By: Gary McIlvaine
Eighteen short months ago, I was leaving for China. I had never heard of a VPN - a "virtual private network" - until about ten days before I was about to leave for Chengdu, China. The professor at the Chicago TEFL Class I took with International TEFL Academy knew I was going and had asked if I bought a VPN yet. I looked at her with a blank stare. I did not know what a VPN was.
She explained to me that, because of China’s censorship, many of my favorite American websites were going to no longer be accessible when I moved to China to teach. The answer, she told me, was to get a VPN before I got to China because their websites are blocked once you’re within China’s “Great Wall”.
How to Get Facebook in China
A popular post on the International TEFL Academy Alumni Facebook Page is “What should I do for a VPN? I am leaving tomorrow!” This question is like asking: What is the best baseball team? Or what kind of car should I buy? Everyone has a strong opinion, and everyone likes theirs the best. I have been in China and have been hanging around expats for quite a while. The simple answer is it’s just like shopping for a car or any other purchase—not all VPNs are the same. I have watched people that swore by their VPN cursing it a few short weeks later. I don’t know of an expat that has not had issues with their VPN if they have been in China for any period. If you have a VPN, you’re likely going to have some issues using it.
Like all technical things, I think it’s important to point out that it is now July 2015. Currently in China you cannot access YouTube, Facebook, Google, and many other various sites including most every website that is a .gov. The technical/computer world changes rapidly, so what's true now may, in fact, be irrelevant in the future. It is rumored that in China, there are over 1,000,000 people that work daily on censoring the Internet in the People’s Republic of China.
What is a VPN?
So what is a VPN? Wikipedia sums it up best technically for me. “A virtual private network (VPN) extends a private network across a public network, such as the Internet. It enables a computer or network-enabled device to send and receive data across shared or public networks as if it were directly connected to the private network, while benefiting from the functionality, security and management policies of the private network.”
So, a VPN will hide your electronic device so that even if you’re in China, you can browse whatever you would like on the internet based on where your VPN is based. I am in China; I can use Google, YouTube, or Facebook no problem. I wish it were that easy and that's where the discussion on VPN’s could end.
The first issue is not all VPN’s are the same. You can get a paid subscription to a VPN service. You can get a free service. The truth is until you are in China and trying to use it, you don’t know if it really works. I recommend staying with a pay site. I have found when you have a free service; you get what you pay for. The two that most teachers at my school use and recommend are Tunnelbear and Astril. Both offer technical support and try to stay one step ahead of the Chinese censors.
I am not personally connected with any VPN and would say ask your friends and go with their recommendation. At the time of this writing, these services both work well in China, and I would personally recommend them based on my observation that these sites work. I base this on the fact that when my VPN is off, I cannot access the content I would like. With these services on, I can and do go where I like on the internet.
Issues You May Confront Using a VPN in China
As I have stated, all VPNs have issues. Even though I recommend mine, it is not without its issues. Sometimes I cannot get my VPN to connect. This means I cannot access websites that I like. Tunnelbear runs servers out of all the major western countries. Speeds at these servers vary, and there is no predictable pattern for who, what, or where, accounts for the differences in speed. Sometimes I can stream YouTube like I am at home in St. Louis. Other times I have to wait several minutes for a simple minute video to load. One interesting side note is my Facebook account thinks I am a world traveler for sure. If you link up with a server in Singapore, the ads for Singapore start to appear on your page. If you link up with the French server, ads for hotels in Paris will appear. It’s a fun little side effect of using your VPN. One downfall of that is some apps like Pandora will only work if I am on the United States server. Using a VPN adds new issues to your phone and computer usage and becomes part of your ever-changing computer/phone problem-solving strategy.
I did have an issue when my Tunnelbear quit working on my computer. I emailed for support, and they sent me a link to fix the issue. The problem is that I had been without my VPN, the link is blocked. I emailed Tunnelbear for further support, and they said, “There’s nothing we can do; you're in China.” They offered me a full refund and apologized. I was able to fix my VPN in this case by downloading and running a free one. The one I used then wasn’t blocked to get to the link to fix my paid subscription. The problem with free VPNs is they are riddled with advertising, offers, and other software. I have also found that sometimes on my iPhone 6 Plus, I have to occasionally delete and reinstall my VPN profile. There probably is an easier way to fix this recurring issue, but this fixes it for me.
Why VPN’s are troublesome. First let’s examine this. The Chinese want to block content on the internet. They know millions of Chinese people use VPNs, and China is the biggest market for VPNs. If you do an internet search in China, you are going to have VPNs advertised to you. It is part of being in China. The Chinese censors are constantly working on making VPN’s not work.
The VPN’s are constantly working on keeping their service open. It is the proverbial cat and mouse game. Currently, there are some Wi-Fi providers in China that will not even allow you to connect if you are using a VPN. Some friends' apartments have Wi-Fi that I can use, but my VPN will not connect to the server. The future of VPNs in China is questionable for sure. This is always an ever changing landscape.
Can You Use a VPN on Your Cell Phone in China?
It is important to note that the newest version of iPhone software just released is said to be optimized for use with a VPN. The popularity of Apple products in China has made this a major development point for Apple’s software developers. I do only use my VPN on my cell phone now. I have found that to be the easiest use of my VPN and never turn it on my laptop. The teacher’s I work with all have the opposite approach; they don’t have VPN’s on their phones, but on their laptops.
I use my VPN daily. I use Facebook (that’s totally blocked by China). I listen to podcast (totally blocked by China) I use iTunes U to listen to free college classes (totally blocked by China). I occasionally like to look at artistic photographs of the female image (totally blocked by China). My local bank in St. Louis (totally blocked by China). I like to watch the occasional Louis CK stand-up routine on YouTube (totally blocked by China). I also want to point out some email providers like Gmail DO NOT WORK IN CHINA!
To sum up my viewpoint of VPN’s, first VPN’s are a personal choice and preference. People have strong personal feelings towards their VPN. VPN information is constantly changing. You are going to have an issue with your VPN sometimes. Your friends back home will not understand why it took two days to respond on Facebook. Your VPN is similar to electricity in your home. When it’s on and working, you never think about it, but when it’s off, boy is it a problem!
Gary McIlvaine is 40 years old. He is from St. Louis, Missouri, and worked as a director in a large grocery store prior to teaching. He now teaches Biology and English at an International school in Chongqing. Read more about his experiences teaching English in China: Chongqing, China English Teaching Q and A with Gary McIlvaine