Censorship is something people have been fighting against for centuries, and it’s only recently that the fight has been tipping into our favor. Back in the day information was much easier to hide from the public, not to mention the fact that not everyone was educated enough to recognize when they were being lied to.
However, the Internet has made it a lot easier for information to spread freely to all corners of the world, which undermined many totalitarian regimes and allowed people to know the truth about their governments. Hence, while it may have been easier a few decades ago to tell everyone in a poor country that the rest of the world was just as poor, nowadays that wouldn’t fly anymore. Thus, governments have to rely on other tactics, and sometimes they will actually try to restrict access to certain websites within the borders of their countries.
Thankfully, tech people always find a solution to bypass restrictions, especially when it comes to accessing blocked websites or services. Hence, when governments started banning websites using filters and firewalls, the solution was to create a piece of software capable of fooling these restrictions by allowing you to change your online identity. As you might have guessed, this is exactly what a VPN does, and it’s currently one of the best ways to access blocked websites from countries that try to keep you in the dark.
As far as censorship goes, few countries are as blatant about it as China, which has one of the toughest laws when it comes to Internet content that can be accessed by its population. In fact, you may have heard about the “Great Firewall of China” before, which is how the Chinese government tries to limit information access and prevent its population from peeping behind the curtain.
Even under such strict conditions, those who want to access the free Internet are still able to do so using a VPN, although it must be mentioned that not all of them will work in China. On the other hand, this is mostly true for smaller VPNs that do not have a very large network of servers, which means that industry-leading names are usually not affected by the firewall and will work as intended.
Are VPNs legal in China?
Before we start telling you how to pick a VPN and what to look for, it’s worth mentioning that the laws surrounding VPN use in China are pretty difficult to navigate. As such, the first thing you need to know is that VPN providers need to acquire a license in order to operate in China, which means that VPNs are still technically legal.
On the other hand, no one knows what those companies need to do in order to receive those licenses. Given the fact that the government is very serious about filtering information, it’s difficult to believe that the licensed VPNs are allowed to do as they wish and enable users to visit banned websites, so keep that in mind as well.
Furthermore, there were also reports of fines being issued to people caught using a VPN last year, so it’s definitely possible to get into trouble for such practices. In essence, if a country is hell-bent on restricting the flow of information, it’s hard to believe they will be OK with you using a VPN to bypass these restrictions, even if there are no clear cut laws on the matter.
What makes a VPN good at bypassing China’s firewall
The first thing you have to take into account when choosing a VPN in China is whether or not the VPN will actually work once you start it. As such, many servers will actually be unreachable from within the country, which means that your connection will not succeed no matter how hard you try.
Obviously, the trick is to go with a very popular VPN, because the sheer number of servers and locations available to you makes it next to impossible for China to block all of them successfully. Thus, this is one case where bigger is also better, since many of the smaller or newer services are not yet capable of protecting their servers from being blocked by China’s firewall.
Lastly, it’s wise to avoid the state-backed VPNs as well, because they are pretty much guaranteed to pass your activity data to the government. On the other hand, using a non-licensed service can also get you into legal troubles, so at the end of the day it’s up to you to weigh the pros and the cons.
What you should do before traveling to China
If you are not a Chinese citizen and you are traveling to China, there are a few precautions you must take in order to be able to use the Internet freely once you are there. As such, keep in mind the fact that you may not be able to visit websites like Google Play Store, which means that you won’t be able to download the VPN apps. Not only that, but most VPN websites are also blocked, which means that you won’t be able to buy a subscription either.
As such, the first thing you need to do is install the desired VPN on your devices before getting to China, as well as buy a subscription that lasts for as long as you are going to stay there, since it might be difficult to renew it otherwise.
After that, you should also think about how many devices you want to use at the same time. Hence, if you plan on using a smartphone, a tablet and your laptop all at the same time, you need to check whether the VPN provider can support all of your connections. Thankfully, most of them allow you quite a bit of freedom in this regard, so you definitely do not have to worry about being stuck with only one device at a time.
How to choose a VPN for China
Besides the things mentioned above, there are a few other important details you must be aware of before buying a subscription. As such, even if the VPN you choose is not affiliated with the Chinese government in any way, you still have to make sure your data is not being leaked by accident, since not all VPNs are capable of passing basic security tests. You can check out our article on how to test your VPN for leaks for more information on how to do that.
