The ability to access one’s favorite websites should be a universal right. However, turns out that the Chinese government doesn’t think so. So if you’re traveling to the communist nation for work, vacation or to study Kung Fu, you’ll need a VPN service just to access basic sites like:
These “seditious” websites are considered too dangerous for the public good, which isn’t an excuse that holds up to any kind of intellectually honest scrutiny. So, to help mitigate this lack of transparency, we present the top five VPN services for China.
Luckily, you don’t have to put up with the Chinese government’s restrictive nonsense if you’re not from China, and getting around most website bans with a VPN isn’t particularly difficult. The only tricky part is finding a VPN that actually works in that region, without being blocked itself or bing subjected to furtive scrutiny by the Chinese version of Uncle Sam.
This is because the Chinese government has poured immense resources into identifying and blocking VPN traffic, so users can’t defy state controls on Internet usage. Which means, a VPN for use in China not only has to hide the source and destination of each Internet connection, but it also needs to obscure its identity.
The Chinese authorities have become progressively more adept at identifying VPN traffic, so services that want to gain customers in China have had to become much more stealthier. This cat and mouse game actually helps VPNs improve through investment in new equipment and innovative techniques.
VPN Legality in China
The Chinese government keeps altering the law to discourage the use of VPNs, and although you may be told that VPNs are legal in China, their legality is very much in the gray zone, intentionally.
There are already laws that enable the authorities to arrest people who host VPNs, and fine those who use them. However, the application of such legislation is rather patchy. Usually, the authorities impose more severe restrictions during politically sensitive events.
For example, if the government is showcasing a new policy at the Communist Party rally, they ensure only the official version of “the truth” is accessible to their public.
The law enables local law enforcement agencies to impose fines of between 5,000 ($724.30) and 15,000 ($2,172.91) Yuan on those who use VPNs within China. So, it is important not to get caught. The city of Chongqing now enforces this law assiduously, while other areas of the country are run by police chiefs who are less interested in pursuing Internet renegades.
Rather than convincing VPNs to give up their trade in China, the government’s restrictions have created a test bed for the industry. The resistance to obeying commands does indeed infuriate the Chinese authorities, who’ve hit back by pushing forward the frontiers of digital detection.
These restrictions have been dubbed the “Great Firewall of China,” a popular term that is indeed very apt. Foreign VPNs aim to sneak their customers through parts of the Great Firewall where anyone can get through with ease.
Mapping out the full extent of China’s digital “Great Firewall” takes extensive resources.
It’s an achievement that only the very best, or the very specialized, VPN services have managed to do so far. Some services operate with consistent success in traversing the Great Firewall, and these are the VPNs that you will read about in today’s listicle: the top five best VPNs for China.
ExpressVPN is one of the more expensive VPN services around. However, it is worth paying that little extra when considering its speeds, reliability and customer service, plus the fact that it works very well in China.
Even though ExpressVPN does get periodic outages in the People’s Republic of China, they have proved themselves more competent at switching strategies and reversing cyber-obstacles than any other VPN provider.
When things go wrong, users need to be able to contact a technical help desk.
ExpressVPN has a superb customer service, and they run a string of alternative web addresses to keep their Web presence live, even if their primary address gets blocked.
The support technicians know their stuff and give detailed explanations at any hour of the day.
Detection avoidance is not the only quest for VPN users in China; reports suggest that privacy services are only possible at the silent behest of the authorities.
Why We Like It
In January 2016, Tech in Asia reported on a security weakness in the key exchange procedures of VPNs. Based on tests performed by a Google engineer while in China, the news site concluded that government technicians could crack 1028-bit RSA encryption.
The report also signaled out ExpressVPN as a VPN that uses this level of security to establish encryption procedures for each session. On discovering this chink in their armor, ExpressVPN immediately upgraded to a 4096-bit key.
VPNArea’s website is regularly available within the borders of China, which in itself is a remarkable feat — at the time of this writing, ExpressVPN’s main website is getting blocked in China, but VPNArea is just fine and dandy.
Being able to log into a VPN at all times is important. The site is the primary channel for getting in touch with customer support, although they can also be contacted directly by email or Skype.
When a VPN stops working, the first thing anyone does is check the status of their user account and look out for any dropped service announcements.
The company’s live chat system isn’t manned 24/7. Instead, it’s probably only available for 16 hours per day.
However, getting that service up to round the clock support is a company priority, so that shortfall may already have been fixed by the time you’ve read this review.
Apart from ExpressVPN, all of the VPNs on this list use 2048-bit RSA keys for session establishment.
That’s good enough to keep the Chinese authorities out, although it’s a surprise that VPNArea didn’t match ExpressVPN’s extra secure 4096-bit key.
Why We Like It
VPNArea’s connection only uses the OpenVPN protocol by default, but you can opt to use L2TP or PPTP if your service suddenly stops working.
Switching protocols is often the quickest way to evade a newly imposed government block.
Other security features of VPNArea include:
Private DNS server
IP leak prevention
In addition to being one of the few VPN providers that can provide privacy services in China, it’s also one of the rare ones that sports cross-border access to Netflix.
The fact that VPNArea is accessible from within China is indicative of the commitment it puts into getting over the Great Firewall of China.
