Internet In China: Staying Connected While Traveling

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We just finished a whirlwind trip to Beijing, and given so many people are traveling to China this month thought it might be helpful to share our insights on dealing with internet in China, and bypassing the censorship restrictions of the Chinese government.

Disclaimer: I am not an expert at the internet, technology, nor China in general. I just know well enough to not marinade my laptop, which makes me in charge of tech around here. šŸ˜‰

Finding The Best VPN In China

If you are visiting China, you probably want to look at organizing a VPN service first. The Chinese government blocks a significant portion of the ā€œWesternā€ internet, including social media and many Google services, which is just a pain. Beyond that, the situation is dynamic, and the general stability of the internet in China is constantly in flux. VPN services and servers can still be blocked by the Great Firewall, so the best bet seems to be to look for recent stability reports, and maybe have a back up option

In hopes of setting ourselves up for success, we researched and signed up for three VPN services prior to leaving for China:

AstrillĀ — 7 day free trial or $9.98 per month

China_VPN_6

This was my personal favorite of the services we tried.

The apps were lightning fast, and the ā€œstealth modeā€ even allowed access to YouTube, Spotify, and Google Voice without issue.

Given itā€™s also the least expensive, this is probably a no-brainer for most people traveling this month.

ExpressVPNĀ — 1 month for $12.95, or 30 days free using this link

China_VPN_3

This worked fine. The connection itself was great, and the customer service is supposed to be very good. We didn’t have to contact them, but if you’re going to be traveling for longer periods or to more remote cities this might be a good option.

vyprvpn from GoldenFrogĀ — 1 month for $14.99 (50% off for OMAAT readers)

China_VPN_5

This is a highly reputable service in China, and the one endorsed by my geek friends. It worked well, though the app was a bit fussier than Astrill. Ben ended up having to change servers pretty frequently, which was a little irritating, but it still worked well overall.

Using a VPN

All three companies worked the same general way. We installed software on our laptops which acted as a ā€œportalā€ for the internet, and then connected as usual. We also installed apps on our phones (one Android and one iPhone), and those worked perfectly.

Neither of us had to modify any settings, or do anything special, which was a huge relief. All the services were super easy to use, and made it possible for us to access the internet pretty much as normal.

Pre-paid SIM cards in China

As Iā€™ve mentioned before, I always travel with a portable MiFi device. This is one of the best purchases Iā€™ve ever made, as it allows me to have my own internet with me wherever I travel.

Data plans that work worldwide are available, though I generally purchase SIM cards at my destination. Itā€™s less expensive overall, and I return to regions often enough I can easily top off cards as needed.

For China, I picked up a data-only SIM from China Unicom with 3GB of data.

China_SIM_1

These are available in the arrivals hall of the Beijing airport, and at stores throughout China, but as we were arriving later in the evening I went ahead and ordered a card from 3G Solutions.

3G SolutionsĀ will deliver to your hotel in China for a moderate fee, or to the US for an outrageous one, though in our case the shipping fee was well worth it.

China_SIM_2

Having internet access before we even reached the gate in Beijing was awesome, and saved us hours later on.

Bottom line

Regardless of which you choose, having a VPN service is pretty much essential if youā€™re visiting China. Any of the above services should work well.

If you need a SIM card, we didnā€™t have any issues with China Unicom, and 3G Solutions made it exceptionally easy.

Have you used a SIM card or VPN in China? What has your experience been?

Comments

  1. I’m going to assume you used your Mifi for your internet however…YMMV with non-mobile networks (like a DSL or Cable ISP providers in hotels/hostels/starbucks) and VPN solutions in China. Several places I stayed at or used the wifi at had major issues with VPNs being blocked by the ISP directly (mobile providers don’t seem to care).

  2. @ Luke — Great point! The ISP provider at the W seemed pretty permissive, but there were a couple of instances elsewhere where we couldn’t load social sites. No issues at all with the China Unicom connection though.

