The Chinese government imposes heavy censorship on internet use within the country. These restrictions are known collectively as China’s Great Firewall, and they present a real problem to travelers and ex-pats staying or living in China. However, you can bypass the Great Firewall with a VPN like ExpressVPN. Here, we’ll explain Chinese internet blocking in more detail and show how to use ExpressVPN safely in China.
Internet censorship is nothing new; most countries block access to websites that host illegal material, for instance. That said, China’s restrictions are numerous and far-reaching. Social media sites and messaging apps like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and WhatsApp are blocked, so it’s hard to stay in touch with friends and family in other countries. Furthermore, with dissenting opinions readily quashed online and major Western news sites inaccessible, it’s challenging to find unbiased information about the wider world.
Virtual Private Network (VPN) services encrypt your traffic and route it through international server networks. The benefits are twofold: you gain access to sites that are usually blocked in China, and your activities become almost impossible for your Internet Service Provider (ISP) or the government to monitor. By signing up to a VPN service before you travel, you can beat China’s Great Firewall, access blocked sites, keep in touch with friends, and stay up to date with unbiased news.
Can ExpressVPN beat Chinese internet restrictions?
Although most VPNs no longer work in China, ExpressVPN still does. This provider has no server locations in China, so it doesn’t have to monitor its users’ online activities or comply with other aspects of Chinese data-retention legislation. Additionally, this makes it far less likely that the service’s hardware will be bugged by government operatives. Sadly, this isn’t a fringe conspiracy theory, and it has happened before to Apple and Amazon servers.
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ExpressVPN is a strong choice for internet users in China for numerous reasons. Firstly, it’s very fast and offers access to more than 3,000 VPN servers across 100+ different countries. Second, it has excellent multi-platform support and even includes custom firmware to make installing it on network routers as simple as possible.
This service takes information security seriously. It uses 256-bit AES encryption, perfect forward secrecy, and protection against DNS, IPv6, and WebRTC leaks to keep your online activities private at all times. There’s also an internet kill switch protection feature (desktop only) that immediately stops all traffic if your VPN connection drops suddenly. Best of all, ExpressVPN doesn’t log any personally identifiable information. It even allows you to pay in Bitcoin for increased anonymity. Standard payment methods are also available.
When it comes to internet speed, ExpressVPN is actually one of the best around. It averaged 135 Mbps in our most recent tests, which is more than fast enough for uninterrupted browsing, streaming, or torrenting. For context, Netflix recommends download speeds of 25 Mbps for watching 4K content. In short, even if multiple people are using your network at the same time, you shouldn’t run into any issues.
ExpressVPN provides completely unlimited bandwidth and doesn’t throttle your speeds at all. As such, it’s an excellent choice for anyone who regularly does data-intensive activities like torrenting or watching Ultra-HD video.
Beating regional restrictions is one of ExpressVPN’s greatest strengths. It allows access to the wider internet in countries like China, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia, but you can take advantage even if you live somewhere without strict digital censorship too.
For instance, ExpressVPN has no problems accessing major geo-blocked streaming services from abroad. Our testing revealed that it worked well with platforms like Amazon Prime Video, Disney Plus, and Hulu. In fact, in contrast to many of its rivals, ExpressVPN seems to be improving in this area since it now unblocks platforms it used to struggle with, like BBC iPlayer.
ExpressVPN offers a user-friendly Windows app, but that’s far from the only platform it supports. There are also apps for MacOS, Linux, iOS devices, and Android. Here’s the best part: the mobile apps preserve most of the functionality of the desktop versions. This means that if you connect using the Android app, you’ll be just as secure as if you were on your main PC.
It’s also possible to manually install this service on your home router, thanks to ExpressVPN’s custom firmware. This just received a huge update that increased its speed and stability. So, if you haven’t already tried it out, now’s the time!
Want to know more? Read our full ExpressVPN review here or check out our video review below.
