free TunnelBear plan. This is NOT a lot of data and you will definitely go over your limit if you do any video streaming or image heavy browsing. However, if you are only doing some occasional email, it might be enough.
Second, free VPNs usually lack the technical features required to consistently bypass the internet censorship in China. The Great Firewall is constantly evolving and is able to detect and block basic VPN connections. More advanced VPNs have stealth or obfuscation techniques that hide their connection from detection.
Third, like any free service, you need to ask how the service provider is making money from your usage. Some free VPN apps have sold user data in the past so make sure the VPN app you use has a good reputation.
How to use a free VPN trial
If you are only going to be in China for a short period of time (less than a month) then you can potentially use a free trial of a VPN app to access blocked websites like Gmail.
Here’s how to use Gmail in China with a free VPN trial:
- Sign up for an ExpressVPN account. ExpressVPN is one of the best and most popular premium VPN apps used in China to bypass blocked websites. They offer a 30-day money-back guarantee so as long as you cancel before the 30-day period, you can get a full refund. Good VPNs that work in China and also offer either a trial / refund period include: ExpressVPN, VyprVPN, and Astrill.
- Install ExpressVPN. Either download the desktop app for your computer (Windows, Mac, Linux, or Chrome Extension) or download the mobile app from the Google Play store or Apple App store.
- Launch the app and login. ExpressVPN uses a activation key which can be found in your account area on their website when you login
- Select your server location. For ExpressVPN users in China, the best servers for speed are Santa Monica (USA), Los Angeles 3 (USA), and Hong Kong
- Turn on your VPN and browse the web unblocked! Test that your VPN works by trying to use Google, Gmail, Facebook, Youtube, or any other blocked website / app.
Remember to cancel your VPN subscription before your trial or refund period ends if you don’t want to keep it. Aside from unblocking Google in China, VPN apps are actually very useful for things like internet privacy, security, and accessing other geo-restricted content (Netflix libraries from other countries, BBC player, World Cup of Soccer 2018 live streams, Comedy Central, etc)
How to unblock Gmail in China by making your own VPN
For those who are more technically inclined, you can create your own VPN to unblock Gmail in China. Jigsaw (a Google affiliate) released “Outline”, an open source software that helps you create a VPN (shadowsocks proxy) on a VPS (Digital Ocean cloud server). If you have free VPS credits (most companies give them out to new sign ups) you can create your own free VPN.
Follow our Outline tutorial for creating your own Shadowsocks VPN for China here.