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So you’re heading to China. You’ve heard about the internet censorship, and you know there are ways around it.
But what exactly is blocked? Are there ways around it? What is a VPN and how does it work??!
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Don’t worry. I’ve been living in China for over three years and I’ve tried just about every VPN there is. I also did my Master’s dissertation on Chinese Internet censorship, so I’ve definitely learned a thing or two.
Today we’re going to go over: what is blocked, how a VPN works and which is the best VPN for China. I’ve chosen the absolute best VPNs by category, and I’ll fill you in on all of the pros and cons of each!
What Websites Are Blocked in China?
Good question. Pretty much everything you could ever want is blocked in China.
Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Google, Gmail, Instagram, Snapchat, Google Maps, Google Docs (basically anything with the word Google), Netflix, Pokemon Go… Yeah, even Pokemon aren’t allowed. Some major news sites are also blocked, depending on the whims of the government. New York Times is usually blocked, and sometimes BBC is too.
One major issue for travelers in China is that many VPN websites are also blocked. People arrive in Beijing only to realize they can’t access any of their sites from home, and they can’t even download a VPN! Seriously, last year I completely forgot until the day I was supposed to leave and spent my last minutes in the Seattle airport panicking because my VPN wasn’t downloading fast enough!
Don’t worry, though, there are a few good VPNs that have websites that aren’t blocked, so if you’re reading this from China I’ve got you covered.
Why Are These Sites Blocked?
Why does the government do this? Well… that’s a post for another day. I actually wrote a 100-page master’s dissertation on this very subject!
There are a lot of theories out there as to why the government blocks these sites, ranging from political control to a monopoly over the tech market. The important thing for you to know is that the Chinese have their own versions of everything. They have WeChat instead of Facebook/Instagram/Whatsapp. Weibo replaces Twiter, 163 is for email, Baidu is the Chinese version of Google… the list goes on and on.
VPNs in China are technically illegal unless you’re an approved business, but to be honest, the Chinese government couldn’t care less if you use them. Some restaurants and hotels that cater to international travelers even advertise that they a VPN!
What Isn’t Blocked??
Whatsapp is not blocked, and neither is Pinterest. Travel sites like Trip Advisor, Skyscanner and others are also completely fine. The search engine Bing is also great for looking up things on the go.
Most websites (like my blog!) are immune to censorship because the government can’t be bothered with what we small nobodies have to say. Besides, I’m writing in English, meaning I don’t have many Chinese readers anyway.
What’s a VPN?
A VPN stands for “virtual private network”. It’s a small program you can download on your computer that masks your IP address and shields your actual location. Basically, it makes your internet think you’re somewhere that you’re not.
Why would you need this? Here are some of the main reasons:
1. Internet Security
While on the road, many of us use Internet connections that aren’t secure: hostels, cafes, airports… basically anywhere with a public Internet connection. Hackers and digital thieves can easily work their way into your system and steal your passwords, bank data, and other sensitive information.
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Living abroad and missing your favorite tv shows? Never fear, Netflix is here!
You can use a VPN to trick your internet into thinking you’re in the USA so you can get access to all of your favorite sites. Can’t live without Netflix, Pandora or Hulu? You don’t have to!
*Recently, Netflix has been blocking access if it believes you’re on a VPN. Most VPNs are actively trying to get around this, so sometimes I can get on, and sometimes I can’t. If Netflix is blocking me, I usually close out of the page, turn my VPN on and off, and then open Netflix again. It almost always works!
3. Climbing the Great Firewall of China
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What VPN is Best for China?
Heads up: Even if you have a free or cheap VPN you use for internet security, the chances of it working in China are very small.
Chinese internet censorship is extremely advanced, so you’ll need a VPN that actively fights back against censors who change their algorithms.
I’ve tried all the major VPNs: Astril, Strong, and Express being the most popular. I’ve also tried a few lesser known VPNs like Buffered and VYPR, along with some free Chinese mobile VPNs. Due to the complexity of internet censorship in China, I’m constantly changing which VPNs I recommend, so I’ll be updating this post to reflect the current situation.
