Best VPN for China

If you plan to visit or live in China and want to maintain access to western sites, apps, and services, then you’ll need a VPN. However, not all VPNs work in China, and some that do are frustratingly slow.

China’s advanced online censorship system, known as the Great Firewall, has made it a hotspot for VPN users. Both expats and native Chinese use VPN services to circumvent blocked sites and apps like Facebook, Gmail, Google, YouTube, Tinder, WhatsApp, western news media, Netflix, and even Comparitech.

Tip: Many VPN websites are blocked in China, even though the VPN itself will work, so it is best to sign-up to your chosen VPN before visiting China if you are not currently residing there.

To see which VPNs still work in China we rented a server in Shenzhen and pitched 59 different VPNs against China’s Great Firewall.

We’ll cover our full findings and methodology later in this article but for those of you looking for a quick recommendation here’s our top choices.

We found these to be the best VPNs for China:

  1. ExpressVPN Consistently works in China. Fast and works well with Netflix and other blocked sites.
  2. NordVPN Recently working in China and offers good value
  3. Surfshark Works in China and unblocks Netflix US
  4. VyprVPN Own all their own servers for excellent speed and uptime
  5. Hotspot Shield Fast speeds, cheap and works in China.
  6. PrivateVPN Works in China with Stealth Mode turned on
  7. Astrill Expensive but can work in China.

To narrow our list of recommended VPNs we looked at additional criteria beyond simply working in China. Our main considerations when curating this list include factors we believe are of utmost importance to China VPN users. The top priorities are:

  • Reliability in China (every VPN we know of has been blocked at some point, however some are much more reliable than others).
  • Customer support
  • Speed
  • Range of servers (especially in Asia)
  • Strong privacy and security credentials

Best VPN for China

Based on the above criteria here are our top picks for the best VPN for China:

1. ExpressVPN

ExpressVPNDec 2019Works in ChinaTested Dec 2019

Apps Available:

  • PC
  • Mac
  • IOS
  • Android
  • Linux

Website: www.ExpressVPN.com

Money-back guarantee: 30 DAYS

ExpressVPN is possibly the most popular VPN service in China. It’s not the cheapest VPN on this list, but it remains popular among users in China for good reason. It has a huge range of VPN server locations, excellent and consistent speeds, allows five simultaneous connections, offers 24/7 live chat support and claims 99.9% uptime.

The ExpressVPN app works across all major desktop and mobile platforms and is very simple to use. That includes Windows, MacOS, iOS, Android, Linux (command line), Fire TV, and compatible routers.

Torrenting is allowed on all VPN servers, and Express usually has a handful of servers that work with Netflix. If you’re only visiting China for a short period, consider the 30-day money-back guarantee.

Pros:

  • Consistently works in China and evades the Great Firewall
  • 160 server locations across 94 countries
  • Unblocks Netflix, Hulu, iPlayer and other streaming services
  • Keeps no logs of personal data
  • Reliable and fast connections

Cons:

  • Slightly more expensive than some other options

Our score:

4.5 out of 5

BEST FOR CHINA:Our #1 choice. Reliably avoids China’s Great Firewall and unblocks Google, Facebook, Whatsapp, Instagram & Skype and more. Extremely fast connections and a huge range of countries available. Try it risk free with the 30 day money back guarantee.

Read our full review of ExpressVPN here.

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2. NordVPN

NordVPNWorks in ChinaTested Dec 2019

Apps Available:

  • PC
  • Mac
  • IOS
  • Android
  • Linux

Website: www.NordVPN.com

Money-back guarantee: 30 DAYS

NordVPN recently announced it now works from China, which is good news especially for Beijingers and Shanghaiists who want a lot of simultaneous connections for a low price. NordVPN offers great bang for your buck, offering six simultaneous connections on one inexpensive subscription. It can also unblock streaming sites like Netflix US and Hulu, which block most other VPN connections. Torrenting is tolerated, and servers are available in more than 60 countries.

NordPVN keeps zero logs of user activity and maintains strong encryption standards. Some servers are specialized with speed and security optimizations like anti-DDoS, ultra-fast streaming, double VPN, and Tor over VPN.

Both desktop apps–Windows and MacOS–work in China. Android users should opt for the beta version of the newest app. Unfortunately, NordVPN’s iOS app cannot evade the Great Firewall at this time.

