Douglas Crawford

Douglas Crawford

June 24, 2015

Since we last updated this article in March, we have learned of China’s new Social Credit System. Under this terrifying scheme, all of China’s 1.3 billion citizens will be awarded a ‘citizen score’ based on a variety of criteria, such as financial history, criminal record, and online behavior. This score will be accessible through a national database, and will affect individuals’ prospects of applying for jobs, acquiring bank loans, and more. Scary!

In other news, since the beginning of this year China has stepped up efforts to prevent evasion of its censorship machine, the Great Firewall (GFW). In concrete terms, this does not appear to have affected the VPN landscape too much, but it does mean that users will likely experience more disruptions and may have to jump through more hoops when they want to access the internet uncensored.

Despite this, many VPN services seem to be working just fine from within China (including all of the ones listed below), and all the GFW-evasion tactics outlines towards the end of this article should continue to be effective.

Best VPN for China Summary

Rank Provider Grade Starting Price Link

1

ExpressVPN
Read Review >
$8.32/mo Visit Site >

2

VyprVPN Logo
Read Review >
$10/mo Visit Site >

3

AirVPN Logo
Read Review >
$4.83/mo Visit Site >

4

TorGuard Logo
Read Review >
$4.99/mo Visit Site >

5

BolehVPN Logo
Read Review >
$6.66/mo Visit Site >

Winner

ExpressVPN

5/5

  • PROS
  • Fast speed boosted for China
  • Servers in 78 countries
  • 30 day money back guarantee
  • ‘Stealth’ servers in Hong Kong
  • CONS
  • Not the cheapest VPN

We love ExpressVPN because as a large international company it has servers in 78 countries (including Hong Kong, Japan, Taiwan and West Coast US), it is very fast, it offers a very generous 30 money back guarantee, and it has great apps for both Android and iOS. It keeps no logs of users’ internet activity (although some connection logs are maintained) and allows up to 2 VPN connections at once. Even better for users in China, ExpressVPN offers stealth servers located in Hong Kong that are specially designed to evade the GFW. With lots of funky features, great speeds, and solid reliability, ExpressVPN is a great all-round choice.

Try Out the Best VPN for China Today!

Visit ExpressVPN »

30-day moneyback guarantee

2nd place

VyprVPN

4,5/5

  • PROS
  • Servers in Hong Kong
  • 7 day money back guarantee
  • Up to 3 simultaneous connections
  • ‘Chameleon’ anti-GFW system
  • CONS
  • Pricey
  • Avoid cheaper PPTP-only package

This multinational provider is unique in being the only VPN service to own its own server network. This results in blazing-fast performance, and allows VyprVPN to offer proprietary ‘Chameleon’ anti-censorship technology which ‘scrambles OpenVPN packet metadata to ensure it’s not recognizable via deep packet inspection, while still keeping it fast and lightweight. The Chameleon technology uses the unmodified OpenVPN 256-bit protocol for the underlying data encryption’ to access international websites unhindered.’ VyperVPN also allows a generous 3 simultaneous connections, features a desktop app with a kill switch, and apps for iOS and Android. As with TorGuard, it seems the VyprVPN website is not currently blocked.

Visit VyprVPN »


3rd place

AirVPN

4,35/5

AirVPN Logo

  • PROS
  • No logs at all
  • Transparent service
  • Accepts Bitcoin
  • Dynamic port forwarding (port 443), real-time user and server statistics
  • Support for VPN over Tor
  • VPN through SSL and SSH tunnels
  • Good speeds
  • 3 day free trial, uses shared IPs
  • P2P: yes
  • 3 simultaneous connections
  • Server in Hong Kong, 3 day trial
  • CONS
  • none

This Italian provider offers among the best security and anti-censorship technology available on the web, allowing both SSH and SSL tunnelling to evade the GFW (and also supporting VPN through Tor for maximum anonymity, making it a great tool for dissidents.) Add in some of the strongest encryption around, and a Windows, Mac OSX and Linux client with built-in DNS leak protection and a kill switch, and AirVPN should be on the top of every privacy fanatic’s wish list. As with most of the providers listed here, the AirVPN website is blocked by the GFW, but we are told that if you email AirVPN support, they can provide access to the website through a URL that is not blocked in China

Visit AirVPN »