ExpressVPN: Best Overall
Pros: Website not blocked in China, easy to use and install, live help chat, automatically connects, 30-day guarantee
Cons: Not quite as good on mobile as Buffered
Price: $12.95/month OR $8.30/month for 1 year
Verdict: ExpressVPN is just great.
If you’re heading to China and want a good, reliable VPN that always works with a live help chat ready and waiting, Express is the VPN for you. I’ve recommended Express to many of my friends traveling through China, and I get almost no complaints. Their US server always works fine, and both the computer and mobile versions are always reliable. The customer service is also always great, not that I ever really have to use it!
Other need-to-know info? Express has a 30-Day Money Back Guarantee with a no questions asked refund if you decide the VPN isn’t for you. They also have 136 server locations across 87 countries, meaning you can always get a great connection with fast local servers in Taiwan and Hong Kong. Finally, the app works across all platforms from your desktop to your iPad and everything in between.
Solid. Fast. Reliable. Express is really great quality for a decent price.
FIND IT: ExpressVPN
Buffered VPN: Fastest VPN and Best Mobile VPN
Pros: Light-speed fast on their Japan and Korea servers, incredible on mobile, website isn’t blocked in China
Cons: US servers less fast, incompatible with some PC antivirus software
Price: $12.99/ month OR $8.25/ month for 1 year
Verdict: By far the best mobile VPN and their Japan and Korea servers are incredible
I LOVE my Buffered VPN. Buffered is by far the fastest of all of my VPNs and best for mobile. When I connect to a Japan or Korea server, I can easily blaze through sites that have issues loading with Strong or Express. The mobile VPN is also the best I’ve seen. I downloaded both the Japan and Korea servers onto my phone and I can easily watch videos on Snapchat when they won’t even load on my other VPNs.
My only critique of Buffered is that their US servers won’t connect very well for me, and are beat out by both Express and Strong. Buffered is also incompatible with some PC antivirus software, so I’m unable to install it on my work PC. There are ways of troubleshooting this, but since my work PC is in Chinese I couldn’t be bothered.
Overall, if you need a great mobile VPN and don’t care about having a US server, I recommend Buffered over Express.
FIND IT: Buffered VPN
Strong VPN: Most Affordable (Reliable) VPN
Pros: Cheapest yearly plan, consistently works on every device
Cons: no free help chat, no torrenting, website blocked in China
Price: $10/month OR $6/month for 1 year
Verdict: There’s a reason why I have no problem paying $55 a year for this VPN.
Strong VPN is the one I’ve been consistently using for the past three years. Last year I was having issues with their VPN client app for both my computer and phone, so I decided to manually install the VPN. Now it works great on my work PC, MacBook, and iPhone. While it may not be as lightning fast as Buffered’s Japan server, I rarely ever have issues with this VPN. It’s my most consistent, faithful VPN and it’s cheap if you buy it for an entire year!
Unfortunately, Strong abandoned their free help chat (it’s now a premium service), so if you need tech help you’ll have to do it over email. This can be a problem if your email is blocked in China. You also can’t torrent on this VPN or you’ll get kicked off it until you write them an apology note (I’m serious), and you have a limit on how often you can switch servers a month.
Overall, if you need a cheap, decent VPN to last you an entire year, Strong is the way to go.
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Rabbit VPN and Betternet: Best Free VPNs
Cons: You have to watch an advertisement, only works on mobile, sometimes doesn’t work on 3G
Verdict: The best free VPNs I’ve found so far
Rabbit VPN used to be amazing. It was the only VPN I could find that would consistently work on Snapchat. Now the others have stepped up their mobile game, while Rabbit has gone downhill a bit. Betternet is also really popular, and when it works, it works, but for me, this VPN only works about half the time.
Enjoy Scaling the Firewall!
Do you have any questions about VPNs? Are you unsure of which one to choose for your trip? Just leave me a comment below and I’ll be sure to get back to you.
If you found this post helpful I would really appreciate it if you would purchase a VPN using one of the links above. I make a small commission at no cost to you, which goes straight back into making sure this site runs smoothly.