GET EXPRESSVPN FREE: Usually, VPNs save their lowest prices for users willing to commit to a year or more upfront. However, if you only need short-term coverage, you can use ExpressVPN’s 30-day money-back guarantee instead. This does require immediate payment, but you can cancel at any point to get a full refund, effectively allowing you to try it for free.
How to use ExpressVPN in China
One of the best things about ExpressVPN is that there are no special steps required to connect in China. Just choose your preferred VPN server connection as normal, and you should be able to browse the web freely. However, the ExpressVPN website is currently blocked in China. As a result, we strongly recommend registering and installing the service before you travel to the country.
Also, because China monitors its citizens’ internet connections so closely, there are a couple of steps we recommend taking before you connect for the first time. To begin with, we’re going to make sure ExpressVPN automatically connects your device to the VPN whenever it’s turned on.
- From the main page, click the menu icon (three lines) in the top-left, then choose Options.
- Under the General tab, enable the first two options. This will ensure you never accidentally browse without protection. If you’re using a desktop version of the app, we also recommend enabling Stop all internet traffic if the VPN disconnects unexpectedly.
- Next, move across to the Advanced tab and make sure the IPv6 leak protection and DNS options are checked. When you’re done, click OK.
Now you’re free to connect as you normally would. To do this, return to the home screen and click the large ‘power’ button in the middle. This will automatically connect you to the best server for your current location. You can also choose a specific country to connect to by clicking the Choose Location button and picking from the list on the right. As you can see, ExpressVPN takes your online security seriously, this is perhaps one of the reasons it still works in China and is reliable.
China’s internet restrictions
In theory, China’s internet restrictions are supposed to protect citizens from material that could corrupt, divide, mislead, or incite hatred. The problem is that ideas are open to interpretation, but only the Chinese government decides which content falls under what category. As such, the Great Firewall is regularly used as a tool to silence political opponents and those with dissenting opinions.
It doesn’t help that the relevant legislation (Computer Information Network and Internet Security, Protection, and Management Regulations, 1997) is ambiguously worded and seems designed to give the government as many ways as possible to censor content. For example, anyone who posts content critical of the government (even if it’s a balanced news article) could be guilty of “inciting division,” “openly insulting other people,” “injuring the reputation of state organs,” or “activities against the constitution.” Further, with rumors forbidden entirely, even lower-stakes activities like discussing celebrity news online could be considered a crime.
Is it legal to use ExpressVPN in China?
Using VPNs became highly regulated in China in 2017 when the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology began blocking access to any proxy services that give consumers the ability to bypass government blocks to services like Facebook and Google.
Since that time, the government has blocked access to any VPNs that have not registered with the government to get an official license. As a result, it can be very hard to connect to VPN websites in order to take out a subscription. This includes accessing ExpressVPN’s website from China.
Despite this crackdown on technologies that allow people to bypass the great firewall of China, very few individuals have been singled out for using VPNs. Instead, the government focuses on targeting companies that provide those services, with a view to fining them for allowing individuals to bypass the government-imposed censorship.
Due to the fact that ExpressVPN can be used to bypass China’s strict website blocks, it almost certainly falls into the government’s restricted list. And, while the government has not targeted individuals en masse for bypassing its blocks, it is possible that they could do so in the future.
In January of 2021, for example, the Shanghai firm Wintao Law published an article that warned that “individual VPN users should be cautious, as there are legal risks to bypassing the wall for whatever reason.”
Ultimately, whether you might get in trouble with the law depends on what you decide to use a VPN for. Bypassing China’s firewall to access restricted news and services or to engage in crimes that harm national security could be considered illegal, and in 2019 a precedent was set in which an individual from Shaoguan, Guangdong province, was fined 1,000 yuan ($146) for using a VPN app to access foreign services.
As ExpressVPN is known to be able to successfully bypass government blocks imposed by the great firewall, it seems fair to note that it is one of the more restricted VPN services that users can get their hands on. For more information on the legal situation, check our guide.
Note: Comparitech does not provide legal advice. Nothing in this article constitutes legal advice, and you should always do your own research before using a VPN.
