Use a VPN in China in 2024: Risky or Legal?

Is it legal to use a VPN in China this year? Understand the risks and legality of VPNs in 2023 with our in-depth analysis and guidance.

If you’ve ever been to China and tried to go to your favorite websites, you’ll quickly run into the Great Firewall, which is the country’s strict way of controlling the internet. It’s like hitting an unseen wall that makes your digital world smaller all of a sudden. That’s where VPNs come in. They work like secret tunnels to get around these blocks and give you a look at the rest of the internet. But everyone is wondering the same simple but complicated thing: Is it possible to use a VPN in China in 2024? Will it really work as promised?

There are rumors and stories from both sides of the law about this subject, which makes it hard to understand. In what follows, we’ll take a closer look at this debate and see exactly what VPN use is really like in China. We’ll talk about what’s new and what’s old, as well as what you need to know to stay safe and smart online in the country. It’s just as important to know about VPNs in this country as it is to have a visa, whether you live here, are a migrant, or are just moving through. Let’s jump in and find out what’s going on.

Use a VPN in China in 2023 Risky or Legal

Understanding the Great Firewall: Necessity of VPN Use in China

If you live in China or are planning a trip there, you’ve probably heard of the Great Firewall. In modern language, the term “Great Firewall” has almost come to mean “internet censorship.” This is not just a figure of speech; it refers to a real and complicated set of rules, tools, and policies that manage the flow of information online in mainland China.

So, what is the Great Firewall, and why is it almost necessary to use a VPN to access the internet freely in China? Think of a huge filter that checks and stops content based on a huge range of triggers. This could be anything from sensitive political talks to everyday social media sites like Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter. For Chinese officials, it’s like a digital screen that only lets through what they think is okay.

This is a big problem for a lot of people. The firewall stands strong and limits these kinds of contacts, whether they’re to stay in touch with family and friends living abroad, to get different points of view, or just to keep up with global business and news. This is where VPNs come in handy; they let you connect to servers outside of China, which is like getting around the rules.

A VPN encrypts your internet data and reroutes it through a server in another location, essentially hiding your IP address and allowing you to access the internet as if you were physically present in that place. This can be critical for accessing prohibited websites and services, staying connected to the outside world, and protecting your online privacy from spies.

However, the necessity of VPNs in China isn’t merely about accessing a wider range of information—it’s also about the protection of personal data. With encrypted connections, VPNs add a layer of security that shields users from potential monitoring and data collection – a significant concern in an era where digital privacy is increasingly under the spotlight.

In the next sections, we’ll explore the legality of using these digital lifelines, the practicalities of their operation within the stringent Chinese internet infrastructure, and the implications for those who rely on them. Understanding the Great Firewall is the first step in comprehending the immense value and potential complications of VPN use in China.

Figuring out the do’s and don’ts of VPN usage in China can feel like trying to solve a riddle. The Chinese government is very strict about who can use the internet, but the rules for VPNs aren’t always clear. The government hasn’t banned all VPNs, but they do have strict rules about which ones you can use. They’re basically saying that some VPNs are fine, but only if they get the official seal of approval, which usually means there will be some conditions connected.

What does this mean if you’re just passing through China or have made it your home? Well, for starters, it means choosing your VPN carefully. There are VPNs out there that are on the government’s approved list, but they might not offer the full privacy you’re looking for since they’re likely sharing data with the authorities.

If you use an unapproved VPN, you might not face harsh penalties. For example, tourists getting in trouble for streaming their favorite show through a VPN is not something that happens very often. But things aren’t always easy either. There is always a small chance that you could get fined or punished in some other way. This is especially true if you use your VPN to look behind government-edited screens.

In the end? You need to be smart if you want to use a VPN in China. Stay out of sight, only use services you know you can trust, and stay away from anything that could get you in trouble. Also, keep in mind that the reason you’re using a VPN is important. If all you want to do is read the latest news about the world or stay in touch with family living abroad, you’re less likely to get unwanted attention than if you’re trying to change things the way they are.

Censorship Snapshot: A List of Websites Inaccessible in China

China has a unique digital environment with a wide range of well-known websites and services that are blocked behind the Great Firewall. With a glimpse of some of the most popular foreign websites that are usually prohibited, this carefully selected list will help you better understand the digital limitations that are in place.

Social Media and Communication Platforms:

News Outlets:

Video Sharing and Streaming Services:

Search Engines:

Work Tools:

Educational Resources:

This list is by no means exhaustive and the status of these blocks can change. For instance, during times of significant political events or anniversaries, the government may tighten restrictions further. Conversely, some services might occasionally be accessible due to changes in censorship or the implementation of new regulations.