Pros:

  • Works well in China
  • Up to 6 devices can connect with one subscription
  • Unblocks Netflix, Amazon Video, iPlayer and other streaming services
  • Excellent security with strong encryption and no logs

Cons:

  • Can’t specify a particular city or province to connect to
  • iOS app can’t evade the Great Firewall

Our score:

4.5 out of 5

BEST BUDGET CHOICE:A good all-rounder that works well in China. Strong security features and allow up to 6 devices to be used simultaneously from one account. Includes a 30 day money back guarantee.

Read our full NordVPN review.

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3. Surfshark

SurfShark VPNWorks in ChinaTested Dec 2019

Apps Available:

  • PC
  • Mac
  • IOS
  • Android
  • Linux

Website: www.Surfshark.com

Money-back guarantee: 30 DAYS

Surfshark now works in China as of 2019, which is great news for people who want to binge watch their favorite shows from western streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, and BBC iPlayer. Surfshark excels at unblocking stuff, and almost all of its servers unblock Netflix, though most of them will redirect you to the US version. You also get unlimited devices on one subscription, which makes it a great option to share with a family or group of housemates.

Surfshark keeps no logs, uses strong encryption, and includes a kill switch. P2P filesharing is allowed, and speeds are fast enough to make downloading and streaming a breeze.

Apps are available for Windows, MacOS, iOS, and Android.

Pros:

  • Works in China
  • Unblocks Netflix, Hulu, BBC iPlayer
  • Unlimited simultaneous connections
  • Fast downloads and high quality video streams
  • P2P allowed
  • 24/7 live chat support

Cons:

  • Fewer servers than others
  • An occasional slow server

Our score:

4 out of 5

STREAM FROM CHINA:Surfshark will let you easily unblock Netflix and other streaming services from China, and it comes with a 30-day money-back guarantee.

Read our full Surfshark review.

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4. VyprVPN

VyprVPNWorks in ChinaTested Dec 2019

Apps Available:

  • PC
  • Mac
  • IOS
  • Android
  • Linux

Website: www.VyprVPN.com

Money-back guarantee: 30 DAYS

VyprVPN is one of the few tier-1 VPN networks with support for users in China, meaning it owns all of its own VPN servers and doesn’t rent them. That equates to fast, consistent speeds and excellent uptime. The Pro version includes a proprietary “Chameleon” protocol that masks VPN traffic to make it less susceptible to the Great Firewall’s deep packet inspection technology. It’s on the pricier side, but residents of China will be happy to know the company accepts payments from Alipay, a popular payment gateway in the country similar to PayPal.

VyprVPN offers a decent number of locations. Live chat support is available. Our only complaint is with some of VyprVPN’s less-than-private logging policies, so frequent torrenters and Popcorn Time VPN users might want to look elsewhere.

Apps are available for Windows, MacOS, iOS, and Android.

Pros:

  • Own all their servers giving excellent speed and uptime
  • Proprietary software and advanced encryption avoids the Great Firewall
  • Accepts payments from Alipay
  • 24/7 technical support

Cons:

  • Store limited access logs for 30 days
  • 24/7 support only available through
  • Doesn’t allow torrenting

Our score:

4 out of 5

FAST SPEEDS:Excellent speed and uptime as all servers are owned by VyprVPN and a proprietary software hides the connection. 30 day money-back guarantee.

Check out our full review of VyprVPN here.

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5. Hotspot Shield

Apps Available:

  • PC
  • Mac
  • IOS
  • Android

Website: www.Hotspotshield.com

Money-back guarantee: 45 DAYS

Hotspot Shield empowers users in China to access blocked websites, social media, apps, services, news, and videos. It offers excellent speed and the ability to unblock Netflix as well as a handful of other region-locked sites. Although the company has wrestled with privacy concerns in the past, it has updated its policies to retain no identifying logs. Hotspot Shield’s server network is commendable with 3,200 servers in more than 70 countries.

Only the Windows app comes with a kill switch. It uses a proprietary protocol called Hybrid, which we know little about. Live chat support is available around the clock.

Apps are available for Windows, MacOS, iOS, and Android, plus a browser extension for Chrome. Users may connect up to five devices at a time.

