Every traveler needs a VPN for China, but it’s not always easy to know what is the best option.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re coming as a tourist, a student, an English teacher or even to do business, the need for a Virtual Private Network or “VPN” in China is universal. At this point, China censors so much of the internet that it affects every single foreigner who enters the country.
Personally, I’ve used a VPN in China for many years, and it has been important to give me access to my corporate email (which is Google-based), VoiP calling, and even the guilty pleasure of social media (Facebook, Instagram, etc.).
Without a VPN, all of these services would be inaccessible in China.
Personally, I pay for subscriptions to both of these VPNs (one as a backup), and I recommend them because they’ve worked consistently in China and they both offer 30-day money back guarantees in case you don’t like them.
Now as you read down further, I’m going to walk through why you might need a VPN for China, some tips you need to known before using a VPN in China and finally a deeper review of my recommended options. Enjoy!
*Full Disclosure* Some of the links in this article are affiliate links, which means that I may receive compensation if you choose to use services listed here. I don’t recommend anything I don’t personally use, however, and I’m very grateful for your support to keep this site free!
Why Do I Need a VPN in China?
This is a great question: do you really need a VPN at all when traveling around China?
My answer is typically a resounding yes. However, I admit that’s because I want to access websites and apps that are blocked in China like Instagram, Gmail, WhatsApp, and YouTube just to name a few.
But let’s be honest – access to these email and social sites isn’t absolutely necessary. I’ve lived without the internet for a few months before and, believe it or not, I didn’t die. If you think you can stomach a few weeks without sharing updates about your trip on social media, I do see tons of value in finding your inner zen through a technology detox while traveling through China.
Consider this, though: Countries like China have popularized the use of VPNs for the purpose of evading censorship, but the real reason for a Virtual Private Network is security.
As you travel outside of your home country, much of the internet you use will be connecting to public WiFi. Whether you realize it or not, these public connections are NOT secure and leave you vulnerable to hacks, stolen passwords, and worse.
VPNs were developed to encrypt your data so that no matter where you’re connecting from, the data you transmit (banking info, passwords, emails) remains private. It’s just an added bonus that this technology also help you tunnel past internet censorship!
If you’re still with me, I imagine you’ve decided you need a VPN. So, now let’s go over the basics of the best VPNs for China.
China Internet Basics and VPN Tips
After having run an online business in China for many years, I’ve learned a lot about how to cope with China’s internet and how to find/use a good VPN. Hopefully, you’ll find these tips valuable as well.
So, let’s go through these tips one-by-one to bring you up to speed.
#1: China’s Internet Isn’t Centralized
Most people I speak with see China’s internet – or any nation-state internet – as a centralized system, meaning they think it’s all controlled through a single entry/exit point somewhere in Beijing.
Unfortunately, that’s not the case. While officials in Beijing certainly set the tone and make orders about what should be blocked and censored, it’s really up to the provinces and counties to police their own internet.
What does this mean for you, a traveler in China?
It means that the internet across China isn’t uniform and what opens and works in one city doesn’t always open and work in another. It also means that the IP addresses for some VPNs (which is the way they connect to the outside world) might get blocked without any warning.
It’s important to find a VPN that focuses specifically on the China market.
It’s no secret that the Chinese government isn’t a fan of VPNs (even though its government officials may use them). To prevent ordinary Chinese citizens from using VPNs, the Chinese government is always re-tweaking its Great Firewall whenever a VPN provider manages to patch a hole through it.
I’ve often described the relationship between the Chinese government and VPN providers as one that is always fighting a war of attrition. That’s why you need a VPN with a dedicated, staffed, and well-resourced team to consistently develop improvements to their software to get you over the Great Firewall.
Anyone else in the VPN market not focused on the Chinese market cannot keep up with the Chinese government’s own tech improvements to its Internet censorship.
#2: Free VPNs and Proxies Suck
Often times, my readers ask me if a free VPN will work for them in China. My answer is always the same, free VPNs and proxies suck.
Remember that China is always revamping the Great Firewall to restrict content it deems sensitive for its citizens. The investment to make the Great Firewall ever taller is tremendous.
With that said, do you think free VPNs can make enough money to pay good engineers to compete with the Chinese government?
Hopefully you’re nodding with me in agreement. If not, you’re welcome to try your free VPN of choice, but be warned that it likely won’t work when you arrive in China. Or if it somehow does, they’ll be selling your information to the highest bidder.
#3: China’s WiFi Often Requires a Chinese Phone Number
I get a number of people who write and ask about China’s WiFi connectivity. The good news is that China’s wifi network is growing at an amazingly rapid pace. Airports, coffee shops, and shopping malls are usually all providing free WiFi.
But there’s a catch.
Usually, these WiFi networks require a mobile text-generated passcode in order to log on. If you don’t have a Chinese phone number, you can’t use the WiFi.
There are ways to connect your phone in China or to purchase a Chinese phone number, but just be aware that not all WiFi will allow you to connect in China.
#4 Install a VPN on all Your Devices BEFORE Leaving for China
My last piece of advice for you is to sign-up and install your VPN on all devices and phones for China before you leave.
In recent years, the Chinese government has blocked all VPN provider websites to limit its citizens from accessing the Internet beyond the Great Firewall. VPNs have responded by randomizing their URL connections, but it’s still a risk to arrive in China and hope you can download and install a new VPN.
So, do yourself a favor and make sure you download and install your VPN for China on all your devices before boarding your plane!
My Favorite VPN for China
Now having gone through all my top tips, I want to share with you what I consider to be the best VPNs for China. These are also VPNs I have used in my daily life for years and continue to trust.
ExpressVPN – Recommended VPN for China (3 Months Free!)
You’ll often read in the news each year when China’s People’s Congress convenes that the Internet is under tight lockdown bringing all VPNs out of service.
Well, while lots of VPNs have gone out of service during these points in time, ExpressVPN has consistently worked at keeping foreign expats connected to the outside Internet.
For me, that’s a true testament on how reliable ExpressVPN is for China and the high-speeds you see when using the service is another perk that distinguishes it from the competition.
ExpressVPN is also super easy to install and when you’re incredibly busy planning your trip to China, not having to worry about configuring the VPN on your multiple devices is a huge win.
So for me, ExpressVPN is my top pick hands down!
Special Discount: If you want to try ExpressVPN, they have provided a special deal for readers of China-Mike. If you use this link to visit ExpressVPN, they will give you 3 months free on an annual plan!
NordVPN – Recommended VPN for China (up to 75% off)
Remember when I was telling you that you need a VPN that is focused on the China market? NordVPN is among those providers.
NordVPN is well aware that China’s Internet restrictions vary across the country and has created its Obfuscated Servers feature to account for this and keep you connected to VPN servers from China.
They are also quick to adapt whenever the Chinese government makes upgrades to the Great Firewall, which checks my selection criteria box that your VPN provider should have a dedicated team to respond to improvements in the Great Firewall.
Having used NordVPN for many years now, I’ve always been satisfied with their service and really enjoy the look and feel to the NordVPN apps.
Conclusion | Best VPN for China
You don’t have to let China’s Great Firewall prevent you from accessing your favorite websites and apps in China. Instead, take my tips and suggestions and get yourself one of the best VPNs for China.
As a final tip, I often tell people to purchase both ExpressVPN and NordVPN (since they both have 30-day guarantees) and then see which one works best when they arrive. Better yet, you can do what I do and keep both so that you have a backup in case one goes down during your trip.