“Can I legally use VPNs in China?” is the question both foreigners and native open-minded Chinese residents ask themselves. It’s a well-known fact that you cannot access online services such as Google, Gmail, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Flickr, Quora, Spotify, Wikipedia, WhatsApp, Viber, and many others while in China. This is because of government-imposed censorship of things they don’t approve of, called “The Great Firewall of China”. It’s not a secret that the government is trying to ban certain VPNs or at least, make it extremely hard for people to use them.
Let’s answer the main source of confusion, that VPNs are illegal in China. You can breathe a sigh of relief – VPNs are still legal in China (well, technically). Hard to use sometimes, and with its own set of troubles and risk, but legal. This can change at any moment, although it is unlikely, and we’ll tell you why below.
When did it start?
The Great Firewall of China was implemented in the late 1990s when the Communist Party of China wanted to seize control of people’s perception and what they can read, watch, listen to, or research. This is most prominent in their ban on news and media websites, such as Wall Street Journal, New York Times, BBC, Reuters, TIME, Financial Times, CNN, etc.
Why are people scared of using a VPN in China?
Since the early 2010s, there were reports of people being punished for using a Virtual Private Network. However, it’s important to note that none of those people were foreigners, and most often, they were using a VPN for illegal activities. It’s a key difference! Additionally, people freaked out when China started removing VPN apps from the Apple Store in August 2017 and threatened to ban VPNs in March and April 2018.
Additional crackdown on VPN use
There have been reports of certain carriers in China disabling phones for everyone who connected to a VPN. To have your device restored, you had to go to the nearest police station. Policemen would delete all VPN apps and apps that are forbidden, and warn you not to repeat the offense. No foreigners were ever jailed and nothing went on the police record. Truth is, no one could stop you from re-installing the apps when you get home.
It’s unlikely that China will make all VPNs illegal
You can probably guess why already, can’t you? That’s because there are hundreds of businesses, including banks, law firms, and payment services, domestic and foreign, that use VPNs to communicate with their branches across the globe. If the government banned VPNs, this would cause a massive financial loss and revolt. However, those companies must use a China-approved VPN service rather than buy a VPN as we do. They pay a hefty sum to the government to be allowed through the Great Firewall of China.
Will I get punished?
If you’re looking to open a business, we can’t help you. You’ll need to ask around and get an official response. But, if you are an individual traveling there or living there permanently, you should know about the 2019 report that about 30% of people with Internet access in China use a VPN. So, if all you want is to bypass the Netflix VPN block, watch Amazon Prime Video content, or stay in touch with your friends back at home through social media or messaging apps, that’s fine.
Even if it’s just to do research using Google or Wikipedia, you have the ability to bypass a VPN block by the Chinese government if you aren’t using it for illegal purposes. Ability, not a right, since that can be taken away if they change their mind. So far, the worse that can happen is to have the apps deleted from your phone, desktop, or laptop.
How do I use a VPN in China?
Don’t even bother using free VPN services, they’re not powerful enough to slip through. You must choose a premium VPN provider with a proven track record. Since their websites and app store is blocked in China, it’s recommended you setup a VPN beforehand. Hide a backup installation on a flash drive if you get patted down and have your devices searched. When in China, keep changing servers to hide your IP address, since the government is constantly trying to block them.