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Simple guide to choosing a VPN for China (and elsewhere!)

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Website blocked in UAE

Website blocked in UAE

One of the problems with being in China is that the internet is heavily controlled to filter out information that might be detrimental to the harmonious society.

If you want to chat to friends in China there are many excellent tools, such as QQ (similar to MSN messenger) or Weibo (a better clone of Twitter). These all work well but are actively monitored by government departments.

Other social media tools such as Twitter and Facebook are blocked in most of China, along with Wikipedia and many Google services. Presumably, they’re blocked as they offer closed communication in private groups or messages.

Going the other way, a number of secure sites in the West block incoming traffic from China, Russia and Eastern Europe as they’re the origin of so many hacking attempts. This is equally frustrating.

Blocked YouTube

Blocked YouTube

Other sites limit traffic to particular countries, so many US and German videos on YouTube only work in their respective countries, and the British Broadcasting Corporation doesn’t allow people in Britain to view the full version of BBC Travel. Likewise, PayPal and some banks prefer you to be in the country of your account.

Countries banning social networks

Countries currently banning social networks (see link below)

As shown in the graphic above, other countries like Cuba and Zimbabwe and even Australia have their own versions of the Great Firewall.

The simple solution to all this is to buy a Virtual Private Network, or VPN. Here’s a proper explanation, but in short it creates a secure link between your computer in Country A and one in another Country B, so it seems to the web sites you visit that you’re actually in Country B.

Types of VPN on offer

Free VPNs like Expat Shield fake a UK address, and are great for watching BBC iPlayer from abroad whilst on holiday, but I wouldn’t consider it secure enough to do my internet banking.

Paid ones such as StrongVPN, ExpressVPN or Astrill are far more secure, and can be used on mobile devices such as a phone or iPad.

The better packages will offer a choice of servers, so you can pretend to be in the UK, US, Hong Kong or wherever is most appropriate. It’s quicker to browse from a server closer to the sites you’re using, so use a UK server to watch the BBC, or a US server to watch Hulu.

When choosing a VPN check how much bandwidth you’re allowed to use – watching a lot of streaming videos can use a surprisingly large amount of data. The more expensive VPNs usually allow unlimited data, and some even allow the use of BitTorrent files for legally downloading shareware games and stuff. I’m led to believe some people even use torrents to download movies and TV shows they couldn’t otherwise access…

Astrill VPN Desktop Client

The Astrill VPN client – it’s easy to switch servers using the dropdown

After trialling a number of VPNs, I’ve used Astrill without issue for the last five years. As with StrongVPN, the basic package offers a huge number of servers around the world to choose from (currently 192 servers in 54 countries), works well on Windows, Mac OS X and Linux, plus has instructions to use the VPN on your iPhone, iPad or Android device (see below for details of the new Android app).

What sold it for me was the portable version that can be run from a USB key. If you’re travelling and want to use someone else’s computer you can do so just as safely as if you’re at home. Even better, add a portable browser and anti-virus to the USB key and reduce risk even further.

The other major plus point is the SmartBrowsing mode, designed specifically for countries like China and the UAE. Using a VPN is a little slower than using the regular internet, so SmartBrowsing mode only goes through the VPN if the site is blocked. Unrestricted websites connect directly, giving you the best possible speed.

The current largest VPN provider is Witopia, but as with the previous leader 12vpn, it puts it next in line to be completely blocked by China. As an ex-customer of 12vpn who got kicked off when China blocked it, it now makes sense to use one of the smaller VPN companies.

Some of the other providers are a little complicated to set up, but Astrill and ExpressVPN offer a simple download – enter your login details, press Connect and you’re securely browsing online.

If you want to try Astrill, message me or comment below and I can invite you to a free 7 day trial. Edit – that doesn’t seem to work any more. Download the client and try it for a month before signing up long term.

For readers already in China, StrongVPN has set up a page accessible in China for those that can’t reach to one of the blocked VPN sign-up pages. Friends tell me it still works well, but I’ve not used it for some time.

If it all works, you can follow my Facebook page for the latest VPN offers and coupons.

I would be keen to hear your experiences with other VPN providers, particularly ExpressVPN

October 2012 Update – PandaPow

PandaPow Android App

The PandaPow Android app. Press Connect and you’re securely online

Based on repeated recommendations from friends in China I’ve trialled a new service called PandaPow.

