Using the internet in China has been a growing challenge for years. More and more sites for social media and search activity have become blocked and the speed of connection is a challenge. The way to overcome this is to use a VPN for China so you can access Facebook, Twitter and more. The reliability of VPNs does change so I was on a quest to find the best VPNs for China during my most recent visit.
The Great FireWall of China
A term which is increasingly used in the west is “the great firewall of China”. This refers to how restricted our use of the internet has become whilst browsing from this country.
I remember only in 2009 it was relatively easy to access and use sites such as Facebook whilst in China. Yet the internet police are now in full force and China blocks you from using sites such as:-
– VOIP sites
and probably a whole host more.
China is in many ways a police state and they want to control what their citizens can and can’t see and do. Like Iran and Turkey, China fears that social media sites (which they can’t control) could become a voice for protest and unrest in their country. They’d much rather their citizens use local social media sites which the government can control and monitor.
There is also a second factor on internet usage in China. The authorities have restricted the bandwidth to access sites hosted outside of China. This makes it a lot slower to load non-chinese websites. In many respects this works since you get tired of waiting for pages to load and your time online can be hours lost just like the olden days of dial up connections.
Whilst China is a very influential economic powerhouse, their internet restrictions are far from favourable to visiting foreigners like myself.
How can you access Facebook and Twitter when in China?
The good news is that there is a way to get around these significant internet restrictions. There is a tool called a VPN which can free up your internet browsing from various location restrictions.
What is a VPN and why should every traveller have one?
VPN stands for Virtual Private Network. This is a dedicated internet routing path to a specified server / servers. By using a VPN you can not only access previously restricted websites, you are also protecting your identity online. This is because it hides your internet browsing and stops hackers from seeing your personal login data and sensitive information.
With a VPN you can also appear to be browsing from a different country or location than you actually are. This is because you appear to be browsing from the country that the server you connect to is hosted in. This is great if you want to access sites which only provide services to internet users in a specific country. For example I use legitimate TV browsing websites such as BBC iPlayer and Sky Sports but they will only stream to users within the UK and Ireland.
Irrespective of where you travel to, everybody should use a VPN service. This is because when you use shared, public networks you are at risk of your computer/tablet/phone etc being hacked. People with not so good intentions can find flaws in public networks. Even if you are just browsing from an airport or Starbucks wifi service you could be at risk.
Choosing the best VPN for China
On my recent trip in November 2014 I knew I would again be using a VPN in China, the question was which one?
There is a wide range of VPN services, varying from free to higher specification paid services.
The Chinese authorities also become wise to the VPN providers and figure out ways to stop them getting through their restrictions.
With all this in mind I was on yet another mission to find the best VPNs for China in 2014.
I detail below my experiences and the service I eventually chose.
Expat Shield is both a free and a paid service. I’d used the free service for many years especially to stream sporting events from such as the Sky Sports website.
Traditionally the problem with these free services is that you can be plagued with lots of interfering pop up adverts. The service can be slow with lots of buffering.
On my previous trip to China I found the service to not be very effective. It was cumbersome and seemed unable to provide access to the restricted social media websites. For a VPN to work in China this came a long way short.
Also since I’d change computers to my new Macbook Air I wanted to use a more trusted VPN service.
When I was previously in Shanghai I asked a fellow travel blogger which service he used. This was his recommendation. He is based in China so would always be a good source to ask.
I used this paid service for a month and must admit that it did allow access to restricted sites. It also allows you to choose from a wide range of servers. This is good because if a lot of people are routing to one server it will slow down, so you need to go to a less busy server which has more bandwidth available.
In spite of all this I often found my VPN internet connection would drop. I would then have to wait for it to reconnect. This proved very frustrating especially if you are in the middle of a Skype call or composing an e-mail.
I’ve been using Tunnel Bear in recent months and up until my time in China I was very happy with it.
Whilst in America I found the speed of connection to be fast and I didn’t suffer from dropped connections. Tunnel Bear VPN was already well regarded in my view.
On the negative side I did discover that with Tunnel Bear I was unable to use the live streaming service from Sky Sports. I guess Sky have figured out the IP address of their UK servers and blocked them? (update July 2015 – I’ve now used the Tunnel Bear VPN service in the US and was able to view Sky channels through the Sky website rather than the SkySports website.)
What I do like about Tunnel Bear is that they have an advert free, unpaid as well as paid subscription service. When you sign up with them you can receive 500 mb of free data a month. However if you tweet them and ask you will receive an extra 1 gb of data a month. (This is a special promotion they run at the moment and may not be around long term.) If they are really nice they might even give you more data 🙂
Knowing that Tunnel Bear worked for me until now I thought I would try it in China. The good news is that it immediately provided me with access to Facebook and Twitter plus other blocked sites.
