During my time living in China I came to rely on a VPN service to access western sites, apps and social media.
It soon became apparent that most VPNs don’t 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 citizens use VPN services to circumvent internet restrictions to access blocked sites and mobile apps like Facebook, Gmail, Google, YouTube, Tinder, WhatsApp, western news media, Netflix, and even Comparitech. So which VPN provider should you choose and which ones still work in China?
It’s not easy to test VPNs in China and many of the best VPN for China lists on the web are unlikely to be based on real testing. To see which VPNs still bypass internet censorship in China, we rented a server in Shenzhen and pitched 59 different VPNs against China’s Great Firewall.
We found these to be the best VPNs for China:
- NordVPN Our first choice for a China VPN. Extremely speedy, with a huge network, top-notch security and a 30-day money-back guarantee.
- Surfshark Offers speed and security at a very reasonable price. No connection limits. Works well in China.
- ExpressVPN Consistently works in China. Fast speeds and no problems accessing Netflix and other blocked sites.
- VyprVPN Own all their own servers for excellent speed and uptime
- Hotspot Shield Fast speeds, cheap and works in China.
- PrivateVPN Works in China with Stealth Mode turned on
- Astrill Expensive but can work in China.
To narrow our list of recommended VPNs we looked at additional criteria beyond simply bypassing Chinese censorship. When curating this list, our main considerations included factors we believe are of utmost importance to China VPN users. The top priorities are:
- Reliability in China (every VPN service we know of has been blocked at some point, however, some are much more reliable than others).
- Customer support
- Range of server locations (especially in Asia)
- Strong privacy, security credentials and encryption protocols
- Compatibility with popular streaming services (many of these block VPNs)
We go into more detail on our exact VPN analysis and testing methodology later in this article.
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Please note: We’ve seen increased VPN blocking in recent weeks as the Chinese government steps up censorship of international coverage of the Coronavirus outbreak. We’ve ensured all of the great VPNs we recommend have money-back guarantees so you can switch providers if the VPN you choose is temporarily blocked.
Best VPNs for China Quick Comparison
|No value||NordVPN||Surfshark||ExpressVPN||VyprVPN||Hotspot Shield||PrivateVPN||Astrill VPN|
|Average VPN Speed||111.7 Mbps||70.3 Mbps||135.7Mbps||41 Mbps||48 Mbps||94 Mbps||50.9 Mbps|
|Recommended for streaming services||BBC iPlayer, Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, Disney+, HBO Max||BBC iPlayer, Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, Disney+, HBO Max||Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, Disney+, HBO Max||Hulu||Netflix, Hulu, BBC iPlayer, Amazon Prime Video, ITV Hub||BBC iPlayer, Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, Disney+, HBO Max||Hulu, Amazon Prime Video, Disney+|
|Lowest monthly cost||$3.49||$1.99||$6.67||$5.00||$2.99||$1.89||$10.00|
Best VPN for China
Based on the above criteria here are our top picks of the best VPN services to protect your internet activity and access blocked sites in China:
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 the best value, 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.
NordVPN’s policies include keeping zero logs of user activity, giving users unlimited bandwidth, and using military-grade AES-256 encryption standards. Some servers are specialized with speed and security optimizations like anti-DDoS, ultra-fast streaming, double VPN, and Tor over VPN. An automatic kill switch and built-in ad blocker come with all of the apps.
All desktop apps–Windows, MacOS, and Linux–work in China. Apps for iOS and Android mobile devices should work as well, but if you encounter any issues, NordVPN offers manual setup support for both desktop and mobile devices.
- Works well in China
- Up to 6 devices can connect with one subscription
- Unblocks Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, BBC iPlayer and other streaming services
- Excellent security with strong encryption and no logs policy
- Extremely fast
- iOS devices require manual setup
BEST FOR CHINA:NordVPN is our top pick. Strong online security features and a six-connection limit. Great unblocking ability. Try it risk-free with its 30-day money-back guarantee.
Read our full NordVPN review.
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 military-grade encryption, and includes an automatic kill switch. P2P filesharing is allowed, bandwidth is unlimited, and speeds are fast enough to make downloading and streaming a breeze. It comes with a built-in ad blocker.
