Can you use a VPN in China in 2023?

The Great Firewall is the main reason you’d want a VPN in China: the former restricts your access to online platforms or data, and the latter opens up the gate to information freedom. Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) are easy to install and configure to conceal your location, protect your data, and access websites and other web content. But are VPNs legal in China? Do they work? Let’s get into it.

Table of contents

    What is the Great Firewall of China?

    China’s Great Firewall, also known as the Golden Shield Project, is an internet censorship and surveillance project. It blocks web pages and content that might result in anti-government sentiment. This means that it restricts Chinese citizens from accessing certain foreign websites, including Google, Facebook, and YouTube. It is the world’s largest national firewall. 

    The government claims that this firewall exists to create a sense of unity among Chinese citizens. How? By not providing access to content that may promote hatred, disturb the established social order, advocate terrorism, and several other reasons.

    Why you need a VPN in China

    So officially, the Great Firewall of China is used to crack down on terrorism and such. But in practical terms, the system uses various methods to block content, including: 

    • Limiting access to foreign websites and news sources;
    • Using automated algorithms that detect forbidden content and keywords on social media;
    • Filtering online search results that are deemed unfriendly or harmful to the government.

    Overcoming such limitations is what VPNs are used for in regions with oppressive internet restrictions.

    Basically, you want a VPN so you could post on Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram as if you were at home. It’s necessary to read your usual news websites, like BBC. And if you want to chill out at your hotel on a rainy day and go to Twitch, Discord, or DeviantArt, you’ll also need a VPN.

    Are VPNs in China illegal?

    A red gavel representing the censorship coming from the CCP.

    Short answer: VPNs are not illegal in China, but their use is heavily restricted.

    Long answer: Using a VPN in China is not officially illegal. China allows VPN providers to operate as long as they cooperate with the state, which defeats the privacy purpose of having a VPN in the first place. Many VPN services are banned, and the government often threatens to block VPNs altogether.  

    The Chinese government has even gone as far as removing all VPN apps from China’s Apple Store. 

    So, why doesn’t China block VPNs and VPN software altogether? 

    Well, it’s because VPNs are required for business in China, particularly international trade. 

    VPNs protect data sent between China and the rest of the world. Shutting down all VPNs in China would drastically limit the ability of global companies to conduct business in China.

    There are still many inconsistencies regarding individual rights versus business rights for using a VPN. But, it’s important to note that to date, no foreign VPN users have ever been punished for using a VPN while traveling in China unless they were using it to speak out against the state or the Chinese government. 

    Does a VPN work in China?

    Some VPN providers do work in China, but you can’t have VPN server locations in the country unless you play by the government’s rules. And even if you do, there are issues with the VPN services. 

    The Great Firewall is constantly adapting. China’s tactics are sophisticated, and they find new ways to limit their citizens’ access to the internet. That’s why patterns of what does and does not work in terms of VPNs are inconsistent and difficult to detect or analyze. 

    The biggest problem is that it’s possible to distinguish VPN usage from the regular traffic. So, it has become a constant battle between VPN providers and the Chinese government. It’s interesting to note that there are additional issues with VPN connections during China’s more significant national holidays, like the Chinese Communist Party’s anniversaries.

    And here’s another fun fact. No free VPN services work in China — their internet authorities easily detect free VPNs. In China, connecting to a VPN requires obfuscated servers and connection protocols far beyond the basic encryption used by free VPNs. 

    Does Surfshark work in China?

    While we cannot guarantee flawless access at all times due to external factors beyond our control, we strive to provide the most reliable and consistent service possible. We continuously invest in cutting-edge technologies and adopt innovative strategies to maintain our service’s stability and effectiveness.

    How to choose the best VPN for China

    If you’re getting a VPN for China, you better subscribe to one before getting there. And then you want a very secure VPN, which rules out the free offers. So here are a few recommended features to be on the lookout for: 

    NoBorders mode

    NoBorders lets you use Surfshark in geo-restricted areas. If you try to use Surfshark in China, our app detects this and immediately switches to NoBorders mode. This provides you with a list of servers that function well with network constraints.

