Are VPNs banned in China and can you still use them?

Are VPNs banned in China
(Image credit: Unsplash)

It’s a confusing topic, and one which visitors and residents alike puzzle over when faced with China’s draconian internet restrictions. However, the fact of the matter is that using the best VPN is the only way anyone on Chinese soil is going be able to unblock Google, Facebook, and so many more staples of Western daily browsing.

So what are the rules, how are they enforced, and can you bend them? That’s what we’re going to be exploring on this page and – if you’re in need – we’ll send you in the direction of a couple of China VPN providers that you’ll be able to rely on.

What’s the law on VPNs in China?

The top VPN to use in China

(Image credit: ExpressVPN)

The best VPN for unblocking the web in China is ExpressVPN, so if that's all you're after you can sign up on the website right now. You'll get great speeds, full internet freedom, and great customer support to make sure you're browsing is trouble-free.

We’re in murky waters here, but VPN technology itself is not outright illegal in China. That’s due to the fact businesses and likely the government itself need to use VPNs for international affairs as well as accessing static IPs for office work. However, a licence is required for this – something few, if any individuals possess.

It appears that having a personal VPN is banned. But, while there have been reports of local Chinese residents facing punishment, not a single foreigner has come under scrutiny. That’s good news for travellers and expats looking to access the internet like they’re used to.

However, VPN applications have been removed from the Android and Apple app stores, and it’s unlikely you’ll be able to access any VPN provider’s website in China without – you guessed it – a VPN. That means if you want to use a VPN in China, you’ll need to sign up and download it before you enter the country.

Why do I need a VPN in China?

If you want to access – deep breath – Facebook, Gmail, Google Search, Wikipedia, PornHub, Twitter, Slack, YouTube, Netflix, SoundCloud, the BBC, the New York Times, and literally thousands more websites, you’ll need to use a VPN.

What's now known as the Great Firewall of China was first conceived in the late 90s, not long after the internet arrived in China, as the Communist Party sought a way of controlling what citizens could access on the web. Over the decades, this blocking developed into a force that tightly restricts what sites are available for public consumption.

By using a VPN to anonymize your activity and spoof your location (take a look at our What is a VPN? article for more info), you can appear to be outside the Great Firewall, subsequently giving you access to everything you want to read, do, or watch online.

Is it worth the risk?

Reportedly over 30% of China’s internet users also use a VPN, so it seems that for a big part of the population the answer to that question is ‘yes’.

For those traveling to China, or expats who have moved there, the risk is low – no non-Chinese national has ever been prosecuted for VPN use. However, it’s certainly worth weighing up your options, and if you do choose to use one, we recommend signing up to the very best available to make sure your stay anonymous and safe.

Which VPNs work best in China?

The Great Firewall is powerful, and utilizes Deep Packet Inspection and protocol identification amongst other tools to detect and block VPNs. Subsequently, many services that work great elsewhere are rendered useless when it comes to China. However, there are still some excellent choices available to you.

ExpressVPN is the best VPN for accessing the internet in China

ExpressVPN is the best VPN for accessing the internet in China, both for residents and those travelling to the country. From our rigorous testing we’ve named it the best VPN service money can buy, and it also tops our VPN for China list, too. 

Not only can it access the web within China, but it delivers excellent speeds, over 3,000 servers worldwide, and the apps are powerful yet incredibly easy to use.

Tom’s Guide readers can also claim three months absolutely free with a year-long plans, meaning you’ll get 15 months for the price of 12. You’ll also get 24/7 live chat support in case anything doesn’t work quite right, plus a 30-day money-back guarantee to make sure it’s the right service for you.

Surfshark is an excellent budget VPN

While it’s not as powerful as Express, Surfshark is an excellent budget VPN, and is really useful in China. At around $2 a month it’s super affordable, but also delivers a premium service that beats anything else at this price. And, just like Express, you’re covered by a 30-day money-back guarantee so you can make sure it’s the right VPN for you before you commit.

Mo Harber-Lamond
VPN Editor

Mo is VPN Editor at Tom's Guide. Day-to-day he oversees VPN, privacy, and cybersecurity content, and also undertakes independent testing of VPN services to ensure his recommendations are accurate and up to date. When he's not getting stuck into the nitty-gritty settings of a VPN you've never heard of, you'll find him working on his Peugeot 205 GTi or watching Peep Show instead of finally putting up those shelves.