The Great Wall of China was originally built to keep barbarians out, and now the Great Firewall of China strives to do the same kind of thing in our digital era. Allowing the Chinese government to block access to foreign websites and slow down cross-border internet traffic, the Great Firewall is the largest system of censorship in the world. But if you’re traveling to the vast country, you can circumvent it using a virtual private network, or VPN. Take it from us: You don’t have to get blocked in China.
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While using a VPN in China is technically legal, providers play a game of cat-and-mouse with the authorities, which periodically crack down and try to block servers and throttle bandwidth, much to the annoyance of internet users. For example, a VPN ban reportedly came into effect in March, but nothing seems to have happened on the face of it at least, with providers being kept in the dark about if and when the ban will be rolled out.
Users in China may have to swap VPNs if theirs becomes blocked, but having one is a necessity for anyone wanting unfettered access to foreign websites, from news sites to social media and Google. If you’re on vacation in China you’ll need a VPN for posting snaps to Instagram and keeping in touch with friends using Whatsapp. This is because VPNs assign a virtual IP address to obscure your real location from others, enabling you to circumnavigate geo-blocking and censorship measures as if you are based somewhere without them. VPNs also encrypt data, leaving your computer or device to make it impossible for others to see what you’re downloading, which is useful in a country where surveillance is a top priority for the authorities.
The first thing to know about VPNs in China is that it’s easier to install one before you arrive, but how do you choose? Lots of servers (in China if possible), high speeds and extra layers of security are all important things to look for in a VPN offering. Reliable, 24/7 customer service is also an important consideration, because if you experience technical difficulties while you’re there, the fastest service available isn’t much use to you if you can’t troubleshoot.
ExpressVPN — Best all-around VPN for China
ExpressVPN has a great mix of security, reliability, speed, and customer service, making it ideal for use in China.
China’s Great Firewall is sophisticated enough to block basic OpenVPN connections, but Express VPN can circumnavigate the wall, with users reporting fast speeds, especially if they connect to Hong Kong, Los Angeles, or some other US servers which are said to be optimized for users in China. The service automatically finds the fastest server for you.
Expats say the VPN works well to watch geo-blocked content from Netflix and YouTube, as well as other popular foreign streaming services. Users can enjoy unlimited bandwidth and they can connect to three devices simultaneously if they want.
In a country where there’s censorship, security may seem particularly important. Express VPN boasts strong 256-bit AES encryption and support for lots of VPN protocols. The company offers a strict no logging policy and there’s a handy kill-switch, DNS/IPv6 leak protection, and a split tunneling feature for Mac and Windows, which allows users to protect their torrent client only. There’s also TOR compatibility.
Customer service-wise, ExpressVPN offers 24/7 customer support and a bunch of apps for Windows, Mac, Android, iOS, and Linux to make life easier for users. Expats are particularly complimentary
The downside is that it’s a little more expensive than its competitors. A one-month subscription costs $12.95, but you can actually get three months free. There’s also a 30-day money back guarantee.
NordVPN — Best for innovative security
While China tends to focus its crackdowns on VPN providers, security and privacy is important to VPN users too. NordVPN has some neat security features, including shared IP addresses. Its Mac client uses Next Generation Encryption (NGE) IKEv2/IPsec as standard and 256bit-GCM for encryption, which is used by the military. There is also the option to use “Onion over VPN” or Double VPN servers, which means data is passed through two separate VPN servers instead of one. For users in China this means traffic can be re-routed to Taiwan, then travel through a server in Hong Kong before reaching its destination, which does take a toll on speed.
NordVPN doesn’t keep logs of online activity. This means that your private data, online activity and browsing history can’t be monitored, gathered, exposed, or intercepted by third parties. Users can also select DNS leak protection to protect their IP address and an automatic kill switch, which either kills all programs or chosen programs if the VPN connection drops. This protects a user’s personal data from being temporarily exposed. There’s also ad-blocking functionality and protection against phishing threats.
Users can link up to six devices simultaneously to NordVPN’s servers using apps for Mac OS, Windows, iOS, and Android. The service also boasts unlimited bandwidth for torrenting, decent download speed, and a 24/7 live chat tool for support.
Expats have reported they have successfully used NordVPN to unblock geo-locked services including Netflix US, BBC iPlayer, and Amazon Prime Video, making it a popular choice for travelers wanting to keep up with the latest films and TV shows while in China.
NordVPN may have 3,000 servers around the world, but one downside is that none of them are in China, meaning users in the country face speed penalties as internet traffic has further to travel. Nearby servers are located in Taiwan, South Korea, and Hong Kong. Another downside is that NordVPN’s monthly plan is relatively expensive, at $11.95/month. But the price drops significantly to $2.99/month as part of a three-year subscription.
PureVPN — Best for servers in China and speed
PureVPN operates from Hong Kong and four of its 750+ servers are based in China itself, which is quite rare. This makes for some speedy connections while doing your part to battle the Chinese goverment. The VPN also offers its users unlimited bandwidth and five simultaneous connections.