PandaPow has been excellent. Like Astrill, the PC and Mac setup is performed by a tiny download, which also allows switching of servers. Unlike Astrill, there are no annoying popups with spammy news…

Even better, they have iPhone and Android Apps which gives you one click access to the VPN on your smartphone. PC and phone VPNs can be run simultaneously.

It’s currently $9 per month or a whole year for $84.

I’ve now got both PandaPow and Astrill accounts. Top speeds are comparable, but I spend more time on Astrill as it is much easier to switch between server locations (UK for banking/US for watching TV/Japan or Korea for faster browsing).

If you’re wondering, there’s a decent video on their homepage that explains how a VPN works.

June 2013 Update

The new Astrill ‘China optimized’ servers are excellent, so it’s once again my main VPN on both Windows, Android and iOS. The US or UK via Taiwan servers are both very fast, getting full network speed even when torrenting TV shows…er sorry I mean using BBC iPlayer.

Astrill has added an excellent Android/iOS app – it stays logged in so it’s only one click to connect to a VPN server.

Windows users: Look for a tiny free app called ‘DNS Jumper’ from Sordum.org. It helps you find the fastest DNS server in your area. OpenDNS is usually faster than Google in China.

2nd Update: A lot of people are reporting super slow VPNs in China. It’s actually the underlying internet speed after a couple of the undersea cables got severed. It was bad for me for about 3 weeks but seems to be back to normal now on some ISPs. We’re on China Telecom which seems fine – others are saying their ISPs are still throttled to around 50kB/s.

February 2015 Update

Astrill’s Android app now works with Android v5 (Lollipop). Check their site for updates on the new app.

May 2015 Update

Note that Hulu recenty blocked VPNs, but PandaPow changed a few servers and it works again. iPlayer still works perfectly.

If this page was useful, please share it on Facebook or Google+ using the buttons below, to help more people find it. VPN updates are posted regularly on my Facebook page.

September 2015 Update

After the iOS blockages during the Victory celebrations were lifted, all of the above are working well on all platforms.

January 2016 Update

Updated to 100M China Unicom Fibre Optic internet, which generally runs at 45M. Huge improvement on the previous 2M.

Tried PureVPN – connects on the desktop but runs very slowly compare to the others here. The mobile client refuses to connect from within China.

April 2016 Update

If you’ve already arrived in China and are having difficultly downloading a VPN, try ExpressVPN as they’re unblocked. It has a very good ping time, and is particularly good for torrenting. This link will get both of us a free month.

February 2017 Update

Astrill & Express are both working well. This page is currently plagued by a huge amount of badly spelt spam from Astrill…make of that what you will.

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Author

Since leaving London in 2006 I’ve travelled, worked, volunteered and lived in over 90 countries. Highlights so far would be driving along the Silk Road from Beijing to Istanbul, a complete circuit of South America and volunteering with Habitat for Humanity in Costa Rica. I’m currently back in Beijing, as a base to visit more of Asia and attempt to learn Mandarin.

67 comments

  • after a year of paying for shoddy service through Witopia I switched over to Freegate and I have had way less problems for a completely free VPN. I highly recommend it and I am shocked that more people don’t use it.

    Reply
  • Freegate? Last time I checked you couldn’t access the site

    Astrill? Jerks owe me 2K for affiliate commissions and steal their site design from HMA (Go ahead, search for it in Google), plus they’ve got tons of bad reviews.

    There’s a lot of other rubbish sites out there that only offer PPTP or L2TP, and try to label themselves as ‘specializing in China’, but I think March 2011 showed them that using any PPTP or L2TP VPN is risky, as they’re easily blocked.

    Kings of the GFW? 12VPN, PandaPow, VyprVPN

    Reply
    • I don’t use the affiliate program, beyond the option to offer people a weeks trial – sounds like it’s not worth it.

      Seems like you’ve have a bad time with Astrill, but so far they’ve been perfectly good for me – will have a look at the others you mentioned though, so thanks for the info.

      Reply
    • I am using SwissVPN, but it also sometimes gets blocked.
      Packetix is a free vpn from Japan, which mostly works in China; but, setup is not as easy.
      Will try Freegate, as soon as I get the chance of a working vpn to connect to them.

