How To Stay Online in China

In todays modern age, the internet is indispensable when it comes to travel. We scour websites online to find the cheapest flight, and book it ourselves. We book accommodation online. We read stories and feedback and recommendations when it comes to planning what to do and see at our destination. We plan our route on maps so we know how to get from A to B once we set out for the day.

It’s not just travel planning that we use the internet for – but staying in touch. We browse Facebook to keep up with news at home, message friends and family on apps instantly, and post our best photos to Instagram. As travel bloggers, sharing our journey and adventures with our readers and the outside world is imperative to what we do in constantly trying to build an audience – going ‘off the grid’ is not an option.

No Facebook in China!
No Facebook in China!

One of the biggest frustrations in travelling China is just that – whilst in the country you will be ‘off the grid’ for as long as you’re there. Internet censorship in China – blocking of popular, western websites – is extreme. Censorship in China is more widespread than anywhere else in the world. As well as blocking of websites, internet usage is also monitored by the government.

Want to check your gmail account? Not an option. Update your Facebook status? Nope. Ask Google a question, or check directions? No and no. Just about every website you and I would access on a daily base, are unable to be accessed whilst in China.

So what options do you have for staying online in China? Do you have to settle for being off the grid for your entire trip?

No, you don’t, and thats thanks to use of a VPN – a virtual private network. A VPN allows users to send and receive data – essentially, browse the internet – across a public network as if your device was directly connected to the private network. In a nutshell, you can be in China – activate a VPN on your device and connect to a network outside of China – and be free to browse like you would in your own home country.

The risk with using a VPN is that some can violate your privacy – your usage could be logged and made available without your knowing. This is a common problem with so called ‘free’ VPN’s – therefore you want to be very careful when making a decision.

We did extensive research on which VPN was best prior to our trip to China. We couldn’t afford to be offline for so long, and wanted to make sure that we had access to emails, to Google, Facebook and our own blog (WordPress is also blocked) as well as mobile apps like Instagram and Snapchat.

We ended up opting for Express VPN, a paid VPN service that works across multiple devices. We’d read multiple positive reviews for the product, and could pay for it month by month. As we only needed coverage for a month, we paid for a single month and then turned off the automatic renewal just before it expired.

We used Express VPN to stay online in China.
We used Express VPN to stay online in China.

How did we fare whilst in China – did the VPN work?

Both of us set up the VPN on our MacBook’s and iPhones prior to heading to China. We held our breath as we tried connecting the first time after arriving – and it worked! It was as if we were in another country – we had access to everything! At times, it would take awhile to connect but we would choose a server in another location if this was the case – and with 86 servers around the globe, there was never a shortage of options. Speed whilst connected was occasionally slower however this was mainly due to the strength of the wifi in the accommodation, more so than the VPN. Overall, using the VPN on our MacBook was a piece of cake and allowed us to continue researching, planning, and blogging as per usual.

We set up Express VPN on our iPhone’s via an app. The app was very easy to use, however it would log us out of our VPN every time we locked our phone, unlike a laptop which stayed connected. This proved annoying as we had to restart the app every time we wanted to use our phone. It also drained our phone batteries at an alarming rate – so we had to minimise our use of our phones whilst out and about and only used it when needed.

My Express VPN App also crashed about two thirds into our visit. It was taking a particularly long time to connect one day, and then crashed. Despite turning my iPhone on and off, clearing all my background apps – the app never worked again. That was incredibly frustrating – as it meant no Instagram or Snapchat on my phone for the last part of our trip.

At $12.95 USD a month, was it worth it? Yes. We would have struggled a lot in China without it. Even though my iPhone app crashed partway through our trip (and this could have been my fault, I don’t know), up until that point and on our computers our VPN worked with no issues at all. Another plus, was that I signed up for Express VPN for my devices, and then sent a referral link to Mike to use – meaning that he was able to join and get a month for free. $12.95 covered four devices between us, and was well worth the cost!

Betternet is a free VPN service available on the App Store!
Betternet is a free VPN service available on the App Store!

If you don’t want to spend the money, there are a number of free VPN services available to use but you do get what you pay (or don’t pay) for. This could be compromised security (and in a country like China, do you really want to get into trouble?) or slow connections. We met a friend at one of our hostels using a free VPN service on her MacBook, and it took more than half an hour for her to connect every time. If you’re just wanting a VPN for your iPhone, then we do recommend ‘Betternet’ on the App Store – I downloaded this after my Express VPN iPhone app crashed, and it was incredibly fast and couldn’t be more straightforward to use.

Of course, travelling in China and being forced off the grid could be a welcome detox from social media. You don’t need a VPN to travel in China, but it does make life a lot easier!

Have you travelled to China? Did you use a VPN or did you manage without one? Share your stories for staying online in China with our readers below!

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  2 comments for “How To Stay Online in China

  1. October 16, 2016 at 4:58 PM

    Very helpful post, thanks! A couple of questions–do you know if these VPN services work in Tibet? I’m travelling there soon. Also, are they illegal in China? I mean, could you get in trouble if ‘they’ found out you were using them? Thanks!

    • Amy
      October 22, 2016 at 11:05 AM

      Hi Elen, glad you found the post useful! We didn’t go to Tibet so I’m unsure if they work there but I believe that as long as there’s an internet connection, you should be ok. I found the customer service online chat with Express VPN really helpful for specific questions. Technically yes, they are… I don’t think it’s easy to get caught though. We wouldn’t use the VPN in public or in plain sight of anyone, we’d wait til we were sitting in a cafe or in a hotel or something to use them!

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