You are about to travel to China or are already living or working in the Middle Kingdom? Chances are, accessing the internet will be or is already an issue for you. If you want to use google, access Facebook, Youtube, Twitter, i.e. sites you take for granted in your home country there really isn’t much you can do, except find a VPN provider. As of October 2017 popular messaging service WhatsApp has been added to this evergrowing list.
Since we’re running IT businesses in China and a stable internet connection is our lifeline we have been testing virtually all VPN services that are out there. So we decided it’s about time we write a proper, up-to-date guide so you can find the best VPN for China.
To make this article more comprehensive we actually went through the trouble and tested some other services for you, we hadn’t so far considered. We tested all VPNs mentioned in this report with a China Unicom 20 MB connection in Beijing, a 100 MB China Telecom fiber connection in Shenzhen and mobile 4G (12.8 Mbps China Unicom).
Using VPNs in China is getting much more difficult in 2017, earlier this summer all VPNs with servers based in Mainland China have been banned and their Apps removed from the Appstore. In October 2017 almost all popular foreign-based VPN providers such as ExpressVPN, Vypr and Astrill have been attacked and weren’t available for days. Check out our report to see what has changed and which VPN still works in China.
Who is this VPN guide written for?
If you have plans to travel/work/live in China or are already in China this guide will help you:
- Find a VPN that actually works in China. There are quite a few VPN providers out there who don’t. This article will save you a lot of frustration.
- Access Google (yes, this includes google search, maps etc.), Facebook, Youtube, Twitter, Instagram and many others blocked apps and websites.
- Save money. We were able to find some discounted offers for most VPNs we reviewed.
- Understand how VPNs work and their many functionalities.
Please note that some VPN sites are not accessible from within China. There are exceptions and we will mention these but if you can, setup your VPN before leaving for China, it will be a lot easier. Things change fast in China and VPN sites that worked yesterday can be blocked by the Great Firewall the next day.
Best VPNs for China 2017: Test Winners
If you’re just skimming or don’t want to read the entire article, here are our top recommendations. We included more in-depth test results and comparisons of the pros and cons of each VPN provider further below.
VPN Feature comparison
Customer Support 24/7/365
ExpressVPN is becoming more and more popular in China, so it’s no surprise that in October it’s been challenged by China’s efforts to ban the use of VPNs. For a few weeks in October connections were actually unstable, but as of now with a few updates, they are back to normal.
And with all the other providers we have tested ExpressVPN is still hands down our favorite option when it comes to VPNs in China. We were a bit skeptical because we’ve seen them all over the internet these past months and thought they just have a huge marketing budget. After testing ExpressVPN for a couple of months now, we can confidently say that they provide the best VPN for China as of now.
Download speeds have been faster than with other providers we tested. Customer service is fast and friendly, there is no limit on bandwidth, multiple encryption protocols and you can connect up to three devices simultaneously. They also offer a 30-day money back guarantee, which is great for risk-free testing.
ExpressVPN is also by far the most user-friendly provider we found: Easy purchase, download and setup process, even from within China. No annoying login required at the start screen, great looking software with intuitive UI that works well, a mobile App that is super simple to use and again works. Their mobile App is by far the most reliable we’ve seen so far.
Our favorite server as of November is Hong Kong 1 with both China Unicom and China Telecom.
The only minor downside to ExpressVPN as of now is the higher than average monthly subscription price.
The layout of the server list in the apps makes it very easy to choose and select your favorite go-to server. ExpressVPN also has a really useful automatic speed test feature that systematically goes through each of its servers to find the one with the most optimal performance for your specific location.
ExpressVPN is the VPN I recommend to all my friends and colleagues now.
VyprVPN used to fly under the radar as a rather small provider until one or two years ago. Not so much anymore, most of our Entrepreneur friends have heard of Vypr or are already using them. Maybe that’s why some of their servers seem a bit slower as of late.
Vypr isn’t your cheapest option out there, even though we have a few discounts you can use.
