Last Updated on June 15, 2019
I feared entering China—and not because I didn’t think they’d let me in; my visa was expensive (US $150), but easy to get. No, it was the thought of being without internet access. All I had read about in the news when I was first visiting (around 2011) centered on the Great Firewall of China and vast censorship at work as the Chinese government keep information firmly outside of its borders—couched as a way to protect Chinese culture, the government insulates their citizens from topics and services we find commonplace in the world outside of China, and foreigner tourists and concerned citizens are forced to use a VPN to access the full internet.
And some of those subjects happen to be precisely the arenas my clients play within. Part of my story is the fact that I work from the road consistently, the whole way around the world for more than a decade—accessing these client sites is how I pay for it all. So, entering China meant potentially losing access to my client’s sites. What’s a remote worker to do? Well, I needed a crash course VPNs—what are they, which work in China, and which VPNs will generally serve me best even beyond China (like when I want to stream U.S. shows in my homebase in Barcelona).
How to Overcome China’s Great Firewall with VPNs
Researching the real story about accessing blocked websites from China often yields no conclusive results. In fact, information around these inter-webs is sketchy, at best—it’s full of VPN services owning the results telling you the facts … but they clearly have a vested interest in you thinking you need the mac-daddy of all VPNs or you’ll be lost without access.
After researching, I’ve concluded it’s not hard to find VPNs that will login into Facebook even though it’s censored (as is Instagram, WhatsApp, Snapchat… shall I continue? It’s a long and oft-changing list). The thing is, Gmail is blocked over there, too—and that was a very serious situation since I’ve long since retired my Hotmail, and I was loathe to trot out that embarrassing username with clients. So, again, what’s a traveler to do when they just want a to access the web like they can at home?
Well, the internet is still all there—obviously, but you’re going to need a VPN (a virtual private network), which essentially just anonymizes your online identity by masking your location. Tourists are going to want this installed on all of their devices before entering China in order go around China’s censors. I’m not a travel techy guru, I leave that to other tech travel bloggers, but here’s what I figured out:
Test Your Website in China
For those working remotely, the first step is finding out which websites if the websites you need are even blocked. Again, you can check if services you use regularly are blocked there, otherwise, head to this website—it’s a wonderfully simple tool—you type in the website you’ll need access to and it tells you if it’s accessible from mainland China right. It even details out which regions of China may have blocked the site.
When you’re a traveler visiting all of the touristy sites, think beyond just “hey, I want to share on Instagram,” and consider which sites you regularly use to plan your trip—is that Lonely Planet, travel blogs like yours truly, or TripAdvisor? You’ll want to make sure your go-to resources are available to you before you enter the country so that you’re not left scrambling (although remember the days of a delightful print guidebook, that’s still a great option, too).
If you’re a techy, then you’ll also love the tools available my the non-profit GreatFire.org, which opposes Chinese censorship and offers browsers and tools to use in the country—if it is absolutely essential that you have internet access, then you should look into Tor browsers and VPN alternatives like this and this—the current government has come down strong on VPNs, so having a diversity of options is the only way to ensure you’ll have access while there.
Install an Appropriate VPN Program Ideal for Tourists
Depending on how long you’re staying in China should determine which VPN you use. Only the paid VPNs are actually going to ensure that you can get around the firewall. If you have a free VPN that you use back home to anonymize your address for some simple tasks, chances are it’s been handily blocked in China ten times over. That said, my favorite TunnelBear, which I have bought many years running now, has a free option that sometimes works and offers 500 MB free per day.
So, pricewise tourists are looking at paying about $10 to $15 USD for one month of any of the top VPNs. If you’re moving to the region or traveling for months then note that they all offer discounts when you buy a longer term. (Note: None of these links make me money—they are genuine recommendations from my thorough research).
- ExpressVPN: This one wins according, well, according to everyone. If you’re researching most anywhere you’ll find that ExpressVPN consistently performs faster and better and more consistently in China than any other service, and if you’re into the more technical review, this one cover that.
- VyprVPN: Offering both speed and security, you can’t go wrong with this option if ExpressVPN isn’t going to work for you.
- NordVPN: A decent option, usually falling in the middle of all rankings in terms of the ratio of effectiveness, speed, privacy, and price.
- Surfshark: If Netflix is important to you, then this is a great option—although they all should still allow U.S. Netflix, it’s always good to choose one that reviewers note works consistently with the service if that’s important to you!
Use a VPN App for Your Smartphone & iPhone
So, most of the apps above are going to have a version for your smartphone that works just fine. That said, the hierarchy of recommendations changes if you’re just traveling China with a phone and don’t much care about browser installation. Whether you have an iPhone or Android, these are the three best options.
- NordVPN: The iPhone app for this works very well and is an excellent option for those going just for a bit—or heck, even longer since it also works on a browser, NordVPN is a good choice if you use your iPhone a lot and want a solid VPN connection there.
- ExpressVPN: Yeah, it’s still likely your best bet for a VPN in China. Tourists can buy the one-month plan and install everything on your various devices—because it’s a big company with a long history of offering VPN services, it’s a safe bet to believe it’s going to work well on your various devices.
- TunnelBear: As noted above, TunnelBear has a free option offer 500 MB per day. The app is great and I’ve used it for years. But! Note again that with a free VPN like TunnelBear, your connection is not guaranteed and it goes in and out of working well.
Remember: It is imperative that you download and install your VPNs before you enter a restricted country, or it’s all a lot harder.
Don’t forget to book travel insurance for your trip to China! A great policy provides coverage in case of medical emergencies, lost luggage, adventure sports riders, and more. I’ve used World Nomads since 2008 and highly recommend it!
What to Expect from VPNs & China’s Great Firewall
With China being China, it’s best to say you should be prepared for the unexpected. Everyone had assured me I could access my Gmail account back in 2011 without issue—and then the very day I landed in Beijing, the two powers that be (Google and China) had a kerfuffle and Google accused China of blocking Gmail—which it had. That riff hasn’t gotten better in the many years since, so really and truly, if you’re traveling in China, you need to be prepared with VPNs downloaded, installed, and tested before you travel to China.
Additionally, most hostel computers when I visited actually had VPNs installed on their shared-used computers, so that’s an option, too!
I decided to take make a mini-vacation out of my time traveling in China—I biked through rural areas, ate my face off, and enjoyed glitzy Shanghai—but I was still grateful to have access to the outside world when needed, thanks to VPN services. In the years since I first visited China, I no longer need one that works against the Great Firewall, so I use and deeply love TunnelBear—I’ve used my VPN everywhere imaginable—from Vietnam to Guatemala and even last month in Italy to stream the Game of Thrones series finale. I’ll go so far as to say that any frequent traveler needs a VPN—which you chose will largely depend on where you travel.
If you’re planning long-term or RTW travel our planning advice may help clarify other issues besides VPNs that can crop up!
Any other tips, thoughts, advice on VPN services and China’s Great Firewall?