Update (August 8 2017): All of this information is still relevant! If you’re worried about the news that came out in July about the Chinese government blocking all VPN usage by 2018 (here), then you haven’t seen the most recent statement from the PRC (here). Stop worrying, there’s no way it’s going to happen!
Before we moved to China, my husband told me we would be using VPN to get around the infamous Great Firewall. My first reaction was “Isn’t that illegal?!” I’m still not 100% sure how to answer that question, but fast forward to just a few months later and I was using VPN every single day with no hesitation! This guide will get you to that point before you leave for China!
Ultimate Guide To Using VPN In China
What Is VPN?
VPN stands for “virtual private network”. Basically, VPN enables you to sidestep The Great Firewall by making it look like you’re on the Internet in a different country.
The Best VPN Service
There are a lot of options, including some free and very cheap ones, but the service that I relied on and the one that I owe my sanity to is ExpressVPN.
Full disclosure: ExpressVPN is the only VPN service provider that I personally have experience with. I was so happy with the service that I signed up for their affiliate program, so any ExpressVPN links you see on this page are affiliate links. Just know that I would never recommend something I don’t genuinely believe in!
When you’re a foreigner living in China, you inevitably end up having a conversation with an expat about which VPN they use. My blogger friends in Beijing all used ExpressVPN. A lot of people who used free and cheap services ended up switching to ExpressVPN. What I’m trying to say is that I am fully confident you will be very happy with their Great-Firewall-Jumping services!
If you’re headed to China for an extended amount of time and you’re going with your spouse or partner or teenage children, I highly recommend you each get on your own VPN plan. You can be using a single account on up to 3 devices, but Eric and I couldn’t make it work between the 2 of us after about 30 minutes on that first night in Nanjing. Plus, ExpressVPN has a 30-day money back guarantee so if you find you don’t need the second account, you can get your money back.
What Is The Great Firewall?
Technically, “The Great Firewall” refers to a variety of legislation surrounding media in China. But most people use the term to refer to Chinese internet censorship. Basically all the social media I use on a daily basis is blocked in China.
According to a Harvard study, at least 18,000 websites are blocked in China including 12 out of the top 100 global websites. Google, Wikipedia, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are all blocked in mainland China.
The Great Firewall applies to mainland China, so if you go to Hong Kong, Taiwan, or Macau you don’t have to worry about any of this! You lucky bastard, you.
Why Does It Exist?
There are actually a lot of reasons for internet censorship in China. One of the big ones is to protect the values and ideologies of the Communist Party. The goal is to ban the spreading of information in China that causes people to question the government, form negative opinions about government officials, or incite riots.
But there’s this whole other economical reason for internet censorship that I can totally get on board with! Banning all the top websites meant that China opened up the playing field for Chinese companies to step in, grow, and dominate some major online industries in China. Since Facebook is banned, there’s a Chinese company called WeChat that’s done very well in China. Since Twitter is banned, more Chinese people are likely to go on Weibo. And you know how we change Google to a verb? As in, “just Google it”? Chinese people do the same thing with the local search engine brand Baidu.
What Is It Like To Use VPN?
The best way to describe this to you is by linking you to this part of a video I made. While you’re over on my YouTube channel, don’t forget to hit that little red subscribe button!
Using VPN In Hotels
The Great Firewall isn’t a filter system that prevents things from showing up. You can put anything you want on the internet in China, but eventually somebody will see it, and if it doesn’t meet the guidelines they’ll take it down real quick. Internet providers are technically responsible for their customer’s conduct, and that’s why sometimes you can’t use VPN at hotels.
Oh, and sometimes the internet slows way down on Chinese national holidays.
Is It Illegal To Use VPN?
People have been arrested for spreading information on the internet in China, but I’ve never heard of a foreigner being arrested for using VPN. VPN usage is very normal in China! It’s not scary at all, I promise.
The Chinese government is fully capable of detecting and blocking VPN, but it’s rarely done. What’s banned in China is less about using Facebook and YouTube, and more about using them to promote information that the Chinese government doesn’t want to spread around. Don’t use your Instagram to try to incite a revolution in China and you’ll be just fine.
One More Thing
Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but you won’t be able to watch Netflix. Even with VPN 🙁 Netflix is blocked in China, and Netflix blocks VPNs. Blame international law for that one.
Despite that one disappointment, have fun watching your computer metaphorically travel to countries you’ve yet to explore. More importantly, have fun in China! I’ve got a bunch of other content like this that will help you prepare for China so that your trip or move is fun instead of stressful.
Thanks for reading! Talk to you soon,
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