Do I need a VPN for China?

24 May 2011

I’ve gotten quite a few questions about VPNs lately. I also opined in a recent comment that, “There was a time when you could reasonably get by without a VPN in China. That time is over.”

For this post I’d like to return to the basic question which so many of my readers seem to have: do I need a VPN for China? Since each person’s situation is different, rather than just flat-out answering that question, I made up a little quiz to help you figure it out yourself.

Do I need a VPN for China? (a simple quiz)

1. Do you need to use Facebook at all? (This includes services like Quora that require Facebook connect, and also every little “Like” button on the internet.)

2. Do you need to be able to see YouTube (or Vimeo) videos? (Remember, it’s not just going to the YouTube site. YouTube videos are embedded in sites all over the internet.)

3. Do you need reliable access to non-YouTube Google services such as Gmail, Google Docs, Google Calendar, or even Google image search?

4. Do you need to use Twitter? (Remember, whether it’s through the site or a third party app, you’re still going to need a VPN or proxy of some kind to access Twitter.)

5. Did you find yourself uncomfortable with at least two uses of the word “need” above, telling yourself, “well, I don’t really need it…”?

Scoring

How many times did you answer “yes” to the questions in the above quiz? If the total is 1 or higher, you will likely be much happier in China if you just shelled out the cash for a decent VPN.

Note: I don’t usually publicly share which VPN I use, but if you send me a nice email, I will probably tell you.

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John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.

Comments

  1. I’ll add something about “Do you need to access information located on random blogs and forums?” (e.g.: a lot of IT forums are block)

  2. The situation changes slightly if you are only travelling to China. Many of the well known VPN providers only offer annual subscriptions which aren’t suitable for the visitor to China (depending on how much you are prepared to pay for your “need”).

    I’ve always gone with the homegrown solution which is reliable enough for the infrequent visitor, but probably not suitable for the long term resident.

    Without endorsing any providers (unless of course you want to) are you aware of any solutions that cater for the travellers rather than long term residents?

  3. I use this :

    http://www.highspeedvpn.com

    … you can buy a monthly subscription for USD 9.99, works like a charm, fast, reliable.

    Can be installed on iPhone, iPad and any PC platform (Windows, Mac, Linux).

    Just my 0.13 RMB

  4. Harland Says: May 24, 2011 at 9:02 pm

    Ha. Need facebook. Well, to a lot of people, I suppose facebook is right up there with clean water as a living priority. I counter with some questions of my own:

    1. Do you need to post youtube videos in an area they are known to be blocked when the same file could be easily uploaded to a Chinese video site? Multiple services exist to capture embedded videos onto your hard drive. Nnnnnnnnnnnah, too much work, right?

    2. Do blogs need facebook integration, in an area where facebook is known to be blocked? Really? I suppose the thought didn’t even occur.

    3. Twitter is pretty hard to argue, I concede the point. Twitter is an absolutely essential part of life and being separated from it would be like being separated from your own genitals. With a knife.

    It just strikes me as baffling that anyone who lives in China for a long time and intends to stay there forever can be so myopically Western-centric. Like, the thought doesn’t even occur that youtube is blocked, I live in China, and I might want to make some allowances for that. It’s as if no China expat has ever heard of v.sina.com.cn, tudou.com, youku.com, mop.com, 56.com, etc., etc., etc. ad nauseum. It’s like that befuddling Onion article (dated 2009!) stating that China has just added its 12th website to the internet. OMGWTFLOLzzzorz. Except not.

    • as if no China expat has ever heard of v.sina.com.cn, tudou.com, youku.com, mop.com, 56.com, etc., etc., etc.

      Yeah right, I am an expat in China, so I will post my HD videos on the Chinese sites you mention, so that my whole family back home will enjoy them … After 2 days of SLOW downloading maybe ? Come on …

    • Harland: I’ll admit that limiting oneself to Chinese sites is great for language immersion for China newbies, and isolation from the Western world helps sell the whole “China experience,” but why is it so offensive to you that someone would want to access western sites such as youtube and facebook?

    • So you got a zero on the quiz? Congrats.

      Wanting to make use of the connections the internet makes possible is not Western-centric. It’s anti-isolationist at worst.