4th place

TorGuard

3,75/5

TorGuard Logo

  • PROS
  • No logs
  • Ve4ry fast
  • Shared IPs
  • SSH tunneling
  • DD-WRT routers
  • Server status information
  • P2P: yes
  • Servers in Hong Kong
  • Japan
  • West Coats US
  • Accepts Bitcoin
  • Port forwarding
  • 7 day trial
  • Website not blocked in China
  • CONS
  • Encryption on most servers a bit meh • customer service could be better
  • Based in US

TorGuard uses an adaptation of obfsproxy for OpenVPN. This transforms the VPN traffic so it appears to be regular HTTP traffic, which makes it difficult for the GFW to filter. In addition to this, TorGuard runs servers within mainland China, which it uses to offer secure SSH tunnel services. Other than that, TorGuard offers servers in an impressive 42 countries (including Hong Kong, Japan, and West Coats US), allows up to 5 simultaneous connections, and supports port forwarding. As a bonus, for some reason the TorGuard website is not blocked min China (at the time of writing).

Visit TorGuard »


5th place

BolehVPN

3.5/5

  • PROS
  • No logs
  • Fast
  • Great OSX and Windows software
  • P2P: yest
  • 2 simultaneous connections
  • ‘xCloak’ servers
  • Servers in Hong Kong and West Coast US
  • VPN over Tor
  • CONS
  • 128-bit Blowfish OpenVPN encryption could be stronger

Based at an off-shore location somewhere along the Malaysian coast, this provider offers ‘xCloak’ servers designed to allow access through the GFW. We love BolehVPN’s no logs at all policy, plus the fact it has great connection speeds, and servers in Hong Kong and West Coast USA. The Windows and OSX client is also very funky, and features a VPN kill switch and DNS leak protection.

Visit BolehVPN »


Honorable mentions

Other VPN providers reported to be working are MyVPN, PureVPN, and Hide My Ass (HMA) (reviewed) and TigerVPN and MoleVPN (not reviewed by us). IronSocket also offers stealth servers.


VPN Considerations for China

As always when it comes to China, we need to preface any discussion with some caveats. Please be aware that although we strive very hard to be accurate, we are not based in China, and have to rely on reports from our readers, plus often incomplete and inconsistent reports on the internet, to form a picture of which services are and are not banned there.

This is an issue further complicated by the patchy and inconstant implantation of the Great Firewall itself. We therefore welcome (and encourage!) readers with ‘on the ground’ information to share their experiences in our comments section.

The Great Firewall of China

Formally referred to as the ‘Golden Shield’ project, but more popularly known as the Great Firewall of China in oblique reference to the Cold War ‘Bamboo Curtain’, this far ranging and increasing sophisticated system of internet censorship was developed in response to growing concern over perceived social and political threats to China’s cultural values and ideology. This concern was prompted by China’s increased economic engagement with the West, which in addition to hugely improving average living standards, has seen an exponential growth in internet use.

The GFW first come online in 2006, but has since grown in complexity and scope, restricting internet access into and out of mainland China to only three access points, and employing up to fifty thousand cyber-intelligence specialists to police the data-waves.

This means that (at least in theory) websites and services that are household names throughout the rest of the world, including all Google services (including as YouTube), Facebook, Twitter and Wikipedia, are blocked, as are internet services designed to evade these blocks (such as VPN).

In practice the situation is much more fluid and complex. Websites blocked in one Province may be accessible in the next, and theoretically very subversive websites may be accessed freely while apparently innocuous ones devoid of objectionable or politically sensitive material may find themselves banned.

Using VPN in China

VPN remains one of the most effective ways to evade the GFW, despite the government taking active and robust measures to block it. It should be noted that although the authorities go to great lengths to block VPN, we not aware of anyone ever having got in trouble simply for using the technology, and VPN use is very common in China.

Visitors to China should always signup for a VPN service (and install its software) before travelling to the country, because although access to providers’ websites is usually blocked, the actual VPN connections often work just fine.

This is even truer now than it used to be, as many VPN providers have started to use ‘stealth’ technologies specifically designed to evade GFW censorship. These typically use some version of obfsproxy (a technology used to hide Tor nodes), or hide VPN connections inside an SSH tunnel. Such special ‘stealth’ servers are typically located Hong Kong, which is not affected by the GFW, and in fact enjoys some of the most unrestricted and unmonitored internet access in the world.

If you do find that a VPN service is blocked, then it is worth switching VPN protocols (for example from OpenVPN to L2TP or PPTP.) Windows users (Vista SP1+) also have the option of using SSTP if the provider supports it (although most don’t).

