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Packing for China: Did you bring your VPN?
by Joseph Nicolai - Feb 26, 2015
If you ever wondered why your favorite social media was not accessible within Mainland China it is because there are strict internet controls within the country. While many come to the country to go see the Great Wall of China, another impressive infrastructure is what is colloquially called the Great Firewall of China (Fánghuǒ Chángchéng; 防火长城). If you come to China and use the internet you will meet this "great wall" - wether you are aware of it or not. Officially known as the Golden Shield Project (Jīndùn Gōngchéng; 金盾工程), it is this “other” great wall that blocks many of your favorite websites within the Mainland.
A lot can be said and has been said about this “shield” - and a lot has - but what is often overlooked that the Great Firewall is simply a great business model for Chinese companies. Blocking competitor websites from overseas, their Chinese counterparts have been able to secure the lion’s share of the market while they developed in the safety of a very large, and equaly safe, Petri dish. Regardless of this side of the business - or this side of the wall if you will - VPN’s are often seen as a must have for travelers and long time expats in China.
When China first blocked Facebook it was greeted by some here as a kind of novelty among the expat population. Not many people suspected it would come as the first in a long list of sites and applications to be blocked. While the list of blocked sites is always changing, and having a VPN provides no foolproof guarantees, it is guaranteed that without a solid VPN (virtual private network) you will not have regular access to your favorite social media.
The technical side of things can be complicated to explain. While there are a whole bunch of services that have become colloquially called “VPNs”, there are many services that most people call a VPN is in fact not, technically speaking, a VPN but rather a jumbled bag of other services, such as a variety of proxy/change of DNS applications. However they work their magic it does feel great to get access to social media in the middle kingdom. You won’t know what you miss until you can no longer access it. If you want to test your ability to stay away from social media, coming to this country for a trip without pre-installing a VPN is a great way to do it.
Like what I mentioned earlier, the list of what is blocked always changes, and sometimes – such as what happened in January 2015 – even some tried and true VPNs were having trouble getting across the great firewall. If you want to have a smooth experience surfing the full web while in China, be sure to set up your VPN service before you go as some websites and searches may be blocked once you arrive. Searching for a VPN service within China’s great firewall may be a very long and unnecessary process – so do plan ahead.
What to Expect from VPN Services
Buying a VPN service will help you get access to the outside internet world but it won’t perform miracles. There are reasons why it’s called a great firewall and sometimes you simply won’t be able to access the greater wide web. While every once in a while you may suddenly find when using the Wi-Fi at certain hotels access to Facebook and the like unfettered - it is rare and patchy so don't count on it. This unfettered access at certain locations is due to a plethora of complicated policies that allow certain international zones to have access to the greater wide web. This access sometimes extend to local appartment buildings near the hotels in question.
Another factor to take into consideration when it comes to your expectations is place. Depending on where you are in China, the connection might just be very slow regardless if you use a VPN or not. This review was written in a posh Beijing neighborhood with high quality internet connection and not a rural area that first saw a computer installed only five years ago. A VPN service cannot make your local internet connection – wherever that may be – work “faster”. It can, however, allow you to visit sites that you would never normally be able to access over whatever internet connection you end up using at a given moment. With regards to VPNs installed on smartphone connection also depends on your service provider and your cell phone. VPN service providers often get calls or complaints that their service is “slow” but just as often it is the internet connection that the user happens to be logged on to that is slow. As an analogy, VPN service are like a good pair of tires that allow you to pass through the rugged terrains of censorship, however good it may be they are still reliant on whichever engine you may have at a given moment.
With this in mind, it may also be worth taking into consideration choosing the right smartphone to bring with you on your trip to China as some devices may not be compatible with services offered by local telecom companies. My friend who recently bought their Apple Iphone 6 plus from Canada when they decided to move to China, was appalled to learn that her device – built for the north American market - was not yet compatible with China Telecom’s services. She planned ahead, pre-installed the VPN, but is accessing the “world wide web” on a lawnmower sized engine: 2G. In any case, smartphones and their Chinese services is a matter for a future review. Now, back to VPNS:
VPNs in China
There are many providers offering VPN services that work in China that can be separate in two categories: premium services & free services.
Pros: Communicative, great customer service, fast, allows for multiple simultaneous connections & has the best device compatibility in town (Nokia/Blackberry users rejoice!)
Cons: Why didn’t we hear about them earlier?
Here at Panda Guides we voted 12VPN as being the best service to use when living or traveling in China. Based in Hong Kong they are well aware of what is happening in the mainland and they are personally - rather than theoretically - aware of VPN issues that are China-specific. Given their proximity to China they also have a keen interest in ensuring high quality China VPN services. This translates to a high level of attention to China related VPN issues. Another major plus in our eyes is that anytime there are issues with their servers they often let users know instead of letting us remain in the dark. While as a user of 12VPN you might take this for granted but this level of communication is quite unlike other services that won’t even tell you their servers are down and where not one care is usually given. Their plug-in for Google Chrome is foolproof in terms of ease of use and, quite unlike other VPNs out there, they also service (by far!) the largest variety of devices. We also quite like their well priced mobile only VPN service that fits the needs for many travelers & expacts who do most of their social media from the tips of their fingers. Their attentive customer service was remarkably helpful in getting us through the VPN installation process on our devices - so don’t be afraid to contact them to help you set up, you might also learn a thing or two during the process, we learned to love 12VPN.
Conclusion: 12VPN gets first place as Panda Guides favorite VPN service for the “heavenly kingdom” - especially for Smartphone travelers. Check them out here.