      • I am wondering how many “US Americans” visit foreign websites (even in English).

    • Right, we China expats only watch Youtube video posted by other China expat. Exactly.

      John, I would add blogspot to that list. Lots of geeky website answering the exact question I googled and blocked.

      And of course Danwei, The Peking Duck, ChinaGeeks, etc.

  5. light487 Says: May 25, 2011 at 9:23 am

    I travel to China each year for a month at a time, so I fall into the “short term stay” category. I stay in touch with my family through Facebook. I’m not an avid Facebook fan, in fact if you were a Facebook friend of mine you’d know I complain a lot about Facebook and its methodologies/philosophies. However, as a means of community, en masse, with my family and friends back in Australia, it is a great tool.

    As for YouTube and Twitter, I can live without both of them to a certain extent. If I could find a decent enough connection speed to allow me to upload the large video files I have from my video camera, I would certainly be uploading to Youtube rather than Youku (for example) because my family and friends do not use and are probably incapable of using Youku, putting aside of course the shockingly slow response and download speeds anywhere outside the mainland.

    And Gmail… it’s my main email service. I use it for everything. While I can understand the reasoning behind the blocking of Facebook and Youtube, I don’t understand the reasoning (without wearing my conspiracy theory hat) behind blocking an email service. Hotmail YahooMail and a host of other free email services aren’t blocked and that leads me to believe it has more to do with Google not playing nice in the search-censorship department and constantly getting “in trouble” about it.

    I get a free VPN service with my monthly Newsgroups subscription. It’s pretty nifty because I am paying for the newsgroups anyway and there are multiple VPN access points around the world.

    My answer would be that, YES, a VPN is required to be actively engaged at a global level (ie. outside of China mainland) at even the most basic communications standards (e.g. Saying hello to your mum on Facebook/Gmail) let alone at a business (commercial/industrial) standard (e.g. Twitter, Facebook, GoogleAds, Google Analytics, YouTube etc)

    • Hi light487
      Thanks for your views on this. Just one point you seem to be unaware of: Gmail is not blocked in China. I live here and despite some bad publicity of late (generated by Google itself?) I have used it continuously for the past two years. One single day in that two years I was unable to connect, and I am not sure what the problem was. Maybe you are thinking of the problem with Google – that too is a furphy, I use http://www.google.com.au, the same as most people do if they live in Australia.

      • David,

        Gmail is not completely blocked, but for the past month or so it has ranged from unusably slow to randomly inaccesible (at least on DSL in Shanghai) — hence the recent bad publicity. If it still works for you, count yourself lucky.

      • light487 Says: May 28, 2011 at 5:44 pm

        Hrmm.. well, I just spent the last 3 weeks in China mainland (in Taiwan now) and couldn’t access gmail the entire time without using my VPN. Was in Shanghai, Hangzhou, Wuyishan and Xiamen during that 3 weeks. I heard someone else, at the Xiamen hostel I stayed at, say that they were using gmail without any problem in Beijing the previous week.. so I dunno. That was just my experience ^.^

  6. light487 Says: May 25, 2011 at 9:27 am

    This also brings up the interesting thought of “What would happen if QQ, Youku, Sina, Tudou, Renren, Kaixin001 and all the other Chinese based services were blocked in other countries (America, England, Australia)?”

    Would Chinese people think twice about using a VPN to access these “essential” services? And what would the general sentiment be about such blocking if the situation was reversed like this?

    • Speaking of VPNs that go into the mainland (i.e. you access content with a Chinese IP), anyone know of a good service?

      • This also brings up the interesting thought of “What would happen if QQ, Youku, Sina, Tudou, Renren, Kaixin001 and all the other Chinese based services were blocked in other countries (America, England, Australia)?”

      Quite a bit of content on said services is China only – Youku and Tudou serve or don’t serve content based on location.

      You’ll also note that searches from overseas vs ones made from local china ip space return different results in certain Chinese video search sites (lets just say that there is more video content returned)…

      Taobao is also a bit dodgy from oversea’s – from South Africa two weeks ago unusable connection resets. From Greece and UK last week – ok.
      (Yes, I travel a lot!)