Apps are available for desktop and mobile devices including Windows, MacOS, iOS, Android.
- Unblocks Netflix, Hulu, BBC iPlayer
- Unlimited simultaneous connections
- Fast downloads and high-quality video streams
- P2P allowed
- 24/7 live chat support
- Fewer servers than others
- An occasional slow server
BEST BUDGET OPTION:Surfshark will let you easily unblock Netflix and other streaming services from China, without breaking the bank. It even comes with a 30-day money-back guarantee.
Read our full Surfshark review.
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, the fastest network of servers, allows five simultaneous device connections, offers 24/7 live chat support, and claims 99.9% uptime. Security is second to none, boasting an automatic kill switch and leading encryption.
The ExpressVPN app works across all major desktop and mobile devices and is very simple to use. That includes Windows, MacOS, iOS, Android, Linux (command line), Fire TV, and compatible routers. Almost all of its apps offer split tunneling, so you can connect specific apps to the VPN and leave others with a direct connection.
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.
Find out more about how to use ExpressVPN in China.
- Consistently works in China and evades the Great Firewall
- Unblocks Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime and other streaming services
- Strong on security and online privacy
- Reliable and fast connection speeds
- Slightly more expensive than some other options
- Lack of control over advanced features could prove frustrating for advanced users
STREAM WITH EASE:ExpressVPN helps you stream all of your favorite content in China. Unblocks Google, Facebook, Whatsapp, Instagram & Skype and more. Extremely fast connections and a huge range of countries available. Has a 30-day money-back guarantee.
Read our full review of ExpressVPN here.
Money-back guarantee: 30 DAYS
VyprVPN is one of the few tier-1 VPN networks with support for users in China, meaning it owns most of its own VPN servers and data centers. That equates to fast, consistent internet 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.
Golden Frog’s VyprVPN offers a decent number of server locations, each with multiple servers. 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.
- Own all their servers giving excellent speed and uptime
- Chameleon protocol and advanced encryption avoids the Great Firewall
- Accepts payments from Alipay
- 24/7 technical support
- Automatic kill switch
- Store limited access logs for 30 days
- 24/7 support only available through
- Doesn’t allow torrenting
FAST SPEEDS:Excellent speed and uptime as all servers are owned by VyprVPN and proprietary software hides the connection. 30 day money-back guarantee.
Check out our full review of VyprVPN here.
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 internet speed and the ability to unblock Netflix as well as a handful of other region-locked sites. You can also use it to secure public wi-fi connections from third-party snoopers.
Although the company has wrestled with internet 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 an automatic kill switch. It uses a proprietary protocol called Catapult Hydra, 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 Google Chrome. Up to five simultaneous device connections are allowed along with unlimited server switches.
- Decent speeds and unblocking ability
- Works in China
- Only option in this list to offer Chinese IP addresses.
- 45-day money-back guarantee
- No Linux support
- Some past privacy concerns
CONNECT TO 70+ COUNTRIES:Hotspot Shield offers fast connections that penetrate the Great Firewall. Plus a high level of security. Comes with a 45-day money-back guarantee.
Read our full Hotspot Shield review.
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.
Data security is solid and PrivateVPN doesn’t store any usage or metadata logs about users’ online activity. You can use PrivateVPN’s reliable connections to secure your devices on public wi-fi from third-party snoopers. Live chat support is available should you encounter any problems. Users get unlimited bandwidth and server switches.
Apps are available for Windows, MacOS, iOS, and Android. You may connect up to six devices at a time.
- Works in China with Stealth Mode turned on
- Very fast speeds
- Strong security and no data logs policy
- Unblocks Netflix and other streaming sites
- 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.
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 cell phone in the house. The app is great, allowing users to either connect to a simple HTTP proxy in a couple of 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.
- Sometimes bypasses censorship in China
- Works well with Netflix
- Decent speeds
- No live chat
- Only allows 2 connections
How to use a VPN in China
We recommend getting set up with a VPN prior to visiting China because the VPN website and your usual app store will be blocked by the Great Firewall. So make sure to sign up and install the apps for your devices ahead of time.
Here’s how to set up and use a VPN in China:
- Sign up for one of the VPNs recommended above before traveling to China. We particularly recommend NordVPN.
