Update April 30th, 2018: Unfortunately, the official Outline website is now blocked in China, which means you cannot download the software for desktop devices if you are in mainland China. You can still download the files from Github.
 Summary

Google’s Jigsaw released a free open-source software called “Outline” that let’s anyone easily create a VPN on a cloud server. We tested it and here’s what we found:

  • It is easy to setup and works in China — not blocked by the Great Firewall.
  • Current setup with Digital Ocean cloud servers has decent speeds but not as good as some popular commercial China VPNs.
  • Doesn’t work with Netflix (when using Digital Ocean).
  • Works with Windows, Android, and Linux, macOS and iOS.
  • Not a true VPN. It is a Shadowsocks proxy so some apps might not be compatible. It works for most purposes though.
  • Good for unblocking websites and protecting against surveillance. Not good for anonymity.

One of the drawbacks of living in China is the censored internet. Most expats and travellers will opt to simply purchase a commercial VPN subscription to unblock websites like Google or Facebook.

However, a majority of VPNs are fully blocked or suffer frequent disruptions in China due to the Great Firewall. Furthermore, using commercial VPN services can require a certain level of trust in the company managing the servers. VPN companies will claim they are not logging user usage data, but it can be impossible to know for sure.

Setting up your own VPN?

For the DIY privacy-minded, you can always try to setup your own VPN service, but the home brew route often requires technical knowledge far beyond the average user’s ability. Furthermore, basic OpenVPN based VPNs can be automatically blocked by the Great Firewall through deep packet inspection — which is why most VPN apps don’t work in China.

Thankfully, now you can, in just a few clicks, create your own VPN with Outline, –a free open source project by Jigsaw (owned by Google). Outline is intended to enable journalists and news organizations to easily deploy their own VPN in order to protect their privacy.

At Startup Living China, we are always on the look out for new ways to improve our internet situation, so naturally we wanted to investigate Outline. Setting up a VPN is one thing, but maintaining a VPN that is fast and won’t get blocked by China’s Great Firewall is another thing altogether.

So how does Outline fare in China? Does it get past the Great Firewall? This article will show you how to setup a VPN using Outline and detail our performance tests. The setup and tests in the guide were done using a Windows computer in Beijing, China.

Spoilers: Yes, Outline VPN works in China! (but speeds are not the best)

How to setup Outline VPN in China

  1. Go to the Outline website and download and install the Outline Manager. This is the software that will manage the VPN server that your computer or smartphone will connect to. Currently, the Outline Manager is only available for Windows and Linux.
  2. Sign up with a cloud server provider. Outline works with Digital Ocean. The cheapest 5$ USD / month server plan should be more than enough for one person or a small group. This plan allows 500 GB of data bandwidth per month.
  3. Run the Outline manager on your computer. It will ask you to log in using your Digital Ocean account and authorize Outline. You can also opt to sign up for a Digital Ocean account directly through Outline if you want.
  4. Choose a VPN server location. The best VPN servers for China are usually located in Asia or the West Coast U.S since typically have a better peering arrangement with the backbone China ISPs. In our test, we chose San Francisco. You could try Singapore, but you would not be able to access U.S. Netflix if that is the case.
  5. Add an access key — this will act as a password to allow a device to connect to the server. You can create additional keys if you wish to allow more users or devices to connect to your VPN server.
  6. Share the access key. The Outline manager will generate a message with a link that will contain the access key. You can share this link by copying it then using email or chat. Outline VPN setup in China
  7. Open the link. Using the device you want to use the VPN with, open the link in the generated message.
  8. Download or open Outline Client. After you download the client software (either from the Outline website or App Store) and have opened the access key link, the client software should automatically detect the Digital Ocean server you created earlier.
  9. Your VPN should now be ready to use. Just click connect to start. Check to see that it is working by using your browser to open Google, Facebook, or any other blocked website.

 

Outline VPN performance in China

Outline works in China! We were able to connect to our Digital Ocean server (SFO) and browse to Google, Youtube, etc. Here are our Speedtest.net ping times, download speed, and upload speeds. We also compare against a well known VPN used here in China.

Outline VPN, San Francisco server, Speedtest.net performance results

  • Ping: 244 ms
  • Download: 9.84 Mbps
  • Upload: 7.32 Mbps

which is not bad at all.

Testing Outline self-hosted VPN server (San Francisco) from Beijing, China. Speedtest.net

For comparison, we ran the same test with a well known VPN used in China, ExpressVPN:

ExpressVPN, Los Angeles Server, Speedtest.net performance results

  • Ping: 170 ms
  • Download: 31.07 Mbps
  • Upload: 4.87 Mbps

which places ExpressVPN firmly ahead of our Outline home brew setup when it comes to download speeds. For uploads, it appears Outline does better, strangely enough. Downloads speeds are generally more important for the average internet user.

Remember the Outline tests were performed using a Digital Ocean server based in San Francisco. Using Outline on a server from a different cloud provider that is better connected (peered) with China ISPs would probably yield better download speeds. However, this modification would require some technical know-how — which would defeat the purpose of Outline’s ease of use. Perhaps in the future, Outline could add one-click integration with other cloud providers.