Pros:

  • Plenty of servers to choose from
  • Decent speeds and unblocking ability
  • Works in China
  • 45 day money-back guarantee

Cons:

  • No Linux support
  • Some past privacy concerns

Our score:

4.5 out of 5

CONNECT TO 70+ COUNTRIES:Hotspot Shield offers fast connections that penetrate the Great Firewall. Comes with a 45-day money-back guarantee.

Read our full Hotspot Shield review.

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6. PrivateVPN

PrivateVPNWorks in ChinaTested Dec 2019

Apps Available:

  • PC
  • Mac
  • IOS
  • Android
  • Linux

Website: www.PrivateVPN.com

Money-back guarantee: 30 DAYS

PrivateVPN works in China with a special feature called “Stealth mode” enabled in the settings. This adds a layer of obfuscation to your connection to make the encrypted traffic look unencrypted, which in turn makes the VPN more difficult for the Great Firewall to detect. PrivateVPN scores well above average in our speed tests, and it’s great for unblocking geo-locked content like Netflix, Hulu, and BBC iPlayer.

Security is solid and PrivateVPN doesn’t store any usage or metadata logs about users’ online activity. Live chat support is available should you encounter any problems.

Apps are available for Windows, MacOS, iOS, and Android. You may connect up to six devices at a time.

Pros:

  • Works in China with Stealth Mode turned on
  • Very fast speeds
  • Strong security and no logs
  • Unblocks Netflix and other streaming sites
  • Live chat support

Cons:

  • Smaller server network than most
  • Live chat, not 24/7

STREAM FROM CHINA:PrivateVPN's fast speeds combined with its ability to unblock just about everything make it possible to binge watch your favorite shows from China, plus it comes with a 30-day money-back guarantee.

Read our full PrivateVPN review.

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 7. Astrill

astrill ss 2

When I lived in China, I mostly used Astrill. Individual plans are available if you only use one device, or get a family plan for a few dollars more and connect every laptop and phone in the house. The app is great, allowing users to either connect to a simple HTTP proxy in a couple seconds or opt for a full VPN connection. Download speeds are solid enough to stream video if you pick a server without a heavy load. Subscribers get many locations to choose from. The live phone and chat support teams are experienced in dealing with customers in China.

Prices are expensive with a lot of optional add-ons.

Apps are available for Windows, MacOS, iOS, Android, Linux, and certain wifi routers.

Pros:

  • Sometimes works in China
  • Works well with Netflix

Cons:

  • Expensive
  • No live chat
  • Only allows 2 connections

Can I use a free VPN in China?

As a general rule, you’ll want to avoid so-called free VPN services in China. The chances of a free VPN being able to bypass the Great Firewall of China are slim. Even if it does, free VPNs tend to be less reliable, impose data and bandwidth limits, and have a much smaller selection of servers than paid ones. Furthermore, free VPNs often make money by spying on your online activities and selling the collected data to third-parties, including advertisers.

What is the Great Firewall?

The Great Firewall is the unofficial nickname for China’s advanced internet censorship system. Officially called the Golden Shield project, state-owned internet service providers restrict all internet traffic to and from China to just a handful of access points.

This gives authorities the means to monitor and restrict access to content outside the country. The Great Firewall utilizes a combination of methods to censor the web including IP blocking, DNS tampering, keyword filtering, deep packet inspection, URL filtering, and manual enforcement.

  • IP blocking is a simple matter of blacklisting the IP address of a server hosting a website.
  • DNS tampering involves modifying the entry of a DNS cache so that a URL–such as www.comparitech.com–is resolved into the wrong IP address.
  • Keyword filtering mechanisms scan search queries, messages, and web page requests for sensitive words and phrases. ISPs can prevent unwanted communication by hijacking DNS requests containing sensitive keywords and injecting altered DNS replies.
  • Deep packet inspection, or packet filtering, can scan internet traffic for sensitive keywords or determine if a packet has been encrypted using a VPN protocol.
  • Manual enforcement involves using China’s 50,000-strong internet police force to find and block IP addresses and URLs.

To handle all of the internet traffic between the world’s most populous country to the outside world, complex intrusion detection systems (IDS) create copies of packets and pass them to filtering devices so that traffic flow isn’t interrupted.

Most websites blocked by the Great Firewall remain blocked permanently, but some are only blocked temporarily. Because it is implemented on all the major access points for internet traffic in and out of the country, the Great Firewall can throttle international traffic to a crawl. This often happens after a government scandal, during anti-government protests, and every year around June 4, the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.