Their desktop software is easy to use and stable. It may look a little clunky and it’s UI could be better but it includes some nice features such as a latency test for all servers so you can pick the fastest location. There is also an option where the software picks the fastest server for you. Installing the software is fast and selecting different protocols or servers is easy.
VyprVPN is accessible across multiple platforms (windows phone is notably absent, though) with hundreds of servers available across the globe. They offer a Premium tier feature called the Chameleon protocol that’s said to be particularly useful in areas with strict internet controls such as China. We have been using the Chameleon protocol and recommend it as it often works when all else fails us.
VyprVPN’s customer service is extremely fast and quite competent. I did have a case where online chat wasn’t able to help and they got back to me via their online ticketing system within 24 hours.
They also offer a 30 day money back guarantee. If you want to try them, we were able to find a deal where the first three months of your annual subscription are free.
PureVPN has been providing VPN services for almost ten years now and includes some great features. They have more than 150 servers and provide some features you can’t find with any other provider such as their “split tunneling” which lets you choose which traffic goes through your VPN. They also include a “stealth” VPN mode that performed really well in our tests.
Their software is well designed with a lot of features. You can even search for particular purposes such as streaming Netflix in the USA. You can browse servers by region, country or server, choose by looking at a global map and much more.
PureVPNs performance has been remarkably fast. We don’t really like their smartphone apps and support for them could be better. If you’re planning to use your VPN mostly on your desktop and you want the most affordable option you should definitely go with PureVPN. We found a pretty ridiculous deal were they offer a two-year plan for only $ 2.95.
With PureVPN you don’t get a free plan, but they offer a 7-day money back guarantee so you can still test it if you like.
Other China VPN Providers
WiTopia has been up and running since 2003, so if they’ve been in this tough market for that long they must be doing a lot of things right. Back in 2009 it was the VPN literally all of the expats were using. This has obviously changed. We feel that this is due to their limited marketing, it seems that nobody is talking about them anymore even though WiTopia still offers a very solid service with multiple protocols (OpenVPN SSL, PPTP, L2TP, IPSEC and a premium 4D Stealth protocol).
They offer a huge network of 250 servers worldwide and an unconditional 30-day money back guarantee.
One minor drawback is their limited mobile support. Setting WiTopia up on our smartphone was a painful experience. They also only offer two simultaneous connections last time we checked, which is subpar.
These small complaints aside, WitTopia is definitely a good option for China so give them a go.
VPN.ac is another good alternative for a low price (58US$ per year). It’s major drawbacks right now are that their servers are not working well with China Telecom. If you have a contract with China Unicom however, VPN.ac boasts super fast connection speeds and may be a very viable option for you.
They also offer 6 simultaneous connections, which is great for sharing or using it on all your devices simultaneously. Their customer service is not 24/7 but we found that their feedback has always been highly qualified.
We found that the VPN.ac App and Software were somewhat lacking. On the Desktop App, we received an error message when trying to connect to PPTP or L2TP. The whole service doesn’t seem as mature as the other companies we recommended. If however software and apps receive substantial updates and their service works better with China Telecom VPN.ac might be a top contender.
They offer a seven-day unconditional money back guarantee so give them a try.
VPNs for China we do NOT recommend:
In this list, we include some providers that you should avoid. These companies aren’t scammy, but they either don’t provide protocols that are needed to avoid the Great Firewall or they have been targeted by the Chinese Government and do not longer work, namely:
Unfortunately, we cannot recommend one of the formerly best known and most widely used VPN providers, Astrill. Since it is so well known its servers have been targeted by the Great Firewall and has become very unreliable for use within Mainland China.
If you decide to
use Astrill in China you absolutely need the paid add-on for the StealthVPN protocol. This works quite well most of the time but comes at a steep price.
At the same time, Astrill’s customer service has been on the decline. You sometimes have to wait hours before you get a response. This won’t be enough to compete with newer and formerly smaller competitors who all have 24hour online service in place.
If you still want to give it a go, they do have a 7-day free trial: www.astrill.com
Their website is not accessible from within Mainland China.