There are a whole bunch of security options, including industry standard 256-bit encryption, support for pretty much all protocols, built-in ad and malware blocking, DNS and IPv6 leak protection, and a kill switch. PureVPN has a self-managed network so your data is handled by PureVPN only, without the intervention or interference of any third-parties. There is also the option to use a NAT Firewall add-on, which provides an added layer of security by safeguarding a user’s device from hackers exploiting loopholes. The company claims to have a zero logging policy, although in 2017, a user was arrested partially due to session logs held by the VPN. This practice isn’t unusual, but may put some people off, particularly in a country where there is believed to be a lot of surveillance.
There are lots of extra features with PureVPN, including split tunneling so users can decide which traffic is funneled through their VPN, unlimited server switching and data transfer, plus the ability to create a Wi-Fi VPN hotspot.
When it comes to troubleshooting worries, PureVPN has live chat support for customers open every hour of the day, as well as ticket and email support. As with other offerings, there are apps for Mac OS, Windows, Android, and iOS devices and the company claims its product is easy to set up on gaming consoles and smart TVs too.
Customers can pay for their subscriptions using an array of options, including Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. The best-value subscription costs just $2.88/month for two years, but the seven-day money-back guarantee has terms and conditions attached.
TunnelBear — Best free option
When it comes to free VPNs some experts are skeptical, but for those looking to save money on their travels, there’s TunnelBear. The Canada-based VPN is packed with features and has a sense of humour with a strong bear-theme running through its programs. For example, to connect to the VPN users choose a country and then another to connect to and watch a bear tunnel there when the connection is secure.
There are apps for Mac, Windows, iOS, and Chrome and support for five simultaneous connections for premium accounts. When it comes to security, TunnelBear uses strong AES 256-bit encryption by default, the same level of encryption as many expensive services. There is also a feature called “VigilantBear,” a kill switch that blocks all unsecured traffic when you lose your Wi-Fi connection, until a device has safely reconnected again.
“GhostBear” or stealth mode is another handy feature — particularly in China — which makes a user’s VPN-encrypted data less detectable to governments, businesses, and ISPs. It disguises OpenVPN traffic to help people get around firewalls by using obfsproxy, but can take a toll on speeds.
The VPN has servers in 20 countries, but one downside is that not all of them are available to non-fee-paying customers, meaning potentially slower speeds. It’s doesn’t allow P2P torrenting, so users of BitTorrent should look elsewhere. Unlike many other VPNs TunnelBear doesn’t have a no logging policy, but instead keeps minimal logs for one month in order to comply with Canadian law, which could worry some users.
TunnelBear has three types of subscriptions: Little Bear is free and gives users 500MB of data/month, while Giant offers unlimited data for $9.99/month on a monthly basis and Grizzly offers the same for $5/month based on a user signing up for a year.
Buffered — Best customer service and refund policy
Lots of VPNs offer live chat support, but Buffered goes a little further. The Hungarian VPN offers round-the-clock technical support as well as a 30-day refund policy, which is a great way for users to check that they are happy with the service and a relatively unusual feature among VPNs.
The VPN claims to offer high speed connections and has servers in Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, as well as China itself. It also offers unlimited bandwidth with no download restrictions, which is ideal for fans of torrenting in China.
Expats have reported the VPN works fine for accessing geo-blocked streaming services as well as popular foreign websites, but some people have found they are unable to access Netflix.
Buffered offers military-grade encryption, a kill switch, and a no logging policy (aside from connections) when it comes to security, but while its plans and security measures are easy to understand, some users may be put off by a lack of apps for their devices.
While the VPN provides detailed set-up instructions and the process is said to be fairly simple, it offers no apps for iOS, unlike most of its competitors. The subscription is also not the cheapest at $12.99/month or $4.12 for 2 years.
PandaPow — Best easy-to-use China-centric VPN
As its name suggests, Hong Kong-based PandaPow is designed to pack a punch in China, with decent speeds and security. But its biggest selling point is its simplicity.
The self-dubbed “hassle-free VPN service” boasts instant activation with users able to get started in minutes thanks to a one-click set-up. While this may be a bit of an exaggeration, setting up the VPN is reportedly very easy. There is software for Mac, Windows, Android, and iOS accompanied with straightforward set-up guides. PandaPow is perhaps best known for its router/Wi-Fi set up, which is handy for anyone staying in the country for a while.
The company also offers unlimited speeds, bandwidth and speed test usage, and unlimited server switches between 120+ servers in 16 countries. There’s also a filter feature in PandaPow Wi-Fi, which allows you to exclude or include the internet traffic traveling through the VPN connection, a feature typically seen in more expensive VPN offerings.
When it comes to security, PandaPow does not log browser activity and reportedly offers strong encryption, but the details are a little vague. Some users have reported that sometimes when a VPN connection fails, which is common in China, the VPN doesn’t automatically resume, which could pose a security risk.
PandaPow offers a number of plans, but its classic option costs $9/month on a monthly basis, or $84 for a year. They all come with a seven-day money back guarantee, which is really handy if the service isn’t right for your needs.