The Great Firewall of China (GFW) is the broadest and most intricate system of internet censorship in the world. Despite that, it is far from perfect.
Nothing can be 100% guaranteed, and evading the GFW is an ongoing game of cat-and-mouse. Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) are among the most effective ways to bypass internet censorship in China.
Best VPN for China: Comparison
In a hurry? If your looking for a quick answer take a look at what our experts rated as the best VPNs for China in the table below
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How We Picked the Top China VPN for 2018
Here at BestVPN.com, we’re fortunate to have some of the VPN industry’s foremost experts as staff members. Based on our detailed VPN reviews and data collected as part of our BestVPN.com Awards process, we’ve carefully considered a range of factors that go into making a great all-round China VPN service.
These top five VPN for China picks are a consensus choice made after much careful deliberation by the BestVPN.com staff. Do please be aware, however, that none of our staff are actually based inside China.
We must therefore rely on what VPNs themselves tell us, on our readers’ comments, and on the extensive research we perform each time we update this article.
If you want more information about how we chose our favourite VPNs for each page visit BestVPN.com’s VPN Review Process Overview.
China VPNs: FAQs
What Is a VPN?
A VPN is a way to securely connect your computer or mobile device to a “VPN server” run by a commercial VPN provider. Your device connects to the internet via this VPN server.
- Using a VPN is arguably the single most effective measure you can take to improve your online privacy and security.
- The VPN encrypts all data passing between your computer and the VPN server. This is sometimes referred to as an “encrypted tunnel.” The VPN hides your data from your Internet Service Provider (ISP), so that it can’t spy on what you do online.
- When you connect to the internet via a VPN server, anyone on the internet will see the IP address of the VPN server, not your real IP.
- Major VPN providers usually run servers in different locations around the world. This is great for avoiding censorship, as you can simply connect to a server in a country without censorship.
This last point is of particular importance to people in China, as the Chinese government uses the infamous Great Firewall of China to censor a great deal of content.
For a more indepth look at VPNs and how they work, check out our beginner’s guide to VPNs.
How to Choose a VPN for China
Since 1998, the government of mainland China has been concerned about the internet. It recognizes the potential of the internet for financial growth, but worries about the perceived social and political threats it may cause to China’s cultural values and ideology.
At least, that’s its argument. The Chinese government’s response was to build a far ranging and increasingly sophisticated system of internet censorship. This is called the “Great Firewall of China” (GFW) by almost everyone except the Chinese government.
The Chinese government is well aware of how people can use VPNs to circumvent the GFW. As such, it actively tries to block individuals from using them. It is just as well, then, that various VPN technologies have been developed to help evade such tactics. Please check out my How to Bypass VPN Blocks guide for an in-depth look at these.
To use a VPN in China, you need to pick a service that offers one or more technologies designed to bypass censorship of the kind found there. This includes all the VPNs listed above.
VyprVPN’s “Chameleon” 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.
Which VPNs Should You Avoid in China?
There is little point in getting a VPN app that doesn’t offer some kind of “stealth” technology. There are also many VPNs out there, especially European ones, with few or no VPN servers in Asia. Unless you like your internet very slow, these are probably best avoided.
We’re not fans of Hide My Ass, as this UK VPN keeps a lot of logs and has a track record of handing them over to the authorities. This might not concern users in China, however. Meanwhile, PureVPN is our most complained-about VPN service.
Astrill appears to be a controversial choice for China, with readers who have contributed to our comments section being evenly split on it being great for defeating the GFW, and it being a terrible service. We gave it a respectable 5.5/10 stars.
What Is the Great Firewall of China?
Part of the Golden Shield Project, the first phase of the GFW was completed in 2006. It has since grown in both complexity and scope. The GFW now restricts internet access into and out of mainland China to only three access points. It also employs up to 50,000 cyber-intelligence specialists to police the internet.
The GFW uses a range of technologies to “protect” Chinese citizens from content the Party deems inappropriate or dangerous for them to see. Technologies that Chinese censors use to block individuals from accessing the free and open internet include simple IP blocks on website addresses, Domain Name System (DNS) filtering, URL filtering, packet filtering, and more.
In addition to these, deep packet inspection techniques are used to foil attempts to bypass these blocks. If you’re interested in learning about the censorship methods used by the GFW, an excellent discussion on the subject is available here.
An interesting quirk of the GFW is that Chinese censors are primarily concerned with blocking individuals’ access to international websites. The GFW doesn’t really block domestic Chinese websites and social media platforms, as such. However, it does heavily monitor such sites for signs of political dissent. And the government’s cyber-army actively works to sow propaganda, spread misinformation, and discredit opponents on domestic platforms.
Which Sites Are Blocked Inside China?
This all sounds very impressive until you consider just how large a country China is. It has a population approaching 1.5 billion people (18.5% of the world’s population). In 2016, over 720 million of these were internet users (52.2% of the population). China is big. Very big.
