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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??!
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!
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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.
Email hacks don’t just happen to Hillary Clinton. Protect yourself!
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
I don’t think I really need to elaborate on this one…Email hacks don't just happen to Hillary Clinton. Protect yo-self https://www.adventuresaroundasia.com/best-vpn-china/ Click To Tweet
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.
IT’S ON SALE: Strong VPN
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.
DOWNLOAD IT: iOS App Store and Andriod
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.
37 comments on “The Best VPN for China”
What’s your snap?! We need to become friends! And snap JUST got unblocked in China!! As in like.. two weeks ago. So exciting!
I was WONDERING what’s going on with Snapchat. Sometimes they load without a VPN and sometimes they don’t! I think it’s been unblocked but it’s a bit slow so unless I’m on 4G I need my VPN. But STILL it’s EXCITING!!! My Snapchat is Adventures_Asia (or you can scan the QR code in the sidebar). What’s yours?
What do you mean by ‘US servers’? like if the computer is from the US it dosnt work as well? Im tech impaired! lol
Great question! I know this is super confusing and as a non-tech person anyway (that has somehow stumbled through becoming a VPN expert and owning her own website?) I would’ve been confused too. Basically, VPNs connect you to a server in another country. This tricks China into thinking you’re in THAT country. So if I’m on a US server, I’ll show up as being located in the US. If I’m on a Japanese server, all my ads on Youtube and Facebook are in Japanese! The only reason it ever matters is that you’ll get slightly different options on Netflix and certain websites that only work in the US (Hulu, Pandora) won’t work on Japanese and Korean servers. It’s literally never a problem for me though, since all my favorite Netflix shows (or most of them) still work in Japan and Korea, and I do have Strong VPN as a backup which is a US server. Hope this helps!!
Indeed.. Other vpn providers have stepped up their game in China like Astrill. I used Astrill last year and it worked fine there.
I keep hearing mixed reviews on Astill. It used to be Astrill and Strong and now most people have switched to Express. I’ve heard Astrill is great for download speed though. I’m probably going to add it to this list because I have a few friends who like it.
I used Astrill too when I was in China. Works alright.
Good to know! I haven’t tested it out but my boyfriend has it so I think I’ll write a brief review based on his experience
Exactly. Astrill works well in China even with the current vpn ban..
I keep hearing mixed reviews about Astil and I know a bunch of friends who have switched away from it, but then some of my friends love it!
I use Astrill too and it works well! I’ve tried other VPNs the worst I had was ExpressVPN that’s why I still don’t get the good reviews they have. Guess I’m just so unlucky?
I’m not sure… It’s so frustrating because VPNs change SO often, I almost feel like I need to re-write this post every few weeks. Buffered was awesome, then it was giving me trouble, now I use express all the time and I’ve loved it, but it’s been slow these last two weeks. Betternet used to only work half the time, now it’s the best out of my mobile VPNs. It’s so bizarre! Anyone who lives in China almost needs at least 2 paid VPNs to get things done.
I tried using both. Same experience with express vpn, it works really slow for me. I can’t stream. I’ve been using Astrill and yeah it is working well up to now. They had issues with android app last month but they were able to fix it right away. Hats off to the developers!
Really? That’s good to know. I knew a lot of people who used Astrill and then they all gave up on it for a bit, now I think they’ve fixed a lot of their problems. Express works fine for me on their Taiwan server. Sometimes Japan is pretty good too.
Hey Richelle!! Do you recommend purchasing more than one VPN, just to have a backup? I’ll be spending a few weeks in Shanghai soon but I reallyyy need reliable access to Gmail, Google docs, Skype, Insta & Facebook since I use all of those daily for my job. I’m already stressing about not being able to get on haha. Thanks!
Hi Kelly, I recommend getting Express VPN, which is what I use now. Then as a backup you can download Betternet and Rabbit VPN. If your Express isn’t working, they have a really good help chat and should get you sorted on a good server. If you’re noticing a lot of problems you can ask for your money back and switch to Strong, Astril or Buffered. Hope this helps!
Hi Richelle! Thanks for the great advice — I’m moving to Shenzhen in January and I’m trying to absorb all the information I can. I’m bookmarking this page for when I finish the visa process and am ready to make that purchase :) Just one question — you mentioned US servers, is that because some things won’t load on a non-US server (like youtube videos etc.)? I was in Korea for a few years and was always happy with the speed there. When I couldn’t access a video I either used the chrome extension “Hola” or just downloaded it.
Thanks in advance for your help, I can’t wait to be an expat again!
Hey Patrice. No problem! I’ve been mainly using Japan and Taiwan servers on Express and they work great. However, it’s always nice to have US servers that work as well, especially if I want to watch certain things on Netflix or I want to binge-watch Survivor on CBS.com…..
This article is amazing! I didn’t even know that you needed such thing as VPN in China. I would be completely lost if I went there without reading this! Thank you so much!
So glad this post helped you Denisa. You DEFINITELY need a VPN for China, so be sure to download one before you go!
Hey so I’m moving to China in a couple weeks for a year. Do these same VPNs give you the best result? I still have one online class left in the United States on BlackBoard learn and my school email is gmail so i need a REALLY reliable VPN in order to get homework done!