- Download the VPN app for your device from the provider website or a reputable app store
- Open the VPN app and sign in
- Select a server in a country outside of China
- Hit the Connect button. Wait a few moments for the connection to establish, and that’s it! You can now access social media, news sites, and streaming services that are normally blocked in China. The VPN will remain connected in the background.
If you can’t connect, try a different server or protocol. Check if your VPN app has an option to obfuscate or “scramble” VPN traffic to make it less detectable. If all else fails, contact customer service.
China VPN Testing Methodology
Here at Comparitech, we take care in researching and analyzing any VPN we recommend. Below we outline exactly how we found the best VPNs for China but if your interested in our general VPN research you can find out more in our in-depth VPN testing methodology.
Testing VPN connections from within China
Comparitech researcher Aaron Phillips gathered 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.
See the full test results at the bottom of this article.
The results were mixed. Most VPN providers can’t beat the Great Firewall; their existing server networks 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.
To mitigate the ethical issues of employing a tester within China, Comparitech rented a server in Shenzhen and tested 59 VPN providers.
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.
A VPN that bypasses the Great Firewall on Windows might not work on other operating systems, including mobile devices, but they usually do so long as it’s listed as one of the VPN’s supported platforms.
Choosing a quality VPN service for China
Below we outline the other criteria you might need from your VPN which we used as our top considerations when curating our list of best VPNs for China.
- 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.
- 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 as opposed to cheaper providers which may only offer one connection.
- 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 – Compatible China VPN apps should be available for all your devices, as manual configuration may not work in China.
- Security – China is a hotbed for malware, hackers, and scammers, so we make sure that our recommended VPNs can offer the following security features:
- 128-bit AES encryption or better
- Perfect forward secrecy
- DNS, IPv6, and WebRTC leak prevention
- Private DNS servers (not Google DNS)
- An automatic kill switch
China VPN FAQs
Do any free VPNs work 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. Basic SSL VPN browser extensions get blocked frequently.
Even if they do work, 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.
Some free VPNs are actually made by Chinese companies, including Qihoo 360’s Turbo VPN. These are best avoided at all costs.
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 download speeds 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 connection 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.
Are VPNs legal in China?
Yes, using a VPN is still legal in China. Despite many VPNs being blocked in China there is no official ban on using VPNs.
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.
The notice does not say using a Virtual Private Network is a crime. I cannot stress this enough, because this important point has been repeatedly misinterpreted by western 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 various 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 the real 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 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 University 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.”
How do VPNs bypass the Great Firewall?
So how do Virtual Private Networks get around all those digital censorship mechanisms built into the Great Firewall?
They do so by hiding the contents and destination of your internet connection.
The actual data containing websites, streaming entertainment, 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. Chances are your company’s corporate VPN won’t work, so it’s best to be prepared.
VPN providers who fared best in our tests all use additional encryption over and above what OpenVPN traditionally offers. More than one provider made use of the OpenVPN scramble extension that obfuscates packet headers to avoid detection by automated network defense systems.
Double VPNs, also called multi-hop VPNs or VPN server chaining, don’t provide any extra benefit when it comes to bypassing the Great Firewall unless the second server in the chain is blocked.
How does China block 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’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.
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.
Most VPN providers have some or all of their server networks blackholed. VPNArea, Keenow, CactusVPN, and many others who failed have all of their servers blackholed; you just can’t connect in China. Corporate VPNs are hit and miss.
Can I bypass the Great Firewall without a VPN?
VPNs are the tried-and-true best solution 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 the best speeds or privacy. There’s also Surge for iOS, but it’s built for developers so don’t expect a very intuitive UI.
ShadowSOCKS is a VPN-like service designed in China to circumvent the state’s control of the free 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 server networks. However, it might only be a matter of time before ShadowSOCKS is blocked as well.
How can I get a Chinese IP address?
If you are looking to access the internet in China, such as Chinese TV or streaming entertainment like Youku, CNTV, or Tudou from outside China, then you will need a VPN that can give you a Chinese IP address. Most VPNs don’t have server networks in China, but a few do. Others use virtual IP addresses, which means the IP address belongs to China but the server is actually located elsewhere.
We have a step-by-step guide on how to get a Chinese IP address.