What about Hong Kong?
The internet landscape in Hong Kong and China differs significantly due to the distinct governance in each region. While China has stringent internet censorship dubbed the “Great Firewall,” Hong Kong traditionally enjoyed a more open internet. However, recent political developments have raised concerns about increasing internet restrictions in Hong Kong.
ExpressVPN, known for its robust functionality in China, extends its service seamlessly to Hong Kong, with over 23 servers operating flawlessly. This makes it a reliable choice for users seeking to maintain online privacy and unrestricted internet access.
If you’re planning a trip to Hong Kong, setting up ExpressVPN beforehand is a wise move. This ensures you have uninterrupted access to global content and a secure, encrypted connection from when you land.
For a more extensive list of VPN options and a deeper dive into the internet scenario in Hong Kong, check out our article on the best VPNs for Hong Kong.
Using ExpressVPN in China: FAQs
What should I do if my VPN’s site is unexpectedly blocked?
If you’re in China and suddenly find yourself unable to connect to your VPN or access your provider’s website, the only real course of action is to wait and see if the service comes back online. That said, there are a few steps you can take in advance of your trip to reduce the chance of being left stranded.
Although ExpressVPN and the other services listed above work reliably in China, we recommend keeping a note of your VPN’s mirror sites, support email addresses, and manual configuration instructions for your device, just in case. You’ll be unable to access anything stored in the cloud, so it’s best to keep a copy of this information on a password-protected device.
Is Google Maps Banned in China?
Unfortunately, China’s government has blocked all kinds of everyday services, including Facebook, WhatsApp, and yes, Google Maps. That said, there are plenty of alternatives that still work, including Apple Maps, Baidu Maps, and WeChat.
Can tourists use the Internet in China?
You won’t have any problems finding publicly available wifi networks in China — free internet is available from hotels, coffee shops, and tourist hotspots, just like anywhere else in the world. The problem is that you won’t be able to access any sites caught up in the Great Firewall; unfortunately, you don’t get a pass just because you’re a tourist. The only way to access your usual services is to use one of the few VPNs that can still bypass China’s online restrictions.
Does ExpressVPN have servers in Hong Kong?
ExpressVPN has two sets of servers spread across Hong Kong. While the country has recently been forced into recognizing China’s national security law, ExpressVPN users can still browse without worrying about who might be watching. This is because the service refuses to log any data that could identify you.
Can I use a VPN with a smartphone in China?
Most of the VPNs that still work in China do so regardless of the platform. There are some exceptions, but often, there’ll be a workaround in place. For instance, iOS users can’t access NordVPN’s obfuscated servers but can manually configure the service to use them instead.
If there’s any doubt, the best thing to do is ask your VPN provider for advice ahead of your visit to China. It’d be a smart idea to store a copy of the manual setup instructions somewhere safe too, just in case you can’t use the mobile apps once you arrive.
Is ExpressVPN a Chinese company?
Since the news broke that Chinese firms secretly operated 29 separate VPN companies, consumers have understandably been more concerned about whether their activities are really secure when they connect.
There’s no need to worry, though: ExpressVPN is based in the British Virgin Islands, and its own website states that “ExpressVPN’s leadership team and owners are not involved in any other VPN company/brand or any business other than ExpressVPN.” Those owners are also identifiable with a quick Google search: Peter Burchhardt and Dan Pomerantz, two Wharton graduates who founded ExpressVPN in 2009. In other words, no, ExpressVPN is not a Chinese company.
How do I login to ExpressVPN from China?
Users should be able to login and use the ExpressVPN apps as normal while in China. However, problems do pop up periodically as China upgrades its web-blocking capabilities. ExpressVPN actually has a page dedicated to solving this exact issue, but as the service’s website is blocked by the Great Firewall, you’ll have to save a copy of the instructions offline so that you’re able to access them after you arrive. For this reason, it’s also important that you install the latest version of the ExpressVPN app before you leave for China.
Is ExpressVPN secure in China?
