I spent last week in China and wanted to share the latest information about what is and is not accessible on the Internet, and how I fared using a VPN.
There are many wonderful things about traveling in China, but the heavily restricted Internet is not one of them. The “Great Firewall” of China blocks access to sites considered indispensable in the West, such as Google and Facebook, along with anything the government finds objectionable.
What is accessible without a VPN
I was in Shanghai, and understand that available content can vary based on region of the country, so please keep that in mind! Also, the only rule about China’s Internet censorship is that there are no rules, so things can change at any time. However, with that somewhat lengthy disclaimer out of the way, this is what I found:
Via hotel wifi:
Google (including Google Maps) = no
Facebook = no
Instagram = no
eBay = no
….I think you get the idea.
Via 4G data roaming:
Same as above, except Google (including Google Maps) was accessible! Which is handy when you’re out and about trying to find your way.
OK, but the point is, Western sites are heavily restricted. So, what to do? The answer is a VPN, which allows you to access the net via another country, while also providing online privacy. VPNs run on both wifi or 4G networks and should – when they work – allow you to bypass China’s restrictions.
My online research led me to the conclusion that the best VPN for use in China is ExpressVPN (this is *not* a sponsored post and there are no VPN affiliate links on our site). So, I downloaded their iOS app prior to going to China, signed up for their 7 day free trial and felt prepared!
ExpressVPN results in Shanghai (August 2019)
When you connect to ExpressVPN, you have to select a server – there are lots around the world to choose from. The app recommended I select “Hong Kong – 5”. Results were poor to mediocre at best – it took a good minute to connect and often did not connect at all. When it did work, it connected me for 2-3 minutes on average before disconnecting.
Hmm. So, I tried other servers. I had some slightly better luck with Japan and (oddly) “Italy – Cosenza.” They were easier to connect to but cut me off after 5 minutes or so.
After a couple days of this, I sent ExpressVPN a chat message and asked for assistance. They responded promptly and were helpful, recommending I try to connect to to the below locations (in the order listed):
Automatic – Los Angeles 4
Automatic – Hong Kong 4
Automatic – UK Wembley
Automatic – USA Santa Monica
Automatic – Australia Melbourne
OK! Now we’re making progress – “Los Angeles 4” was by far the best of the bunch and would connect me relatively reliably for good 30 minute or 1 hour blocks at a time.
While connected to the VPN (via any server) the internet experience was exactly equivalent to being at home – restriction-free.
As a side note, the VPN I usually use, PIA (Private Internet Access), which works like a dream at home in Japan, was useless in Shanghai.
Before going to China, download a VPN app. My experience with ExpressVPN was spotty at first, but connecting to “Los Angeles 4” was by far the best approach for reasonably reliable VPN access.
Bonus Tip – the “Uber” of China
Didi is the Chinese equivalent of Uber. I downloaded their “Didi Greater China” app too before departing for China, as I had read it was the largest taxi/ride-sharing app in the country, and also the only one with an English interface. It also technically works with foreign credit cards…although I had to try multiple cards to find one it would accept. In the end, oddly, it took my US-issued American Express card. Your mileage may vary…but wanted to share that too! The app itself works well, and has a cool auto-translate function which allows you to chat with the driver in Chinese before they arrive, even if you don’t speak a word of the language. I suggest proactively sending a “my location is correct, please pick me up” message to the driver right away, as they have a tendency to call to confirm that right after you make the booking…which is quite challenging as someone who doesn’t speak Chinese!
Enjoy your trip!