Ever since the internet arrived in China in 1996, the government has been cracking down on access, and things aren’t getting any better. The list of banned sites is longer than your arm and Chinese authorities are also insisting that internet service providers clamp down on the use of VPNs.
Nevertheless, some VPNs are still managing to get around the restrictions and the following four services are the best VPNs for China, effortlessly circumnavigating the Great Firewall of China and providing secure, high-speed connections from this politically remote region.
Best VPNs for China
#1 ExpressVPN – Best VPN for China
ExpressVPN is an old hat at getting around censorship and other blocks on content, having been around for a decade already. As such, ExpressVPN is the best VPN for China, because it has the benefit of experience and has managed to outmaneuver Chinese censors on numerous occasions in the past.
ExpressVPN is only too aware of how unstable internet access is in the People’s Republic and constantly monitors the situation in order to keep both residents and visitors connected. Nevertheless, it’s up to the user to ensure that they’re using the latest version if they want to be assured of gaining access to blocked content from China.
Although ExpressVPN has a global server network of over 3,000 servers, it recommends specific servers for users in China. These no doubt change periodically as the IP addresses are blacklisted by Chinese authorities, but they usually include servers in Hong Kong, Japan, and Singapore.
Despite the restricted server choices and locations on offer in China, ExpressVPN nevertheless manages to produce impressive speeds, so you can still stream your favorite US content even while traveling across China.
Using virtually unbreakable AES-256 encryption to secure your online traffic, ExpressVPN makes it very difficult for anyone to see where you’re going or what you’re doing, safeguarding you against the prying eyes of government officials and hackers alike.
ExpressVPN is a powerful and versatile VPN that has proven its no-logging policy in court and created user-friendly apps that are compatible with nearly every operating system known to man. And, even better, they are currently offering 3 months free (49% savings) on their annual subscription plan.
#2 Surfshark VPN – Best Budget VPN for China
Although it’s only been around for a couple of years, Surfshark VPN is proving itself to be a fierce competitor when it comes to providing internet access in China. Perhaps it’s too cunning or too small for Chinese authorities to have noticed, either way, it is consistently unblocking sites that are otherwise banned.
When we say small, we mean small and Surfshark not only has very few subscribers compared to VPN giants like CyberGhost and ExpressVPN, it also has a much smaller network of servers. Although constantly expanding, Surfshark’s network to date consists of just 800 servers but, being as new as they are and relatively uncrowded, they’ll deliver great connections and minimal downtime. Surfshark VPN may impact on connection speeds a little more than ExpressVPN but is still fast enough for you to enjoy streaming and even torrenting while in China.
Surfshark VPN offers an impressive cybersecurity package although without the decade of experience that ExpressVPN boasts. It’s nevertheless a great option for those looking for a budget VPN for China.
#3 CyberGhost VPN – Most User-Friendly VPN for China
30 million people can’t be wrong and that’s how many have chosen CyberGhost VPN as their cybersecurity solution of choice. Established in 2011, CyberGhost VPN has been around long enough to make a few mistakes and learn from them. These days, CyberGhost VPN offers reliable protection against cyber threats and high-speed connections worldwide thanks to an extensive network consisting of over 3,500 servers.
Although CyberGhost has come in for some criticism in the past about its logging policy, it has since adjusted its approach to data retention and is now proudly and reliably a no-logging VPN. One of the reasons for CyberGhost’s popularity is its user-friendly interface which makes establishing a secure connection child’s play.
CyberGhost also has a slightly different approach to online security – rather than focusing on location, it concentrates on function. In other words, rather than selecting the country you want to connect from, you select the activity you want to perform, like streaming or just unblocking basic websites. This makes it an ideal choice for beginners, while its highly customizable features will appeal to the more technologically advanced.
Getting internet access from China with CyberGhost isn’t quite as straightforward as it is with Surfshark as CyberGhost’s higher profile means Chinese authorities have targeted it and tried to prevent it from operating effectively. CyberGhost continues to fight back, however, and its versatility means users can try connecting via a different server or changing the security protocol in an effort to circumvent Chinese censors.
#4 NordVPN – Most Consistent VPN for China
NordVPN has always been at the cutting edge of internet security and is the only VPN to have introduced obfuscated servers which are specifically designed to circumnavigate government restrictions and online censorship. Although NordVPN plays its technology pretty close to its chest, we do know that obfuscated servers disguise users’ traffic by making it resemble normal HTTPS behavior.
While you may not get the fastest connection in the world using NordVPN’s obfuscated servers, you’ll be guaranteed consistent uptime and complete anonymity. NordVPN is quick to download and easy to operate, while its extensive server network means users can connect easily and quickly all over the world.
NordVPN welcomes streaming and has even introduced a feature known as SmartPlay which makes streaming even easier. SmartPlay works quietly in the background, ensuring you get the best and most secure streaming experience, even if accessing US content while traveling overseas.
Like out other best VPNs for China, NordVPN is situated beyond the borders of intelligence sharing alliances like the Five and Fourteen Eyes, meaning that, when it says it doesn’t store any logs, it really means it. Based in Panama, NordVPN offers cutting-edge internet security and state-of-the-art encryption, as well as a range of advanced security features.
With servers in some obscure locations that other VPNs haven’t even heard of let alone utilized, NordVPN is one of the safest options for unblocking content in China. Its graphic interface makes selecting a connection location and even customizing advanced features extremely straightforward. NordVPN even offers free VPN protection for those facing severe censorship.
Is it Legal to Use a VPN in China?
With recent changes to Chinese legislation, this is a bit of a million-dollar question at the moment. In March last year, Chinese authorities increased their stranglehold over internet freedoms by banning all VPNs that do not have government approval. According to China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, Zhang Feng, this means all VPNs need to be officially licensed if they wish to operate within the People’s Republic.
