There are a great many fantastic things about China; but the government’s attitude to internet censorship is not one of them. The Chinese government does its level best to censor content it considers politically, culturally, or morally undesirable. To that end, China has developed the most extensive and sophisticated internet censorship system in the world.
The good news for anyone living in or visiting mainland China, is that the Great Firewall is a long way from perfect. Indeed, it can usually be evaded by the simple measure of using a VPN.
Over the last 5 years, our experts have reviewed over 150 VPNs and have been able to compile a list of the very best VPNs that are able to evade China’s great firewall. Before we look at using a VPN in China, here is a quick look at our top picks for best VPN in China.
The Best VPN for China: Side-by-side summary
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What are the Best VPNs for China?
- Very fast due to own infrastructure
- Servers in over 70 countries
- Port selection
- “Chameleon” stealth servers
- No usage logs
- Connection (metadata) logs
- P2P: no
Thanks to owning and maintaining its entire infrastructure, VyprVPN is one of the fastest and most secure VPN services out there. Encryption is fantastic on all its plans. For users in China, the most important of these is “Chameleon” stealth technology (premium plan only). This is specifically designed to defeat the GFW. VyprVPN also uses UDP ports in its apps to help defeat port blocking and other throttling issues. Like ExpressVPN, VyprVPN offers a 30-day money-back guarantee and a free Smart DNS service for all customers. One drawback, however, is that VyprVPN does not permit torrenting.
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- 30-day money-back guarantee
- No usage logs
- Servers in 94 countries
- Stealth” servers in Hong Kong
- onion web address
- A bit pricey - but worth it!
ExpressVPN provides a world-leading VPN service. Key to this is superb customer relations, which includes a genuine, no-quibble, 30-day money-back guarantee and 24/7 live chat support. This focus on user-friendliness can also be seen in the design of ExpressVPN’s apps for Windows, Mac, iOS, Android and routers. These are very simple to use, yet hide powerful VPN features. These include a firewall-based kill switch, DNS leak protection, and superb OpenVPN encryption. ExpressVPN operates “stealth” servers in Hong Kong that are purpose-made for defeating the GFW. In addition to these, servers in 94 countries, including nearby locations such as Japan, Taiwan, and the US West Coast, are handy for users in China. ExpressVPN is not the cheapest service out there, but it is arguably the most polished. It even throws in a Smart DNS service for free! Additional features: three simultaneous connections, DNS leak and WebRTC leak protection, great OpenVPN encryption with perfect forward secrecy.
- Best value for your money
- 30-day money-back guarantee
- 6 simultaneous connections
- Great customer service
- High streaming speeds
- Strong encryption
- DNS must be configured manually
Sweden-based VPN provider, PrivateVPN, is an excellent choice for a China VPN, especially after winning BestVPN.com’s “Best Value VPN” of 2018. Not only do you get a full service VPN at an affordable price, but you get 54 server locations, excellent customer service, super fast streaming speeds, and great encryption - extremely useful when you reside in China.
PrivateVPN is particularly ideal for getting into Netflix; supporting 16 different Netflix regions! PrivateVPN also offers six simultaneous connections, WiFi protection, and a 30-day money-back guarantee for unsatisfied customers.
- No logs at all
- “xCloak” stealth servers
- Client with VPN kill switch and DNS leak protection
- VPN over Tor
- Smart DNS included
- Somewhat techy and bare-bones
BolehVPN keeps no logs at all. Much like AirVPN, it provides a service that emphasizes privacy and technical know-how over customer care. Its Windows and OSX software is excellent, and features a VPN kill switch and DNS leak protection. Also like AirVPN, it offers VPN through Tor for true anonymity. On paper, this Malaysian VPN provider has now moved to the Seychelles, but in reality it remains based in Malaysia. This is no bad thing, as BolehVPN is one of East Asia’s most popular VPN providers. For users in China, it operates “xCloak” servers in Hong Kong, as well as servers on the West Coast of the US. Additional features: P2P permitted, two simultaneous connections, free Smart DNS service, accepts bitcoins.
- No logs at all
- VPN through Tor
- SSL and SSH tunneling
- Accepts bitcoin
- P2P: yes
- Very techy
- Customer support could be better
People either love AirVPN or they hate it. On the one hand, it is probably the most privacy-focused VPN service on the market. It backs this up with some of the best VPN technology available. On the other hand, this techy focus puts many people off, and is not helped by the brusk (albeit knowledgeable) support style. This is something of a pity, because this zero logs VPN service uses first class encryption and offers an open source client with a firewall-based kill switch, DNS leak protection, port selection, and VPN through Tor (for true anonymity). Users in China will benefit particularly from AirVPN’s support for hiding VPN connections inside an SSL or SSH tunnel. This makes it a great service for evading the GFW. It runs a server out of Hong Kong. Additional features: real-time user and server statistics, perfect forward secrecy, three-day free trial, dynamic port forwarding, three simultaneous connections.
VPN China | FAQs
As you might expect there is a lot of secrecy around how China’s firewall operates and using a VPN in China. As such, we have seen a whole host of questions and misconceptions around the topic. Below we take a look at some of these in an effort to shine some truth on the matter.
If the world of VPNs is still a relatively new thing to you, we would recommend starting with our Beginner’s Guide to VPNs where you will find everything you need to know.
Why do I need a VPN in China?
Chinese citizens enjoy the dubious pleasure of having the most restricted internet access in the world. The far-reaching mechanism used to achieve this is often referred to as the Great Firewall of China (GFW).
What is the Great Firewall?
China began to open up economically to the West in the late 1990s. Although the government was keen on the financial benefits this brought, it felt threatened by the influx of international cultural and ideological values into a country that had been largely isolated from such influences since at least the Chinese Communist Revolution of 1949.
In response to this perceived threat, China began building the Great Firewall (an ironic reference to the Cold War “Bamboo Curtain”). The first phase was completed in 2006, and it remains an ongoing project.
The GFW restricts internet access to China to just three access points. It employs up to fifty thousand cyber-intelligence specialists, who employ tactics such as IP blocking, DNS poisoning, URL filtering, and packet filtering, in order to police the data-waves.
Not just any VPN can crack the GFW – often it takes the very best VPN services on the market to stay one step ahead of the Chinese government.
What is censored?
Interestingly, China censors very little domestic content. Chinese social media platforms are heavily monitored for signs of political dissent, and the government’s cyber-army actively works to sow propaganda and discredit opponents on domestic platforms. But the GFW is mainly concerned with preventing citizens from accessing international content.
This means that it is primarily international websites and social media platforms that are blocked. These include many sites and services that visitors to China often rely on, including Google search, Gmail, YouTube, as well as Facebook, Twitter, Wikipedia and many news outlets. You can find a closer look at unblocking these services below (but not every VPN is up to the task of unblocking in China, so stick with the services featured on this page).
Technologies and related websites that can overcome the GFW are also blocked. This includes VPN protocols, VPN websites, and even BestVPN.com!
China is really BIG!
China is a huge country with a population approaching 1.5 billion people (18.5 percent of the world’s population). In 2016, over 720 million of these were internet users (52.2 percent of the population). With numbers like this, even the most far-reaching and sophisticated internet surveillance system in the world is bound to struggle.
The result is that actual GFW implementation is very patchy and inconsistent. Websites that are blocked in one province or jurisdiction are often accessible from the one next door.
Even widely blocked services such as Google+ are occasionally accessible, while many totally innocuous websites, that are apparently devoid of political or otherwise objectionable content, may find themselves blocked.
All of which also applies to VPNs. The same service can be blocked in some locations and not others, or may work one day and not the next.
In theory, all Google products are blocked throughout China, but as we can see in this Google transparency report, Gmail still receives a lot of traffic from the country.
Using a China VPN
It has been widely reported that China has “cracked down” on VPNs, but this only really applies to domestic VPN services. A number of international VPNs continue to work just fine on the mainland. These all use various obfuscation technologies to hide the fact that you are using a VPN.
VPN services that do not offer such technologies are unlikely to work, and ones that do will only work if you actually take advantage of their anti-censorship features – for example by connecting to ExpessVPN’s “stealth servers” or to VyprVPN using its Chameleon protocol.
VyprVPN’s “Chameleon” feature is specifically designed to defeat the kind of censorship that China uses.
AirVPN allows you to hide VPN connections inside a Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) or Secure Shell (SSH) tunnel. This is a highly effective tactic.
Is using a VPN in China legal?
There are no laws against using a VPN in China, and not a single person (that we know of) has got into trouble for doing it.
Domestic VPN providers are required to register with the authorities, and in a recent high-profile case a man was jailed for selling (and maybe running) an unlicensed VPN service. But this does not affect China VPN users. If security is one of your main concerns, however, we suggest taking a look at our most secure VPNs list.
How to unblock a VPN in China
If you are visiting China then you can make life much easier by signing up to a China VPN service and downloading its software before setting foot on the mainland. If this is not possible, or if your VPN services does not work when you are there, then there are various things you can do.
Please see How to Bypass VPN Blocks for various tactics that are worth trying in China. Shadowsocks (Chinese: 影梭) is reported to be very effective at bypassing the GFW – either on its own, or as a way to sign up for a VPN service and download its client software once you are on the mainland.
Tor bridges such as obfsproxy are also good for this, although they may be affected by Google’s recent decision to prevent its cloud network being used for domain fronting.
Such a setup will not defeat advanced DPI inspection, but does bypass simple IP blocks on known VPN providers.
Update: Please check out the comments section of this article where Manuel and PLiang share home-grown setups that work for them in China.
Mobile VPN for China
Android VPN apps
All Google services are banned in China, including the Google Play Store. You might get lucky and be able to access it anyway, but it’s much easier to download apps before going to China.
Once inside China, getting hold of Android VPNs apps is actually quite easy – assuming you speak the language. You can get VPNs from one of China’s many “unofficial” Android app stores. Alternatively, many VPN services are happy to email mobile users in China direct links to their VPN apps. Just ask.
For more information on using a VPN on an Android device, check out our best VPNs for Android list.
iOS VPN apps
iPhone and iPad users are not so lucky. Apple has removed all VPN apps from the Chinese App Store thanks to pressure from the Chinese government, and Apple’s closed garden approach does not allow the sideloading of apps from outside the store.
It is therefore important that you download any VPN apps you plan to use in China before entering the mainland.
Want to know more? Take a look at our guide to iPhone VPNs. Or, if you have a Mac take a look at our best VPN for Mac Guide.
Is there a best free VPN for China?
As already noted, VPNs are unlikely to work in China without additional “stealth” technology. This is something not usually offered by free VPNs. Free services are also all very limited, as they basically amount to trials which hope to entice you into paying for the full product.
We therefore strongly recommend against using a free VPN in China. Even if you can find one that works, it will give you a very poor internet experience.
Accessing the internet from mainland China can, without doubt, be a bit of a pain. The GFW is the most extensive and sophisticated internet censorship system ever devised! With a little trial, error, and patience, however, it usually possible to use a VPN to access the internet unrestricted.