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.
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.
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…
After trialling a number of VPNs, I’ve used Astrill without issue for the last two years. As with StrongVPN, the basic package offers a huge number of servers around the world to choose from (currently 113 servers in 46 countries), works well on Windows, Mac OS X and Linux, plus has instructions to use the VPN on your iPhone, iPad or Android device.
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.
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
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 PandaPow as it is noticeably faster to react on the PC (they have a much lower ping time).
If you’re wondering, there’s a decent video on their homepage that explains how a VPN works.
November 2012 Update
With the current leadership transition in China there are additional blocks on VPNs, so many of the cheap/free ones listed above may not work. Astrill and PandaPow are both fine – I’ll update this when the free ones work again.
December 2012 Update
06th – The GFW has been upgraded and now blocks many VPNs. PandaPow have released a new client and works perfectly again on both desktop and phone. Astrill needs a bit of reconfiguration in the settings, and can be made to work on the desktop but the phone client is often blocked. The StrongVPN link above still works if you’re already in China.
June 2013 Update
Astrill seems to be having a major outage. Both the PandaPow and StrongVPN download sites are currently unblocked in China.
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