How Tourists Can Get Foreign Internet Access In China Via VPNs
Everyone should visit China once in their lifetime as it’s an amazing country full of diverse cultures and incredible history. As you can see in my blog 10 Unforgettable Things To Do In China, there is so much to see and do. From historic sites like the Great Wall, cosmopolitan cities like Shanghai or mountainous landscapes like Guilin, a trip to China guarantees wonderful memories.
There is however one thing that you need to make sure you have fully understood and prepared for if you’re traveling to China. And that is to make sure you have a way to access internet via a Virtual Private Network (VPN) service. Having travelled to China on several occasions and had a great time, I hope the following article will help you in your preparations.
What Is The Great Firewall Of China And Internet Censorship?
Understanding how to access the global internet we are used to outside China when traveling in China is essential before you travel. This is because of what’s known by internet users as the Great Firewall of China, which maintains China’s internet censorship.
This is where the Chinese Government uses legal actions and advanced technology to enforce internet regulation. These include the use of advanced filtering and monitoring processes by all local Internet Service Providers and other businesses to block or limit access.
This censorship approach ensures that the Chinese Government determines what is not in China’s best interest and blocks access to such information entering China. This means that foreign internet users in China may experience significant restrictions in accessing websites we use in daily life e.g. google, social media sites.
Internet censorship in China in 2023 hasn’t changed and therefore most people in China use VPNs to work around this barrier. What these VPNs do is enable a secure encrypted connection to be made to a service located outside China. This alternative route allows internet users to bypass the Great Firewall and access unrestricted internet.
What Services Are Blocked In China Without A VPN?
It’s important to know that in addition to restricted access to global internet sites, many Google products are also blocked in China. This started in 2010 after Google refused to comply with China’s restrictive censorship regulations.
Many people do not realise how many of their daily apps are linked with Google services and therefore are affected by this additional restriction. Without using a VPN in China, they can’t access services like Google Search, YouTube, Gmail and Maps when they are trying to get online. So all that great pre-trip planning with saving locations on your Google Maps won’t be of use when you arrive.
Other apps that are blocked in China include Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, Dropbox, and streaming services like Netflix and news apps. Throw in blocked access to “normal” websites, including businesses like VPN providers, and you realise why many internet users in China need a VPN app.
These are only a few examples of the services that don’t work in China without a VPN. But thankfully if you know this in advance, prepare correctly and use a VPN, you will be fine when you arrive in China.
Are VPNs For Internet Access Legal During Your Stay In China?
The first thing to be aware of is that using a VPN for your everyday internet use anywhere is actually a good thing. This is because VPNs encrypt your data and hide your Internet Protocol address, therefore, increasing your privacy and security protection when online.
You should therefore consider using VPNs on an ongoing daily basis rather than just on your trip to China.
Accessing the internet by VPN in China is common practice among most Chinese and foreigners who are living or visiting China. People aren’t however going to flaunt that they are using them publicly.
Although using a VPN isn’t illegal in China, the Chinese Government takes internet censorship seriously and, therefore constantly looks to crack down on VPN use. This isn’t targeted at users but rather done by using advanced technology to try to block access to the servers that VPNs use.
Using a VPN responsibly to enable better access to the internet is fine, however, using it for inappropriate or prohibited actives is not advised.
What Are The Best VPNs That Work In China (2023)?
Unfortunately, not all VPNs are created equally when it comes to choosing a VPN for China. The Chinese government takes an aggressive approach in closing down alternative server routes to make sure unrestricted internet access is blocked.
This impacts more on some VPN providers than others, therefore, it is important to know which ones are the best options. Only a small number of VPNs still work in China, and some of the best of these in 2023 are as follows in alphabetical order.
Astrill VPN is a paid subscription service with servers in 115 cities in 57 countries, that also provides fast stable connected internet access in China. It has several advanced protocols including a special StealthVPN protocol that bypasses the Chinese restrictions providing secure connections.
An Astrill VPN subscription can be used on unlimited devices including iOS and Android apps, and macOS and Windows systems. Visit Astrill VPN for more information on costs and service provision.
ExpressVPN is a paid subscription service and has over 3,000 servers in 94 countries. It’s another very popular fast reliable VPN you can use when you’re in China. I used it for the first time on my recent visit to China in 2023, and it worked very well. It also uses advanced automatic obfuscation techniques like scanning and using non-blocked ports or disguising VPN traffic to enable you to access the internet.
An ExpressVPN subscription can be used on up to 5 devices including iOS and Android apps, and macOS and Windows systems. Visit ExpressVPN for more information on costs and service provision.
