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You've probably heard that Internet access can be a little tricky in China, with the websites you're used to using at home not being accessible in China. Getting a VPN like Astrill, Express, or Vypr can circumvent the problem (the China firewall) and make your trip a little easier.
A VPN is a Virtual Private Network, which extends a private network across a public network, enabling people to send and receive data from shared or public networks as if they were on private networks. In a nutshell, when using a VPN in China it will reroute your internet traffic so that your Internet connection behaves like you are in a different location than you are. It also allows you to stay anonymous while you are surfing the web.
VPN use makes it possible to access websites usually blocked on the Chinese Internet, including social media and search platforms such as Facebook, Google services (like Gmail, Google Search, Google+, Google Docs, etc), YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat, as well as news sources like The New York Times, Bloomberg, and Le Monde.
If you need access to your email while you are in China and you use Gmail, a VPN is required. The same goes for Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter: if you require use of these you will have to come prepared.
To use a VPN, most people living in China purchase a subscription. You can get these per day, per week, per month, per year, or even for multiple years (with subscriptions getting cheaper the longer your commitment, naturally).
Because most VPN providers' websites are also blocked, you generally have to set up the software before you come to China. This is a bit of a Catch 22. Get what you need set up on your laptop, tablet, or phone before departure: make sure all devices have the apps downloaded and working ahead of time.
We suggest having two (or more) VPNs... in case one fails to connect, as you often need a VPN to download a replacement VPN or updates.
One of the most commonly used VPN services on the mainland, Astrill has a wide range of countries to select from. Generally, the customer service isn't bad (with the exception of a little snafu last Chinese New Year when servers went down and they sent out a very snarky message), but Astrill has personally been the author's VPN of choice for years because it's affordable when compared to others, and isn't too high-tech in terms of understanding the software.
This provider has multiple settings (for example stealth mode, which allows use with Netflix, who are trying hard to block all VPN usage, meaning you can watch American Netflix while you're abroad).
Express is generally a little slower than Astrill, albeit more reliable. So while you won't always get quick access to the internet, you will at least be on the internet at most times. During sensitive times (public holidays, mostly), Astrill service can sometimes be a little patchy, but ExpressVPN clients haven't experienced the same issues. ExpressVPN has over 1,000 servers in 94 countries, and you get a subscription for a total of 10 devices, which is great for families.
Vypr is probably the VPN with the highest speed, and its subscriptions have unlimited data usage. It has over 700 servers in over 70 countries, and allows support for 3-5 devices at the same time. Experience shows that downloading is actually faster with VyprVPN when compared to speeds when the VPN is off.
Hexatech, a phone VPN is found in the app store under that name and is a really great free VPN. It works most of the time, and while it isn't very fast, is reliable. You can't choose servers with this one, and it will redirect your traffic through a random country, but you get what you pay for. You can opt to upgrade for faster service.
A free VPN (of great design!) that allows for five devices to be simultaneously connected, this is your best bet for computers if you don't want to pay. Because it is free, however, usage is capped, there are few advanced settings, and service can be a little spotty. You can also upgrade for better service.
Who needs social media in China anyway! You'll be seeing so much in China that you don't have time to post on Facebook multiple times a day, but if you do, we can help you decide which VPN to get before you arrive. That way you won't be dealing with any Great Firewall-related issues while you're in China.
Contact us to tailor-make your unique China tour. You may want to have a look at our most popular China itineraries for ideas: