VPNs are illegal in China except for a few businesses with explicit permission. However, you can use a VPN in China if you download it before you go. The best China VPN is ExpressVPN — you can try it for free with a 30-day money-back guarantee.
China’s internet censorship is notorious. The government is known for being very strict with what people can and cannot do within the country. If you’re planning a trip to China, you might be wondering: are VPNs legal in China? Does China block VPNs?
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Yes, VPNs are legal in China, but there are caveats. Keep reading to find out more about China’s censorship rules and which VPNs you can use on your next trip to the country.
What is the punishment for using VPNs in China?However, if a Chinese citizen uses a VPN to access a site blocked by the Chinese government, they may face jail time. There is little data on punishment for tourists using a VPN, besides officals forcing you to delete the app if they find it on your device.
Does a VPN work in China?Not all VPNs work in China. However, premium providers like NordVPN and ExpressVPN effectively bypass the Great Firewall and can be used in China.
Can the Chinese government track VPNs?The Chinese police cannot track VPN traffic, but they are entitled to ask internet service providers for users’ connection and usage logs through court orders.
Are VPNs Legal in China?
In case you’re wondering, VPN is short for virtual private network. A VPN acts like an intermediary between you and the site you want to visit. It encrypts your internet traffic to keep your online activity safe from prying eyes.
VPN usage is a source of confusion for most visitors to China. Here are some points to note before you go VPN browsing on your next trip to Shanghai.
Yes, VPNs are legal in China, but only for businesses with government approval. Additionally, in early 2022, China banned any VPN providers that don’t pass China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology’s (MIIT) approval. However, everyday citizens cannot use a VPN.
China’s government aims to have total cyber sovereignty over its citizens. It cracks down on VPN providers because they allow citizens to circumvent that authority.
However, a handful of premium VPN providers use methods like obfuscated servers to bypass the blocks from the Great Firewall of China.
What Is the Great Firewall of China?
The Great Firewall of China is a massive censorship machine that has been in place since at least 1998. It is a joint effort by the Chinese government and Chinese technology companies to prevent Chinese citizens from accessing information on the web that might be critical of their government.
This censorship affects every website. Every search result on Baidu, for example, is filtered by two algorithms: one that filters out pornographic and violent content, and another that screens out politically sensitive material.
Accessing banned websites like Facebook and Twitter is a punishable offense, especially in extreme cases such as using social media for human rights activism and protests. The government also bans sites that contain pornography, gambling or any other questionable or undesirable content.
The Great Firewall of China uses a range of techniques to blocklist web content. This includes blocking access to specific IP addresses, analyzing URLs for predetermined keywords and deep packet inspection, a system by which unencrypted packets of data are searched to see if they contain sensitive information.
The government also uses a technique called DNS poisoning, where the DNS caches of certain websites are tampered with, so they become inaccessible. After the government identifies which packets of information it wishes to block, it uses the Great Firewall to reset the connections for both parties/systems. It then says access will not be possible because the connection was reset.
If you want to know which websites are blocked by the firewall, you can test the URLs of your preference using a tool like Website Pulse’s.
What Does the Great Firewall of China Mean for VPN Service Providers?
China’s laws on VPN restrictions tend to be vague, and there’s lots of misinformation in the air, too. The reality is the Chinese government cracks down mainly on China-based VPNs and not international providers. Legally, international VPN providers are within their rights as long as they do not set up servers physically located within China.
A VPN provider thinking of setting up in China has to go the extra mile to make sure they get around the Great Firewall. Not all providers can do this effectively, which is why you’ll often find that only premium services provide reliable internet access and the ability to unblock websites.
NordVPN puts up a disclaimer on its site stating that VPNs aren’t explicitly illegal, however the government does what it can to block their usage. This includes removing all VPN apps from the app stores. Google Play Store itself is blocked in China, and local residents don’t have substitutes that offer VPN apps.
International VPN providers appealing to users in China that want to be successful have to implement extra measures.
For one, obfuscation servers are a must, so providers can camouflage the nature of the traffic as locally sourced instead of as VPN traffic. Some examples of VPNs that provide obfuscation include ExpressVPN, NordVPN and Surfshark.
ExpressVPN has obfuscation worked into every server it offers. Meanwhile, NordVPN’s obfuscation is accessible through certain servers, while you can enable Surfshark’s obfuscation through its feature called “camouflage mode.”
Secondly, the VPN must have strong security and encryption protocols, such as AES-256 or ChaCha20. VPN protocols like OpenVPN and WireGuard come standard with these.
What Does the Great Firewall of China Mean for VPN Users?
It’s no secret the Chinese government has an interest in keeping its citizens in a bubble. The Great Firewall has proven successful at preventing users from accessing websites and services the government deems inappropriate. However, it isn’t impenetrable. Users have found workarounds to access blocked sites by using VPNs.
The Chinese government monitors everything its users do online. If you’re caught using blocked websites your internet connection could be cut off for weeks at a time. In the past, the government has cracked down repeatedly on VPN companies and has ruled unauthorized connections as illegal. However, the restrictions were always vague with no clear follow-up.
For tourists or business travelers looking to access their favorite videos or social networks from home, it’s an entirely different story. Travelers to China must rely on VPNs to access their American Netflix account, keep up with the news from home, or send updates to friends via social media.
To date, no foreigner has been caught or penalized for the use of VPNs within the country while there on business or for tourism. While this might give you an extra boost of confidence for VPN usage, it’s still best to be safe given the country’s general stance on internet censorship.
Should You Still Use VPNs in China?
China’s Great Firewall is notorious for blocking any and all content that the Communist Party doesn’t want its citizens to see. In addition to popular Western services.
If things are looking grim, do not fear: I’m here to help. VPNs are essential for anyone traveling to China. If you don’t use a VPN to connect to the internet, you won’t be able to access content that isn’t available in China, like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, foreign news sites and more.
Before you travel to China, you must download at least three reliable VPNs onto whichever devices you plan to use. It’s good to have multiple options in case one VPN has spotty coverage and you need a connection urgently.
Make sure you don’t forget to download these apps before you enter the Chinese region because there’s no way you’ll be able to do so after. The Chinese government blocks VPN websites and downloads from app stores. You also never know when the government might crack down on one VPN provider over another, so it’s good to have backups.
To get around this, you need to install the apps in advance. I recommend these three VPNs for use in China.
ExpressVPN is one of the best VPN providers and works consistently across all major regions of China.
With 10GB servers spread across 105 countries, you’ll have plenty of choices for accessing geo-restricted content. Your best bet is to use those servers situated closest to the Chinese borders. This would allow you to take full advantage of ExpressVPN’s unrivaled VPN server speeds.
All of ExpressVPN servers come with its obfuscation technology. Obfuscation hides VPN usage by rerouting your internet traffic through servers that mask your VPN traffic metadata, so it doesn’t look like you’re using a VPN. Learn more in the comprehensive ExpressVPN review and ExpressVPN pricing guide.
NordVPN is another VPN for China and a great backup option to the top pick. Like ExpressVPN, it offers servers in regions surrounding China for easier and faster access, such as Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Japan. It also offers obfuscated servers, so Chinese authorities won’t find you using a VPN.
NordVPN’s double-VPN servers are handy to have, especially if you’re visiting China for professional reasons. Connecting through a second VPN server adds an additional layer of security. Learn more in the full NordVPN review and NordVPN pricing guide.
Surfshark is one of the newer VPNs, with handy features like its Camouflage and NoBorders modes. Surfshark’s NoBorders mode automatically activates when the VPN client detects restrictions on the network. Once activated, the VPN pulls up a list of servers that can unblock content and surf the web free from the eyes of the Great Firewall.
Pair it with the VPN’s Camouflage mode, Surfshark’s version of obfuscation. It camouflages your VPN connection to make it look like a regular internet connection. Learn more in the complete Surfshark review.
Confirming the legality of VPNs in China is tricky. The country has some of the strictest internet laws in the world, but the government has been known to contradict itself on VPN use.
In practice, tourists can use VPNs across different parts of China, but they may encounter varying levels of connection or coverage depending on the provider. Users who want to ensure their online privacy while traveling in China may want to subscribe to a VPN service like ExpressVPN, NordVPN and Surfshark.
Have you visited China before, and if so, what VPN technology did you use during your stay? Let me know in the comments. I wish you safe browsing on your travels!