Why do I need it?
In China, access to the Internet (or Interwebs), is restricted by the government. Many other countries in the world do this as well, but it’s often only to stop access to pornography. In China, the restrictions are far-reaching. Collectively, these restrictions are referred to as “The Great Firewall of China”.
The most notable website casualties are Google, Google Maps, Gmail, Facebook, many news sources, YouTube, etc. In Beijing, if you load the Facebook App or go to Google.com on your iPhone, it won’t load. Thanks, China!
Interesting to note: On my last trip to China (a few days ago), I noticed that I didn’t have any restrictions while using cellular data, but I did have restriction while using any/every WiFi. From fancy hotels, restaurants, and small shops, every WiFi was restricted. If you have a plan with your carrier that doesn’t charge you an arm and a leg for data, that might be a consideration. I have T-Mobile which gives me unlimited free data in China, but at 2G speeds. Great for an occasional email or internet check, but not tollerable for anything photo/image intensive like Facebook or Google Maps.
Where do I need it?
Mainland China. I didn’t have access problems in the SARs or territories. Specifically, I didn’t have issues in Hong Kong or Taiwan. Interestingly enough, I didn’t run into any significant firewall issues in Shanghai either! So if you’re going to Shanghai, you’ll probably be fine. If you’re going to Beijing, then be prepared to be blocked! Note: because access to the VPN signup pages is typically blocked as well, you might want to download some VPN apps BEFORE to go anywhere in China, just to be safe.
What is a VPN?
VPN is an acronym for Virtual Private Network and for our purposes, it’s basically a secure relay using another computer. Relay is the key word… it’s as if your internet went down, but you called your friend and asked them to surf the web for you. When you’ve established a VPN connection, all of your data comes from another computer. Your request is encrypted and then sent to the VPN server (so nobody, not even China, knows what website you’re visiting). In this case, the VPN server is located in a different country so it doesn’t have the government restrictions, and it’s able to pull up Facebook.com (or whatever) for you. After it gets all those awesome status updates, the data is encrypted again and sent back to you.
Not that the poor technological description I presented matters, in practice, it’s easy. After you’ve done the initial setup (install, agreed to pay a reasonable fee, etc), it’s as easy as opening up a VPN app, clicking Connect/On/Start or something like that… and sometimes selecting a location of the VPN server. Once you’re connected you’ll see a boxed VPN icon in the top status bar of your phone. When you see the boxed VPN in the status bar, you’re connected. When you don’t, you aren’t.
Should I be concerned about using a VPN in China? Is it legal?
Using a VPN is legal in China. It’s a standard way of doing business for companies who need to protect access to their internal systems. However, at the moment, there appears to be a lack of official policy on using it for the sole purpose of bypassing the restrictions. If you’d like to read more about the debate, here’s a good place to start: https://www.quora.com/Is-using-a-VPN-in-China-illegal
I’ve been using a VPN in China for years, and so have many of the people I work with. I’m not concerned in the slightest, but I also feel like I don’t have anything to hide since I’m not using any of the restricted websites for anything which the Chinese government would consider objectionable. On the contrary, I use it to get more out of China. Google is the best way I know to use find out what time the Beijing Zoo opens, or the location of a restaurant, or getting transit directions.
What are the Best iPhone VPNs to use in China?
Based on personal experience, I keep 2 or 3 VPNs on every trip. I don’t have active subscriptions, but you need to have the apps downloaded and accounts created (even if they’re not actively subscribed) in order to use them.
Disclaimer: Sometimes they work better than others. Sometimes the VPN connection gets dropped at intervals ranging from a few minutes to an hour… it’s important to stay flexible.
No affiliate links, and no promotional consideration. Pure opinion based on experience!
Finally, the Recommendations!
Used by a lot of my coworkers, and it’s probably the most consistent. I believe it costs $12.99/month. Expensive, but it *usually* works.
iPhone VPN app: https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/expressvpn-fast-vpn-proxy/id886492891
Occasionally SurfEasy has a hard time connecting to VPN server while in China, but it’s the best value VPN. They have a fully functional free trial, easy in-app subscription, and ways to earn a bit of free data here and there. I believe it’s $2.99/month for the mobile phone plan.
iPhone VPN app: https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/vpn-by-surfeasy-free-vpn-proxy/id633495655
Another solid choice, although I have limited experience, other than recommendations from friends. It costs about $10/month.
iPhone VPN app: https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/strongvpn/id842525940
Bonus Wildcard VPN Option!
I found an amazing deal on the Engadget deals website where I was able to get a lifetime subscription for a song. Not sure if this will be around forever, but it might be worth a look here: https://deals.gdgt.com/search?utf8=%E2%9C%93&query=windscribe
They’re a newer entrant into the market and have been quick to gain traction. However, they’re working out a few issues at the moment with regards to access from within China. They’re actively under development, and I’ve emailed support and gotten a response back quickly, so, perhaps a very good option in the not too distant future?
iPhone VPN app: https://itunes.apple.com/app/id1129435228