China is famous for two walls. Emperor Qin Shi Huang (c. 259-210 BC) laid the foundations and started building the Great Wall of China some 2,300 years ago. It was never completed and never served its main purpose – preventing invaders from entering China’s lands. The Great Firewall of China (GFW), called The Golden Shield Project in China, is a more recent project. It started in 1998 and is considered the most ambitious and extensive effort ever to control all aspects of cyberspace and online communications.
If you are in China, the Great Firewall will filter the transfer of data between local servers and servers abroad while the shield prevents some IP servers from responding to your data and connection requests. Thus, some services and/or websites will be unavailable without a proxy or a Virtual Private Network (VPN). What is more, GFW may prevent you from even reaching some proxy and VPN services online, so you may not even be able to install VPN software on your devices.
The good news is that virtually all decent VPN providers have desktop versions of their software along with mobile apps for Android and iOS.
All the providers on the below have both desktop and mobile VPN apps to offer:
Using a VPN service like these enables you to access worldwide sites you may need to use for business such as Gmail, the Google Play store, or Skype. You may also want to use a VPN app to use social networks like Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Flickr, or Twitter.
You will be surprised how many websites and online services are filtered or banned altogether in China’s mainland. These include all of Google’s suite of services:
And there are other popular sites that are unavailable including:
Selected business resources you cannot access directly in China include BBC, Bloomberg, Bigcommerce, Dropbox, The Economist, Le Monde, Reuters, Slack, Slideshare, The New York Times, TIME, Wall Street Journal, and others.
Take a look at how the Great Firewall works in the below infographic. We advise you that using a VPN in China may be considered illegal:
It should be noted that some VPN sites such as Strong VPN, PureVPN, and VPN Coupons are actually blocked in China. Like they do with accessing Netflix’s worldwide content library, VPN providers are often playing a game of cat-and-mouse to adjust their technology to overcome the GFW. This discussion of the grey areas that VPNs straddle in China gives an example of what could happen to an individual using a VPN there.
As you can see, the search engine Baidu is the default website in China, whereas Google is the most prevalent choice in the European and American markets.
The truth of the matter is that all of the blocked services and websites we mentioned – plus a whole lot more such as Disqus, DuckDuckGo, Periscope, SoundCloud, Ustream.tv, Vimeo, WhatsApp, and many others – are restricted for the businessperson that is visiting China for a few days to the backpacker who will stay there for a couple of weeks to a foreign student that will spend a year studying in a local university.
If you think that bypassing GFW is easy without using methods such as virtual private networks or even more advanced techniques, think again. To get an idea of just how sophisticated the GFW is, you may be interested to check out How-To Geek’s extensive list of IT techniques that GFW is using. Below is a short summary of these advanced IT methods:
As a result of these sophisticated technologies s, it’s nearly impossible for the average person to access some of the most common internet tools and websites that we in the Western world have become accustomed to using with just a simple click. As we mentioned, VPN providers have been altering their technology to overcome the GFW using encryption methods are largely unrecognizable or that are actually allowed by the GFW algorithms. A decent virtual private network can work worldwide to encrypt your internet connection.
China’s GFW is a multi-layer system, and every local user passes through four security levels when using the internet there. Some facts to have in mind when you go online in China:
China uses search engine services, social networks, and e-commerce sites that are specific only to China. A paid, enterprise-grade VPN on your device is necessary to make use of banned search, social, e-commerce and even business resources, such as Bloomberg or Reuters.
You don’t expect a reliable and full-fledged VPN to be completely free, do you? All of the top VPNs for worldwide use come at a price. Subscription plans range for as little as $3 a month for a two-year contract to about $13 for a month-by-month VPN subscription.
The cost of an annual plan by services such as CyberGhost, Express VPN, Hotspot Shield, NordVPN, and PureVPN averages $5 to $7 a month when paid in advance. Some of these VPN providers offer cheaper two-year plans but be sure to perform some due diligence on your own before entering such a lengthy contract.
