So you’re in China and your VPN isn’t working.
I feel your pain. It happens to me over and over again.
For as long as the Chinese authorities continue to clamp down on VPNs, your experience using them in China is not going to be seamless.
Luckily, however, there are some things you can try in order to get back online quickly.
And no, I’m not going to just say “download another VPN” like others do. Clearly they’ve never been to China!
OK, let’s troubleshoot this problem from a non-technical perspective.
1. The old “reboot” trick
I’ve called numerous help desks with issues over the years, and so many times they’ve told me to reboot my computer.
Sometimes – but not always – this trick has miraculously worked. But does it work for virtual private networks (VPNs)?
Well, if you’re using ExpressVPN in China, I’ve found that tapping the ‘on’ button, then ‘off’, then ‘on’ again, can actually make a difference.
I’m not kidding. It’s like the connection needs to recalibrate to get going.
And it’s the same for Surfshark, which often gets stuck at 85% of a full cycle. Move it along to the next cycle (it tries eight times before giving up) and it may help.
2. Make sure you’re on the latest version
The VPN companies are constantly releasing new versions to be one step ahead of the Chinese authorities.
I’ve personally found it hard to upgrade though, as you need to be connected to a working VPN in order to actually get onto the latest version.
The so-called anonymous web page your VPN provider will give you, to help you upgrade, may be inaccessible. So, wait until you have a connection and then upgrade to the latest version as quickly as you can.
The major VPN companies are updating their mobile apps very frequently, so you’ll need to keep on top of this.
3. Try the desktop version
I’ve found in China that a VPN may not work at all on your mobile device, but the desktop version is totally fine.
Or it could work the other way around – your desktop connection sucks but your mobile VPN is a winner.
If you’re not too fussed about where you watch your YouTube videos, this little hack could save the day.
The assumption is though that you downloaded your VPN to all your devices before you arrived in China!
4. Contact the VPN company
It may sound obvious, but definitely give this one a try.
I’ve found that the premium VPN companies (you can see the ones I use in China here) are all really quick to reply. ExpressVPN is especially prompt.
Let them know your VPN isn’t working in China and they’ll give you some suggestions. For example, they may get you to change your settings.
If your VPN is down, you probably won’t be able to contact the company within the VPN app itself.
This is a major pain in the you-know-what, so look up the company’s helpdesk details on Bing (because Google will be inaccessible).
If you want to email the VPN company but you can’t because your Gmail is blocked, open up an Outlook email account and use that instead. Outlook isn’t blocked in China.
I’m lucky that my primary email address is a good old-fashioned Hotmail one, which is in the Outlook family.
Take a deep breath, wait and be patient.
Sometimes, the government really cracks down on VPNs (even though it’s legal for foreigners to use them). It often happens when there are sensitive government meetings or issues going on.
Basically, the government wants to restrict the amount of free-flowing information.
That’s why I have four VPNs in China. Plus, I have the apps on both my phone and laptop, so I’ve actually got eight possible routes.
If my favored VPN doesn’t work, I try one of the lesser-known ones like Ivacy. This works most of the time, but there have been times when all my VPNs have either been inaccessible or so slow that I want to throw my devices out the window.
(But I never do throw anything out the window, because life without my devices while teaching in China would be unbearable!)
In these situations, you just have to wait it out and hope to God you don’t need to use a Western website or app urgently.
6. Connect in another city
I’ve discovered that some Chinese cities are better than others when it comes to VPN connections.
Your device should try to automatically connect to the best server based on where you’re located. As China is a huge country, the nearest best server could be anywhere in the world. And this means there can be variations in your service.
So, if you’re traveling around China, you could wait until you reach another city.
7. Only connect via your telco
This one only applies if you’ve set up a Chinese phone number while you’re here.
Generally, I’ve found that the VPN connection via my telco data is better than via Wi-Fi.
I don’t know why this is. If you know, please let me know in the comments!
I usually have my internet connected to both my telco data and Wi-Fi. But sometimes, if the VPN connection is bad or non-existent, I turn off Wi-Fi and this can help.
For me, it generally hasn’t worked the other way around.
8. Try another time of day
Early in the morning and late at night are always the best time to connect to a VPN in China. That’s been my experience, anyway.
During the middle of the day is usually OK too.
The worst time? In the evening peak, regardless of whether I’m connecting via Wi-Fi or via my telco data.
9. Try a different Wi-Fi
Your hotel Wi-Fi might suck. But you’ve realized that there’s a Starbucks next door.
Go and grab a coffee and get their Wi-Fi password!
The quality of Wi-Fi is not equal across China, and you might find you have a stronger internet connection using a different Wi-Fi.
10. Get a new VPN
The trouble with this one is you usually need to be connected to a VPN to download another good quality VPN. But there are ways around it which your VPN company may be able to assist with.
If you’ve had enough of your VPN company, wait until you have a connection and then quickly sign up to another one. ExpressVPN, for example, has a 30-day money-back guarantee.
It’s a last resort, but if you’re desperate enough to try a different provider, what have you got to lose?
After all, I have four of the best VPNs in China and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
A final nugget of wisdom
If a Western website or app is really slow, check if it’s on the banned list. If it isn’t banned, then turn off your VPN (unless you want internet anonymity and privacy).
You’ll find that most of the major Western sites which aren’t banned – like Outlook – are much faster when your VPN is switched off. I found this out the hard way.
The same is true for Chinese websites. Turn off your VPN for quicker load time.
Some Chinese apps, like Alipay (this is a great China travel app) won’t allow you to do certain things, like pay, while the VPN is turned on.
That’s why my VPN is switched off by default in China.
Just note that some of the functions of foreign apps and websites won’t work while your VPN is off.
For instance, you can use WhatsApp in China to message people but you can’t send or receive photos and videos, or make calls or videos.
VPN issue solved?
Have I helped solve your “VPN not working in China” issue? Gee, I hope so!
I know how frustrating it is when you can’t use the sites and apps you badly need.
I also know that this article isn’t a silver bullet. But it does provide some immediate troubleshooting alternatives to the technical gobbledygook you may get from your VPN company.
Let me know in the comments below if you have any tips and tricks of your own.
Main image credit: diy13 on Shutterstock.
FAQ for your VPN not working in China
Express VPN not working in China – can you please help?
There are numerous things you can do to try and get back online. For example, you can contact their support, switch the VPN off and on again until you get a connection, change the settings, check you’re on the latest version, try the desktop version, or wait a while and try at a different time of day.
NordVPN not working in China – can you please help?
The same applies to NordVPN. There are a number of things you can do to try and get back online. For instance, you can contact their support, switch the VPN off and on again until you get a connection, change the settings, check you’re on the latest version, try the desktop version, or wait and try connecting at a different time of day.
Surfshark not working in China – can you please help?
The same applies to Surfshark. There are quite a few things you can do, like contacting their support, switching the VPN off and on again until you get a connection, changing the settings, checking you’re on the latest version, trying the desktop version, or simply trying to connect at a different time of day.