      As every service seems to get blocked from time to time, you need some different VPNs, if you are depending on communication from within China to the rest of the world.

      Usually, in different areas, different sites get blocked. E.g., in Shanghai I have difficulties with my (US-based) Yahoo email, Google is totally blocked in many smaller cities; sometimes Google search via Hongkong is allowed, but will disconnect at preview.

      Baidu gives you search results, but, apart from prefering Chinese and being filtered, the results are not to the point (comparable to Yahoo search 10 years ago). Better, try Bing.
      For translations use Google; if it is blocked, Baidu redirects to Google.

      Reply
  • Yeah the tricky issue with freegate is that to access the website you have to be connected through a VPN. If you have a friend or a company wide vpn that you can access the website through it has been a very effective free alternative to the other paid applications.

    Reply
  • I have just downloaded freegate in China –
    1) I googled freegate. – Every site was inaccessible, if it mentioned freegate..
    2) copy and pasted – http://www.top10download.com/freegate into proxi today (a free proxi)
    3) Access and download no problem (1.77Mb)
    I haven’t tried it out yet.

    The following web based proxis seem to work, and allow downloading of any files up to 2 Mb. I don’t know about any security issues or transparency (of course, if you use Google Chrome, or have an account on Facebook or Twitter, then you don’t give a damn about security anyway!).
    Sometimes one or more of these is blocked due to congestion.
    (I use No Script, Malwarebytes, and a very aggressive firewall/antivirus and can still access them no probs)
    I can get to facebook or twitter or any other site.
    Proxi today
    Proxi Charm
    Hideinside
    Proxi Hits
    Hideinside
    Proxi Hits

    I don’t know about any security issues or transparency – of course, if you use Google Chrome, or have an account on Facebook or Twitter, etc, then you don’t give a damn about privacy or security anyway!).

    Reply
  • If I install a VPN & use it with a Chinese University wi-fi, can I be detected & is this punishable? I’m not in China yet, but I don’t want to lose my gmail once there. Has anyone ever gotten into trouble with authorities for using a VPN?

    Reply
    • It’s detectable as encrypted traffic, but if you’re a foreigner they don’t care if you use a VPN. fwiw, Gmail isn’t blocked in most of China

      Reply
      • Great. Thanks very much. Can I ask something else? How different does the Chinese internet (without a VPN) feel from what we find in the US? I don’t plan to google Tiananmen Square, but can I find recipes like I do here and is online banking (in the US) just as easy?

        Reply
        • You can certainly stay in China without needing a VPN, but your Google searches will default to Hong Kong, so you’ll get local sites before US sites. If you go straight to a US site, then there won’t be any difference. If you read Chinese then use http://www.baidu.com/

          The slowest sites are those that use Facebook or Twitter for authentication or have Like/Share buttons etc, as the script has to time out on each page load, which can be annoying. Also, if it’s a video recipe, the video may be blocked.

          For online banking I really would recommend a VPN for security.

          Reply
          • Thanks again. I don’t need facebook or any of that kind of thing, but I’d want to have access to my US bank. Do you like any of the VPNs best? And should I buy a service plan before I leave for China?

            Reply
  • Thanks for sharing your knowledge on all this! I wish I’d signed up for a VPN before leaving for China. Would you recommend Astrill for banking, or should I stick with a non-free VPN just to be safe? And can I have an invite?

    Reply
  • I have also been looking for a reliable vpn for online banking. Could you send me a free trial for Astrill as well? Thanks so much!

    Reply
  • Hi Steve,

    I’m leaving for China on the 29th, and I need to have access to gmail and my banking info, and I would like to be able to use Facebook. Can you please send me the invite? Also, should I sign up for multiple VPNs or just Astrill?

    Thanks!!

    Reply
    • A lot of people use multiple VPNs as one provider is often a bit congested. I currently just have one and it’s frustrating sometimes, but switching to a different server location can help (i.e. from USA to something less used like Sweden).

      Reply
  • Hi there, I am leaving for china in 2 weeks. Could i please have the invite for the trial for astrill? much appreciated!