  3. Many Chinese use the VPN gate to go outside the GFW. The connection is not always stable but it is totally free.

  4. I use VPNinja.
    They’re pretty good and very very very very affordable.

    StrongVPN cuts in and out but has GREAT support.

    PPTP all the way, dont bother with an OpenVPN, that gets shut down quick in China.

  5. I was in China last summer for 3 weeks. VyprVPN worked pretty well but I did have to change servers frequently and was suggested. Also the China Unicom SIM worked well BUT data was more expensive than I expected. Also the billing was odd as for prepaid plans they bill on the 1st of the month regardless so I effectively paid for a whole month’s service as I arrived in the last few days of June.

  6. Buying a SIM in the airport can be a real crapshoot. I tried in Shanghai last year. It may be different in Beijing. There’s not official Store but everyone is selling SIMs. I’d checked the official prices on line and no-one was offering a SIM with data at anything close to the proper price and couldn’t be haggled down. I ended up adding a data roaming bundle to a UK SIM I had on me, it was cheaper than the airport prices.

    3G solutions looks like a good option.

  7. VPN is also good for if you are traveling in general because many apps and countries block you or flag you if you are accessing your account outside the country. I use TunnelBear (free up to 1.5gb a month).

  8. When I travel there for work (mainly Shanghai and south China) I get a China Unicom HK data only sim that has free roaming in mainland and tunnels everything through HK. I buy them on eBay, it’s a bit of a premium, but no vpn or great firewall to deal with.

  9. Private Internet Access is a heck of a lot cheaper, they’ve been around for a while now, and their customer service is great. For the cost of a 2-3 months of any of the services mentioned, you can get a year of service from PIA.

    You should be using a VPN whenever you’re using public WiFiā€”even in the USā€”not just in China.

  10. Also (sorry for the double post), if you want to be serious about digital security when going to China, you should invest in a cheap laptop or Chromebook that you can easily wipe after your trip. There’s a reason that most major companies make their employees leave their regular laptops and phones at home when traveling there.

  11. There is a 3rd option – get a data roaming plan from T-mobile if you are from the US. T-mobile lets you roam free on data while in China. Free, unblocked internet – you can access Facebook and Youtube on your mobile.

    Astrill works very well on Unicom but not so well on China Mobile. Connect to their LA or China Optimised server.

  12. Great post Tiffany- this info would have saved us a lot of trouble when we went to Shanghai on our mistake fare in April.

  13. So I just got back from my weekend in Beijing and am blessed to be on T-mobile, so I had internet access on my mobile before even getting off the plane. The data connection sucks compared to what you are used to in the states. It would go back and forth between 2G and 3G but had access to Facebook which is important to me. Why be in Beijing if you cant brag to your friends that you are. I could not access Google or anything related to google, but a guy on one of my tours who is working in China for a little while had access to Google without issue.

  14. Use ArkVPN. I use it every time that I go to China. Also, you can find working google IP addresses/hosts on the Chinese web(it is unlikely that a translate will do). Also, ArkVPN is free for the first 5 hours.

  15. Have good luck with VyprVPN in China last time around. OpenVPN options were blocked quickly, PPTP servers just worked. This was last year, YMMV.

  16. There’s a free VPN for iOS called Betternet. Used it in China on my last trip and it worked like a charm. It’s extremely easy to use too, as all settings are automatic. All you have to do is switch it on or off.

  17. I am currently in China now, and finding Astrill VPN is totally blocked during last few months while VyprVPN works pretty well. After tried at least five different providers, I have confidence to say that almost every VPN service does not have the ability to provide stable connect on iOS devices, all they services I tried, however, have much better performance on Mac.

  18. I recommend OvpnSpider and openvpn, these two apps work together and is free. If the server your using is slow, you can always change to another location. Also buying a sim card in China is a pain, I am a Chinese American but the stores still ask me for a Chinese ID to use their sim cards. The sim cards in the airports really overpricr you!

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