      I actually have setup ssh access to my data center hosted servers before for download reasons (house -> apple = 2kb trailing off to death) , data center = 3000KB/s at my server end -> 250KB steady over the me -> server connection on a 2M line. Once I get a 10M local line, this will make it more worthy bwahahahem..

  7. 6) do any of the sites you visit connect use twitter, Facebook or another blocked website’s widgets on their pages. If so, getting a VPN will make browsing those sites faster. E.g. Economist.com
    7) do you like reading blogs on any major blogging service (e.g. WordPress, blogspot, tumble, posterous, etc.)

    If either of these apply to you, you may want to get a VPN.

  8. VPNs Blocked Says: May 28, 2011 at 10:54 am

    I am an expat in china. So far all the VPN providers that I subscribe to are blocked, even my work VPN. This is a result of the tighter efforts on plugging the holes in the great firewall over the past 10 days or so.

    Does anyone have a VPN that is currently working via China Unicom ISP?

    • Did you read my comment about http://www.highspeedvpn.com here above ? Works like a charm, and not that expensive. Tested in Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu and Hangzhou during my last trip to China (April 2011).

      Cheers.

      • I got your VPN, which seems to work, though a little spottily. Please buy something nice with your commission.

    • Luna Llena Says: May 28, 2012 at 7:53 am

      have you tried strongvpn.com over the last 10 days? I just contacted them here in the US and they claim their “oven vpn” service works there. I wonder if you can access their site from China.I used them last year from china and it was working very well.

  9. The situation also changes if you have web hosting that provides you with shell access over ssh (many do, though you may have to ask to have this switched on). Then you can just use the ssh connection to tunnel under the GFW.

  10. Justin Case Says: June 6, 2011 at 10:22 am

    I’m not sure why anyone would pay for a VPN?

    FreeGate is free and unblocks all the necessary sites and works a lot faster then OpenVPN and the others I’ve tried. It’s MUCH faster to start up and once it’s up it’s much faster to use as well.

    Since all sites storing the file for Freegate are blocked, either use an online unblocking site to find it or try to search for ‘fg711p.exe’

    It doesn’t work on the iPhone though… bummer…

  11. Use Tor…its free and fast

  12. The Free vpn’s are so unreliable. I’m with you John. I couldn’t get FreeGate to work well in Shanghai either When I first came to Shanghai I tired using a couple free vpn’s and they were slow and a few are blocked now. I was using StrongVPN too but it was too slow and I couldn’t get to hulu. Switiched to Moca and now i can watch hulu. Loving it!!!

  13. bebopbrother Says: June 17, 2011 at 7:52 pm

    I actually wish I had youtube, because I am teaching Jazz in Beijing. Unfortunately youku does not have a good variety, and it is quite difficult to find a reliable program that can download videos from youku.

  14. @bebopbrother: Try Youku’s own video downloader: http://c.youku.com/iku/ (chinese site)

  15. How about “do I need to check my gmail mail?” ‘coz it hasn’t been working for me unless I log on to my VPN.

    I’ve got a great discount coupon for those who are interested:
    http://www.shanghaihalfpat.com/in-china-get-a-vpn/

  16. Josh Koehn Says: August 15, 2011 at 9:40 am

    I’m just leaving for China within 6 months or so….So this info is greatly appreciated. Thanks John.

  17. A VPN is a must if youre living in China. Its almost impossible to get online without one. For example, if try to go to a blocked site, Internet access is cut off COMPLETELY for one or two minutes. It becomes extremely annoying after a while. I am using this VPN now: http://www.sunvpn.com/, had no problems with it.

    I`ve also sometimes had problems with gMail without the VPN on.

  18. why_Jiangsu Expat Says: November 13, 2011 at 4:06 pm

    Well,

    For those who can use their gmail, I say : Lucky guys !!!!

    I am here in China in the Jiangsu, in a small city. Internet Connection is shitty : almost 100 ko/s when I am lucky.
    GMAIL ? Sometimes, it takes me 2 hours in a trial and fail effort to get to my emails. Google chat ? Do not talk about it. Works once a week for 10 minutes and then … nothing ?

    I am really upset about these conditions. I tried a couple of VPN, but then these were unusable suddenly.