This legislation has already been harmful to some VPNs and ExpressVPN was extremely disappointed when Apple removed its app from its Chinese store, saying it included “content that is illegal in China”. CyberGhost is also pretty pessimistic about the implications of the new legislation on no-logging VPNs and last month posted an article on its Privacy Hub saying, “this new law… imposes a penalty of up to $2,000 for unauthorized use, all but guaranteeing truly anonymous VPNs go bye-bye”.
So, is it legal to use a VPN in China? The answer is still ambiguous. Although the government clearly wants to control internet access, it is also unwilling to ban VPNs outright because they are essential for international business.
Nevertheless, businesses are now required to get clearance from the government if they wish to utilize a VPN. Individual users are still lurking in a grey area where they don’t really need permission from the government to use a service like ExpressVPN but still could end up in hot water as a result.
According to one Chinese travel blog, a couple of local people have been arrested for VPN usage, but no foreign visitors have yet to face such punishment. Although things are liable to change at any time, currently, as a foreigner, you can use a VPN, but it may not be the simplest of procedures unless you opt for one of the best VPNs for China.
Chinese Privacy Laws and Restrictions
Rather than becoming more liberal, Chinese authorities are heading in the opposite direction, escalating internet restrictions and putting increasingly severe limitations on freedom of access and freedom of speech.
Without an operational VPN, Chinese residents and visitors to the country will find their online experience extremely curtailed, with no access to sites such as Facebook, YouTube, OneDrive, Twitter, and pretty much everything Google, including Google Play, Apps, and Google+. This is far from a definitive list of websites currently banned in China but gives you an idea of the type of restrictions you need to prepare for.
The new Cybersecurity Law which was introduced in 2017 continues to play havoc with online freedom in China and, recently started using artificial intelligence technology to seek out and remove banned content on video-streaming sites and social media apps like WeChat.
Although some argue that, in light of Facebook’s recent data breaches and privacy scandals, Chinese authorities show considerable foresight in banning the site, many believe the right to both share and risk our personal data should be ours and ours alone.
Part of the Chinese authorities reasoning for their updated cybersecurity law was to improve data protection and online privacy in an attempt to combat data breaches and other cyber crimes. In this respect, there’s nothing wrong with it per se, and its merely introducing safeguards similar to those already in place in Europe and the US.
There is a darker side, however, and that is the legislation that requires that all data produced or gathered by a Chinese network operator must be stored within the country and be available to law enforcement officials and security investigators to spot-check at any time. In effect, that really does mean the end to no-logging VPNs in China. However, according to NordVPN, if the VPN provider isn’t based in China nor has any servers or offices there, it can’t be held accountable for data it doesn’t collect.
It’s still a risky business, however, and Chinese legislation can be difficult for us Westerners to understand or appreciate. While it’s undeniable that Chinese authorities have something of a stranglehold over internet access and online freedom, the cybersecurity law has some positives as well as negatives, namely the protection of personal data.
Nevertheless, there are still plenty of grey areas and even as new laws require organizations to get user consent before collecting data and agree to delete it on request, existing legislation requires companies to retain user data and allow government agencies access to it.
It’s unlikely that the Chinese government’s position on cybersecurity or internet access will ever be black and white so the best course of action is to make sure you have one of the best VPNs for China already up and running on your device before you enter the country. Once there, keep your head down and your social media activity blandly unpolitical.
How to Access Chinese Streaming Sites from Overseas
You may think that having access to Hulu, Netflix and Disney+ would be sufficient but when you see what Youku has to offer, you might think again. Youku is one of the most popular streaming services in China with a huge collection of films and TV series available at no cost at all. Furthermore, Youku has original content of such high quality, Netflix recently purchased the romantic comedy series, I Hear You from the Chinese streaming service.
In addition to Chinese movies and TV series, Youku also screens popular US content such as the crime thriller The Blacklist, science-fiction drama Almost Human, as well as shows like Sherlock and Downton Abbey from the UK.
The only drawback is, you have to be in China in order to access it. While the likes of NordVPN and ExpressVPN have servers all over the world, even they don’t have servers in China so will not be able to give you a Chinese IP address and get you access to Youku. PureVPN is one of the few with servers inside China, along with Ivacy VPN and HideMyAss VPN. Unfortunately, for people who really want to watch Youku and also travel to China on a regular basis, two VPN subscriptions might be better than one – one for accessing Chinese streaming sites, and another for providing unlimited access to blocked sites while in China itself.
The Best VPNs for China: Don’t Leave Home Without One
Despite the Chinese proverb that says “All things change, and we change with them”, the likelihood of the government making any significant changes to its stance on internet freedoms is highly unlikely. In fact, looking at the developments that have taken place over the past few years, it seems more likely that online freedoms and privacy will continue to be curtailed even further.
Not only could heading to China without a VPN leave you struggling to access sites like the New York Times or Facebook, but it could also leave you vulnerable to government snooping which, let’s face it, is something we’d all rather avoid. With some VPNs struggling to work consistently in the heavily censored People’s Republic, and others leaving you exposed as a result of DNS leaks or a below-par policy on logging, choosing the best VPN for China is vital.
If you’re planning a trip to China, a VPN should be alongside your toothbrush on your list of essentials, although choosing the right toothbrush is considerably easier than choosing the right VPN. As times and legislation continue to change, so many VPNs are failing in China, which is why we recommend ExpressVPN as the best option.
Even if you’re not completely sold on our list of the top four VPNs for China, at least look out for a VPN that has plentiful servers in Asia, military-grade encryption, a strict no-logging policy, and solid leak protection. Don’t be a bull in a China shop – fly under the Chinese radar with a reputable VPN.