NordVPN is a paid subscription service and one of the most popular VPNs that still work in China. I have used this successfully on previous visits to China. It has over 5,700 servers in 60 countries enabling fast reliable internet connection. NordVPN comes with several advanced features including obfuscated servers which use advanced techniques to disguise the fact you are using VPN traffic.
This way internet users can bypass the type of heavily restricted internet censorship that takes occurs in places like China. A NordVPN subscription can be used on up to 6 devices including iOS and Android apps, and macOS and Windows systems. Visit NordVPN for more information on costs and service provision.
Surfshark is a paid subscription service, has over 3200 servers in 100 countries, and one of the best VPNs for China. It’s known for having very fast connections and uses advanced techniques like obfuscated servers and MultiHop connection. This protocol provides additional security and privacy by connecting to 2 VPN servers at the same time to reduce tracking.
A Surfshark subscription can be used on unlimited devices including iOS and Android apps, and macOS and Windows systems. Visit Surkshark for more information on costs and service provision.
Tips For Using A VPN In China
From my previous visits to China I highly recommend that:
- You download, install and activate your VPN subscription before you arrive in China. This is essential to follow as once your are in China, you will not be able to access the internet to download the VPN. Likewise, you cannot use your Google Play App Store to download any apps! Although they can be some ways around this they are more hassle than you need to have, so just do it before your visit.
- You consider trying out 2 different VPNs for your trip to China. From experience, this provides you with the best safety net, if one of the VPNs doesn’t work for one reason or another. As mentioned before, the Chinese Government spends a lot of effort on cracking down on VPN servers. There may therefore be occasions that this means your sole VPN may have issues accessing their servers. This can leave you in a difficult situation. All VPN providers have good offers including free trials, so you can do this and it’s worth paying a bit extra for this security.
- Make sure you read and have fully understood how to use the VPN properly, including specifically what you need for access in China. Even better I strongly suggest you download the instructions or write them on a document you can read on your phone or laptop. This is because without an active VPN you will not be able to access the VPN website to read the instructions! Although you can ask someone back home to email you the instructions, that is more problem than you need. Also depending on your choice of email provider you may not even be able to access that via the wifi in the hotel.
- Get yourself a good Chinese SIM card with plenty of data. All the VPNs above should work with wifi in China. I however experienced problems with getting my VPN to connect via the wifi on my mobile phone or laptop on my last visit. This was only an issue with wifi, as the VPN worked well via the mobile network route. This is another reason why I recommend you use 2 VPNs, as the second VPN I tried worked for both wifi and mobile data.
Where can I get a SIM card in China for good internet in China?
As mentioned above you can use VPNs with wifi to enable access to certain restricted internet and app content when in China. However using mobile apps for daily activities like paying for food, taxi’s, buses etc in China means you really need mobile data to do this. Having a local SIM card in China is perhaps more critical than in many countries because almost everything in China relies on some mobile technology.
It’s also safer to be able to book a taxi rather than risking a dubious one late at night, or to contact people via messaging. China is a safe place to travel but you need to be aware of how to ensure you stay safe. You can read my blog Is China Safe To Travel To And Tourist Friendly? for some advice on this.
There are several options for tourists to buy a SIM card to ensure they have a reliable way to access the internet and stay connected.
Purchase a China SIM card before you leave
First option is to consider buying a SIM card before you leave for China. This provides an opportunity to get things sorted out before you leave so you have data access immediately after you land. This is a useful thing to consider as sometimes you need to complete things online when you arrive in the airport. Accessing airport wifi can be a hit-or-miss process, so having data on hand is useful.
The second way if you have a mobile phone that can use eSIMs, is to purchase an eSIM. These are virtual rather than actual SIM cards and work by activating a given activation code after purchase. You can also top them up online. There are several online providers of eSIMs, including the Airalo China eSIM I used on my last visit to China, and the Holafly China eSIM.
Purchase a SIM Card in Airports on arrival
All major China airports like Beijing Capital International Airport and Shanghai Pudong International Airport will have mobile stores selling SIM cards. The main SIM card providers in China are China Mobile, China Unicom, and China Telecom. China Unicom tends to get the better reviews about speed and 4G coverage, but for most people any will be fine.
Purchase a SIM Card in Mobile Stores in China
You can also buy a SIM card from any of the China Mobile, China Unicom, and China Telecom stores in China. This is easier to do in bigger cities like Beijing and Shanghai if you don’t speak Mandarin. You must have your passport on you to purchase a SIM card.
Conclusion on why you need a VPN in China
As you can see it’s important for you to plan ahead of your trip to China to make sure you have a good holiday. By getting yourself a reliable VPN and local SIM card, you will be able to access the global internet and use your daily phone apps. So get these tools purchased, sort out your travel itinerary and have a wonderful visit to stunning China.
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