Speed is another top factor you need to assess when selecting a VPN for international privacy and security. It is a tricky feature that depends on a number of factors such as the location of the server you use to access a certain website, signal strength in your area (when using mobile internet), specifications of the hardware used – including your computer or mobile device – and more. Overall, the VPN services mentioned in this article offer acceptable speeds. Nonetheless, you should be aware that any third-party software used to make a connection between your device and a server may slow down the speed a little bit.
But it’s totally worth it to sacrifice a slice of your online connection speed to get the best privacy. Many snooping eyes are after your business and personal data or conversations you perform online, both at home and when traveling abroad. China is no exception to the rule – there are thieves, snoops, and hackers around the world so the best VPNs should offer a very good grade of encryption. After all, it is not only about reaching certain websites like Facebook, Gmail, Google Play store, or Skype during your stay in China; it ’s about your privacy, so don’t opt for a free VPN service that provides no encryption or is prone to data leaks.
Another sign of a top VPN is the variety of devices and operating systems it supports. A reliable VPN service provider should support Linux, macOS, and Windows as well as mobile apps for Android and iOS, at the very least. Business users and a growing number of individuals need a VPN to run on multiple devices under a single account, so this is a mandatory option for a VPN service for most people.
Speaking of best and top VPNs, we should also explore a few options to avoid. In fact, VPNs that are not suitable for China are not a good choice for everyday use either.
There are many reasons why you may stay away from a certain VPN service. The VPN may not provide encryption, or there may be reports of service leaks of personal and business data. There are free and cheap VPN services that may trade your browsing data and/or personal details to third parties. Some of them even openly disclose such practices claiming that this is a method to support a free or cheap VPN service. Some of them say that the data they provide to third parties is wiped so that it doesn’t contain personally identifiable information. Opt for such a VPN service at your own risk!
The Restore Privacy website maintains a long list of VPNs to avoid if you value your privacy and security. Some of their findings are below:
There are many more samples of VPN services providing misleading info about their features and policies on data collection and data sharing. There are also numerous VPNs that do not have a virtual private network behind their service at all.
You should be on alert for any VPN application or online VPN that offers service in exchange for nothing. As they say, there is no free lunch. The only commodity that a VPN or a VPN-like service can monetize is your personal/business data and your browsing habits.
Foreign companies doing business in China and/or with offices there should get approval to develop or use a VPN service for business purposes. In theory, VPNs for corporate/business purposes are not banned in China – in fact, those that are approved by the government are totally legal. There can be issues, however, if a business is illegally using a VPN.
China is openly contesting the service provided by virtual private networks to individuals, while certain VPN providers are totally banned across China. You should bear that in mind when selecting a VPN for a trip to China and when setting up a VPN service. A VPN service you can access easily in your home country may be on the list of those are prevented from operating in China.
Local authorities had plans to block all VPN services starting from February 2018, but the plan was since abandoned or relaxed. It’s important to know that the government is often changing its policies regarding the usage of VPNs in China, so always be sure you’re up to speed on the latest developments there before you use a VPN.
One good piece of news is that no VPN is necessary to access content in the Chinese territories of Hong Kong and Macau.
As we said, you may experience issues using a VPN without any evident particular reason. The local authorities are able to suspend access to certain online services without warning and even prevent selected mobile devices from having internet access and/or operating altogether. Actually, any developed country can do the same, should the authorities decide so. A number of countries other than China also shut down certain websites and social networks on a regular basis.
Therefore, you may decide to use an alternative to VPN when browsing from China. A good post on Quora explains that VPNs are just private networks that exist between two or more machines that in turn exist virtually rather than physically. In this sense, the “private” in VPN simply means it is not public; others cannot just join or leave. So, any such connection is an alternative for using a VPN for China, provided you have the technical means and IT knowledge to set it up – and provided it’s legal according to the most current regional laws .
There is no single best VPN for accessing content in China, just as there is no single top VPN for use elsewhere. Depending on factors such as speed, price, encryption, and availability of features such as access to streaming services and online payments, CyberGhost is a good choice for a VPN. Other contenders include ExpressVPN and NordVPN.
All of these VPNs are easy to install and set up, their pricing is in the range of $6 to $8 a month with an annual plan, and all of them offer data encryption. Each of them is a good option for accessing content securely and privately from international locations.