    What a waste of time !! I just need to check my emails. When at the same time, you see that all other email providers such as Hotmail, Yahoo are working, you are just disappointed. Cause I am a gmail user since the beta beginning (2003) and I am not ready to throw all that juste because of some gov. people…

    Yes, you see I am really angry…

  19. VPNs are a must i can say 🙂

    I chose one from starvpnreviews.com as they have a list with most important providers and they are periodically providing good discounts and deals. 😉

  20. When I visit China I use http://www.free2surfvpn.com

    Can’t live without facebook, voip, etc. They work in China. Some of the other VPN providers do not so be careful. Some won’t refund either since it’s not “their fault”.

    Free2Surf works great.

  21. There’s an expat review site http://www.bestvpninchina.com that has some short reviews of VPN sites that are still available in China as of 2012. All of the stuff about prices, subscriptions, features, and all that jazz are on the site, and there are about 5 VPNs currently featured.

  22. plan to travel to yunnan for some months from april 2012…does hotmail work???

  23. a number of universities have partnered up with GMail so that the platform is GMail, although the email address is still something like @mq.edu.au. If you’re on exchange for a semester in China, you want to make sure you are still getting the emails from your institution, don’t you?

  24. I’d suggest trying Vpnmakers.com, their prices are very reasonable and works great in China. They also offer a 60 minute free trial.

  25. The only VPN provider that is built for China is http://breakwall.net . It has Japan and HK servers. And the owner of breakwall.net is in China himself. This means if you are down, they are down with you.

  26. I use http://www.superbvpn.com/vpn-usa to watch Hulu from China and everything works great.

  27. You really need a vpn service when in China. A lot of websites are blocked in China like youtube, facebook, twitter… However, most vpn service are designed for US, the service are very unstable in china. I tried several vpn service and finally got this one: http://www.solid-vpn.com/ You can try it and decide by yourself. Good luck!

  28. Mark Ackley Says: November 1, 2012 at 2:54 pm

    I am using Hotspot Shield Free VPN to Access all blocked websites and to surf anonymously.It encrypts network traffic, secures your web surfing sessions, stands guard against malware and protects your privacy while you surf the internet anonymously.

    Check it out here: http://www.hotspotshield.com

  29. In China a VPN is absolutely needed. I went on a trip there recently and most of the Google sites were blocked. Google seems to be in some sort of conflict with China. So anyway, you should get a VPN while you’re there. I would suggest HighspeedVPN .. I used their services while I was there and the speed was as good as the speed at home.

  30. Im here now in Xiamen,China. I tried many times the facebook and youtube site but I can’t access any of it. How can I access to it? Is it free? or do I have to pay certain amount to access them?

  31. jjsmith Says: July 5, 2013 at 3:25 am

    Even if you’re not in China, you would still need a VPN if you’re concern about your online safety and security. If you are looking for ways on how to stay anonymous online or would simply like to access geo-blocked web content, you can use a free VPN service such as VPNBook.

  32. Connect to http://www.sunvpn.net/ to anonymously encrypt your internet activity from prying eyes. All applications on your computer that utilize your internet connection will become anonymous with just a click of a button; no technical experience is required due to our easy to use VPN software. Enjoy internet freedom and anonymity knowing that your sensitive web traffic is securely hidden behind our IP addresses located in different locations. It offers us access to all our server locations, even as we add more to the list.

  33. Are those people saying that VPN is essential unaware of Tor?

  34. China is considered the king of Internet censorship and surveillance. China is awesome. I love their Great Firewall too. But you do need a VPN in China. There’s an expat review site http://bestvpnchina.net/ that has some short reviews of VPN China that are still available in China as of 2014.

  35. Daniel,
    If Tor works in China, why do people use VPN? China blocks Tor long long ago. They simply block the IP broadcasting host. Full Stop.

    Rules have changed once more since the beginning of 2015. Shared IPs VPN Farm is very easy to be blocked.

    I have noticed a new technology, Quasi-dedicated IP VPN, implemented by this new company VPN for China . The user’s IP is never known by 3rd party. Also, they will send you IP, password and encryption key by SMS if you are already blocked in China. They provide SOCKS SSH Tunnel, the most difficult to be blocked, in the cheapest plan. Test it first before you buy long contract. 2VPN.Co is also a British company.
    Ask a USA IP as well.

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