Furthermore, websites that are blocked in one province might not be blocked in another province. This indicates internet censorship often begins at a lower level of government, and isn’t uniform nationwide. Tibet and Xinjiang, two western Chinese provinces known for insurrection and rebellion, have extremely limited internet access for only a few hours per day.

How do VPNs bypass the Great Firewall?

china great firewall vpn

So how do VPNs get around all those censorship mechanisms built into the Great Firewall? They do so by hiding the contents and destination of your internet connection.

Contents—the actual data containing websites, video streams, chat messages, and everything else you send over the internet—is all encrypted before it leaves your device. By scrambling the data until it reaches the VPN server in another country, the Great Firewall can’t determine what you’re looking at. Other bits of data that could trigger censors, such as DNS requests, should also be hidden, though not all VPNs do this.

The VPN server acts as a sort of middleman to hide the destination of internet traffic. If you were to try to directly load up Youtube, for example, the Great Firewall would immediately spot your connection to Youtube and block it. With a VPN, the censors can only see your encrypted data going to a server. Your data passes through that server and goes on to Youtube. Youtube sends back a video stream through the same server, and China only sees the data coming from that server, not Youtube.

That being said, China can block VPN servers just like it blocks Youtube, so be sure to get a VPN that’s one step ahead and hasn’t been blacklisted.

Testing VPN connections from within China

Comparitech researcher Aaron Phillips derived detailed connection data on 59 VPN providers within China, using their Windows apps and preferred high-security settings. The test pits every provider’s recommended configuration against China’s best defenses.

Results were mixed. Most VPN providers can’t beat the Great Firewall; their existing servers have been blackholed and their connections aren’t secure enough to avoid Chinese state detection of new servers. Standard OpenVPN connections, and even dedicated L2TP over IPSec servers, are being detected and shut down.

NameStatusNotes
AirVPNDOWN
AnonymousVPNDOWN
AstrillUP
Avast Secureline VPNDOWN
Avira PhantomDOWN
BetternetDOWN
BlackVPNDOWN
BTGuardDOWN
BufferedDOWNBuffered has previously been reported as up, but I could not get a connection after the March 31 update
BulletVPNDOWN
CactusVPNDOWN
CyberghostDOWN
EarthVPNDOWN
ExpressUP
F-Secure FreedomDOWN
FrootVPNDOWN
GooseDOWN
Hide.meDOWN
HideMyAssDOWNFreedom mode tested
Hotspot ShieldUP
ibVPNUP
IPVanishDOWN
IronsocketDOWN
IvacyUP
Kaspersky Secure ConnectionDOWN
KeenowDOWN
Le VPNDOWN
LiquidVPNDOWN
McAfee Safe ConnectDOWN
MullvadDOWN
NordVPNUPUp using an obfuscated server
Norton WiFi PrivacyDOWN
OneVPNDOWN
PandaPowDOWN
Perfect PrivacyDOWN
Private Internet AccessUPUp and running despite some initial issues with DNS
Private TunnelDOWN
PrivateVPNDOWN
ProtonVPNUPUp but many individual servers are down
ProXPNDOWN
PureVPNUPWorks in both standard and Internet Freedom mode, IF mode recommended
SaferVPNUP
SlickVPNDOWN
SpeedifyDOWN
StrongVPNDOWN
SurfEasyDOWN
SurfSharkUPNoBorders mode is required to connect in China, double-check it's turned on
TigerVPNDOWN
TorGuardUP
TunnelBearUP
UnotellyDOWN
VPN BookDOWN
VPN TunnelDOWN
VPN UnlimitedDOWN
VPNAreaDOWN
VyprDOWN
WindscribeUPMost servers are accessible in China
WorldVPNDOWN
ZenmateDOWN

Every VPN provider marked “Up” in China connected successfully in at least six of the seven rounds of testing, each time to a different gateway.

The VPN providers who fared best all used additional encryption over and above what OpenVPN traditionally offers. More than one provider made use of the OpenVPN scramble extension that obfuscates packet headers in order to avoid detection by automated network defense systems.

