China is a very different country in many respects. Before you go to china as a traveler you should know a few extra things which you will not confront in other countries, one of these things is the nationwide restriction on internet access in the country, as you may have heard of it before, a lot of the most used websites are inaccessible from within China, including Google and Facebook. You will be surprised of that you cannot access lots of websites that are used daily when you are in China.
If you try to access Facebook in China, the browser will show "Unable to connect" even the connection to internet is strong.
This is because the authority set a nationwide filtering system known as Great Firewall in order to keep its citizen away from accessing those websites, which are considered by the authority as containing so called "harmful contents".
The locals don't pay attention to this as most of them tend to use some domestic alternative sites, which mostly only available in Chinese. For foreigners it is really a serious issue, which can even make them give up the idea of traveling to China. Without Google you won't be able to search and find the answers when you have some questions, without Gmail and Facebook you will lost the connection with your family and friends. And these three services are not the only useful sites blocked, there are much more that up to thousands of major sites are blocked, some notable ones are listed at the last of the page.
Luckily the GFW is not undefeatable. Bypassing the Firewall is actually quite easy, to do this you don't need to be a tech savvy, everyone is able to get it done in a few seconds.
Below are the methods that can be used to bypass the Great Firewall:
Method to bypass the Great Firewall
The most used way to access blocked sites in China is using a VPN service, VPN stands for Virtual Private Network, is a kind of software combined with a series of servers set around the world, which let users connect to get different IP of the locations where those servers set in, once connected, VPN can help the user bypass the Great Firewall by disguising the user's real IP address as if the user is browsing the internet outside of the Great Firewall.
Most VPN services are not free due to the cost on the bandwidth and the maintenance of servers, but typically cost only about 10 dollars a month, some of them cost less than 3 dollars a month, you will be able to circumvent the censorship of Great Firewall with VPN enabled in your devices. Many VPN services offer 30-day money back guarantee, you can get your money back if you find them not very effective as you imagine.
VPN is very easy to use, just sign up for a plan on the website of your preferred VPN brand, they will send you an email containing the activation code, then download their app to your desktop or mobile devices, and open the app, activate the service with the activation code found in the email they sent you, and set the connection type and your preferred location of server, after that you can leave it in the background and start to enjoy the fun of free internet, with the help of VPN you will be able to search Google, use Facebook or watch YouTube videos again, just like in your home country.
Not every VPN works in China, because the authority block them, too. There are already many VPNs which were once used fine but now got blocked. And Great Firewall is constantly being upgraded now and then, more and more VPNs are being blocked every time the Firewall upgrades. Here I list some VPNs that can effectively bypass the Great Firewall in 2018: ExpressVPN, NordVPN, PureVPN, VyprVPN, these VPN providers claim their service can hard to be blocked by the Great Firewall, they also offer money-back guarantee.
If you don't know which VPN to choose, here is the detailed comparison of these VPN services.
ExpressVPN is one of the most renowned VPN providers in the world. As its name suggests, speed is one of its highlights, ExpressVPN is currently the fastest VPN available for China, with ExpressVPN you can stream YouTube videos in China at high definition without experiencing interruptions. Other VPNs each has its own advantages, too, view the details of those VPNs here.
Be aware that the websites of these VPNs are all blocked in China, which means you cannot sign up their service and download their apps after arrival in China. So you'd better to sign up a VPN service of your favored brand in your home-country.
You may have questions in regard to the legality of the use of VPN in China, as of now there's no legal guidelines prohibit the use of VPN, in fact most international companies in this country are using it everyday as it is really a necessity for them. So feel free to use VPN in China as long as you don't do things that go against the local authority with it.
If you are really on a budget, you can try some proxy software, which are usually free to use. After recent upgrades of Great Firewall of China, free proxies are not as effective as in the past, one of some notable free proxies that may work in China is a software called Lantern, however free service comes with many drawbacks, the connection through Lantern is not stable, which means a lot of times you still can't access the blocked sites when its connection is bad, and the speed is very slow, for this reason some images of bigger size (more than 500 KB) cannot be successfully uploaded to Facebook or Instagram. Not only that, the Great Firewall keeps attempting to interfere and block it, so the updating is frequently occurred, when an update is available your old version app will no longer be useful, you must download it again, which is difficult as the site for downloading the app is blocked. More important, the largest downside of Lantern is that it has restriction on the monthly data usage, which is only 500 M, usually a short video of 30 minutes will run out this small amount of data. Moreover, Lantern is only available for Windows and Android phones, not available for Apple users. Most other free proxies are also not available for iOS. For these reasons it's not wise to use proxies, you can simply sign up for a VPN plan, so that you will get fast and stable connection with unlimited data usage, it can be a backup once you find the free proxy doesn't work in China, and you can get back the money anytime within 30 days if you think the VPN is not very excellent.
Method 2: Using Tor Browser
Update: Tor became very unstable in China since 2017 due to the upgrades of Great Firewall, now in many cities in China it's not working for bypassing the block.
Another measure to access Google and all the other blocked sites in China is using Tor browser.
Tor is a free distributed anonymity tool which can also be used to circumvent the firewalls, unlike VPN which runs in the background when you're using your preferred browser, Tor can only be used with Tor browser, and when the browser is running you can access to blocked sites within it while other browsers are still unable to connect with blocked sites. To use it you need download a Tor browser from their website.
