Going online in China is a wholly different experience compared to going online from any other part of the world. The Chinese government has blocked many websites, making it almost impossible for people within the country’s borders to access to these sites. However, some VPNs allow you to get around this Chinese firewall. Here are the three best VPNs you can use in China to get access to YouTube, Netflix, Facebook, Twitter, Discord, and countless other websites and platforms..
China is a country of unprecedented economic growth. In next to no time, China has become one of the worlds largest powers. Unfortunately, China is also a country where free internet is not as widely available as it is in the West. Anyone who travels to China will find that sites like Gmail, Facebook and YouTube no longer work. It’s a shame because it scares Western tourists, businesses and expats. Moreover, Chinese citizens don’t have access to all the information that is out there.
Fortunately, there is a way to bypass Chinese barriers. The solution is quite simple: Use a VPN. A VPN is a software program that protects your internet connection and connects you with internet via a server in another country. Continue reading to find out exactly how this works and which VPNs are the best choice to use in China.
The Great Firewall of China: Why is China blocking websites?
The Great Firewall of China, also known as the ‘Golden Shield’ is the largest internet censorship system in the world. Not all parts of the internet which you can easily access in the U.S. are also accessible in China. Google, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and many other websites are blocked. But why?
Well, the thing is: By blocking sites, the Chinese government is trying to protect its citizens from content that could be considered dangerous or inappropriate. However, it is the Chinese government that decides what is inappropiate and what is not. Moreover, this means that Chinese companies are also protected against competition from abroad. For example, as citizens are only able to access the Chinese version of Facebook, they are forced to use that rather than a competitor from outside China. It also makes it easier for the government to check the data of Chinese companies and citizens.
To achieve this, the firewall consists of a variety of technologies. This involves blocking IP addresses of websites, as well as filtering Domain Name Systems (DNS), URLs and packages. China is also actively blocking VPNs. But China is a huge country, so it is impossible for the government to keep an eye on all the internet activity of its citizens in detail. As a result, the firewall can be very inconsistent: A site that is blocked in one province might be accessible in another province.
This means that the enormous firewall is not perfectly secured. It is an ongoing game of cat and mouse between blocked sites and the Chinese authorities. First, someone finds a hole in the wall, then China closes this hole and starts the circle again.
Which websites are blocked in China?
The Chinese government has several reasons for blocking sites. Sometimes it is a question of ‘protecting’ their citizens, sometimes of preventing competition from outside and sometimes of enforcing or banning a particular ideology. Whatever the reason, it is annoying for Western visitors of this beautiful country.
There is an overview of blocked sites below. We do not mention all the sites that are blocked (that list is simply far too big), but we provide you with some well-known and commonly used blocked sites.
|BLOCKED SITE||BLOCKED SINCE|
|Chinese Wikipedia (part)||May 2015|
|Google (Maps, Docs, Gmail etc.)||May 2014|
|Microsoft OneDrive||July 2014|
|The Pirate Bay||February 2012|
Gmail, Facebook and YouTube in China
Fortunately, a VPN is a simple and fairly well-known solution to counter Chinese internet censorship. With a VPN, you can easily bypass the barriers as it connects you to the internet via a server located outside of China. Internet traffic can be diverted via Germany, for example. The Chinese firewall can only see that you are connecting to a German server, and not that you are connecting to Google. This server is permitted, so your connection can be created. China does not know that you are actually using Google via that external server. It can be difficult to understand precisely how a VPN works, but it generally works as follows:
Accessing YouTube from China without a VPN
Without a VPN, the Chinese firewall sees that you are trying to access a site which they have blocked. You will get a message saying that the site you are trying to visit is not accessible.
Accessing YouTube from China with a VPN
With a VPN, your data will be encrypted and the Chinese firewall will only see that you want to connect to a server in another country. The Chinese firewall does not recognise this as a blocked website and will allow the connection. The site you are trying to visit will now be accessible.
The top three VPNs for China
There are VPNs that have special features which allow them to bypass the Chinese firewall without being detected. You can often install these VPNs on your smartphone or tablet so that you can use them freely in China. Below you will find an overview of the best VPN providers for China. Looking for more? Check out our VPN comparison tool.
ExpressVPN for China
ExpressVPN is not the cheapest VPN service but it is one of the best for China. It uses stealth servers in Hong Kong which are specially designed to bypass the firewall. ExpressVPN also has servers near China for a censorship-free internet as quickly as possible. ExpressVPN uses a kill switch for the privacy of its customers. This stops all internet applications as soon as the VPN is disconnected. This means that no information will be exposed through an unsecured connection. The VPN service also provides DNS leak protection, WebRTC leak protection and OpenVPN encryption with perfect forward secrecy to encrypt your information and ensure your privacy. It may sound a little technical, but the bottom line is that you remain safe and anonymous, even in China.