Pros: Easy set-up with great apps for tablets/smartphones.
Cons: It’s not free.
In 2009 Vypr VPN opened its doors. Their app is one of the best – in the same league with PandaPow - in terms of sheer simplicity of use. After downloading the VyprVPN app (they are limited to Android and iOS compatibility) simply log in and you are ready to go. If you are using an Android device make sure to download the app before your trip as the Google store is blocked in China. If you’re using a PC or a Mac the software is fairly easy to install even for the technologically challenged. While relatively unknown in the past, in recent years they have improved and are now a major player in the VPN scene. A subsidiary of its well established parent company GoldenFrog they are quite reliable. If you want to try them out they have a 3 day free trial period which might be worth it.
Conclusion: Easy to use, reliable and professional, at a price.
Pros: As a well established VPN service it offers great customer service.
Cons: A limit to simultaneous connections (two devices).
If you are bringing your computer with you they offer a downloadable client that allows you to do some tweaking with your VPN service. The terminal is a bit complex if VPN's are still new for you and so the "tool" may be more of a hassle than anything. They have a lot of available servers to choose from but China users would probably rely on their servers in Hong Kong and the US West Coast. Like many of the others, ExpressVPN offers dedicated apps for Android and iOS devices that saves time in manually setting up your VPN. The limit the number of simultaneous usage from devices can be a major pain if you are traveling in a group or are simply a tech enthusiast such as myself.
Conclusion: If you are traveling solo it can be good - but the limit to the number of devices (2) is a pain if you travel as a group or if you are a techie.
Pros: Professional apps for tablets/smartphone make PandaPow Easy to Set-up.
Cons: Its yearly subscription service is not great for short term travelers.
PandaPow is fairly flawless in terms of ease of use. It is pretty fast and a money back guarantee means if you want to test it out before you commit means you will be in the clear.If you have no interest in knowing how to set up a VPN and just want to use it, PandaPow is great, as their apps make it very easy to set up a connection and get started. . Does it matter if PandaPow offers three types of VPN protocols (OpenVPN, PPTP and L2TP)? It does, but if you just want to use a VPN without any hassle of learning how to set up a VPN – a process that should normally take no more than a few minutes - then PP is a great service.
Conclusion: Easy to use, reliable and professional.
Pros: Tried, tested and relatively cheap.
Cons: Not the best for the smartphone users if they are not at least a little tech-no savy and not the best for short time visitors in China.
WiTopia has been a tested and true friend of long term expatriates in China. One of the only services offered in the early days of the Great Firewall, it was at one time the dominant player in the VPN scene. Because of increasing competition WiTopia is no longer the king in the castle in terms of cornering the market. For desktop use WiTopia is easy to configure but for mobile use it may be a source of headaches unless you are a little tech-savvy or want to spend some time with WiTopia’s customer service.
Conclusion: Great for long term expats but beware smartphone touting tourists.
Pros: A lot of people use and trust them.
Cons: Customer service can be very slow.
Astrill’s services are specifically optimized for China as they have invested heavily in buying bandwidth in local Asian countries. Unlike some other companies that provide fake server locations – we won’t name names – Astrill’s server list is legitimate. Astrill has an established following in some expat circles in China and one of the reasons may be because the company is registered in the Seychelles and is therefore, unlike many Chinese-based companies, able to refuse government requests to hand over various information. While in our initial review we knocked them for their poor customer service our most recent experience with them tells us otherwise and their several support offices around the world do work, 99% of the time. They are very professional.
Conclusion: Large companies can have cracks, and you may find yourself in one, but by-and-large you can expect Astrill to deliver.
Pros: No software needed & their two month service is ideal for those staying a short time in China.
Cons: Their browser method is great for Facebook but may be too difficult to use with some other social media.
SecuriTales is a little different than the other “VPNs” reviewed in that it its access is made through their web page platform. Simply put, instead of downloading software and running it on your computer or phone you log in to their website and browse the greater wide web within it. If you want to give it a try, they offer one a one month trial service for free & their services are very reasonable, starting at $16 for two months.
Conclusion: Great and cheap for casual internet browsing but may not be useful for some social media.
Cons: Service can stop intermittently (can be days at a time). Advertisements can make an already slow internet connection even more slow/unusable.
Hotspot Shield is the Russian roulette of VPNs in China. Can work a day out of seven or work every day for months at a time. Not one care is ever given either way. Completely unreliable for business purposes or even hassle free internet browsing, it is what it is: free. However as we have been told many times before, freedom comes with a price. Hotspot’s price is we have to suffer through various advertisements in order to “earn” this service - when it works.
Conclusion: It’s unreliable and comes with ads - but it’s free.
Pros: Free & fairly easy to use.
Cons: Intermittent availability & slow when accessing Chinese sites.
Freegate is a software application developed by Dynamic Internet Technology (DIT) that enables internet users to access the world wide web without restrictions. It is a pretty powerful tool to get intermittent access to overseas sites. While more of a proxy service than a true VPN, Freegate is free. While less popular among the expat population it is hugely popular with Chinese locals who don't mind or can't afford waiting for it to work. If you really don’t want to spend money and don’t mind possibly not having access to western social media, this is probably the best way to go at it. But if you have certain responsibilities and getting that Google access is a part of them definately go for something more reliable like 12VPN.
Conclusion: Your best bet if you are on a no budget and don’t mind fiddling with the service that can be unstable and/or unsuable.