Wondering if you can trust ExpressVPN while in China? The good news is that this service is safe to use, wherever you are in the world. That’s because it doesn’t keep any logs that could be traced back to you — a fact that has been verified by independent auditors.
Further, it’s possible to pay in Bitcoin, or register with a disposable email address, in case you’d like to increase your anonymity even further.
Last but not least, ExpressVPN uses RAM-only servers, so all data is wiped every time they reboot. In short, even if the Chinese government were to seize ExpressVPN’s Hong Kong-based servers, it’d be unable to find any useful information on the service’s users.
Can I install ExpressVPN on my router in China?
Yes, you can install ExpressVPN on your router in China. However, you will need to follow a few different steps to do so.
First, you will need to purchase a compatible router with ExpressVPN.
Second, you will need to sign up for an account with ExpressVPN outside of China.
Once you have done so, you will then be able to download the necessary software and instructions from their website.
Finally, you will need to follow the instructions carefully to configure your router correctly. Doing so should allow you to use ExpressVPN on your router in China without any issues.
How can a VPN beat China's Great Firewall?
China’s internet restrictions (known collectively as The Great Firewall) are very sophisticated and detect VPN usage by examining user data for telltale patterns. For a time, VPN providers were able to get around this by obfuscating their traffic further, but now, only a handful still work reliably.
In other words, these services are in a never-ending game of cat and mouse, with the government trying to block every workaround and VPN providers continuously finding new ones. For what it’s worth, VPNs seem to be winning — despite the huge amount of time and resources China has poured into this censorship project, there are still a variety of well-known VPNs that still allow unrestricted access to the wider internet.
Do any free VPNs work in China?
Most paid VPNs are blocked in China due to the country’s high level of internet censorship, so the chances of finding a free one that works in the country are pretty low. Even if you do manage to find one, there are risks with using one. For starters, many free VPNs will keep logs of users’ data, which may then be sold to third parties. they rarely have stringent security protocols and lack basic features designed to keep you safe online. Such free VPNs also tend to offer very few servers and engage in bandwidth throttling, preventing you from unblocking, torrenting and streaming.
Rather than use a free VPN, you can always take advantage of the money-back guarantee of a top-tier VPN such as ExpressVPN. This allows you to try a quality VPN risk-free for 30 days while in China without having to worry about poor performance or security or privacy-related issues.
What kinds of services are blocked in China?
It’s not only political content that China forbids access to. Although there’s no comprehensive list of every blocked website, recent estimates suggest around 10,000 domains are currently inaccessible from the mainland. Take a look below for a list of some of the content China blocks:
- Messaging services (WhatsApp, Gmail, Slack, Telegram)
- Social media platforms (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter)
- Streaming platforms (YouTube, Twitch, Netflix, Spotify)
- News sites (The Guardian, BBC, NYTimes)
- Search engines (Google, Yahoo, DuckDuckGo)
- VPN and proxy-related sites (tutorials, configuration guides)
- Cloud storage (Google Drive, Google Docs, Mega, Dropbox)
- Information repositories (Wikipedia, Quora, Archive)
This is by no means a complete list, but Comparitech actually has a Great Firewall tool that enables you to check whether a given site is currently blocked in China or not. It’s worth noting that China’s restrictions are frequently updated, though. This means that even if a website is currently available, it may not be by the time you arrive.
Do any other VPNs work in China?
The Chinese government has put a lot of effort into stopping VPNs from providing a way around their internet restrictions. Further, we’ve heard from some services that local ISPs are blocking them of their own accord. As such, there aren’t many VPN services that still work in China and even fewer that are reliable.
Currently, the only services that we know work reliably in China are ExpressVPN, NordVPN, Surfshark, VyprVPN, Hotspot Shield, PrivateVPN, and Astrill. However, as the main website for each of these services is currently blocked within the country, you’ll have to find a working mirror site in order to sign up when in China. As these mirrors can also become inaccessible, we strongly advise you to register and set up your VPN before visiting the country.