Tor browser is simply a modified version of Firefox browser, their interfaces are very similar, but it can be used to bypass any firewalls via Tor bridges, hence one of the differences between these two browsers is that before the window of Tor browser opens you will be asked to choose a Tor bridge to configure in a small window, then the window will show the status of connection, it takes a few seconds to half a minute for the bridge to be connected.
The cons of using Tor browser is the websites load slower than VPN, as Tor is not initially designed for users to circumvent the firewall but to protect the privacy of the user or make the user stay anonymous on the web, this is similar to VPN, but Tor focus more on the anonymity, the technology of Tor is by making the information passed around between thousands of relays that widely distributed around the world, thus it significantly decreases the speed of connection as data will travel large number of relays and distances across the world to reach the user. And as Tor cares about the anonymity, every time you close the Tor browser you will be automatically logged out from your Google or Facebook account and the accounts of all the other sites, next time you open the Tor browser you need to log in again.
Method 3: Using Shadowsocks
Aside from using VPN and Tor, using Shadowsocks is another way for bypassing the Great Firewall to access Google and other blocked foreign sites.
Shadowsocks is a special proxy software invented by a Chinese programmer in 2012, with the intention to help people circumvent internet censorship, the software itself is free to use and open source, however, it requires a remote dedicated server to work, so you need to rent a remote virtual private server, the cost is slightly less than a VPN service, but after that you need to set up the service by yourself (Install and configure a dedicated software on the remote server you rented by using command prompt on your computer, so the server can handle the request of Shadowsocks, to do this you should have some higher computer knowledge, understanding the scripts of command line.). As the process is a little complex, this article will not cover the tutorial for setting up Shadowsocks, but you can easily find the tutorials on the web if you wish to learn.
The main benefit of Shadowsocks is that it can selectively disguise a certain part of its users' online traffic, with other parts remain as the normal traffic as if no proxy is running in the background. This can be helpful if you also need to frequently visit Chinese websites, as the contents on many of these Chinese websites is only accessible from within China, if you have VPN running in your device, those sites will assume you are outside of China and hence become inaccessible. Shadowsocks users can choose to disguise their location only when they are visiting those blocked sites, so they can frequently switch to those Chinese sites without turning off the Shadowsocks app.
If you do not need to frequently visit some Chinese sites that are written only in Chinese, Shadowsocks is not the best choice for you, you can just turn off the VPN with a single click when you need to visit a Chinese site. Shadowsocks is designed especially for Chinese users who need to bypass the Great Firewall occasionally to access blocked sites like Google or Facebook but in most time staying on Chinese sites, that's why it is popular among Chinese users.
When it comes to the security, anonymity, and many other respects, Shadowsocks is not in the same tier as VPN, it doesn't encrypt the users' private information since it's designed for circumventing the internet censorship, its focus is not on anonymity and security.
By contrast, the functions of VPN is not solely bypassing internet censorship, it can protect your online identity, let you stay anonymous on the internet, and encrypt your private information, protecting them from being stolen or monitored by third parties like your ISP provider. You may say "I have nothing to hide." But do you know that when you are using free public WiFi in a hotel or coffee shop, hackers who in the same hotel or coffee shop can connect to the WiFi and easily steal the information stored in or sent from your connected device, these information could be your bank account details, Facebook password, your private photos, as given that today anyone can be a hacker by using existing spy software, it's a good habit to turn a VPN app on whenever browsing the internet using public WiFi.
Another important benefit of using VPN is it can help you access geographically restricted contents. Some websites like Netflix have geographical limitation, much of their content is only available for internet users in America, if you are traveling to Europe, even though there's no things like Great Firewall, you still can't watch the latest episodes of your favorite TV series due to the geographical limitation. And many of these websites is known for blocking VPN users, however, those who use ExpressVPN, PureVPN and NordVPN have no problem to access these sites and the geographically limited content.
You may want to check out whether some other websites or apps other than Google or Facebook that you often use are blocked or not, some most notable websites blocked in China are listed below.
Sites blocked in China:
1. Google, and all the Google services and apps like Gmail, YouTube, Google Play, Google Map, Google Translate, Google Plus, etc.
2. Social sharing sites like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, etc.
3. Blogging sites like WordPress, Blogspot, Tumblr.
4. Instant messaging apps like WhatsApp, Snapchat, Skype.
5. Online storing services like Dropbox and Evernotes, etc.
6. Some news sites like Bloomberg, The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, BBC, etc.
7. Other very useful sites or apps: Flickr, Vimeo, SoundCloud, Spotify, Kindle Store, etc.
Sites not blocked:
Bing (the search results are largely filtered in accordance to the local laws), Yahoo, Wikipedia, Reddit, Quora, Linkedin(Partially blocked), Huffpost...
Note: A site that not blocked in a province may be blocked in other provinces, the test was done in a same city, so we're not sure whether they are blocked or not in other regions, for instance some expats say they cannot access Yahoo in their provinces. In addition the sites currently not blocked may be blocked sooner or later, for instance, Tumblr, Instagram, Pinterest and many other websites listed above can be accessed in the past, WhatsApp was just blocked in Sep 2017.
I hope after read these you have learned the way of accessing the blocked sites in China.
If you have no idea about which places to see in China, here is a list of the most interesting and beautiful places in China that might interest you.
Lastly, wish you a pleasant journey!