What this means in practice is that no matter how advanced the GFW is, it simply cannot prevent every determined individual who tries from circumventing it. As a consequence, websites that are blocked in one province or jurisdiction are often accessible from one next door.
In addition, many totally innocuous websites that are apparently devoid of political or otherwise objectionable content may find themselves blocked. For example, the Big Bang Theory TV show. At the same time, even widely blocked websites such as Google+ are occasionally accessible.
Despite being fairly comprehensively banned by the Chinese authorities, Google services such as Gmail still manage to generate a fair amount of traffic! Websites banned (at least in theory) by the government of China include:
- All Google services, including YouTube and WhatsApp
- Chinese Wikipedia
- The Independent
- Wall Street Journal
- Tor Project
Manage Your Expectations
The Great Firewall is the most sophisticated and far-reaching national internet censorship system ever designed. This means that you cannot realistically expect to always have unrestricted access to the internet in China.
Technologies such as VPN apps can be very effective at bypassing this censorship, but even the best VPN service will probably fail on occasion. Such is the nature of accessing the internet from China. On the other hand, with a little patience it is usually possible to access the internet uncensored.
Is It Legal and Safe to Use a VPN Inside China?
There are no cases that we know about of individuals getting into trouble for using a VPN in China. Although the municipality of Chongqing city has announced fines for VPN users, we’ve no idea if anyone has ever been caught foul by this.
In general, China does not (yet) criminalize individuals who use VPNs to evade the Great Firewall. You are therefore very unlikely get into trouble for simply for using a VPN app.
Earlier this year, it was widely reported that the Chinese government had cracked down on VPNs. This is true of domestic VPNs and foreign services that allow you to VPN into China. It has little effect, however, on overseas services that allow you to unblock the internet in China. These are, after all, outside of China’s government’s jurisdiction.
Because there is little to fear as a VPN user, there’s no harm in Chinese users trying various tactics to overcome the GFW until you find one that works. VPNs with stealth features should be your first port of call, but if these fail then other options are available.
If you would like to know more about using a VPN to get into China, click the link.
Get a VPN App Before Arriving
It is particularly worth stressing that even though a VPN provider’s website may be blocked in China, the VPN itself may not be. This is especially true if the service offers some kind of evasion or obfuscation technology.
It is therefore important for travelers to subscribe to a VPN and download its software outside China! This will make your life much easier.
If you forget, are a China user, or you find the service you joined fails to work, never fear. You can use Shadowsocks (影梭) or Tor with the obfsproxy pluggable transport to sign up for a VPN service from inside the GFW.
Roll Your Own VPN for China
An option that reportedly works very well in China is to roll your own VPN. Because the Internet Protocol (IP) used by your VPN is private, this tactic is great for bypassing simple IP blocks on known VPN providers.
I have guides to rolling your own VPN on a Virtual Private Server (VPS) and on your home PC using Hamachi. If you check out the comments section of this article, readers such as Manuel and PLiang also share their working setups.
VPNs for Facebook in China
There are reports that Facebook is planning a return to China. For it to do this, it will need to start censoring its content. At present, however, it remains officially banned.
China users will therefore need a VPN app or similar tech in order to check out what your friends and family are up to, and to post you holiday pics while visiting China.
Indeed, even if Facebook does again find a toe-hold in China, you’ll need a VPN in order to access the unedited version of it.
Free VPNs for China
This is because putting anti-censorship technologies in place that will defeat the Great Firewall is expensive. I know of no free VPN service that offers such tech.
How to Access BestVPN.com from China
Just visit our special China URL, which isn’t blocked! Go to our sister site VPN Analysis instead of the usual www.bestvpn.com URL.
Mobile VPN Apps in China
Under pressure from Chinese authorities, Apple removed most major VPN apps from the Chinese App Store. Any that are there have been approved of by the Chinese government. You shouldn’t trust these to protect your privacy.
It is therefore more important than ever to ensure, if possible, that you download any VPN apps you plan to use in China before entering the mainland. If this isn’t possible, then the instructions in this article should allow you to access international versions of the Apple App Store.
Apple says it hopes this situation might change for Chinese users in the future, although without a major change of heart from the Chinese authorities it’s difficult to see how.
As already noted, Google is banned by Chinese censors. This means the Google Play App Store is not (usually) available to mobile users in China. Again, Android users should download China VPN apps outside China if possible.
If not, then China users can download most VPN apps in .apk form from one of China’s many “unofficial” Android app stores. Alternatively, many VPN services will be happy to email China mobile users direct links for downloading their VPN apps.
The Best VPN for China in 2018?
For an in-depth view of the best VPNs for China take a look at the section below:
- 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.
Best Chinese VPN: Conclusion
Using a VPN to provide unrestricted internet access in China is not always an easy ride. The services listed above, however, are reported to work well there.