If you’re about to travel to China, this brief article is for you.
Aside from your passport and money, your phone is the most important thing in China.
It’s your connection with the outside world, as long as you have a reliable virtual private network (VPN) on your phone.
But are VPNs legal in China?
For foreigners traveling to the country, the short answer is ‘yes’.
But like many things in China, it’s not always clear-cut. And your VPN may not work at all.
Keep reading to prepare yourself for traveling around this amazing yet baffling country.
Are VPNs legal in China?
I’d be a rich man if I received a dollar every time someone asked me this question.
Let me break it down for you in simple terms:
- Is it OK to have a VPN on my phone in China? Yes.
- Will the Chinese authorities look through my phone at the airport? No.
- Can I share travel photos on Instagram and Facebook using my VPN in China? Yes.
- Is it safe to use a VPN in China? Yes.
The Chinese government is acutely aware that foreigners use VPNs in the country.
I mean, how else do you think we stay in contact with loved ones, read local news, watch videos, and in some cases even access online banking?
While it’s definitely getting harder to access a reliable VPN connection within China, VPNs are a necessity and still widely used by foreign tourists and expats.
Here I lay out the best ones that are currently working in China.
From my personal experience in China, I recommend ExpressVPN as it’s the most reliable.
Just remember to download it before you arrive in China.
Why use a VPN in China?
The main reasons foreigners use a VPN in China are:
- To access all your favorite websites and apps
- To maintain your internet freedom and avoid internet censorship
- To protect your privacy
- For security when accessing certain sites, like banking.
The last reason is particularly important when using Wi-Fi in public places.
Do I need a VPN in China?
No, you actually don’t. But it’s very hard without one.
Let me explain…
Firstly, you can use your phone plan’s data instead of Wi-Fi. This means you just continue to use your phone as you would back home.
However, as you’ll be outside your own country, the charges can be absolutely insane (trust me, I’ve made this mistake before).
Secondly, you can still use the internet in China without a VPN and survive. But it’s becoming increasingly harder.
This is because more and more foreign websites and apps are totally blocked. Or, certain pages or functions are blocked, such as making payments.
Using the internet in China without a VPN
If you don’t want to fork out a few dollars for a VPN, or you’re concerned about the legality of VPNs, this section is for you.
You’ll need to be ‘creative’ if you want to maintain some sort of online sanity in China without a VPN.
- For search, you could use Bing* instead of Google
- For chat, you could use WhatsApp** instead of Messenger
- For email, you could use Outlook*** instead of Gmail
- For news, you could read China Daily instead of your favorite news sites
- For maps, you could use an alternative instead of Google Maps.
You may laugh at the disclaimers, but as I mentioned at the start, things in China aren’t always straightforward:
*Bing search results are censored, and many links won’t work because they’re still blocked sites.
**You can’t send or receive files on WhatsApp, or make or receive calls and videos. You can only send messages.
***Opening an Outlook account (which isn’t blocked in China) and transferring all your contacts before you leave is a pain in the backside, but hey, it’s a ‘solution’. You still won’t be able to upload files or access OneDrive though.
Sadly, there’s no decent English equivalent for streaming services like YouTube or Netflix, or for social media sites like Instagram, Facebook and TikTok.
If you choose to travel to China without a VPN, I hope my suggestions above help a little bit. But if you can afford a few dollars a month, and you want to keep your sanity intact, I recommend ExpressVPN.
From my personal experience in China, it’s the most reliable one and it comes with a 30-day money-back guarantee.
Do Chinese people use VPNs?
Some do, yes. But the authorities are doing what they can to stamp this out.
And, Chinese businesses are meant to use government-approved VPNs to interact with foreign businesses.
The Great Firewall of China, as it’s affectionately known, exists to maintain national security, prevent illegal activities, and keep significant foreign influence out of the country.
Despite what you might think, The Firewall isn’t there to make your trip hard.
It’s OK to use your VPN in China
In summary, it’s OK to use your VPN as a tourist in China.
It’s widely known that most foreigners have at least one VPN on their devices. In many instances, it’s the only way you can stay connected and do the things you need to do.
I suggest visiting one of these pages depending on your circumstances:
- Best VPNs in China – if you’re about to visit China and you need to choose one that works
- VPN not working in China – if you’re already in China and you’re struggling to stay connected.
Ready to buy a VPN? Use the button below to get the best deal from ExpressVPN. This is the most reliable one in China from my experience.
Just remember to download it before you arrive in China.
As always, hit me up in the comments if you have any questions or comments. Have an amazing time in this amazing country!
Main image credit: SkazovD on Shutterstock. Note: The information on this page does not constitute legal advice.
FAQ about whether VPNs are legal in China
Are VPNs legal in China?
Yes, foreign travelers can use a VPN in China without issue.
Are VPNs legal in Hong Kong?
As above, foreign travelers can use a VPN in Hong Kong without issue.
Why do some people say VPNs are illegal in China?
Local VPNs are banned without government approval, and foreign VPN providers can’t set up in mainland China or have servers there, which is why you might hear that having a VPN in China is illegal.
Can Chinese citizens use VPNs?
No, they’re discouraged from using a VPN. However, some locals still have one.
Why is it hard to connect to a VPN in China?
In recent years, the Chinese government has been increasingly trying to stamp out local residents’ use of VPNs by making the Great Firewall of China stronger. This ultimately makes it harder for foreigners to stay connected to the outside world through their own VPN.
Is it safe to use a VPN in China?
Yes, you can safely use a VPN in China to do all the things you need to do, like staying connected, chatting, buying things, and getting around.
Are free VPNs legal in China?
Foreign travelers can try using a free VPN but usually the free ones don’t work.
Can you find VPN apps in Chinese app stores?
No, there are no VPN apps in Chinese app stores or the Apple App Store. And, the Google Play Store isn’t used by the locals (but foreigners can access it via VPN).
Why are there VPN restrictions in China?
Internet restrictions have existed in China for decades. This is for reasons including national security, social cohesion, and limiting foreign influence. VPN restrictions for Chinese citizens ensure that the status quo is maintained.
Which social media platforms are illegal in China?
Social media sites like Instagram, Facebook, TikTok and Twitter aren’t illegal in China, but they’re inaccessible without a VPN. The country has its own social networks, and the Chinese government doesn’t wish to encourage its citizens to use foreign ones.
Why is ExpressVPN recommended for China?
It’s one of the best, if not the best, VPNs to bypass China’s great firewall, hide your internet traffic, and protect your online privacy. It has military-grade encryption, you can choose from hundreds of server locations, and their live chat and customer support is great, too.
Are there any other reputable VPN service providers?
Yes, you could try Surfshark or PrivadoVPN. It’s actually worth having multiple VPNs when traveling in China in case one goes down, which is becoming more common these days.