China’s internet restrictions are wide-reaching, constantly evolving, and difficult to circumvent. Visitors might be surprised to find that it’s not just anti-government sentiment that’s censored. In fact, even hugely popular services like Facebook, Twitter, and Skype are also blocked, which makes it difficult to communicate with people in your home country.
Considering China has a poor record on human rights and a history of harassing journalists and protesters, maintaining contact with people back home and keeping your online activities private is incredibly important.
The right VPN makes this relatively simple. VPNs encrypt your internet traffic, meaning no snoopers will be able to see what you get up to online. Additionally, as VPNs route your traffic through servers in other countries, you can bypass the government’s web filtering and access sites and services that usually aren’t available in China.
You should note, however, that the country’s Great Firewall is extremely sophisticated and always being updated, meaning most VPNs simply won’t work in China.
Does Private Internet Access (PIA) work in China?
Private Internet Access does not reliably work in China. There are scattered reports of users who have been able to connect, but their methods require manual configuration and rely on third-party scripts to bypass the country’s DNS poisoning. Further, you’ll have to try numerous servers until you find one that works, assuming any do.
A better option is to use ExpressVPN. This service is fast, works in China, and offers best-in-class security and privacy protections. While past updates to the Great Firewall have made this VPN service temporarily unusable, ExpressVPN has always been able to find a workaround and come back online shortly afterward. If you’re looking for a low-cost alternative, NordVPN and Surfshark are both comparable, high-quality services.
Although ExpressVPN, NordVPN, and Surfshark all work in China, their websites are currently inaccessible in the country. In order to use them, you’ll have to install and configure their apps before arriving in China. We’d also recommend making a note of any mirror sites your provider operates, as well as manual configuration instructions, just in case anything doesn’t work as expected.
How to bypass Chinese internet restrictions with a VPN
Before using a VPN in China, there are a couple of steps you should take to ensure that you’ll always be protected when using the internet.
First, enable IPv6 and DNS leak protection, which prevent personal information from being revealed inadvertently. In addition, turn on your VPN’s kill switch so that all network traffic stops should you lose your connection unexpectedly.
Below, you’ll find a step-by-step guide to enabling these features in all of our recommended VPNs:
Note: ExpressVPN calls its kill switch a “network lock,” but these terms are interchangeable.
Start by clicking the menu icon in the top left of the screen, Now, select options and click the General tab on the following screen. From here, make sure there’s a checkmark beside the Stop all internet traffic if the VPN disconnects unexpectedly option. If so, the kill switch is already enabled.
Move over to the Advanced tab. Click the Only use ExpressVPN DNS servers while connected option to ensure that your traffic is never seen by a third party during transmission, and the Prevent IPv6 address detection while connected option to turn on IPv6 leak protection. DNS leak protection is enabled by default and cannot be turned off, so you don’t have to do anything.
NordVPN’s IPv6, DNS, and WebRTC leak protection are always on, meaning you don’t have to activate them manually. However, you will have to turn on the kill switch. To do this, click on the Settings tab at the top of the app’s main screen. Now just scroll down the General tab until you see the Internet Kill Switch option, then enable it.
NordVPN actually has specialized servers for use in countries with strict online censorship. However, you have to specifically tell the app that you’d like to use them. Click the Advanced tab on the Settings page and turn on the Obfuscated servers feature. When you return to the main screen, you’ll see Obfuscated Servers in the list on the left. Clicking this will automatically connect you to a suitable server, allowing you to access any website while in China.
First, click the Settings tab on the left-hand side. Now select Connectivity under the General heading. From here, just enable the Kill Switch option and click the Back button to return to the previous screen.
Now scroll to the bottom and click the Advanced button. Make sure the NoBorders feature is enabled since, without it, Surfshark won’t work in China. This service automatically protects against WebRTC, IPv6, and DNS leaks, meaning you don’t have to enable these features manually.
What is the Great Firewall and why does it exist?
“The Great Firewall” is a collective term used to refer to China’s web-censorship tools. Currently, the country uses IP address blacklists, sweeping content restrictions, DNS poisoning, and deep packet inspection (among other methods) to monitor and regulate internet activity.
So why are such expansive restrictions in place? According to Section One of the Computer Information Network and Information Security, Protection, and Management Regulation, Chinese internet censorship is intended to “preserve the social order” and strengthen network security.
However, the offenses laid out in Section Five are broad enough to allow the government to prosecute just about anyone for just about anything. It’s a crime, for instance, to spread rumors online. Even if you have evidence to back up what you’re saying, you could still be jailed for “destroying the order of society,” “distorting the truth,” or “injuring the reputation of state organs.”
Which websites and apps are blocked in China?
No publicly available list of every banned site in China is available, but estimates place the number of blocked domains at around 10,000. Below, you’ll find a brief overview of the types of content that are blocked in China:
- Messaging services (Skype, WhatsApp, Telegram)
- Social media sites (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram)
- Search engines (Google, Bing, DuckDuckGo)
- Streaming services (YouTube, Netflix, Spotify)
- Foreign news websites (Reuters, The Washington Post, The Guardian)
- Cloud storage platforms (Dropbox, OneDrive, Google Drive)
- Information repositories (Wikipedia, Quora)
- Websites covering privacy or VPNs (ExpressVPN, NordVPN, Comparitech)
Not sure if a particular website is accessible in mainland China? You can type any URL into our Great Firewall tool to find out, although it’s worth bearing in mind that Chinese internet restrictions are updated frequently, meaning that even if a site isn’t blocked right now, there’s no guarantee it will be available when you arrive in China.
Will I get into trouble if I use a VPN in China?
Despite being blocked if they aren’t pre-approved by the government, VPNs aren’t actually illegal in China. In fact, businesses use them all the time to enable remote workers to access company networks. However, the government likely hopes to see people decide that gaining access to a working VPN is too difficult and give up.
That being said, given China’s recent, heavy-handed response to protesters in Hong Kong and its increasing use of facial recognition technology, it’s more important than ever to protect your privacy when visiting the country.
Chinese data-retention legislation is extremely complex. For this reason, we strongly recommend that you familiarize yourself with the relevant laws before attempting to use a VPN in China.