Invisible Browsing VPN (IbVPN)
IbVPN claim to have a unique protocol that works particularly well in China. Of course, any VPN provider nowadays knows that you have to have decent connection speeds in China. That’s where sales are generated. We’re used to slick interfaces from providers like ExpressVPN and VyprVPN so the setup was quite a disappointment, everything looks a bit rusty and home-made. Also, the first time I have used their software it tests 149 servers and then connects to the fastest one, which will keep you waiting a couple of minutes.
Of course, none of that matters a lot as long as we get great connectivity. But, this wasn’t the case, we’ve run tests several times and the fastest download speed we were getting was a puny 0,86 MBit per second with a 100 MBit China Telecom connection. We get about 20 times that speed with other recommended providers. After a few more frustrating attempts we have to include that at this point IbVPN is unusable in China.
Private Internet Access (PIA)
Another large company we do not recommend. Their servers have been targeted by the Great Firewall repeatedly in the past. We weren’t able to set up any connections during our various tests. If you managed to make PIA work let us know and we will give it another go.
Which factors to look for when comparing different VPN providers in China?
When comparing VPN providers for China there are a lot of different factors you can look at. For our research, we weighed different factors.
If you want to dive into the matter even further and conduct your own research this list will help you to find the best provider for yourself out there. This will also give you an insight in how we weighed the different factors when we worked on reviewing all these VPN providers.
With some VPN providers, you will have to re-connect, change protocols and change servers constantly. This is exhausting and a waste of your time. In a perfect world wouldn’t it be nice to just click and connect wherever you are? We weighed reliability very heavily. Unfortunately, the Great Firewall is getting ever more sophisticated. And even the best VPN providers don’t always work in the same settings (we are addressing how to deal with this in the FAQs).
Your connection speed will always be throttled when you use a VPN, no matter what your provider. Even though things are getting better, connection speeds in Mainland China are still slow compared to most other countries, so you want to sacrifice as little bandwidth as possible. Especially if you want to watch videos, live streams and other uses that are data heavy. We were surprised how much connection speeds differed with the different VPN providers we tested.
Customer Service (**)
The Great Firewall is getting better at blocking VPNs and different protocols so it is not unlikely that you will run into problems with your VPN provider eventually. All the more important that your provider offers customer service that is always available and is able to resolve your issues quickly.
Good customer service will also be able to help you if you happen to change your operating system, get a new phone and need help running your VPN etc. Make sure that customer service is available from within China even when you’re not running a VPN!
Number of Simultaneous VPN Connections (**)
How many simultaneous VPN connections can you run across multiple platforms and devices with your provider? If you’re using a smartphone and a desktop/laptop you need at least two connections. If you own a tablet three would be better. With five simultaneous connections, you can easily share your VPN connection with a friend/spouse/broke roommate. You should aim for at least three simultaneous connections, five are better.
VPN Software and Ease of Use (**)
Not all VPN Software is created equally. Some VPN providers managed to create intuitive User Interfaces were changing your server location or connection protocol is a breeze. With others, your options are extremely limited and you may have to manually type in an IP address you received from customer service in order to change your VPN server location. This also includes how easy and intuitive the process of downloading and installing the VPN on your device is.
Mobile App (**)
Many smaller VPN companies don’t offer proper mobile apps so you have to manually create a VPN profile in your cell phone settings. In case you experience server issues you will have to manually enter a new IP address. This process is not difficult once you understand how it works but obviously, a dedicated app for your mobile device is a huge plus so you don’t have to bother with this process.
Choice of encryption Protocols (**)
To put it simply: The more encryption protocols you can choose in your VPN the less likely you are unable to connect to your VPN. Usually, only one protocol will be targeted by the Great Firewall so if one isn’t working there is a good chance another will. The protocols you will most often encounter are OpenVPN, IPSEC/LLTP and PPTP. OpenVPN has been targeted extensively in the near past as it is the most commonly used protocol by most VPNs.
Money back guarantee (*)
We would hardly buy anything online without a money back guarantee anymore. Fortunately, all VPN Providers we tested offer at least a 7-day money back guarantee. 30 days for testing your new provider are better, though, so we did factor this in our reviews.