If you’re outside China looking in and need a provider that can VPN into China, your options are pretty limited:
- Hotspot Shield is our top recommendation. It uses a virtual IP address to unblock China-only websites and apps.
- HideMyAss has four IP addresses in Beijing
- PureVPN has locations available in Beijing and Shanghai. Users inside of China report mixed results for tunneling past the GFW, though.
- EarthVPN has at least one location in China.
- FlyVPN has a few locations in China
What sites and apps are blocked in China?
You can use our tool to test whether China blocks your favorite websites 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.
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, Google Translate,Google Search, Google Drive, Google Docs, Play Store, etc)
- News media
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 online traffic in and out of the country, the Great Firewall can throttle international web 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. Many VPN server networks are blocked at times like these, including corporate VPNs.
Websites that are blocked in one province might not be blocked in another province. This indicates digital 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.
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. If true and enforced, the crackdown would block all access to VPN services used to circumvent the Great Firewall.
China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology called the Bloomberg article “false,” and said it only blocks unauthorized VPNs used to conduct illegal business. 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.
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 multiple 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 VPN software and server addresses.
All of our recommended VPNs 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.
How can I access Google Play 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 software 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 computer 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 mobile phone and install it.
If you buy an Android phone in China, it will not come with Google Play or any other Google services.
How can I access the iOS 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 removed several VPN apps from the Chinese version of the App Store, including ExpressVPN and VyprVPN, among others. This came 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 of VPN apps that allow access to blocked online 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.
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 subscription.
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.
Is my social media monitored in China?
Your internet connection isn’t the only thing being monitored and censored when online in China.
China employs extensive monitoring of its domestic social media platforms like WeChat, Weibo, QQ, and Douyin. Each person’s profiles, posts, shared files, and messages are filed away by entities working on behalf of authorities. This social data is then combined with shopping histories, biometric data, and video surveillance footage.
Authorities in China have made it increasingly difficult to be anonymous online. Real-name registration is required for all new social media accounts and phone numbers.
All of this allows for extensive surveillance of nearly every aspect of users’ lives.
Through both manual enforcement and automated systems, authorities can repress any behavior that strays from what is deemed acceptable.
WeChat is particularly popular in China, even among expats. But if you need to send private messages, be sure to connect to a VPN so you can use some other messaging platform. WhatsApp, Signal, and Telegram are reasonably secure and private options, but they’re blocked in China.
Is the internet censored in 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 unrestricted internet without a VPN, although you can still use one just to protect your internet privacy.
However, privacy in Hong Kong is increasingly threatened by Beijing's proposed national security laws which have led to a reported surge in VPN use.
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.
What is the best VPN protocol to use in China?
Opt for a secure VPN protocol to use in China, such as:
Any of these can work but might be blocked depending on your VPN provider and Chinese ISP. If one protocol is blocked, you might be able to bypass the Great Firewall by switching to a different protocol.
Some VPNs offer additional obfuscation methods to make encrypted VPN traffic appear as unencrypted normal internet traffic. These obfuscated options might be better at going undetected:
- VyprVPN's Chameleon protocol
- NordVPN's obfuscated servers
- IPVanish's scramble feature
- PrivateVPN's stealth mode
Which VPN country should I use when in China?
Connecting your VPN to any country outside of China should be enough to unblock censored apps, websites and services.
Geographically near servers typically offer better speeds. So from China, the fastest countries will probably be:
- Hong Kong
- South Korea
Bear in mind that if you want to unblock a specific streaming service or other region-locked content from China, such as Hulu in the USA or BBC iPlayer in the UK, you will have to connect to servers in those countries.
Can I play online video games through a VPN in China?
If you game on a Mac or PC, it's easy. Just download and install your VPN provider's app---preferably before going to China---and connect to whatever region's servers you want to play on. You can use this technique to play games like PUBG, Fortnite, Rocket League, PUBG, Minecraft, Among Us, or any other game with your friends abroad.
If you game on iOS or Android, the process is equally simple, but you would download your provider's app from your device's app store instead.