Testing Methodology

Large scale testing of VPNs in China is challenging, not least because someone caught inside the country running these tests would be at the mercy of Chinese authorities. To mitigate the ethical issues of employing a tester within China, Comparitech rented a server in Shenzhen and tasked Phillips with testing 59 VPN providers after the latest government purge. Phillips checked each app to make sure they could connect to banned websites and get around regional content bans.

Phillips developed an automated testing suite with UiPath and added all 59 VPN providers. He confirmed they all connected in the USA before copying everything to the server in Shenzhen.

Each provider connects, opens a command prompt, and the test logs ping results to Facebook, Twitter, Twitch, Reddit, Instagram, and Wikipedia. It logs two DNS lookups, hopefully returning American servers for YouTube and Netflix. UiPath takes a final screenshot, then disconnects before starting on the next provider.

How China blocks VPNs with the Great Firewall

Every bit of internet traffic going in or out of China is wiretapped. Seven backbone connections serve the country, and each connection is being monitored, logged, checked, and double-checked by farms full of servers for snooping in the name of the Party. What China has built is a nationwide stateful firewall– a big, powerful tool for keeping track of each and every session created by each and every device across the entire country.

china-vpn-stateful-firewall

China’s first line of defense is, and always will be, blackholing sites and services via border gateway protocol. BGP was designed to allow routers to communicate efficiently and tell other routers which resources are and aren’t available.

china blackhole
A TLS handshake can’t be completed because the VPN server has been blackholed. China can and does restrict access to any server or website in the world by blackholing IP addresses and domains.

Changes made in China’s biggest state-run routers propagate automatically via BGP, which puts the Chinese internet authority in every ISP in the country. The state enforces their blacklist by using the technology exactly as intended, just with the worst possible motivation. Sites disappear across the entire country when China updates their routers.

gfw

Most VPN providers have at least one or two servers blackholed. VPNArea, Keenow, CactusVPN, and many others who failed have all of their servers blackholed; you just can’t connect in China.

Proton is a great example of a solid VPN provider that just hasn’t been able to keep up with China’s evolving defenses. They use outdated methods like routing OpenVPN traffic through port 443, intended to disguise OpenVPN as HTTPS traffic, which have proven ineffective against an adapting China.

The Chinese government has had OpenVPN servers in its sights for years, but for a long time using L2TP over IPSec in place of OpenVPN worked pretty well. That’s no longer the case; I saw firsthand as the Great Firewall intercepted two of my L2TP over IPSec connections and shut them down with TCP RST floods.

Limitations

Our tests were performed on a Windows Server instance and not a consumer desktop. We only ran tests from a single server, so these results represent a specific internet service provider and geographic region. Other internet service providers and other regions may have more or less strict censorship in place.
Testing VPNs in China is a moving target. VPN services and the internet itself is subject to availability. A VPN provider that works in the country today may not work tomorrow.

VPN vs GFW: an ongoing battle

For many expats in mainland China, VPNs are a daily necessity, and reliability trumps all other factors. The Great Firewall of China occasionally takes aims at VPN services, blocking their servers and throttling bandwidth. The VPNs that persist in the face of repeated efforts to stifle them find favor among foreigners.

Keep in mind that all VPNs get blocked by the GFW from time to time. A quick look through comments on Beijing or Shanghai expat forums will reveal that none are perfect. But the best VPNs for China have proven themselves against a well-armed adversary.

Using a VPN service is not technically illegal in China–in my three years of living there, I’ve never heard of a single person being arrested for using one. The goal of the authorities is to censor, not to punish.

The Great Firewall uses a variety of tactics to detect and subsequently block access to VPN servers. One of these methods is called “deep packet inspection”, which looks at traffic as it passes through a local ISP’s servers to check for hallmarks of common VPN protocols like OpenVPN. Most of the VPNs we recommend above now use some sort of obfuscation to “scramble” the data and make it look like non-VPN traffic.

In response, a 2015 Princeton study found the Great Firewall now goes directly to the VPN server rather than just inspecting traffic destined for it in a tactic called “active probing.” The report explains:

“The censor acts like a user by issuing its own connections to a suspected proxy server. […] If the server responds using a prohibited protocol, then the censor now takes some blocking action, such as adding its IP address to a blacklist.”

VPN not working in China? Try this:

Even if you have a good VPN service in China, they occasionally get blocked. Here are a few steps you can take to get up and running again:

  • Change your server
  • Change your VPN protocol
  • Port forward to port 433 (SSL)
  • Try a different protocol

The OpenVPN protocol is the standard option on most VPNs, and with proper configuration it can bypass the Great Firewall. However, that’s not always the case, and OpenVPN connections can be detected by packet inspection.