    Reply
  • Hi. I’ve been in china on and off for 2 years and have never used a vpn, but it seems, periodically, my phone company changes its codes and I can’t access my email from my godaddy hosted site, unless someone comes over and reconfigures my codes. I can still get everything else, but my emails are the most important thing, and yet the server always seems to drop. It gets frustrating so I think should try a vpn. Can you please send me an invite for astrill. thanks.

    Reply
  • I have used astrill , worst Customer support even. Scam company never refunded my payment back and took 3 days to give single response. STAY AWAY FROM ASTRILL!!!

    Reply
  • Thanks for the informative article! I’ll be leaving for a year in China very soon and am hoping to find a way to have as unrestricted access to the internet as possible while I’m there.
    Could you send me an Astrill invite code please? I’ve come across so many different VPN companies in my searching, I have no idea who to go with…I want to try a few free trials before I hand my money over to anyone for a year D:

    Reply
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  • I also live in China, and I can tell you that if you want a decent speed you need a provider with servers close to China. I have a 4 Mbps line, and VPN/proxy connections to US or Europe are a stretch. Right now I`m using SunVPN, because they have a couple of servers in Hong Kong and Singapore.

    Just my 0.13 RMB…

    Reply
    • I haven’t tried SunVPN since their employees kept sending me spammy comments on this page. With Astrill I’ve tried the Taiwan, Singapore and HK servers and from here in Beijing and Chengdu I generally find the ‘West Coast USA (China-optimised)’ server to always be faster, so I guess it may depend on your location.

      Having a direct USA link also negates the regional content restrictions on sites like Hulu and YouTube.

      Reply
  • You mentioned astrill needs some configuration changes as of 2012 dec 6? What are they, I’m having trouble getting connected on our router configured for astrill. thanks

    Reply
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  • I am using Pandapower {PP]. I tried a cheaper company and had massive connection problems. PP does get hit occasionally. I am using the openVPN connection, but the L2P and PPTP links are also available.

    The beauty of PP is their customer service. If you get serious problems they send you a little tool which does its own diagnosis and then writes a script report which you send to admin. They respond VERY quickly.

    There is a tweak or two which improves my surfing :

    1. disable IPv6 on your network adapter

    2. Go into the settings by clicking on the PP icon, select Advanced, and check ” use TCP”

    3. Flush your browser cache completely after connection.

    Reply
  • Just a question, did you buy a vpn router device? Did you bring this with you (wouldn’t they stop you from bringing it through customs?)? Or did you buy it and have it delivered once in China?
    I would love if you could tell me this-we are planning to move to China in May and if we need to buy one before hand…:) Thanks

    Reply
    • The VPN settings should work with most modern routers, even the official ones supplied by China Telecom (although I’d suggest buying a better one). I don’t use a VPN on the router as all our devices are set up to use the VPN individually, as we’re often travelling or working away from home.

      Reply
  • Hi Steve,

    first of all thanks for getting me that 7 day trial access to Astril.

    After some issues and a bit of overnight trial and error I finally got it running on my DD-WRT router. But I face the following challenge:

    Using the server UK1 via the router, I get download speeds of around 0.8 Mbps. Using the same server but using VPN with Astrill’s software application instead of the router, i get a downspeed of around 2.0 Mbps, so almost three times as fast! I have tried this many times now to see if this was a one-off result but everytime I get the same verdict.

    Problem is I need to run via the router to stream the signal into my TV – on of the reasons for VPN is to use BBC iPlayer but with 0.8Mbps it has to rebuffer every 3 minutes…

    One thing I noticed when connecting via the router software is that I am not able to use the Fast (UDP) protocoll but only the TCP one. With UDP the connection does never get established. Not sure if this is what makes a difference but it is one thing I can think about.

    Can you or anybody else here help me? I have been trying to contact Astill but without success.

    Many thanks!

    Reply
    • VPN’s use encryption to secure your connection. Encrypting data, especially a continuous high bit-rate video stream, requires quite a bit of processing power.

      Most home-grade routers simply lack the processing power to encrypt at high speeds. A typical router will slow down to less than 5% of what it can do without encryption.

      Your options:

      * Buy a faster router. They do exist, but they cost.

      * Use the VPN on your computer. It’s significantly more powerful than any router you can afford.

      * Don’t use a VPN. Depending on whether iPlayer is blocked in China today, you can watch it using a free DNS-based service like Tunlr.net.

