NOTE: please see 2020 update at the end of this post.
If you are planning to come to China, even just for a short visit, you’ll definitely need to get yourself a VPN (Virtual Private Network). Without it, you will not be able to function as a normal human being, because all the internet stuff you have always taken for granted will be totally unavailable — think all Google products (e.g. Gmail, search), all Facebook products including Instagram, and basically half of all Western websites.
China has been putting a lot of effort into upgrading its “Great Fire Wall” (GFW) in recent years, as the nation looks to further preserve its “informational sovereignty” and reduce growing Western influence on its Netizens. This is exactly why you should be reading articles like this one — VPNs in China are constantly in an arms race with the GFW, and you need to stay up to date on which VPN services actually work in China. Choosing a VPN for China is not a “one-size-fits-all” situation, and whatever VPN you were using to access another country’s Netflix may not work at all in China.
First things first — if you are going to get a VPN for China, do not use a free one. There are a lot of “free” VPNs out there, claiming to be fully function and secure, etc., but we all know they are not 100% free. As someone once said, “if something is free, then you are the product”, and this is especially true for internet services where your personal information and data security could be on the line. So, do not be cheap and get a proper, paid VPN subscription.
Over the past couple of years, there were only really two VPNs that have consistently worked in China. All other ones did not dedicate enough resources to combating the GFW, and as a result have had consistent issues in China. These two VPN services are Astrill and ExpressVPN. Other sites will talk about some other options like VyprVPN or NordVPN, but as far as I know those services are not as specialized to China as Astrill and ExpressVPN.
Now, I will list a few main points that you should consider when selecting a VPN for China, and I will compare the two VPN services. Note that I have paid annual subscriptions with both services, and I have both installed on my devices. Therefore, all analyses come from my real, no-bullshit user experience on the ground, in China, in 2019. Keep this in mind when you read other reviews on the internet — are they just writing about VPNs from their living rooms in San Francisco or are they actually reviewing VPNs they are using in China?
Performance & Stability in China
This is the most important thing when considering a VPN for China. The trouble with a lot of VPNs nowadays is that they no longer work on local 4G data or even WiFi, as they are unable to get over the latest GFW. Currently, Astrill works a lot better than ExpressVPN in this regard — ExpressVPN encountered issues for an extended period of time recently and was very unstable. In this regard I would say Astrill is the OG VPN expert for China, and they are consistently ahead of the game in combating the GFW.
On the mobile app for Android, Astrill VPN connects very quickly (1 second in OpenVPN mode) while ExpressVPN has been struggling to connect even after 5 seconds. ExpressVPN seems to work much better on iOS than on Android, based on my experience.
Another benefit about Astrill is that they offer the option of setting up Astrill directly on your DD-WRT router, which basically allows you to have boosted VPN-enabled WiFi connection at home all the time, instead of having to open up Astrill app each time you want to hop the Wall. This is great because you can have internet in your China home just like you would abroad.
Max Number of Devices Allowed
VPNs have restrictions on the maximum number of devices you can connect simultaneously on one subscription — makes sense. I mean, who’s to stop Michael from buying a subscription and giving his account access to all his 4 roommates in Shanghai?
With ExpressVPN, you can connect a maximum of 3 devices simultaneously. For example, your phone, your laptop, and your tablet. With Astrill, the number is 5, which gives you a little more flexibility if you are a secret agent living a double life and need two or more phones, etc.
User friendliness here refers to how easy it is to set up the VPN and how easy it is to use it on a daily basis. If your grandmother can learn how to use a VPN in 5 minutes, then the VPN is very user friendly.
ExpressVPN is slightly more complicated to set up as it requires you to enter a serial number that you receive when you purchase your subscription. But in terms of the app itself, ExpressVPN is clean, simple, and very easy to use. It allows you choose different servers based on location and allows you to do an in-app speed test (at least on the desktop version) to determine which server is fastest.
Astrill, on the other hand, has more customizable options that are a bit more technically advanced. The app is easy to use in the sense that you can simply click the “ON/OFF” switch, but it is a bit less user friendly and a bit less obvious in terms of selecting servers. The app itself also looks a bit more techie style than the simple and friendly UI of ExpressVPN.
I have contacted ExpressVPN support a few times, and each time got a fairly prompt response (under 24 hours), however each time not really solving my issues. I don’t blame the support though — it seems that each time I had issue connecting to ExpressVPN, it was because the software was having issues dealing with GFW updates. The issues were purely technical from the product’s side, and there was little the support staff could do about it other than telling me that they were experiencing issues with China.
With Astrill, I’ve barely had to contact customer support, so I cannot say much. But I guess that in itself is a testimony of Astrill’s technical reliability.
The two companies know they are competing with each other toe-to-toe on the China market, and their pricing follows suit. Currently, both providers are offering 1-year subscription at $100 (99-something to be exact), with ExpressVPN gifting a “bonus 3 months” at the time of writing. On a single-month subscription basis, ExpressVPN is cheaper by about $3.
Summary of Comparisons:
|Performance & Stability in China||Reliable||Normally reliable, but inconsistent in 2019 (especially for Android)|
|Max Number of Devices Allowed||5||3|
|User Friendliness||More technical||Simple and clean|
|Customer Support||–||Prompt but limited|
So there you have it folks, a comparison of all the basics you need to worry about when choosing a VPN in China. I won’t go into too much details on other technical stuff because neither I or you are looking to get a VPN for much more than our daily internet tasks.
I tried my best to make an unbiased comparison since I have paid subscriptions to both, but I have to say that currently, in 2019, Astrill is a lot more reliable than ExpressVPN. It’s a little bit more pricey if you are visiting in China and only need the 1-month plan, but the time you will save with smoother connections will likely be worth the 3 dollars.
Also do note that, if you are visiting, make sure to buy and download the VPN apps on your devices BEFORE you come to China! Once you are locked in by the GFW, you won’t be able to access VPN websites to even download the apps. 😉
Enjoy Instagramming and Tindering in China.
2020 UPDATE: ExpressVPN is not working well in China nowadays, so I would HIGHLY RECOMMEND using Astrill.
Disclaimer: The information presented in this article is accurate up to the article’s publishing date. The internet access landscape in China may change at any time.