    Kill Switch

    Kill Switch protects your privacy by disconnecting you from the internet if your VPN connection drops. This ensures that our industry-leading encryption and security measures always secure your important data. So even if the VPN connection is spotty in China, you won’t be unprotected. 

    RAM-only servers

    If all servers run on volatile (RAM) memory, any data on the hard disk is immediately erased when a server is shut down. Therefore, no one can physically take data from servers. All Surfshark servers are RAM-only. 

    No-logs policy

    No-log VPN providers don’t record your online movements or behavior. The VPN server only maintains enough data to keep your VPN connection active and deletes it afterward. This protects the users’ IP addresses and browsing data from falling into the wrong hands.

    Camouflage mode

    From the outside, Camouflage mode makes your connection seem a conventional internet connection. It does so by eliminating any VPN traces using the OpenVPN VPN protocol. This option doesn’t compromise your security in any way.

    Tips to use and connect to a VPN in China

    If you’re planning to travel to China and think you might need a VPN, I recommend setting one up beforehand. Otherwise, you might not be able to access your VPN provider’s website. Also, make sure you get all devices you’re planning to use covered (mobile, laptop, tablet, etc.)

    If you’re already in China (or live there), here are some tips on how to get and use a VPN

    • Try the manual download and setup. Since access to websites and apps is often restricted, look for manual setups online. If you can’t access the website, you can contact your VPN provider via email (e.g., [email protected]) and ask them to send you the manual config and a guide.
    • Use the OpenVPN protocol. Surfshark’s OpenVPN protocol was designed to obfuscate your connection. This means that whoever’s monitoring your traffic won’t see that you’re using a VPN.
    • Use the NoBorders mode. If you’re using the app, make sure to turn on the NoBorders mode. This will show you a list of servers that work best under government restrictions.

    What websites are blocked in China?

    The internet is an integral part of our everyday lives. So much so that we often take what we can access on the internet for granted. Unfortunately, several popular websites are blocked by The Great Firewall in China. Take a look at some of them below. Do you see any websites that you frequently visit? 

    Blocked websites in China

    The New York Times

    Some of these sites may be surprising, and this list doesn’t even scratch the surface of China’s internet restrictions. However, you can use a VPN to solve the blockage issue.

    Can I still use my other apps if I’m traveling to China?

    What apps you can and cannot access or use in China entirely depends on if they’re restricted by the government.

    Luckily, the same rules apply to apps as to websites. You can access most of your apps with a VPN, even if they’re restricted in China.

    Can I bypass the Great Firewall without a VPN?

    Yes, you can bypass the Great Firewall without a VPN. The most common ways to do that are:

    • Use The Onion Router (Tor). Tor is a browser that redirects your traffic through different nodes around the world. Its biggest downside is that it’ll slow down your internet speed immensely. That’s why many people prefer to use a VPN over Tor. If you want to learn more about this, check out our Tor vs. VPN article.
    • Use a proxy. Proxies work similarly to VPNs. They can help you avoid censorship, but will generally leave your connection unsecured. Take a look at our Proxy vs. VPN article if you’re interested in learning more about their differences. 

    Both methods can help you avoid censorship. However, they pale against a good VPN service in terms of performance or security.

    In conclusion: a VPN is the best solution for internet access in China

    Want access to the unrestricted internet? Turn to VPN providers who protect your freedom whether you’re living in or traveling to China. We take precautions to ensure that your private data is safe, even if you get disconnected from your VPN.

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    Can I use a VPN in China?

    Yes, you can legally use a VPN in China. However, the Chinese government only approves VPNs that comply with its requirements and bans those who don’t. Chinese citizens are more likely to face charges for using unsanctioned VPNs than foreigners. 

    Do free VPNs work in China?

    Free VPNs are unlikely to work in China unless they’re free VPNs approved by the Chinese government. Such VPNs won’t give you the privacy you desire or give you access to blocked news websites and social media apps.