Almost everything written about VPNArea applies to NordVPN. It would be difficult to rank one above the other, so it should be said that the two are tied for second place, in this race to prove who’s the best VPN service in China.
NordVPN’s interface is better designed than VPNArea’s. Both, however, are very easy-to-use with big buttons, labeled with no-nonsense titles. The main screen gets dominated by a map of server locations.
You can double click on a server to start using it, and that’s about it. An on/off button at the top will shut the service off for you. NordVPN’s interface is designed to please those who don’t know much about technology and just want a service to work properly without having to check out the system’s guts.
The app’s settings section provides very few customization options, which may annoy the techies amongst us. You’ll find a kill-switch system that only applies to listed applications.
VPNArea is based in Panama, a location that does not legally require digital services companies to keep activity logs.
This fact is crucial because it means the Chinese authorities can’t force them to disclose your activities, even with a court order.
The company’s server network includes locations in Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea. But none in China. You don’t want to connect to a server in China anyway, so these nearby locations should provide the best performance.
Why We Like It
NordVPN is OK with customers using P2P networks to download entertainment.
The VPN can also dodge Netflix’s proxy detection system in the:
NordVPN gets through the Great Firewall of China most of the time.
The app is incredibly easy-to-use, and the company’s server list includes locations conveniently close to China.
And users are given a 30-day money back guarantee, so you’ll get plenty of time to test the service before fully committing.
Look out for the NordVPN 2-year subscription deal, which makes the monthly cost of Internet access from China very cheap.
With TorGuard you can choose a VPN protocol right from the main screen, and decide between OpenVPN or OpenConnect. After that, there’s a choice of encryption standards from a drop-down list, to choose from.
You can also decide whether to run a connection over TCP or UDP. These little changes are necessary because the Chinese government’s technicians go through phases of focusing their attention on one particular protocol at a time.
So, a protocol might work one day, but not the next — slight adjustments in the combination of transmission protocols or encryption methods, can be enough to get a VPN working again.
The Chinese authorities now log the IP addresses of connections when they spot VPN traffic. VPN companies buy thousands of IP addresses and allocate one from a pool to each client connection.
The logging of addresses is a firm and relentless policy that means you might get blocked as soon as you turn on Torguard.
The solution is just to shut down the service and turn it on again and keep doing so until you happen upon an undetected IP address.
TorGuard offers its customers a dedicated IP address as an optional extra. You stand a better chance of getting through the Great Firewall of China with this strategy because you’re not going to be permanently connected to the Internet.
Why We Like It
TorGuard’s technical capabilities means it’s always actively evading the Chinese government’s digital blockades.
The company’s staff’s technological prowess keep this VPN service almost continuously active within the People’s Republic. An additional benefit of the dedicated IP service is that it can get you past the most thorough regional restrictions, on streaming sites in:
However, you have to buy a dedicated IP address in the country of your choice, if you want to access entertainment sites. Which might mean buying several IP addresses if you’re a frequent traveler to authoritarian nations.
Based in Hungary, Buffered VPN has a well-designed app that is very easy-to-use. The company consistently works to keep its service operational in China, which affords is customers lots of uptime in the Republic.
The service’s customer support team is very technically competent, so they can fix any problems you might encounter pretty quickly. The live chat feature isn’t always manned, so you aren’t guaranteed direct around-the-clock support.
Although Buffered’s interface employs OpenVPN (which is the industry standard), they deviate from the rest of today’s VPN services by using Blowfish encryption, instead of the AES standard.
Although AES is said to be the strongest encryption method available, Blowfish comes very close to matching it. This small difference gives Buffered a slight edge when dodging the Chinese authorities.
Knowing that most VPN services use AES, the filtering and inspection methods used by the Chinese focus on detecting the patterns this form of encryption creates. But they haven’t studied Blowfish in-depth, yet. Although it makes the top five VPNs for China, Buffered brings up the rear because its server network isn’t very extensive.
Why We Like It
The Buffered VPN app was specifically designed for smartphones.
If you don’t want to carry a laptop around while traveling, accessing Facebook while in China, on a phone, isn’t impossible anymore.
The service includes a 30-day money back guarantee, which enables you to have an excellent kick of the tires before getting locked in.
Buffered VPN is a well-supported application with a strict no logs policy, and it will get you through the Great Firewall of China. Also, it’s the only VPN service in this article that can access BBC’s iPlayer.
The five VPNs in our review have all proven to get through the Great Firewall of China. No VPN can provide a non-stop service in the Republic, with service levels also varying from city to city.
The severity of the law against VPNs is also uneven across the country.
One thing is for sure, blocks on VPNs are only going to get tougher, and the laws against their use are going to keep on getting harsher still. All of the VPNs in this review succeed in evading detection thanks to the use of “stealth” technology, designed to defeat “deep packet inspection.”
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The Chinese authorities don’t try to crack open the encryption of each Internet transmission, but they have studied the methodologies of VPN services, and they can detect patterns in the binary code that’s contained in a data packet’s payload. These patterns indicate the usage of a VPN and get the packet dropped.
Stealth procedures scramble the encrypted data randomly, therefore evading this DPI test. Have you tried a VPN while in China? Which cities did you visit and what level of success did your chosen VPN have?
Leave a comment below, and share this article with your friends if they’re planning on traveling to China.