Moreover, there is also the fact that you will have to pay for the service somehow, and that part is much easier to track than anything else, because payment usually involves bank accounts, credit cards, and a lot of personal information. Hence, even if the government may not be able to detect your VPN traffic, they might still be able to find out that you are paying for a VPN by tracking your transactions.
Unfortunately, there is not a lot of wiggle room in this regard – mainly because very few VPN providers allow you to remain anonymous while paying. In some cases you may be able to use Bitcoin to make a purchase, which is much tougher to track, but then again only a handful of companies provide support for Bitcoin payments, unfortunately.
Best 5 VPNs for China in 2020
With all that being said, we have managed to compile a list of five VPNs that will work in China, as well as provide you with a few details about what each service an offer you, beside free access to information. Keep in mind that the situation may change in the future, since some of these VPNs may be blocked at some point as well, depending on how much effort the Chinese government puts into it. In order to jump straight to one of the VPNs on our list, you can use the links below:
Below you can also find a comprehensive table with some of the most important features for every VPN on our list.
Where size and popularity are concerned, it’s tough to beat ExpressVPN, which is why it makes for a great choice if you happen to need it in China as well. Given the fact that none of their servers are located in China, they do not have to worry about obtaining licenses or giving up information to the government. Hence, the service should run normally and without any hindrances even on Chinese territory.
The other good news is the fact that you can use Bitcoin to pay for a subscription, which makes it much easier to cover your tracks and remain anonymous. Not only that, but there are many other payment options as well, which provide you with the freedom to choose what you think is best for your situation in case you are not comfortable using your day-to-day credit card for the purchase.
In terms of features, ExpressVPN is at the top of most of our lists for a reason. As such, there is hardly anything missing in terms of protocol support, kill switches and region unlocking. On top of that, you also get split-tunneling capabilities, which allows you to pick certain apps and enable them to bypass the VPN entirely, thus avoiding any unwanted latency when privacy is not a concern.
If you want to watch region-specific movies on Netflix or Hulu, ExpressVPN has your back as well. While there are no separate lists with dedicated servers for such purposes, it’s still pretty easy to achieve this, since all you have to do is pick a server in the country where the content you are after is available. After that, the VPN takes care of the rest, and you can start your binge.
As mentioned before, the huge list of servers and locations also help with download and upload speeds, because you can easily choose something relatively close to your real location in order to achieve greater speeds. This works for torrent traffic as well, so you do not have to worry about losing too much of your bandwidth once the VPN is active.
Lastly, ExpressVPN has a very good track record in terms of privacy and security, given the fact that they have yet to be implicated in any leaks or scandals on the matter. Furthermore, the service is also very hands-off when it comes to logging and data collection, so you do not have to live in fear with the thought that your data is going to be handed over to the authorities.
Recommended server locations for the best experience: Hong Kong, Singapore – Marina Bay, Japan – Tokyo, USA – Los Angeles
Supported devices: Windows, Mac, Linux, Chromebook, Android, iOS, Amazon Kindle Fire. Barnes & Noble Nook HD, Routers, Amazon Fire TV, Apple TV, Boxee Box, Chromecast, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, Roku, WD TV Live, Xbox One, Xbox 360, Chrome, Firefox.
+ Bitcoin payment possible, which allows you to remain anonymous
+ Huge selection of servers and locations, all of which work from China as well
+ Split-tunneling capabilities that come in handy for certain apps
+ No logging of any kind
+ Can unlock a variety of streaming services
– A bit more expensive than most other VPNs
NordVPN is yet another common sense option for any privacy enthusiast out there, and as luck has it, it’s also a recommended service for Chinese citizens as well. As such, the service is more than capable of bypassing the country’s fierce firewall, which means that you get access to the same features and possibilities as anyone else.
In terms of getting a subscription, NordVPN provides you with a wide variety of options, which includes the possibility to pay using cryptocurrency as well. In fact, you are not even limited to Bitcoin, since you can also use Litecoin, Ripple, Ethereum, DASH, and few others. Thanks to this, it’s very easy to avoid exposing your identity through the use of a personal bank account.