On consoles, things are a bit trickier. Consoles like PlayStation, Xbox, and Switch don't support VPN apps or manual VPN configuration. Instead, you'll need to set up a VPN on your home internet router. You can either buy a pre-configured router, like the ones sold by ExpressVPN, or configure it yourself on an open-source router firmware. The former is more expensive, and the latter requires a fair bit of tech savvy, so choose wisely. Learn more about router VPNs here.
Why is Netflix banned in China?
Netflix is available in more than 100 countries, but China is not one of them. Netflix likely avoided doing business in China because of its strict censorship policies. Instead, Netflix licenses much of its content through local Chinese video streaming sites.
China blocks direct connections to Netflix from the mainland. Netflix customers traveling abroad must use a VPN to bypass these blocks. All of the VPNs we recommend unblock US Netflix, and some can access the Netflix libraries of other countries as well.
Can I leave my VPN on all the time in China?
Yes, and many people do. Most VPN apps have an option in their settings menu to automatically open the VPN app and connect as soon as your device is turned on. Many also have wi-fi protection that will automatically turn on your VPN when you connect to a new network.
Note that if you want to use domestic Chinese websites, apps, and services, you’ll need to turn the VPN off. If you try to shop on Taobao while the VPN is connected to another country, for example, you’ll only be able to access the international version of the site.
Is NordVPN owned by China?
No, NordVPN is not owned by China or any Chinese entity. The company is privately owned and incorporated in Panama, which has no laws requiring NordVPN to retain user data. Much of its staff are located in Europe.
Can I still use my apps if I'm traveling to China?
It depends on the app. Most western social networks, news media, chat apps, and entertainment will be censored while you’re in China, so you’ll need a VPN to access them. Finance, payment, and banking apps might also be blocked. Other apps, like utilities, translation apps, and, of course, your VPN app should still work.
As a tourist in Beijing, will my social media be monitored?
Western social media will be inaccessible to you while in China unless you’re using a VPN. If you are using a reputable VPN, then your internet traffic is encrypted, so you don’t have to worry about Chinese authorities intercepting your social media posts in real-time. Most VPN users will have nothing to worry about.
It’s possible that Chinese authorities could sneak a peek at whatever parts of your social media presence is public. If you’re a public figure, person of interest, or you’ve spouted a bunch of anti-China rhetoric on Twitter, then you should be wary of government surveillance, possibly resulting in detention or expulsion from the country. A VPN won’t protect you from the consequences of posting in public.
If you use Chinese social media like WeChat or Weibo, then you should act under the assumption that all of your activity is monitored. Even if you use a VPN, Chinese social networks are under the thumb of Chinese authorities and will comply with any requests for private user data and records.
Full test results for 59 VPNs in China
Every VPN company marked “Up” in China connected successfully in at least six of the seven rounds of testing, each time to a different gateway.
|Avast Secureline VPN||DOWN|
|Buffered||DOWN||Buffered has previously been reported as up, but I could not get a connection after the March 31 update|
|HideMyAss||DOWN||Freedom mode tested|
|Kaspersky Secure Connection||DOWN|
|McAfee Safe Connect||DOWN|
|NordVPN||UP||Up using an obfuscated server|
|Norton WiFi Privacy||DOWN|
|Private Internet Access||UP||Up and running despite some initial issues with DNS|
|ProtonVPN||UP||Up but many individual servers are down|
|PureVPN||UP||Works in both standard and Internet Freedom mode, IF mode recommended|
|SurfShark||UP||NoBorders mode is required to connect in China, double-check it's turned on|
|Windscribe||UP||Most servers are accessible in China|
Update: China blocks encrypted DNS
In July 2020, China began blocking all TLS 1.3 connections that use ESNI (Encrypted Server Name Indication). So what does that actually mean?
TLS 1.3 is the latest version of encryption used in HTTPS connections. It is increasingly being used in combination with ESNI, which encrypts DNS requests (website IP address lookups) and prevents internet service providers from being able to spy on what websites you visit—a hole in the Great Firewall’s traffic monitoring system. To plug this hole, Chinese ISPs now block TLS 1.3 + ESNI connections wholesale.
As a result, the GFW now blocks even more websites than it already did, simply because it cannot see through the encryption to see what those websites are.
VPNs are not affected by this update to the GFW, so they remain a viable solution to bypass blocks on these connections.