The SSTP protocol for Windows uses port 433 by default, making it a good option for VPNs that support it including ExpressVPN and StrongVPN. Because blocking port 443 altogether would disrupt the internet–every website that uses HTTPS would be inaccessible–it’s highly unlikely that China would block all traffic on port 443.

Another frequently recommended option is to use the L2TP/IPSec protocol. L2TP/IPSec is less likely to be blocked by the GFW than OpenVPN. Most devices have built-in support for L2TP, and your VPN provider’s app might include it as well. L2TP/IPSec offers similar speeds and level of security to that of OpenVPN.

Non-VPN methods to evading the Great Firewall

VPNs are the tried-and-true method for bypassing the GFW, but there are a few other methods that work with limited success.

  • Lantern, a free peer-to-peer internet circumvention software, has grown quite popular. It uses a volunteer peer-to-peer tunneling network with exit points outside of China.
  • Tor reportedly works with a bit of advanced configuration, however, it won’t work out of the box. Tor exit points are fairly easy for the Great Firewall to identify and block. You’ll need to set up bridges.
  • Some SOCKS proxy applications such as Shadowsocks apparently work, but don’t expect great speeds or privacy. There’s also Surge for iOS, but it’s built for developers so don’t expect a very intuitive UI.

It’s only a matter of time for ShadowSOCKS

ShadowSOCKS is a VPN-like service designed in China to circumvent the state’s control of the internet. Some providers recommend using it instead of a VPN, because the government has not yet put resources into widespread detection and shutdown of ShadowSOCKS servers.

Unfortunately, Chinese internet policy over the past decade leads us to believe it’s only a matter of time until ShadowSOCKS is on the chopping block. Evading detection by the GFW is critical; even though the protocol was designed to defeat exactly the sort of DPI China uses to identify and blackhole servers, it was designed in 2012.

There is a bright spot for ShadowSOCKS, though. There are already modules that can scramble its traffic similar to how the most successful VPN providers in China do today.

VPNs into China

If you’re outside China looking in and need a provider with VPN servers on the mainland, your options are pretty limited:

  • PureVPN is our top recommendation, with servers in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangdong. Users inside of China report mixed results for tunneling past the GFW, though.
  • EarthVPN and Astrill both have at least one server running in China.
  • FlyVPN and SenVPN run a few servers each in China, but Comparitech has not tested these and cannot vouch for them at this time.
  • HideMyAss has a server in China, but we would only recommend it as an absolute last resort.

For more information on using a VPN service to tunnel into the mainland, check out our tutorial on how to watch Youku from outside China and how to get a Chinese IP address.

Blocked sites and apps in China

Human rights watchdog Freedom House lists China’s internet as “not free” in its 2017 “Freedom on the Internet” report. China scored an 87 out of 100, with 100 being “least free”. The report states:

  • “For the third consecutive year, China was the world’s worst abuser of internet freedom, followed by Syria and Ethiopia.

This is not by any means an exhaustive list, but you can unblock the following websites and apps by using a VPN in China:

  • All Google services (Gmail, Translate, Search, Drive, Play Store, etc)
  • Facebook
  • Youtube
  • Twitter
  • News media
  • Instagram
  • Tinder
  • Snapchat
  • Dropbox
  • Github
  • Vimeo
  • Soundcloud
  • Flickr
  • Skype
  • WhatsApp

WhatsApp is now fully blocked in China as of October 2017. After brief service disruptions during which users were unable to send photos and videos, China has now completely blocked the world’s most popular messaging app including normal text messages. The block coincides with the 19th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party. Censorship is often ramped up prior to such events.

A VPN will unblock all of the sites and apps listed here, including WhatsApp.

How to check if a website is blocked in China

blocked in china

You can use our tool to test whether China blocks a website or not. Just enter the URL for the website you want to check, and the tool will test access from multiple cities across the country. You can find out instantly if China has censored a website.

Are VPNs legal in China?

Yes, using a VPN is still legal in China.

Lately, we’ve seen a lot of poorly-worded headlines suggesting otherwise. In January 2017, a Chinese government ministry issued a notice announcing a campaign to crack down on VPN and special cable services throughout the country until March 31, 2018.

