Last updated: January 3, 2017
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 VPNs to circumvent blocked sites and apps like Facebook, Google services, Tinder, western news media, Netflix, and even Comparitech.
For many expats in China, VPNs are a daily necessity, and reliability trumps all other factors. The Great Firewall 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.
Using a VPN 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.
Our main considerations when curating this list include factors we believe are of utmost importance to VPN users in China. The top priorities are reliability, customer support, speed, and range of servers (especially in Asia). 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 these are the VPNs that have proven themselves against a well-armed adversary.
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.
ExpressVPN is possibly the most popular VPN in China, particularly since Astrill’s ability to evade the Great Firewall has been patchy since earlier this year. Express is not the cheapest VPN on this list, but it remains popular among users in China for good reason. It has a huge range of server locations, excellent and consistent speeds, allows three 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. Torrenting is allowed on all 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. Update, September 15, 2016: ExpressVPN have put together an offer that gives our readers 3 months extra free with 12 month plans here (30-day money back guarantee still applies so you can try it risk free).
Read our full review of ExpressVPN here.
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 dealing with customers in China. Prices are mid-range with a lot of optional add-ons. A free seven-day free trial is available upon signing up. Update, October 5, 2016: We’ve had reports that Astrill is no longer consistently the effective solution it once was as a workaround to Chinese online censorship. We recommend you opt for one of the other VPNs in this list.
StrongVPN is another long-time favorite among expats and travellers in China. It offers over a dozen server locations in the United States alone, although other countries are more limited. We aren’t huge fans of the desktop app and there’s no OpenVPN option, but the L2TP and SSTP protocols work well enough. Speed and uptime are reliable and the company is small enough to sometimes be overlooked by censors while the bigger companies get hammered. Prices are mid-range, about the same as Astrill but with fewer paid extras. Each subscription comes with a 5-day money-back guarantee. The support team is available 24/7/365 but can only be reached via an online form. Update, January 12, 2017: StrongVPN has a 41% discount on it’s annual plan as standard, there is a further 15% discount available here by following the link and applying the coupon code ‘SAVE15’ at checkout.
Update: StrongVPN has informed us that OpenVPN is available on certain locations, including the San Francisco servers.
VyprVPN is one of the few tier-1 VPN networks with support for users in China, meaning it owns all of its own 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 expensive 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.
Hungary-based Buffered offers a super simple app for Windows and MacOS that the company claims can get past the Great Firewall. Unfortunately, no mobile apps are available yet, but iOS and Android devices can still be set up manually using an OpenVPN app. Up to five devices can be connected simultaneously on a single account, making Buffered a solid option for a family or group of housemates. Speed is reliable and connections rarely drop. The company operates servers in 37 countries, including several in the Asia Pacific region.
Read our full review of Buffered or take advantage of their 30 day money-back guarantee to try it risk free here.
VPNs to avoid in China
Private Internet Access
Users report poor quality, slow connections from China on HideMyAss. The company is also notorious for substandard logging policies that have gotten users in trouble with authorities in the past.
This free university-run peer-to-peer network of volunteer VPN nodes was created as an experiment and as a way to circumvent censorship. I used it for a while in Beijing a couple years ago, but it has since stopped working.
VPN not working in China? Try this:
Even if you have a good VPN in China, they occasionally get blocked. There 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)
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.
VPNs into China
If you’re outside China looking in and need a VPN with 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 to tunnel into the mainland, check out our tutorial on how to watch Youku from outside China.
Blocked sites in China
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)
- News media
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.
Are VPNs legal in China? (January 2017 update)
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 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.“Great Wall of China” by Keith Roper licensed under CC BY 2.0