Do you want to stay connected with your friends and family on social networks while you are in China? Maybe write a blog about your China adventures? And keep enjoying your favorite websites and TV shows from your home country? Then you definitely need VPN in China.
As the great firewall of China is getting more sophisticated and less permeable, a reliable VPN connection is essential to access social networking sites, blogs, country specific websites, and a wide range of other sites that China commonly or temporarily blocks, e.g. the New York Times (my favorite breakfast read).
Let’s look at how VPN works and how to set up VPN on your computer.
What really is a VPN?
Most people have used a VPN service, often at work, but not everyone knows what a VPN really is and why it is helpful for internet access in China. So let me try to explain.
VPN stands for Virtual Private Network and basically extends a secure private network across a public network, such as the internet. Many companies use it to give their employees secure remote access to the company network. You can also use an encrypted VPN to protect your privacy when using public networks like Wi-Fi hotspots.
Why use VPN in China?
The reason VPN is so useful in China is because with VPN you can circumvent the so-called geo-blocking, which is regional restrictions on certain websites. While using a VPN, your computer looks like it is located in the country where the VPN server is because your internet traffic routes through that server. Lets say your VPN server is in the US, so you can access Facebook and any other website that is available in the US even if it is blocked in China.
Which is the best VPN for China?
China does not allow foreign companies to operate a VPN in China without a local partner, a position they reinforced in late 2012. Therefore, foreign VPN providers are increasingly targeted and blocked, forcing them to continuously updating protocols and switching ports to stay ahead. (The WSJ recently ran an article about internet censorship and VPN blocking in China.)
Free VPN packages are available and may work for some, although I would not count on tech support or frequent technology updates. Paid services are only a few US dollars per months and often more reliable and able to adapt quickly to the increased sophistication from the authorities in shutting down VPN connections.
We have used StrongVPN in China for over 3 years and are very happy with its performance and customer service. I recently started to also use VyprVPN, which is also great. (Full disclosure, if you buy a service from StrongVPN or VyprVPN using the links on my site I will earn a small commission at no extra cost to you.) With both VPN services you can choose from many servers worldwide.
How to set up a VPN?
A VPN for China is best set-up on your laptop before coming to China, because the websites of VPN providers, from where the software is downloaded, are often blocked in China. To get around that, VPN providers often use a so-called mirror URL instead of the blocked main company URL to still give you access to their site (For VyprVPN click here, for StrongVPN here). With these mirror URLs you are still able to set up a new VPN package when you are already in China.
With StrongVPN, once you sign up you will receive a welcome email with all the info you need to fill out and submit an online form, and you should be all set. If something doesn’t work right away, they have a good help forum and great tech support to get you up and running.
StrongVPN also has a web-based life chat available 24 hours a day, staffed by very knowledgeable reps and with almost no wait time (I had a reply in less than a minute). Afterwards they send you a transcript of the chat and, if needed, further info or instructions. (This is way better than what friends experienced with other VPN providers.)
Expect to change protocols and tweak your setup over time to keep up with the ever evolving blocking technology. You don’t have to be a techie for that, the customer service at StrongVPN is tremendously helpful and can do that for you remotely, even if your VPN connection is down (using the mirror URL I mentioned earlier).
So that’s why you need a great VPN for China
With a reliable VPN in China you can enjoy the World Wide Web, not just the part approved by the Chinese. You can access you favorite websites, blogs and social networks, and have an extra layer of protection when using public networks.
(The slow speed often experienced with non-Chinese websites is an entirely different issue …)