Of course cost matters, especially if you are going to pay for a service that back in your home country you probably wouldn’t deem a necessity. But basing your decision of the right VPN provider on pricing alone may be a time-consuming mistake.
Most cheap providers do not provide a lot of options when it comes to various protocols and encryption. We dabbled with free VPNs in our early days in China and some of them even worked back then, albeit being extremely slow. Nowadays, with the Great Firewall getting ever more sophisticated we highly recommend you save yourself a lot of time and headaches and go with a China VPN that works. And with PureVPN you pay a lot less than say Astrill and still have a very reliable provider.
If you want to be sure that all data you send through your VPN is securely encrypted we recommend a 256-bit encryption protocol. Be aware that the higher the encryption the slower your connection speed will be.
FAQs – Frequently asked Questions
Are VPNs in China illegal?
Even though VPN providers are targeted by the Great Firewall using VPNs in China is not illegal. In fact, many governmental institutions, including universities employ VPNs to facilitate research. It is, however illegal to operate a VPN company inside China. This is why all companies we review here are based outside China.
Important Warning: Please note that if you’re using a VPN you have to adhere to the laws of the country you’re currently connected to. So, if you connect to an IP of a server that’s based in the US, you have to adhere to US intellectual property laws.
Which websites are blocked in China?
Generally speaking, the most popular social networks (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Flickr, etc), blogging platforms (Blogspot, etc), Google services (Google.com, Gmail, Google+, Google Hangouts Google Docs, etc) and media websites that may be or have been critical towards China (The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg and LeMonde, just to provide some examples) are blocked.
Then, there are websites that aren’t blocked but are so slow that they become practically useless. The most common example is probably Skype, which works on and off (for calls, messages usually work fine).
Generally speaking, most of the websites that aren’t hosted on a Chinese server will be slow, when you try to connect from within China. This is especially true after 8 PM (Chinese time), as this corresponds to both American and European working times. This implies that the traffic in and out the Chinese network will be larger, and tends to saturate fairly often.
The best way to overcome this problem is, of course, to choose a VPN that is working well in China!
If you want to check if a certain website is working in China this website is a great resource: http://www.greatfirewallofchina.org/
But, big surprise, this site is also blocked so you can only check from outside of China or with a VPN.
What exactly does VPN stand for and what is it?
VPN stands for Virtual Private Network. VPNs allow users to send and receive data across shared or public networks as if their computing devices were directly connected to the private network. Individual users can protect their wireless transactions with a VPN, to avoid geo-restrictions and censorship, or to protecting personal identity and location. For more information check here and here.
Which VPN protocols do you recommend in China?
For Desktop: OpenVPN and SSL or another security layer like a proxy.
PPTP protocol often works but are very insecure, so this should be your last resort.
For Mobile iOS: IPSec
For Android: OpenVPN
Why isn’t my VPN working? Why is my VPN so slow?
Your first course of action should be to contact customer service. All of our recommendations provide 24hour customer service and most of the more established companies will offer similar support.
Having said that, trying different protocols or servers often solve connectivity issues.
Please note that if your internet connection is slow already, your VPN will make things slower.
Finally, if you’re using a VPN that isn’t in this list there is a good chance that it’s not working in China.
Are there free VPNs I can use?
In short, we highly advise against Free VPNs. Providing a VPN costs money, you will need to rent or purchase servers in other countries, develop software etc. If a company decides to offer a free VPN service they will need to find a way to offset their costs. Many of the means employed to offset these costs are shady at best, i.e. selling users browsing information to third party companies, modifying your web code to show ads etc.
Years ago (must have been 2006 when I was still a student and constantly broke) I managed to access blocked sites using free VPN software. Even back then it was a nightmare of constant advertisements and popups and excruciatingly slow connection speeds. Knowing what I know now, I would have never bothered.
Enjoy your newfound Freedom
Did this article help you finding the right China VPN?
Please leave a comment in the comment section and let us know what you think. Also, we would love to hear about your experiences with using a VPN in China. Do you have any recommendations or suggestions? Leave us a comment and we’ll get back to you.
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