The notice does not say using a VPN service is a crime. I cannot stress this enough, because this important point has been repeatedly misinterpreted by western media.

The notice says that VPN providers cannot legally operate in China without government approval. It does not affect VPN users in any legal way, so far as we can tell. It might result in VPN servers getting blocked more often, however, so expect more frequent downtime in the coming months.

No sane VPN provider maintains an official presence in China. Most do not have offices, employees, or servers on the mainland. That means they operate outside of the jurisdiction of Chinese authorities and do not require approval from the Chinese government to legally operate. Still, they might well be targeted for censorship by the Great Firewall if the government follows through on its threat.

There is no precedent on record of anyone being arrested, fined, or detained for using a VPN. Because VPN use in China is so widespread, especially among academics and expatriates, this is unlikely to change.

Will China block all VPNs?

In July 2017, a Bloomberg report citing anonymous sources said the Chinese government has ordered the country’s three major internet and mobile carriers–China Mobile, China Telecom, and China Unicom–to block individual access to VPNs by February 1, 2018. If true and enforced, the crackdown would block all access to VPN services used to circumvent the Great Firewall.

Update: China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology has called the Bloomberg article “false,” and says this year it has only blocked unauthorized VPNs used to conduct illegal business.

Update #2: The supposed deadline for the VPN has passed, and Chinese telecom companies have confirmed that no such ban exists and they have not received any such notice from authorities. People in China continue to use VPNs safely and legally.

Even if Bloomberg’s sources are reliable, it wouldn’t be the first time we’ve seen such rhetoric espoused by Chinese authorities. In truth, China already blacklists the IP addresses and domains of known VPN servers outside the country at infrequent intervals. In the past, these actions have caused some VPNs like Astrill to be almost completely shut down for users on the mainland. Most, however, only suffer temporary downtime until they’ve had a chance to update their software and server addresses.

While there’s always a chance that this could be “the big one” that blocks any and all VPNs indefinitely, we reckon it’s more likely to cause partial, temporary outages across the board. So don’t fret quite yet. The odds are that VPN users inside China will still be able to bypass the Great Firewall, although some might have to endure some service outages or change providers.

All of the VPNs we recommend in this list have been operating in China for a long time. They have learned how to evade blocks and other obstacles thrown at them by the Great Firewall. We don’t see that coming to an end any time soon.

When is your VPN likely to get blocked in China?

The Great Firewall can block VPN servers at any time, but blocks tend to happen in waves. Blocking a single server’s IP address isn’t very effective because users can simply switch to a different server. So China tends to gather a list of several VPN servers and block them all at once.

This often happens around events that draw a large amount of political attention to China. One consistent example is every year on or around June 4, the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, a dark stain on the Chinese Communist Party’s reputation of which every mention is scrubbed from the country’s internet.

During large government meetings and summits, such as the recent Belt and Road Summit in May. To quell political dissent leading up to and during these events, it’s common for many websites, VPN servers, and other content and services to be added to the Great Firewall’s blacklist.

Sometimes the new restrictions are permanent, and other times they are temporary. But VPN providers are usually able to resume normal operations within a few days.

Google Play and Android in China

Google Play, like all other Google services, is blocked in China. That means you might not be able to access the Android version of your VPN provider’s app.

Instead of Google Play, Android users in China are forced to use third-party app stores. There are tons of them, but they probably don’t have the app you’re looking for, either. Recently, China ordered domestic app stores to remove VPN apps from their listings, but even before that the chances of finding your VPN app were minimal.

If you have an Android device and plan on going to China, we strongly recommend you get your VPN app and subscription before your trip. If you’re already behind the firewall, check your provider’s website to see if they have an APK file available for direct download. An APK file is the installer for an Android app. You will need to allow apps from unknown sources in your device’s settings to be able to install using an APK. Also note that if you install an APK file, the app will not automatically update.

Be wary of APK files from third-party app stores and download sites that aren’t either Google Play or the VPN’s official website. APKs downloaded from third parties are often modified to carry malware and other nasty stuff.