Also do any VPNs work on tvs? I have an amazon fire stick with Netflix Hulu etc and i don’t know if i should even bother bringing my fire stick or not.
Great question! I still love Express VPN and used it right up until I left China in November. I haven’t heard much about the Amazon Fire Stick, but Express VPN should work wonders for your time in China. Just make sure you pick a good server location. I recommend Japan, Taiwan, and Hong Kong for everyday stuff, and if you need to get on a site that only works in America, or American Netflix, then San Francisco, LA, and Denver have been good. You can also usually access Netflix on the Japan server, they just don’t have every single show you might want. I hope this helps!
What kind of VPN would you suggest me if I am travelling through China for 9 days only ?
I would definitely do a 1-month plan with Express. It’s annoying to have to pay for it longer than you need it, but it is only $13 and you’ll be guaranteed access to Facebook, Twitter, Google, Youtube, Google Maps, Gmail etc. If you don’t think you’ll be on your internet much and you don’t need to check emails and are comfortable using Bing, you can always download a few free mobile VPNs, but just know that they don’t always work. Hope this helps!
Hi Richelle! Thanks for your post, very helpful!! I’ll be moving to China (Chengdu) early September with my girlfriend. Which VPN would you recommend? Is there one that has a package were we can share it on 4 devices (our phones and both of our laptops).
Personally, I use Express VPN which is my favorite. They stay on top of all of the censorship changes, they have a free help chat that will walk you through any problems, and it’s super fast! with Express, you can connect 3 devices at any time, but you can install it on more. So if you and your girlfriend shared, you could both be connected on your computers and one of your phones at once. You can install the VPN on both of your phones/ any devices you want, but you can only be connected to 3 at once (which is totally fine, because if you’re on your computer, you probably don’t need to have your phone VPN connected at the same time anyway). It’s really easy to turn on and off too. You just open the app and switch it on or off. They make it super hassle free. You can check out their prices, policies and benefits here; http://www.adventuresaroundasia.com/expressvpn
Wow, Richelle, your article is very helpful. Just one question, have you tried more vpns? I often visit China on business trips, so I already tried a bunch of the providers. I’m a little surprised to see that you did not mention Nordvpn as it’s my personal winner. I guess everyone has their favourite services, but for me, Nord seems the most reliable. Anyway, thank you for your input sharing all these tips.
Hi Roneynaw, good to know! I don’t really know many people in China who use Nordvpn, but I do have many friends using Astrill. Astrill works great, but their customer service is just okay, from what I’ve heard.
Do you just download the app on your phone and download the program on your laptop before you depart the US and then once you are there you sign up and pay for it or do you have to pay for it before you leave the US?
Great question! You join the VPN program and then they’ll give you the login. I would join BEFORE you leave for China. Also download the VPN to your phone and computer before you leave too. I was able to login to Express in China, but I actually couldn’t login to the Astrill app in China! I downloaded the app but every time I tried to log in I got an error. I recommend signing into your VPN account on both your computer and phone BEFORE you leave for China. If you have Express you should be okay, but I would log in on all your devices before you leave just in case.
Hi! I’m reading this in 2019, getting ready to move to China at the beginning of August. I am completely terrible at tech, but your articles is the clearest that I’ve encountered. So thank you for that! I wanted to ask if these are still good VPNs to look int? I’ve heard good things about Express, and I think I do want to stay on a US server? I think. (Google, YouTube, and Spotify are something I use everyday) But I’m concerned about using mobile, because I’m so used to unlimited data in the US and just being able to look something up on the internet or a map. I know this is going to be an even bigger need in a country where I don’t speak the language and will be by myself. So when you say that mobile service isn’t as great, what exactly do you mean? Do you think Express will suit or?
Congratulations on moving to China! Yes, I still love Express VPN. I was actually just in China last month and used Express the whole time with no issues. As for mobile, I recommend getting a large data plan with zero calls and texts (or a very small number of calls and texts). Then you’ll just pay a few cents per call, since the only people calling you are deliverymen. This plan should cost around 200 RMB ($30 USD ish). I would keep your VPN switched off on your phone until you need something that’s blocked because VPNs drain data and battery life. For example, if I wanted to upload an IG story, I might actually just do all of my stories with my VPN off, and then go home and upload them on the wifi with my VPN on. That way I wasn’t draining my data with my VPN on all day. But if I needed to check Facebook or something for 30 minutes, I’d turn it on. When I was in China most recently, Express on mobile was actually fine and I had no issues! I probably need to update this post.. hahaha
Hi Richelle, thank you for the awesome feedback and newsletters via email. We have learnt so much from you.
We were wondering if you think Express is still the best?
We are leaving for China next week (Hangzhou) for about 45 days travelling north to Beijing before flying back to Canada.
Hi Steve. Yes, I still recommend Express! I was just in China and Express still worked extremely well. Just be sure to download it on your phone and computer before you leave!
Hi! Richelle!You said that few Chinese will see this.But now I anounce that I am a Chinese! haha
Yay! hahaha welcome! Do you have a VPN?
Thank you so much!