- Super fast and simple VPN
- Perfect for anonymous browsing, downloading and streaming (i.a. Netflix)
- 3000+ servers in 94 countries
NordVPN for China
NordVPN uses another method to bypass the firewall called ‘Obfsproxy VPN technology’. This is the same robust technology that Tor uses to overcome barriers. With this service, you do not need to worry about privacy. NordVPN also uses a kill switch and provides DNS leak protection. NordVPN has OpenVPN encryption with perfect forward secrecy. You do have to connect via a special NordVPN server because you have to use Obfsproxy.
- Excellent protection and a large network of servers
- Nice and pleasing application
- No logs
VyprVPN for China
VyprVPN uses port selection and stealth technology called ‘Chameleon’. This technology is specifically designed to bypass the firewall. It makes your encrypted VPN traffic look like regular internet traffic. The most striking thing about this VPN service is that it has full control of its entire infrastructure. There are no third parties which increases both speed and privacy. Disadvantages are that connection logs are kept (when you connect to the VPN) and that P2P (torrenting) is not allowed.
- Quick servers for a good price
- Netflix and torrenting possible
- Special "Chameleon" technology to protect your data
Installing a VPN for China
You need virtually no technical knowledge to install a VPN. You can install a VPN simply by downloading a file and running it. It works the same as installing Spotify, for example. Install a VPN on your desktop using this step-by-step guide:
- Go to the website of your chosen VPN provider
- Select a subscription form and create an account
- Download the VPN installer file for your operating system or log in to the website and download the installation file from your account page
- Run the installation file as soon as it has finished downloading
- Run the installation wizard from the downloaded file
- When the VPN software is installed, you can open it
- After opening the software you can log in with the account you created
- Once you have logged in, you are in the VPN software. You can eventually change settings and choose a server
- Turn on the VPN. There is usually an obvious button or switch in the VPN software. Once the VPN is connected, you can enjoy censorship-free internet in China
On Android or iOS this works pretty much the same, but you can just download the software from the App Store or Google Play. It is also useful that you do not need to have a separate account for each device. You can install your VPN on all your devices and you only need one account and subscription to log in.
Please note: Some VPN provider sites are blocked in China. This means that you cannot download and install the VPN while in China. So always make sure to install the VPN before you go to China. It may be difficult to terminate a VPN subscription from China.
Are VPNs legal in China?
Because China blocks VPNs, you may wonder whether VPNs are illegal in China. This is a bit of a grey area. As of yet, there have been no reported cases of anyone getting in trouble for using a VPN, but China is trying to make it as difficult as possible to use a VPN. VPN sites are blocked and the VPN software for Android and iOS is not available in the App Stores. In 2015, the phone connections of all VPN users in Xinjiang were disconnected. This connection was not restored until the VPN software was removed. However, this was a one-off.
As a foreigner, you will encounter very few problems if you use a VPN in China. Although VPNs which have not been approved by the state have recently been banned in China, nothing has yet been done about this. In short: There is nothing to worry about yet, but it is a good idea to keep up to date with news about VPN usage in China.
Chinese alternatives to Western sites
Maybe you do not want to use a VPN or you are curious about the Chinese alternatives to Western sites. China has its own counterpart for almost every well-known Western site. They have their own search engines, video websites and social media. It’s kind of interesting to see. Perhaps you can even connect better with the locals by using these sites. WeChat is particularly popular in China. It is used for almost anything and you would really lose out if you are in China for a long time and don’t use it. In any case, the table below shows some common Western sites and services alongside their Chinese counterpart. It is not always just a ban. Sometimes there are other reasons why sites work well in the West but not in China (such as competition, legislation, etc.).
|COMMON SITE OR SERVICE||CHINESE ALTERNATIVE|
|Bing, Google.cn (doesn’t always work), Baidu|
|Google Maps||Google.cn, Baidu Maps, Open Street Map, Mapquest|
|News sites||Quartz, Asia Times, China Daily, The Diplomat, South China Morning Post|
|Online shopping websites||Taobao, Tmall|
|Resteraunt review sites||Dianping|
|Uber||DiDi, Mobike (for bikes)|
|YouTube||Youko Tudou, Bilibili|
*Comparing WeChat (Weixin) to Facebook really doesn’t do it any justice. WeChat is much bigger and is used for many more purposes. It’s a kind of mega platform consisting of Instagram, Facebook, WhatsApp, Uber, Apple Pay and more. You can ask questions, order a taxi, pay at restaurants, and so on. The Chinese use it for almost anything and it is therefore highly recommended that you take a look at it and use it if you are going to be in China for a long time. There are also some Chinese sites and services that we actually have no alternative to. One example of this is Douban. Douban is a combination of IMDb, Spotify, SoundCloud and Myspace. It is a meeting place for all kinds of cultural interests such as films and music.