China is known for having some of the strictest internet censorship laws in the world. The Chinese government uses The Great Firewall of China to restrict access to information and monitor the internet traffic of its citizens.
Many people get around these restrictions by using a Virtual Private Network (VPN). VPNs are easy to install and configure to conceal your location, protect your data, and unblock websites and other web content.
However, VPNs are a taboo topic in China, and whether you can use one or not depends on many factors. This often raises a lot of questions. Are VPNs legal in China? Do they work at all? Let’s get into it.
What is the Great Firewall of China?
China’s Great Firewall, also known as the Golden Shield Project, is a 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.
This system uses a variety of methods China use 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.
Are VPNs in China illegal?
Short answer: VPNs are not illegal in China, but their use is heavily restricted.
Long answer: 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. Using a VPN in China is not officially illegal, but 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?
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 foreigners 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 VPNs do work in China, but you can’t have VPN servers there unless you play by the government’s rules. And even if you do, there are constant issues with the VPN services.
The Great Firewall is constantly adapting. China’s tactics are sophisticated, and they always find new ways to limit their citizens’ access to the internet. Hence why patterns of what does and does not work are inconsistent and difficult to detect and analyze.
The biggest problem is that you can distinguish VPN traffic from normal traffic. So, it becomes a constant battle between VPN providers and the Chinese government.
However, it’s interesting to note that there are additional issues with VPN connections during China’s more significant national holidays, like the communist party’s anniversaries.
And here’s another fun fact. There are no free VPN services that work in China. In China, connecting to a VPN requires obfuscated servers and far beyond the basic encryption and connection protocols used by free VPNs. China’s internet authorities easily detect free VPNs.
Does Surfshark work in China?
Yes, Surfshark works in China. Sometimes the connection may prove inconsistent, but it’s true for all VPN providers, even if they claim otherwise. However, we’re always on the lookout for connection issues and how we can fix them. We use the following methods to ensure our users are always protected, even with an inconsistent connection:
NoBorders enables you to 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 protects your privacy by disconnecting you from the internet if your VPN connection stops. This assures that our industry-leading encryption and security measures always secure your important data.
Because 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.
A no-log VPN does not trace your online movements or behavior. Instead, the VPN server only maintains enough data to keep your VPN connection active and then deletes it. This protects IP addresses and internet traffic from snoopers, including internet service providers.
From the outside, Camouflage mode makes your connection seem to be a conventional internet connection by eliminating any VPN traces using the OpenVPN VPN protocol. This option does not 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 suspect 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 like 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 set up. 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 for granted what we can access on the internet. Unfortunately, several popular websites are blocked by The Great Firewall in China. Take a look at some of these websites in the table below. Are there any sites that you frequent?
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 reliable VPN to access blocked websites.
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 also apply to apps as they do 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, I invite you to check out our Tor vs. VPN article.
- Use a Proxy. Proxies work similarly to VPNs. They can help you bypass 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 bypass censorship. However, they both pale against a good VPN service in terms of performance or security.
A Virtual Private Network is the best solution for internet access in China
Want access to the free and unrestricted internet? Get a VPN that fights for your freedom whether you’re living in or traveling to China. We take precautions to ensure that your private data is always protected, even if you get disconnected from your VPN.