To make things even better, NordVPN is openly supportive of free access to information, which is why they even provide you with a guide on how to get the service up and running in China. As part of their guide, they advise people not to rely on the Quick Connect feature and select their servers manually instead after starting the app. It’s also good practice to use the UDP protocol, and to make sure you go for a server located in countries like the UK, US, Singapore or Japan. Naturally, many other locations should work as well, but it’s a good idea to start with these just to get a connection going.
Another great thing about VPN is that you can increase your security by making use of the list of obfuscated servers, which adds an extra layer of protection on top of your regular connection. This should make it a lot harder for the authorities to track you, but you should keep in mind the fact that your speeds will suffer in the process as well, given the multiple reroutes required for the process to work as intended.
Speaking of which, NordVPN offers some of the fastest and most reliable servers on the market, which means that you should be able to get decent download speeds as well. In addition, the high speeds also allow you to stream high-quality content and enjoy movies in 1080p or 4K resolutions, which is not something all VPNs are capable of.
In terms of disadvantages, there is nothing to worry about security-wise, but it’s worth pointing out that the app does not yet provide any split-tunneling functionality. Hence, all of your traffic is going to be affected by the VPN once the connection is made, with no possibility to white list certain apps on your system.
Recommended server locations for best experience: Singapore, Japan, Canada, United Kingdom, United States
Supported devices: Android, Windows, macOS, iOS, iPhone, iPad, Android TV, Linux, Chrome, Firefox.
+ Access to obfuscated servers, which keep you safe from prying eyes
+ You can pay using a variety of cryptocurrencies
+ The company takes privacy seriously and advocates for everyone’s right to free information
+ Great selection of servers and locations
+ Excellent download and upload speeds
– No split-tunneling functionality
While perhaps not as widely known as other VPNs on the market, IVPN strives to make a name for itself in terms of access and features, which is why the company is also banking on the fact that their service will work in China as well. Hence, while other smaller providers prefer not to get involved in the matter, IVPN includes a couple of nifty features that should make it possible for users to access the free Internet from highly-restrictive countries like China.
As such, the app provides you with a MultiHop feature meant to make it harder for the authorities to track you, while also keeping your true identity safe and secure. Not only that, but there is also an “obfsproxy” option in the Settings panel that is designed to penetrate even the most resilient firewalls out there, making it a good choice for Chinese citizens too. Granted, using these two features together can slow your connection down significantly, but it’s definitely worth it when you consider the alternative.
As far as payments go, IVPN allows you to use Bitcoin as well, which means that it shouldn’t be too hard to hide your tracks and keep your subscription hush-hush even under the ever-watchful eye of the government.
Once you get a connection going, the app itself is competent enough to provide you with all the features you could want from a state-of-the-art VPN, including things like an automatic kill switch, an AntiTracker to prevent companies from targeting you with personalized ads, as well as an included firewall designed to protect you from attackers. In addition, you can also switch between different protocols, and you can even run them on a few different ports if you wish to do so.
Speaking of which, IVPN supports both OpenVPN and WireGuard protocols, which is not something you can get from other apps. This is also very useful if you plan on using multiple VPNs for different purposes, because you can easily use this feature to keep your connections separate.
Supported devices: Windows, macOS, Linux, iPad, iPhone, Android, NAS, Routers.
+ Provides you with an obfuscated proxy setting to bypass the Great Firewall of China
+ The MultiHop feature prevents anyone from keeping tabs on your activity
+ You can use Bitcoin to pay for your subscription anonymously
+ Support for OpenVPN and WireGuard
– Not the greatest speeds if you use the MultiHop feature
– Service can be unreliable when the obfuscated proxy feature is active
Mullvad is one of the most interesting VPN products on the market, especially when it comes to marketing and payment options. However, that doesn’t mean it strays too far from what a classic VPN should do, so it’s still able to provide you with the features you’ve come to expect from a product in this niche.
To begin with, Mullvad offers a unique payment system that allows you to purchase VPN time for a certain amount of money instead of a regular subscription, at least if you want to. Hence, you can use a variety of payment methods in the process, including cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and Bitcoin Cash. Keep in mind that these methods are only available for one-time payments, however, because the subscription model is only available if you use a PayPal account.
Once you get the app on your device, things become much easier to handle, even if you are a newcomer in the world of computers. Thus, all you need to do in order to start using the Internet without restrictions is to pick a server and wait for a connection to be made. Naturally, Mullvad is able to connect even in China, so you do not have to worry about connection issues.
