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 have read about in the news these last few years has centered on the Great Firewall of China and the censors the Chinese government has in place to keep information firmly outside of their borders–they incubate their citizens from certain topics we find commonplace in the world outside of China and foreigners and concerned citizens are forced to use a VPN for the internet. (VPN reviews & various short and long-term options below, updated in 2014).
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 – it’s how I pay for it all. So, entering China meant potentially losing access to my client’s sites. What’s a traveling worker to do?
Steps to Overcome China’s Great Firewall
Researching the real story about accessing blocked websites from China yielded no conclusive results. In fact, information around these here inter-webs was sketchy at best. I concluded that it wouldn’t be hard to login to Facebook even though it’s censored, but what about the rest of the world wide web?
It’s all there. But you’re going to need a VPN (a virtual private network) installed on any of your devices 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 Site in China
For those working remotely, the first step is finding out which websites if the websites you need are even blocked.
The Great Firewall of China.org is is a wonderfully simple site—you type in the website you’ll need access to and they tell you if it’s blocked in China. And it even details out which regions of China have blocked the site.
Install the Appropriate VPN Programs
Depending on how long you’re staying in China should determine if you go the free VPN route or choose one of the paid options. For the free ones though, keep in mind that these are open and public servers that you are routing through and you should protect your privacy and don’t log into your bank account and sensitive information!
- ExpressVPN: Fellow blogger and a China expat rates this one tops—and he’s tried them all! So, this is a definite contender if you’re researching both short- and long-term options. Read his full ExpressVPN review here, along with some other options broken down by things you might wonder about each potential service!
- WiTopia: A great expat option; terms run for a year at a time (about $60 for the year) so it’s more suited to expats unless you’re okay with forfeiting whatever part of the year you don’t use! Good idea if you need a faster, reliable, and more secure connection on your personal computer. Of note is the fact that you should purchase and install this all ahead of time if you go with Witopia (or really any of them).
- VPN Express iPhone App: This app worked on my iPhone. Setup was incredibly simple and it worked flawlessly at masking my location. It comes with some free data to get you started, but for anyone staying in China longer though than my mere two weeks, you can buy reasonably priced data-plans that will easily allow you access to an unrestricted internet on either your iPhone or iPad devices.
- Strong VPN: An expat friend living in Beijing recommended this option before I left for China –this is a paid service though, so I opted to go through the much slower free connections for my short visit. From what I could tell, it was a bit more than the others at the time, and only had long-term plans.
- BolehVPN: This program was voted the best VPN service in 2013 by Lifehacker readers, so although I did not use it, if I was traveling back to internet restricted countries, I would likely take a close look at this one. They were rated highly for having wonderful customer service and the pricing tiers are really quite nice for travelers—they have anything from a week to months on end.
If you’re in research mode, here are the five top-ranked providers in 2013, they list a few I haven’t linked to here. Also remember that it is imperative that you download and install your VPNs before you enter a restricted country or it’s all a lot harder.
What to Expect from VPNs and China’s 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 without issue – and then the very day I landed in Beijing the two powers that be (Google and China) had a little kerfuffle and Google accused China of blocking Gmail – which it had. Briefly.
Additionally, some hostel computers will actually have VPN 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, but was still grateful to have access to the outside world when needed thanks to VPN services.
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?