Understanding what is inaccessible gives insight into the digital environment in China and underscores the importance of a VPN for those seeking unrestricted access to the internet. Keep in mind that this list can also be a moving target — what’s blocked today might be accessible tomorrow, and vice versa. Always check the current status of websites before traveling to China, as this will help you prepare adequately for the digital conditions you’ll encounter.

Maintaining App Access: Strategies While Traveling to China

Traveling to China requires more than just packing your bags and boarding a plane; it calls for digital preparation too, especially if you wish to maintain access to your usual apps and services. Here’s a guide to help you stay digitally connected while navigating the unique online environment of China.

Pre-Trip Preparation:

  1. VPN Subscription: Secure a reliable VPN service before you leave. Since many VPN websites are blocked in China, it’s crucial to have it set up on your devices beforehand.
  2. Download Essential Apps: Install all the apps you might need during your trip since you may not be able to download them once there.
  3. Update Your Apps: Make sure that all of your apps are on the most recent version to keep them safe and make sure they work right.

Once You’re in China:

  1. Activate Your VPN: Make sure your VPN is turned on before you connect to the internet to avoid restrictions and safeguard your privacy.
  2. Data Encryption: Use apps that offer end-to-end encryption for communication to protect your conversations from being intercepted.
  3. Alternative App Stores: If you use an Android device, have alternative app stores installed, as Google Play is not available in China.
  4. Local Apps: Familiarize yourself with Chinese apps like WeChat, which is an all-in-one app for messaging, social media, and even payments.

Staying Connected:

  1. Wi-Fi vs. Cellular Data: Public Wi-Fi can be risky in terms of security. Use cellular data when possible, as it’s often more secure, especially with a VPN.
  2. Keep Your VPN On: Keep your VPN active even when not actively using your phone to ensure all background data goes through a secure channel.
  3. Battery Management: Using a VPN can drain your battery faster. Carry a power bank to keep your devices charged and connected.


  1. Multiple VPN Services: Sometimes, a VPN service may stop working. Having a backup VPN can keep you connected if your primary one fails.
  2. Local SIM Card: Consider purchasing a local SIM card for better access to Chinese networks and potentially more reliable internet service.
  3. Compliance with Local Laws: Stay informed about the local laws regarding VPN use and internet access to navigate the digital space responsibly.

You can improve your chances of keeping access to the apps and services you rely on while in China by using these strategies. Remember that the key to staying connected is preparation and flexibility – be ready to adapt to the digital environment and use the resources at your disposal.

Alternative Methods: Bypassing the Great Firewall Without a VPN

While VPNs are the go-to tools for bypassing internet restrictions in China, some travelers and residents may seek alternative methods for various reasons. Here are some other tactics that can be employed to navigate around the Great Firewall without the use of a VPN:

1. Shadowsocks:
Shadowsocks is an open-source encrypted proxy project, widely used to bypass internet censorship. It’s less conspicuous than VPN traffic, which can sometimes make it a more reliable choice in China.

2. Tor Browser:
The Tor network can offer anonymous communication, but it requires patience because of its slow speeds. It’s important to download and set up Tor before entering China since the Tor website is often blocked there.

3. Mobile Data Roaming:
By using international roaming on a non-Chinese SIM card, you might access an uncensored internet. However, this can be expensive, and connectivity can vary.

Employing HTTPS wherever possible ensures that the connection between your browser and the server is encrypted. Some sites using HTTPS can evade censorship without additional tools.

5. Web Proxies:
Web-based proxies can be a quick and dirty method to access blocked content, but they often lack the security and stability of VPNs or Shadowsocks.

6. Psiphon:
A tool designed to circumvent censorship, Psiphon blends VPN, SSH, and HTTP Proxy technology. While not as fast or reliable as a premium VPN, it’s a potential alternative.

7. Lantern:
Lantern uses peer-to-peer networks to allow users access to blocked sites. It’s an easy-to-use solution for basic browsing needs.

8. Use of Mirrors:
Some services provide mirror websites that are copies of the original but are hosted on different servers with different URLs that may not be blocked.

9. Browser Extensions:
There are browser extensions that act similarly to VPNs, routing your browser traffic through another server, potentially bypassing censorship.

10. SSH Tunnels:
Setting up an SSH tunnel can effectively create a secure connection between your computer and a server abroad, although this method requires some technical knowledge.

11. Satellite Internet:
While a more complex and potentially costly setup, satellite internet services like Starlink (where available) can provide an alternative to local internet providers.

It’s important to note that the effectiveness and legality of these methods can change, and some might pose security risks or run afoul of Chinese regulations. If you’re considering these alternatives, be sure to understand the potential consequences and always prioritize your digital safety and privacy.

Analysis: The Implications of Using VPNs for Foreigners vs. Locals in China

Using a VPN in China can have very different effects on outsiders and Chinese people because of different laws and cultural expectations. In this very closely watched digital world, here’s a study that goes into detail about how VPN use affects both audiences.