 

Outline doesn’t work with Netflix

Unfortunately, you cannot use Outline with Netflix in its current configuration on Digital Ocean.

For those hoping to use Netflix in China, I have some bad news — it doesn’t work. Every time you try to play a video, Netflix is somehow able to detect that you are using a proxy / unblocker and will not let you stream. This is most likely because Netflix has blacklisted all web traffic coming from Digital Ocean servers, so installing Outline on a cloud server from a less well known provider might let you bypass the restriction. In contrast, ExpressVPN and many other VPN services do not have this problem and can stream Netflix perfectly.

Using Outline VPN in China — Caveats and Thoughts

Overall, I am impressed with how easy it is to setup Outline VPN from here in China. The VPN works decently enough, but there are some lingering questions. Overall:

Pros

  • Very easy to setup — no technical knowledge required at all
  • Works in China! That’s better than most VPNs already.
  • Decent download speeds for the price (5$ USD / month for a typical VPS)
  • Only pay for what you use — most cloud computing providers bill by the hour or minute.
  • Easy to destroy and re-create a new server if your server IP gets blocked in China
  • Excellent as a back up VPN since commercial VPNs are periodically blocked in China. You can deploy Outline as needed.
  • Can be used to protect against snoopers.

Cons

  • Outline does not provide anonymity. Your browsing can be traced to the Digital Ocean server which, depending how you registered your account, can be traced directly to you. 
  • The documentation describes this VPN as a proxy (shadowsocks), which means there could be issues if you are doing any internet activity outside of the browser. Torrenting is probably not possible.
  • Current configuration (with Digital Ocean) does not work with Netflix.
  • Unlike commercial VPNs, bandwidth is not unlimited. However, a single person is unlikely to go over 500 GB. You can also opt to increase your bandwidth by purchasing a more expensive server package in the future.
  • Speeds with the current Digital Ocean server choices are not the best. It might be possible to get better servers that have optimized peering with China in the future. Quadranet, Alibaba HK, and Google Cloud Taiwan might be better choices.
  • Less server location options versus a commercial VPN subscription. If all you need is one location this might not be a big issue.

In closing, we will continue to play around with Outline and monitor its performance. Commercial VPNs periodically get blocked in China, but it might be harder shutting down privately created VPNs like Outline.

That being said, if the Great Firewall figures out how to detect Outline’s shadowsocks protocol, this VPN tool might not work for much longer. Altogether this is an interesting and positive development in the VPN space — stay tuned for more.

Comments
  • Harvey Specter
    Posted at 2:40 am March 23, 2018
    ilikeit
    Reply
    Author

    I doubt you will be able to watch US Netflix with this set up, I tried the same SFO server from a location in Canada, and they already detected there is something wrong with my “location settings” and refuse to play. Maybe you will have better luck in China?
    That being said, I am excited for having an option like Outline, its connection is much harder for the infamous GFW of China to detect and destroy, therefore should be much more stable than regular VPNs in China.

  • Harvey Specter
    Posted at 2:16 pm March 24, 2018
    not bad
    Reply
    Author

    I think for a self-hosted solution like this, the connection speed is totally depending on your route to the target server. DigitalOcean may not work that well for clients inside China mainland. We tried some other CN2 network compatible servers resulted a pretty good performance. Just the same to another shadowsocks server running on that exact machine.

    We are interested to its easy of use, share the connections to our friends is now 1 step further simplified and can be easily managed through the manager.

  • Harvey Specter
    Posted at 8:26 pm March 24, 2018
    Nanuk
    Reply
    Author

    So it’s based on shadowsocks, but shadowsocks isn’t considered safe anymore and can be detected by the GFW. Did you do any long time testing, like for a day or longer?

    I did a test install on a cheap VPS and will give it an extensive try when I go to China next time.

  • Harvey Specter
    Posted at 11:28 pm March 26, 2018
    lalal
    Reply
    Author

    Digital ocean is quite expensive for VPN use … I would recommend ramnode ( 3 usd a month )
    … they have few server location but some are on the west cost and works pretty well at least here in chengdu
    ( I have been using it with shadowsocks for last 9 month with almost no issue ).

  • Harvey Specter
    Posted at 9:13 am April 8, 2018
    TR
    Reply
    Author

    Interesting that nobody has tried it with Amazon Web Service free tier yet…. Could AWS free tier work for running an Outline proxy?

  • Harvey Specter
    Posted at 4:19 am May 31, 2018
    Kleiner Blog
    Reply
    Author

    Hosted a Shadowsocks myself for internet access in china last week. Worked fine! However netflix blocks the ip ranges of digital ocean data centers. Nothing to do with the GFW … Just netflix blocking access. Amazon Prime works fine by the way!

  • Harvey Specter
    Posted at 7:52 am June 11, 2018
    Leo
    Reply
    Author

    Actually you can apply for special internet connections from Chinese government (mostly directly via your ISP sales agent ) if you have legit reasons to access Internet unfiltered. I have some local Chinese classmates who have companies doing business with Americans. They could easily get the special ISP connections uncensored.

    Another choice is to use an American sim card with International data roaming. I have T-Moble and I travel to China often. American sim cards are not censored by China.

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