The bad news is that the connection kept dropping, just like with Express VPN. This meant I had to look elsewhere.
A UK colleague of mine told me that she uses Hola all the time for Netflix and other streaming sites. This is a free extension / plugin that you add to your browser such as Firefox. It is then easy to select the country you would like to appear to be coming from and then browse safely.
Well I’ve tried Hola a few times and never been impressed. Yes, it is quick and easy to use. However it never worked for me on streaming sites.
In China, Hola just wouldn’t load at all and always asked to be reloaded. It was a non-starter for me.
They say when in Rome do as the Romans do. Well I wasn’t quite in Rome, yet I thought it worthwhile to ask someone based in Shanghai what he used. If someone locally uses it then it could well be a good VPN for visiting China.
My colleague told me that he’d been using Astrill for about 10 months. It is a paid service which he found to be relatively fast. He was also able to stream BBC iPlayer, although there was a fair amount of buffering.
He then sent me an invitation for a free trial so I could see what it was like.
As usual, I performed a search for online reviews to understand what other people thought of the service. Naturally those on the Astrill site were all glowing reviews.
However an independent review website was very negative.
Every single review slated the company. People talked of extremely rude support staff, people having their subscription plans cancelled suddenly without any refund for the unused portion. It didn’t make pretty reading.
I shared this with my colleague.
His response was that most people only post negative reviews. He’d used the service for nearly a year. He was happy with it and most of the people he knew used it.
With this in mind I thought I’d give his invitation to a free trial a go. What harm could it do?
Once I clicked on his link I was immediately taken to a pricing plan page. The shortest price plan was for 3 months. Most VPNs offer 1 month plans upwards rather than starting at 3.
I also wanted to use the free trial yet this was not showing on the page I was linked to.
I went to their online chat to find out more.
I must admit that I found the online chat representative was very polite, so no experience of rude customer service for me.
The chat representative said that he would set me up for the free trial, I just need to complete the registration details.
At this point, the registration kept defaulting my address country details to China, since that is where I was browsing from. It also insisted upon a telephone number.
Whilst completing this process I explained 3 times to the online chat representative that my phone was in the UK. I did not have my phone with me. (I didn’t want to give my work mobile phone number since this is only for work use.) I’m also very sceptical of giving out phone numbers as I fear the number will be sold on and I’ll receive lots of marketing phone calls.
The mention of my phone being back in the UK was not acknowledged for the 3 times that I advised of this. It was only then at the end that the representative told me that he needed to send a verification code to my phone to complete the process of my registration.
I was uncomfortable with giving out my phone number so agreed to leave the process there. I would come back to them if I didn’t find an alternative.
Yes, this is a very memorable name but also now my VPN service of choice.
After researching online I found out that this is one of the biggest global players in non-commercial VPN services.
They score very highly in customer reviews, plus they have the following features which really appealed to me:-
– it can work on any browsing device
– they have the largest range of servers out of any VPN provider you will find on the net. They have 732 servers across 230 locations in 128 countries! (- at the time of writing.) That means they can provide you with over 95,000 IP addresses! So you could basically surf as if you were in almost any location!
– they show you the 10 fastest VPN servers closest to you. Also, if there is a heavy load on one server they will notify you and suggest a different server in the same city/country of your choosing.
– their price plans start from 1 month. However, there is a 30 day trial period for new users. So you can pay for 1 month; if you don’t like it during this time you can cancel and get your money back.
I was sold on the information above and encouraged by the user and professional reviews I’d read online.
I signed up for the service and downloaded the application needed.
As I started using the service I found it very quick compared to normal browsing speeds in China. It was also a reliable connection, it didn’t drop off like Express VPN or Tunnel Bear did. I could be connected without interruption for more than an hour or two.
I did however quickly discover that I was unable to access Google, plus social media sites.
I raised a ticket with their customer service querying if there was an issue with the settings.
Admittedly I raised the ticket on a Sunday when I suspect their customer service was closed.
My ticket was picked up on the Monday and I had an e-mail response on the Tuesday. Admittedly this is not 24/7 service which I would prefer, however the reply resolved my issue first time. (Since this time I have been able to have immediate customer support chats with HMA as and when needed. I’ve always found them polite, informative and incredibly helpful. Every query that I have raised (few as they have been) were resolved there and then.)
I was provided with very detailed instructions and screenshots (which I love) telling me how to change my DNS settings on my computer.
Once I had performed this 2 minute task I was done. The service worked! And it worked really well.
I’m now safely and reliably surfing the internet from China with a Virtual Private Network.
I am very happy with the service and can even stream Sky Sports!
I’m more than happy to recommend Hide My Ass as the best VPN for China in my personal experience.
If you want a secure, reliable VPN network then you can sign up here for Hide My Ass. (affiliate link)