For Foreigners:

  1. Professional Necessity: Expatriates and business travelers often need VPNs for work-related tasks, accessing global corporate networks, and staying connected with offices abroad.
  2. Temporary Leniency: When foreigners use VPNs, they usually don’t get as much attention from the authorities because they are only there for a short time and need to access international services for work or contact.
  3. Cultural and Information Access: Many international residents use VPNs to stay in touch with news from home, stream content from their native countries, and keep up with social platforms that are part of their daily lives.
  4. Risk of Service Disruption: While not usually legally targeted, foreigners might still experience service disruptions or difficulties in obtaining or maintaining VPN services due to the frequent crackdowns on VPN providers.

For Locals:

  1. Increased Risks: Chinese citizens use VPNs that aren’t approved, they could face harsher punishments, like fines or stricter penalties because their actions could be seen as an attempt to get around government rules.
  2. Surveillance Concerns: Locals using VPNs may risk higher surveillance or monitoring of their online activities, as the government maintains stringent control over the internet for its citizens.
  3. Limited Options: The range of VPNs available to Chinese locals is often limited to government-approved providers, which may not offer the same level of privacy or access to blocked content as international VPN services.
  4. Socio-political Ramifications: The use of a VPN by a Chinese national can sometimes be seen as a political act, which might have wider implications for their social standing or even their relationships with government entities.

Common Ground:
Both groups, however, share common challenges such as the technical aspects of maintaining a reliable VPN connection amid the frequent updates to the Great Firewall. Additionally, they both have a shared interest in accessing a free and open internet, whether for personal, educational, or professional reasons.

Legal Context:
While the Chinese government has been cracking down on unauthorized VPN services, the use of VPNs is not outright illegal for either foreigners or locals. The government’s stance is more about regulating the use of VPNs rather than banning them entirely, focusing on unauthorized providers rather than individual users.

Potential Consequences: The Risks of VPN Use in China

When considering the use of a VPN in China, it’s vital to be aware of the potential risks involved. While VPNs offer a semblance of freedom in a restricted digital environment, the consequences of their use can be significant. Here are the potential risks one might face when using a VPN within Chinese borders:

Legal Risks:

  1. Regulatory Scrutiny: The Chinese government has strict laws regulating internet use. While not all VPN use is illegal, using non-government sanctioned VPNs can lead to legal scrutiny.
  2. Penalties for Unauthorized Use: Individuals caught using unauthorized VPNs may face fines or, in extreme cases, legal prosecution. The enforcement of these penalties can be unpredictable and may depend on the political climate or the individual’s profile.

Technical Risks:

  1. VPN Blocking: The Great Firewall is constantly evolving to block VPN traffic. This could lead to a sudden loss of service and access.
  2. Cybersecurity Threats: Free or low-quality VPNs may pose security risks, such as data leaks or vulnerabilities to hacking attempts, given that not all VPNs are created equal in terms of the security they offer.

Personal Risks:

  1. Surveillance and Privacy: There is a chance that state officials will spy on you even if you use a VPN. VPNs can give users a false sense of security, and they may not know that some VPNs could hand over data to the government when asked to.
  2. Social Consequences: For Chinese citizens, particularly, being identified as a VPN user can have social implications, including damage to personal reputation or mistrust from authorities.

Professional Risks:

  1. Business Compliance Issues: Foreign companies operating in China are expected to comply with local laws, including internet regulations. The use of unauthorized VPNs can put businesses at risk of legal action, fines, and potentially being shut down.
  2. Data Loss: VPN disconnections or failures can lead to data loss, especially if the user is engaged in critical work that depends on a stable internet connection.

Access Risks:

  1. Reliability: The performance of VPN services can vary, with some struggling to provide consistent access to blocked sites, affecting reliability.
  2. Service Interruptions: VPN users may experience frequent service interruptions due to the blocking efforts of the Great Firewall, which can be frustrating and disruptive.

Final Thoughts

Using a VPN in China is still a tough choice because the law isn’t clear and there are risks involved. One’s need for unrestricted internet access and their desire to deal with the unknowns of China’s digital laws must be taken into account when making this choice. VPNs give people access to the rest of the world beyond the Great Firewall, but users need to be careful and know what’s going on to make sure their online actions are legal and in line with their risk tolerance. The situation with internet freedom in China is still a tricky puzzle that needs careful and thoughtful moves as of 2024.

Privacy Hints

PrivacyHints is a team built up of computer security experts, tech reporters, lawyers, and strong privacy supporters from all over the world working together.

As digital leaders, we strongly believe in the importance of personal privacy and the huge potential that comes from having a free but safe internet. We’re not just interested in listing risks; we’re also strongly committed to revealing the hidden threats that threaten our right to privacy and freedom online as a whole.

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