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 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
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.
March 2018 Update
Astrill & Express are both working well. I mostly use Express as it’s much more stable on mobile.