Finding the Best VPN for China is Not Always Easy – Here’s What You Need to Know
A number of reliable VPN providers cater to the Chinese market and have done for years. However, some China VPN providers have fared better than others dealing with the recent crackdown and improvements made to the Great Firewall of China (“GFoC”) aka the Golden Shield.
The second half of this article discusses the factors you should consider when choosing a VPN for China; immediately below, are our own recommendations when applying those criteria.
China VPN Recommendations
The VPNs recommended below work inside China at the time of writing.
Top Tip – Because things can change quickly in the China VPN landscape we recommend you do NOT sign up for a longer-term contract even though good discounts may be available.
As you will notice, the best VPNs for China are not among the cheapest. :-/ While our otherwise overall top VPN choice Private Internet Access VPN is only $3.08 per month, it's not suitable for use inside China at this time.
PureVPN Best Bet as your China VPN
PureVPN has a 7-day money-back guarantee which is enough time to try if it’s right for you.
At the time of writing (February 2016), PureVPN’s secure website https:// is NOT blocked in China (see screenshot).
Other Top China VPN Choices
IPVanish VPN is probably the most technologically advanced VPN on the market today owing to the fact that it directly owns or operates its entire network (as opposed to most VPN providers which lease from third parties). Like most VPN websites, the IPVanish website is blocked inside China. Accounts come with a 7-day money-back guarantee.
ExpressVPN features GFoC busting “stealth servers” located in Hong Kong which are specifically designed to evade China’s blocking efforts. ExpressVPN is admittedly expensive but also has the most generous “hassle free” money-back guarantee in the business at 30 days. ExpressVPN’s main website is blocked in China but their alternate site is not yet blocked in China. (If you are in China, clicking on the ExpressVPN link should automatically take you to their alternate website in China. If not, keep trying or reach out to them at support[at]expressvpn[dot]zendesk[dot]com for their latest alternate website address.)
TorGuard VPN implements a version of the OpenVPN protocol that can evade the Great Firewall of China – for details see https://torguard.net/blog/the-best-vpn-for-china-torguard/. The TorGuard website is blocked on-and-off in China, so you might be able to sign up and download the necessary software even while in China. TorGuard offers a no questions asked 7-day money-back guarantee. [BTW, the “Tor” in TorGuard is not to be confused with The Onion Router.]
We are a little reluctant to recommend HideMyAss VPN (“HMA”) as it was recently purchased by a big company and even prior to that had a history of disclosing user data, but it reportedly works well in China. It is among the biggest VPN providers in the industry and has among the highest number of proxy servers and IPs. Not surprisingly its website is blocked in China. HMA has a 30-day money-back guarantee (but some readers report issues in obtaining refunds so be prepared to be persistent).
Considerations when Choosing a VPN for China
Make sure the VPN expressly caters to mainland Chinese users. If you don’t see claims that make this clear, keep looking. Different VPNs use their own terminology for technologies that can bypass the GFoC – stealth, cloak, obfuscation, etc – but the bottom line is that they will thwart the deep packet inspection utilized by the Chinese authorities.
Top Tip – Although this post is oriented to China, the factors below and recommendations above are also relevant for users in places like Iran, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Pakistan, Oman and countries in Central Asia.
Some VPN providers may offer a tailored “China-configured” app but most will simply allow you to choose settings in their normal app. When choosing settings for VPN use inside China, maximize your protection:
- use the protocols SSTP (which “blends in” with https traffic to avoid detection) or OpenVPN (safe but rarely works)
- use at least 256-bit levels of encryption (don’t use 128-bit or lower)
Be Wary of Free China VPNs
Be wary of anyone touting a free China VPN. We all love free, but it takes a significant investment of effort and technology to overcome China’s blocking apparatus. As a result, be distrustful and skeptical of free services. Take it as a good sign that you to have to pay for a fully functional China VPN as these providers have an incentive to keep their tools working and your online activities safe. VPN use is exploding in popularity in China and the VPN providers that “get it right” stand to gain considerably.
- see our post ‘Why using a Free VPN is a Bad idea’
Server Locations of the China VPN
Look for a VPN with proxy servers located in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, and West Coast USA (San Francisco/California) or West Coast Canada (Vancouver/British Columbia). This is important for having decent speeds and a good user experience when hooked up to the VPN.
Sign-Up & Payment
Ideally, the VPN’s website won’t be blocked in China. This really helps as it means you can access the VPN’s website directly to sign up, pay and download the necessary VPN software.
If the VPN you are interested in is blocked in China, try using Tor Browser or sign up the next time you are travelling abroad. If Tor browser is blocked from your location in China, try it with the obfsproxy plugin (now included and part of the official Tor Browser packages). You could also try the Japan-based, volunteer VPN network VPN gate (Chinese version). Other times, it may even be possible to contact the VPN provider by email to complete some of the signup steps.
Also choose a VPN with a money-back guarantee. No matter how much research you do, ultimately you simply have to select one and try it out. If, for whatever reason the VPN does not work for you (see ‘warning’ below), ask for a refund: no harm done.
Advanced VPN Features
Although not essential, consider as a bonus when a VPN supports features such as a VPN kill switch and DNS leak protection.
Top Tip – On that note, when trying out the VPN, don’t immediately access controversial websites! Go slow and progressively visit sites that are increasingly likely to be censored.
If (but only if) your activities warrant a heightened level of protection (for example, a dissident), consider running your VPN over Tor or running one VPN overtop another (“double VPN”).
- see our post ‘How to Make a VPN Even More Secure’
Word of Warning!
We would be remiss not to end on a note of warning. We are not claiming any method here will achieve 100% success; no one can claim that and if they do run the other way. The GFoC is a multi-headed monster and an unpredictable one. Methods that work today may not work tomorrow. Even more frustrating is that a method may work in one part of China but may not work in a different part of the country owing to the GFoC’s inconsistent implementation.
Best China VPN Final Thought
Whether you live in China or will soon visit, you will need a VPN if you want to enjoy the websites and online access that many of us take for granted. We won’t lie: finding the right China-friendly VPN for your needs will take a little extra work. But the result is well worth the effort. Increasingly, VPN providers are trying to crack the Great Firewall of China. This can only benefit Chinese VPN consumers in the years to come.
Good luck! / 祝你好运！/ Zhù nǐ hǎo yùn!