If you’re in China and you have a VPN on your desktop or laptop but not your Android phone, you can try sideloading the app. There are many ways to do this, but the simplest is to download the APK file onto your computer, then move it into your Android device’s Downloads folder via USB cable. Then you can easily access the APK on your phone and install it.

iOS and the App Store in China

Unlike Google, Apple has been allowed to operate its own app store within China. But to do so, it must abide by Chinese laws and regulations. That means when Chinese authorities request for an app to be removed from the App Store, Apple must remove it if it wants to maintain a presence in the country.

In late July 2017, the realities of this arrangement hit home with VPN users. Apple has removed several VPN apps from the Chinese version of the App Store, including ExpressVPN and VyprVPN, among others. This comes on the heels of a regulatory notice earlier in the year announcing a crackdown on VPN services operating within China without a license.

Regrettably, Apple is now complicit in censorship VPN apps that allow access to blocked content in China. China has enlisted Apple in ensuring that users searching for VPN apps on the App Store will not be able to find them.

If you set up your iCloud and/or iTunes Connect in another country, you will still be able to find, download, and update VPN apps. They should continue to work even if you are inside China.

If you set up your iPhone or iPad from within China and connected it to the Chinese App Store, however, you will likely be unable to find or download the VPN you need. The solution to this is to change the location of your Apple accounts. To do this, however, you will need a form of payment native to another country. If you don’t have this, you can try purchasing an iTunes gift card from another country and using that as a payment method.

China VPN FAQs

How much does a China VPN cost?

VPN subscriptions cost the same amount no matter where you subscribe from. Depending on the provider and choice of plan, a one-month subscription typically costs between US$5 and $15. Most VPNs offer steep discounts if you sign up for a longer term, such as one-year.

Many providers, including the ones we recommend above, also offer money-back guarantees. If you plan to visit China for a shorter period of time than the guarantee lasts, you can cancel your account after you’ve left at no cost.

What to look for in a VPN for China

Here are a few top considerations when choosing a good China VPN:

  • Works in China – obvious enough, but not all VPNs can bypass the Great Firewall.
  • Speed – you’ll probably want to use your VPN to stream and download, so unlimited bandwidth and fast servers are a must.
  • Server locations – servers geographically nearest to China, such as those in Hong Kong, Singapore, and Japan, will offer better speeds.
  • Unblocking – In addition to bypassing the Great Firewall, you may also want to access streaming services like Netflix and Spotify while you’re away. They have their own geographic restrictions, and will require compatible VPNs. ExpressVPN, NordVPN, and VyprVPN all excel at unblocking streaming sites.
  • Simultaneous connections – If you have several devices or want to share your subscription with family or friends, you may want a subscription with more simultaneous devices. NordVPN offers the most on our list: six simultaneous connections.
  • Customer support – Sometimes VPN websites get blocked, so it’s useful to have multiple channels through which to contact customer support, including email and live chat.
  • Apps – Make sure compatible China VPN apps are available for all your devices, as manual configuration may not work in China.
  • Security – China is a hotbed for malware, hackers, and scammers, so make sure your connection to the VPN server is secure. Look for the following:
    • A no-logs policy
    • 128-bit AES encryption or better
    • Perfect forward secrecy
    • DNS, IPv6, and WebRTC leak prevention
    • Private DNS servers (not Google DNS)
    • A kill switch

Why is my VPN slow in China?

VPNs will slow down your internet connection for a couple reasons. The first is that your data must travel further to get to its destination because it’s re-routed through the VPN server, adding an extra hop. The second reason is because VPNs are encrypted, so it takes time for your device’s hardware to encrypt and decrypt internet traffic on the fly.

Typically this should only reduce your speed by roughly 10 percent or so. If you’re experiencing more severe slowdowns, it could be due to network congestion, VPN server congestion, bandwidth throttling by your ISP, or your device hardware is struggling to keep up with the encryption demands.

You can try switching VPN servers to improve speed and increase bandwidth. Japan, Hong Kong, and Singapore are common options that are geographically near China.

If your VPN is blocked entirely, it might have been blacklisted by the Great Firewall. We recommend contacting your VPN’s customer support for help with persistent issues.

What about Taiwan and Hong Kong?

China claims sovereignty over Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau but the Great Firewall is not in effect in those places. You can access the open internet without a VPN, although you can still use one just to protect your privacy.

If you’re in mainland China and are searching for information online about Taiwan and Hong Kong, much of that information is likely to be censored.

Great Wall of China” by Keith Roper licensed under CC BY 2.0