Mullvad is also very upfront and transparent in terms of data collection and logging, which is why the company behind it allowed two separate teams to audit the service in order to prove their claims. As it turns out, both teams reported that Mullvad does not leak any data and doesn’t collect any information about its users, which is fantastic news for everyone, and especially for Chinese users.
Speaking of which, besides unblocking sites like Facebook, WordPress and Google in China, Mullvad is also a good choice for P2P traffic, since it provides you with great download speeds almost regardless of the chosen server. On the other hand, the service is not that great when it comes to region unlocking on Netflix or similar platforms, so keep that in mind if that’s your purpose for using a VPN.
Recommended server locations for the best experience: Japan, Hong Kong
Supported devices: Windows, Linux, macOS, iPad, iPhone, Android, Routers.
+ Great pricing model and the possibility to use cryptocurrency
+ Audited by two separate cybersecurity teams
+ Good download and upload speeds
+ Simple user interface
– Does not excel when it comes to unblocking content on Netflix and other streaming platforms
Surfshark is another strong VPN service that is able to bypass China’s firewall, while also bringing a lot of useful features to the table. Besides the great support for a variety of devices and operating systems, the app also includes things like an integrated ad-blocker, a split-tunneling feature that allows you to white-list specific apps, as well as a kill switch designed to quickly cut your Internet connection whenever the VPN server goes down.
If you are worried about paying for a subscription with your credit card, then you should be happy to hear that Surfshark supports a wide variety of payment options. This includes things like Google Pay and Amazon Pay, but also completely anonymous Bitcoin transactions, which is great news for Chinese citizens who want to protect their identity even before they start the VPN app on their computer.
As mentioned before, there’s hardly anything missing from Surfshark’s toolbox in terms of features, but perhaps the most useful of them is the ability to use the Whitelister to allow certain apps to bypass the VPN entirely. Naturally, you should be careful using this, given the fact that even innocuous-looking apps may secretly track your activity, but it’s still good to know that you have this option at your disposal.
Moreover, there’s also the fact that Surfshark supports MultiHop connections. In short, this allows you to use different entry and exit nodes whenever you connect to a website, which in turn makes it a lot harder for someone to trace you. Naturally, you should take into consideration the fact that your speeds are going to suffer in the process.
One of the nicest things about the service is that you are not restricted when it comes to the number of simultaneous connections, which means that a single account can have an unlimited number of connections active at the same time. This is a much better offer than most other VPN services out there, and it’s also great if you plan on traveling to China with a variety of different devices on you, and you want all of them to be able to access the free Internet.
To make things even better, you also get access to a static IP option, although this is obviously not particularly advisable for regular Internet browsing. In essence, this comes in handy if you plan on hosting a website on your machine and you want to bind it to a specific IP. As a side note, a static IP can also prevent websites from forcing CAPTCHA tests on you, since you are no longer switching IPs at every reconnect.
Recommended server locations for best experience: Australia, Kazakhstan, Bulgaria, United Kingdom – London, United States – Dallas
Supported devices: Windows, macOS, iPad, iPhone, Android, Fire TV, Apple TV, Xbox, PlayStation, Chrome, Firefox.
+ Allows you to connect with an unlimited number of devices
+ MultiHop connections for improved security
+ The possibility to use a static IP
+ You can pay for the subscription using Bitcoin
+ Apps can be white-listed in order to bypass the VPN and avoid unwanted latency
– No dedicated servers for streaming or P2P
All in all, there are definitely plenty of choices when it comes to finding a VPN that will work in China, in spite of how fierce the Great Firewall might be. While it is true that not all services will be able to work as intended, the truth is that the biggest names on the market have taken the necessary precautions to bypass the firewall one way or another, at least if you are willing to take the risks involved.
As such, the final responsibility rests with you, because as mentioned before, there are still plenty of legal issues surrounding the VPN topic in China. Glossing over the fact that you cannot trust the state-backed VPNs in any shape or form, you are also risking your freedom whenever you use one of these apps, not to mention the fact that you can also be fined a hefty sum if you are caught. On the other hand, free access to information is a basic human right, so you should definitely fight for it if you are in a position to do so.