      Reply
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  • Good solid updates about the VPN situation in China. I’ve been working out here for a year now and was originally using VpnOneClick until it became basically useless. I have been using Astrill for 4 months without trouble now but came back to work 5 weeks ago to find that Facebook was inaccessible and as of today, Youtube now Doesn’t work. That will be the end of my $40 subscription fee! PandaPow here we come, hope this works for a while!

    Reply
  • Hi i’ve used astrill in italy with no problems since last january, now I relocated to uk, london and suddenly it doesn’t work anymore. I’ve tried reinstalling it but still no connection, the vpn server does not respond…any idea why? By the way I am a premium member and it’s paid until jan 2014.
    Thanxxxxx

    Reply
  • Most comments above seem to be for user looking for a way to use internet from within China to access the outside world. I am wondering if the same VPN services such as Astrill or PandaPow will work the other way. Meaning accessing China internet from outside China. For example, I am using the PPS service to watch some China movies in Hong Kong, but I cannot due to not being in China. I know it usually works for other countries, but am not sure if it works for China.

    Reply
  • Hi I’m in China and I want to have access to Facebook and twitter, do you recommend astrill or panda pow? I have a 3g plan at the moment from China Unicom, but if i use the univrsity’s wifi to access these websites is it possible for me to get caught or get into any trouble? I would really appreciate your help.. thanks

    Reply
    • For phone usage both will work, but I tend to stick to PandaPow as the connection gets disrupted much less often than Astrill. There’s no need to worry about getting in trouble over using a vpn.

      Reply
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  • I have a website that archives American counterculture material from the 1960s. Mostly newspapers and magazines from the underground press. I regularly update this site with new articles; these are all primary sources from the 60s and early 70s. I’ll be living in China for a year and I’m curious – will it be safe for me to continue posting this content using a VPN from Shanghai? I have boxloads of stuff. I didn’t write any of it, and it’s all American history now, but I don’t want to be considered a publisher of “subversive material”. Some of it is definitely anti-authoritarian, but the content doesn’t have anything to do with China. I’m just curious what your thoughts are on this…

    Reply
    • Astrill still works as usual on PC and Android, although lots of users are saying it’s very slow on iOS.

      PandaPow works, but only on a few servers. PPTP seems more reliable than OpenVPN.

      Reply
  • Hi there,

    I’m moving to Shanghai to live for two years later this month. A contact out there has recommended Vypr; I had been looking at Astrill and PandaPow after having read all of the above article and the comments people had left. It seems like getting two VPNs would be a good idea in any case; any recommendations on the best current combination if you’re in Shanghai? (We’re coming from the UK.)

    Thanks,
    N

    Reply
    • Hi,
      I’ve been trialling VyprVPN recently – it’s great on the phone but the desktop client is quite frustrating (slow to switch between servers and uses 20x the memory of Astrill)

      Reply
  • Shanghai, March 17, 2015, as of today Pandapow no longer works. I have been talking to support the entire afternoon/evening and they blame my internet connection. Had a guy from China Telecom over and the tests (both his and via Ookla) showed that the up/download speeds are actually excellent and the ping is only 13ms, compared to almost 300ms of Pandapow.

    Just like Astrill used to, Pandapow now seems to play according the same “strategy” to “blame the ISP”.

    Obviously it then becomes a yes/no game, where the customer (us) leaves and has to find yet another solution.

    Time to move?

    Reply
    • My PandaPow subscription expired a couple of weeks ago and I’m yet to renew due to some upcoming trips. Give Astrill a try – it’s working well at the moment

      Reply
  • How do you get VPN on your smart phone when already in China. I had quota on the account and now it suddenly is saying I have no quota, either used up or time expired on it I guess, Do you require VPN to subscribe with a VPN provider to get more quota or is there some way around it?

    Reply
  • Astrill is legit and awesome!!! I really love it, it has been so long since i ever went on youtube again. I love it, and the speed is quite good (especially after testing out the server speeds) however, sometimes the servers lags a little and the speed goes down. Other than that, Astrill is awesome.

    So i’ll suggest you, not to waste money buying other VPNs as i did so far. Astrill is the only VPN that works Fine in China.

    Regards
    Sasha

    Reply

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