At least as secure as OpenVPN (and often sporting 2048-bit SSL encryption), the SSTP protocol is very difficult to block as it uses the same TCP port 443 as SSL, meaning that to block it would effectively hamstring the internet. While we are sure that China is not above doing this, it has not done so this far. OpenVPN can also be configured to use TCP port 443, if a provider supports port forwarding.

A censorship tactic occasionally used by the authorities is to block or redirect DNS requests (this is known as DNS spoofing or DNS poisoning). The simplest way to evade this is to change your devices’ DNS settings, although almost all VPN services will automatically handle DNS requests when connected to them.

Alternatives to VPN

VPN is not the only way to evade GFW censorship (although if available it is probably the best). Note that the technologies listed below can also be used to signup for VPN providers webpages and download their software when this is otherwise blocked. And… one of the best things about these services is that they are all free!

  • Tor – the main problem with using the free Tor anonymity network is that the list of public ‘exit nodes’ is published and freely available, which makes it almost trivially easy for the GFW to block access to them. New ones open all the time, so persistence usually pays off, but a better tactic is to use the obfsproxy pluggable transport proxy, which wraps data into an obfuscation layer, making it difficult to detect that Tor is being used.
  • Psiphon – uses a combination of VPN, SSH and obfuscation technologies to bypass GFW style censorship. If you encounter a block when using VPN, for example, you can switch to SSH or obfuscated SSH (SSH+) instead. One of the best things about Psiphon is that if you find the Psiphon website blocked, you can request the software be sent to you via email (contact info@psiphon.ca).
  • Lahanaderived from Tor, Lahana is designed to evade Tor’s problem with easily blocked exit nodes by making it ‘stupidly easy’ to setup new nodes. Lahana was designed to defeat censorship in Turkey, but should also work well in China
  • VPN Gate – developed as a non-commercial ‘Academic Experiment Project’ by the University of Tsukuba, Japan, VPN Gate is a volunteer-run VPN network that uses strong encryption and has many nodes located throughout Asia (making it very useful for users in China).

VPNs with servers inside mainland China

While most readers are primarily concerned with evading the GFW by using VPN to access non-Chinese services, there are some who want VPN so they can access services restricted to China. Despite the fact that VPN is banned, a number of VPN providers do offer servers located in mainland China. These include:

My thanks to reader Guy Haiar for bringing this to my attention.

Best China VPN Conclusion

Accessing the internet from within mainland China can without doubt be a bit of a pain. However, although it may take a little perseverance, evading the Great Firewall is not too hard, thanks largely to the magic of VPN.

Summary

Rank Provider Grade Starting Price Link

1

ExpressVPN
Read Review >
$8.32/mo Visit Site >

2

VyprVPN Logo
Read Review >
$10/mo Visit Site >

3

AirVPN Logo
Read Review >
$4.83/mo Visit Site >

4

TorGuard Logo
Read Review >
$4.99/mo Visit Site >

5

BolehVPN Logo
Read Review >
$6.66/mo Visit Site >
Douglas Crawford
June 12th, 2018

I am a freelance writer, technology enthusiast, and lover of life who enjoys spinning words and sharing knowledge for a living. You can now follow me on Twitter - @douglasjcrawf.

32 responses to “5 Best VPNs for China (June 2015)

  1. I’m from China, I’m using Phsiphon and love it, it works on China unicom, China mobile, Androi, Window. Any other open source VPN? Because tried a lot of them: Tor, Freegate etc, none of them work, as commercial VPN, I tried Fast secure VPN, it works, but slower than Phsiphon.

  2. Thanks for this article. Many people in China has recommended AstrillVPN to me. Is there any reason Astrill is not on this list? I’d appreciate your reply. Thanks.

    1. Hi Steve,

      No particular reason, except that we are ourselves not based in China. This article is due a refresh soon, so I’ll take Astrill under consideration.

  3. Astrill is the Best VPN service in China. I’ll suggest not to waste your money buying any other VPN. In my opinion Astrill is the best VPN provider. I tried several and all others had speed and reliability problems. With Astrill I’m totally satisfied. Must take Free Trail Before buying any subscription. If Trial will be disabled, Ask their support agent to give you a Free trail. They will not refuse to give you Free Trail.

  4. guys,
    you should try the vpn service from 51chinavpn.
    it’s really the best to be accessed from china. i can get around 20M download speed.

    hope it helps.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *