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How To Use A VPN in China (And Is It Legal?)

Daren Low
May 25, 2024


Did you know that China is the worst-ranking country when it comes to internet freedom? China uses what we call “The Great Firewall” to ensure that the people within Chinese borders can only access internet content that has been approved by the government.


That said, if you’re a Chinese citizen or a traveler planning on visiting China, you need to know how to use the best VPNs to evade the Chinese Firewall so that you can stay connected to the rest of the world.



This is exactly what we will help you with in today’s article, so do read on!


What Is The Great Firewall Of China?


how to use vpn in china featured image


The Great Firewall of China (established in 1998) refers to the legislative policies, actions, and technology that China uses to restrict its citizens’ access to certain content on the internet.


In other words, the Great Firewall of China is China’s brand of internet censorship. It’s the “shield” that the country uses to supposedly protect its citizens from any information on the internet that may go against the country’s interests.


This geographical censorship or “Geo-blocking” can take many forms. One of the most extreme forms is when the Chinese government completely blocks your access to certain apps and websites. Another form is when the government only restricts your access to specific content from within apps and websites.


The Chinese government also sometimes deliberately slows down certain apps and websites to the point where they become almost impossible to use. Other times, your search query for a particular keyword or website could be redirected to China’s pre-approved version of the results.


It would be impossible to list all of the different keywords, apps, and websites that have been blocked by China’s Firewall, but their primary focus seems to be on:


  • Western news outlets
  • Social media apps
  • Emails
  • Messaging apps


… or any resource that has information that the Chinese government considers as against the nation’s interest.



How Does China’s Great Firewall Work?


So how does China do it? How does it effectively restrict its citizens’ access to so many forms of content on the internet?


Well, there are several methods they employ to enforce their firewall, and each technique is applied to block different forms of content.


To begin, China can monitor all internet traffic coming in and out of the country. This means that the government knows whenever someone in China searches for something discouraged. Using the Great Firewall, they then identify certain keywords and search queries to block the search results.


illustration of how China Great Firewall work

The Chinese Firewall is a serious threat to online data security.


In addition to this, the Great Firewall is sometimes used to block entire ranges of domains and IP addresses, rendering it impossible for its citizens to access those websites/apps without additional software.


The Chinese government doesn’t block all domains and keywords though. Sometimes, it simply manipulates the search results of these queries and redirects you to the approved version of the search results.


Besides that, the Chinese government also conducts deep packet inspections — another invasive method that facilitates the Firewall’s intrusion into people’s privacy online.


The basic idea is this: Whenever you do something on the internet, for example, send a message to your friend, that information is encrypted and sent to your recipient in the form of data “packets.”


Through deep Packet inspections, the Chinese government can inspect these data packets and see what you’re up to online.


There are several other techniques, systems, and hacks that the Great Firewall uses to restrict the country’s internet access, but hopefully, by now, you have a good sense of what the Chinese Firewall is and why it’s so effective.



Is It Legal To Use VPNs In China?


paper with the words illegal being cut in half with scissors


Given how serious China is about restricting its citizens’ internet access, one would expect VPNs to be illegal over there. However, this is not the case.


VPNs are legal in China — however, there are a lot of restrictions regarding which VPNs can be used, who can use them, and in what situations they can be used in.


Let’s start with the first point — that China is selective about the VPNs that can be used. You see, most VPNs are banned in China, as the Chinese Firewall is always at work tracking the access nodes of different VPNs to seal them off.


At the same time though, there are some VPNs that are approved by the Chinese government, making them a hundred percent legal to use.


What factors determine which VPNs receive approval?


Well, most VPNs that allow the Chinese government to have backdoor access to the VPN’s data are branded legal. However, this defeats the purpose of using a VPN to protect privacy.


Next, the Chinese government also imposes restrictions on who can use VPNs and the circumstances they can be used under.


The only reason why China hasn’t banned all VPNs from the country is that Chinese companies and businesses need to use these VPNs to communicate with the external world and keep business going. Even so, they can only legally do so by first seeking the government’s approval.


In the case of Chinese citizens, however, the answer is much more blurry. Citizens are generally discouraged from using VPNs and China enforces this by constantly finding and banning unauthorised VPNs. But in most cases, citizens who use VPNs don’t face any legal consequences.


In politically sensitive areas (like Tibet and Xinjiang), however, citizens have been known to face prison time and pay fines for using VPNs.


What about tourists, you ask? Well, tourists are allowed to use VPNs in China — although it’s best to download the software before coming to China. In politically sensitive areas, even tourists undergo phone inspections where authorities delete all VPN software.



How To Use A VPN In China


Setting up and using premium VPNs is more difficult in China than it is elsewhere.


This is because China blocks access to these VPNs’ websites, meaning you’ll have to leave China’s borders to download the software or use additional third-party software to download these VPNs from within China.


This latter option is risky, and we don’t recommend it — especially if you’re new to it. Your best option is to download your VPN software before entering China.


Once that’s done, the remaining steps are pretty straightforward.


We’ll use the example of ExpressVPN — one of the best tried-and-tested VPNs against the Chinese Firewall — to explain the remaining set-up process:


  1. Open the Express VPN app
  2. Choose a server of a country close to China (i.e. Japan)
  3. If the selected server doesn’t work, try connecting with another nearby server
  4. Click “connect”


expressvpn connected to japan  server

Here’s what it looks like when you’re connected.


It’s as simple as that! Check out our full ExpressVPN review for more info.


How to choose a great VPN in China


Now, let’s talk about the different things you should consider before choosing a premium VPN service.


  1. Consider the VPN’s server locations
    Ensure that the VPN you choose has servers in countries close to China, i.e., in Japan or South Korea. This will ensure better speeds and a more stable connection.
  2. Support for OpenVPN, Lightway, or WireGuard
    These VPN protocols are your best bet against China’s Firewall. So, ensure that the VPN you choose supports these protocols.
  3. Obfuscated servers
    Obfuscated servers are specialized for VPN connections- they’re particularly great at hiding the fact that you’re using a VPN connection.
  4. 24/7 Customer support
    If you encounter any problems with your connection, you’ll need prompt customer support to resolve your issues quickly.



Blocked Sites & Apps You Can Access With A VPN


social media apps

Most social media apps and websites you’re familiar with are banned in China, but you can access them through VPNs.


As we’ve said, it would be impossible to list out every single website, app or keyword blocked by the Great Firewall.


However, the primary focus of the Firewall is blocking things like western news outlets, social media apps, messaging apps, and movie/show streaming services.


Some popular examples of such apps and websites include:


  • BBC News
  • The New York Times
  • The Economist
  • The Washington Post
  • Instagram
  • Facebook
  • Netflix
  • Youtube


All of these sites and apps are blocked by China’s Firewall, but they can be accessed from within China’s borders through the use of VPNs.



How Does A VPN Bypass China’s Great Firewall?


VPN bypass


If the Chinese Firewall is as powerful as it sounds, you might wonder how VPNs can work around it.


They do this in several different ways. Firstly, they encrypt your data. This means that all traffic going in and out through your IP address will be encoded into a language that makes it extremely hard for The Chinese Firewall to decrypt and peep into.


Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, VPNs change your IP address and location. How? Well, normally, when you send a search query through your laptop, your IP address and location are visible to everybody.


When the Chinese Firewall detects a request from within China’s borders to a blocked server, it can see where the request originated from, and it’s able to redirect the request.


VPNs offer a clever workaround to this. With VPNs, when you send a request to a specific site, your request is encrypted and sent through a sort of secret tunnel to an external (out-of-China) server.


That external server then relays your request to the originally intended website, which transmits the requested data back to the VPN server. This data will then be sent through the encrypted tunnel back to you.


Since the “end-point” server gets the request from VPN servers (and not you directly), it appears as though your location is that of the VPN server.



Do Free VPNs Work In China?


Technically, yes, free VPNs do work in China, but for all practical purposes, you should avoid opting for them. Why?


  1. Firstly, free VPNs aren’t as robust as premium VPNs when it comes to privacy protection features, which means that it’s a lot easier for Chinese authorities to decrypt your data and find out what you’re up to.

  3. Secondly, free VPNs are easily detectable, meaning that it is very easy for authorities to trace your location.

  5. Thirdly, free VPNs are unreliable as their connections can often drop randomly during a session, fully exposing your data.

  7. Finally, Chinese authorities are always on the lookout for free VPNs and promptly block all VPN services they disapprove of, once again relating back to the point that free VPNs are unreliable.


For these reasons, we strongly recommend that you opt for premium VPNs instead of free ones.



Some VPNs Are Legal In China, But You Have To Be Careful


To sum up, the Chinese Firewall is real, and it is a serious threat to the online privacy of everyone within China’s borders — foreigners and citizens alike.


Luckily, VPNs can come to the rescue here and help you work around the firewall to gain unrestricted access to the internet. That said, we strongly recommend subscribing to a high-quality VPN before entering or reentering Chinese borders as it will help you stay connected to the rest of the world.


However, do be mindful of the legal restrictions and penalties of using VPNs in your area; we don’t condone using VPNs illegally.




VPN Guides and Best VPN Services

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