China Travel Privacy Tips

Callum Tennent
By Callum TennentUpdated

Make sure you’re prepared for your visit to China. This guide covers all you need to know to ensure you retain access to the online services you take granted outside the Great Firewall of China.

The Great Wall of China

More than perhaps anywhere else in the world, it really pays to take the time to prepare your tech in advance for a trip to China. Buying a multi-adapter at the airport and a last-minute mobile bolt-on just won’t cut it.

Many of the websites and apps we take for granted in the West are blocked and cyber-security is very poor. However with some smart preparation you can still get close to the kind of online experience you’re used to at home. All you need is this guide to ensure your tech is China-ready.

The single most important piece of advice we can give anyone heading to China is to think like a Boy Scout and ‘be prepared’. Once you cross the border, it becomes much more difficult to get access to the tools you need to skirt around strict censorship measures. You’ll also avoid wasting precious time messing about trying to get your smartphone and other devices connected.

Public WiFi in China

The good news is public WiFi is becoming increasingly widespread in China. The bad news is that it’s often very slow, unreliable and highly insecure. Download speeds of less than 1 Mbps are common.

Chinese public WiFi is glacially slow: don’t be surprised to clock speeds under 1Mpbs

Even many of the best five-star hotels have reported speeds of around 3Mbps. Compare to that to over 10Mbps in much of Europe and over 25Mpbs in big-name US establishments like Starbucks or Dunkin’ Donuts and the difference can be immediately noticeable.

Many restaurants, hotels, and shopping malls in China provide free WiFi but you need ask the staff for the password to access it, so be prepared to buy a drink or a meal if you want to get online. If you’re planning to use public WiFi, it’s absolutely essential for security reasons to use a VPN (Virtual Private Network) to encrypt your data. For more details, see the VPN section below.

Your hotel will most likely offer WiFi, however this may be limited to its business center with wired connections only in rooms. You can typically purchase access by the hour or per day. We advise to check ahead to avoid any annoying surprises.

You can also get online at internet cafes, which remain common in China. We recommend against using these for anything but the most basic of tasks.

Internet cafes are still popular but beware as Chinese web browsers have major security flaws

Avoid doing anything involving personal data or passwords (even checking social media) as Chinese internet cafes are far from secure, particularly if the computers use local web browsers, such as the very popular QQ Browser.
These browsers have been found to insecurely transmit personal data, such as location data, search queries and websites visited.

Get a Chinese Sim

An iPhone taking an image of high-rise buildings in China
A smartphone is a necessity in China – use a Chinese Sim to save money

International data roaming charges are eye-watering in China, hitting as much £6 per GB with some providers and very low monthly caps of between 50-200MB, even with the appropriate bolt-on. This is clearly far from a sensible option.

Buying a pre-paid Chinese Sim card is a necessity. Ideally buy one before you go, either directly from China Unicom or from a reseller like 3G Solutions. You will need an unlocked phone or the Sim card won’t work.

You can order a Chinese Sim online before you go and have it delivered to your hotel. If your phone is locked, buy a local handset and you’ll still save.

If your phone is locked, it’s worth picking up a cheap Android handset – go for the popular Xiaomi brand if you wait until your arrival – to use with the Sim, as you will still save money and benefit from the convenience of more generous data.

Buying direct with delivery to your hotel is cheapest. China Unicom also delivers to the US if you purchase from its Amazon store but the range of Sims is limited and more expensive. For shipping to other countries, you must contact China Unicom customer support. If you absolutely must have cheap internet access from the minute you touch down, 3G Solutions is a very convenient, if pricey, option. Expect to pay a small premium on the Sim plus shipping of over $30 to the US and Europe.

The later your travel dates in any calendar month, resellers like 3G Solutions become less attractive than buying from China Unicom direct, as their Sim cards often expire at the end of each month and require payment of a rollover fee into the following month, unlike a direct purchase.

Check your travel dates – some resellers’ Sim cards are valid for specific calendar months and incur a fee to roll over. Avoid premium extras like VPN – they’re poor value.

Resellers typically offer a range of bolt-ons, including expensive, generic VPN access but we wouldn’t recommend this as you have no control over the operation of the VPN and are left high and dry if it gets blocked or slows to a crawl.

It will also only be available on the device containing the Sim. On the plus side, resellers typically ask for less personal information than the telecoms, if that is important to you.

If you need to get online on the move with your tablet or laptop, get a data-only Chinese Sim and use it in a MiFi device to avoid getting stuck when there’s no decent WiFi.

You can also buy a pre-paid Sim on arrival. Just remember to ensure you buy the correct size for your phone. As you might expect, the airport is the worst place to get a good deal. Just look for China Telecom and China Unicom kiosks and branches, which can be found around major transport hubs and shopping areas.

The Great Firewall of China

State Censorship

The Great Firewall of China is a simple fact of life for those who live there. More than 10,000 websites and apps are blocked, including the vast majority of Google services, and the government actively monitors all web traffic for banned activity.

The Great Wall of China as seen from a distance
The Great Firewall of China is the unofficial name for the mass-scale blocking of the Internet in the PRC

The censorship landscape is constantly shifting but at least 130 of the top 1,000 most-visited sites on the web are currently blocked. The following major sites and apps, among many others, are not available in China:

  • Google
  • Facebook
  • YouTube
  • Twitter
  • Gmail
  • Google Maps
  • Google Drive (including Docs etc.)
  • Dropbox
  • BBC
  • Instagram
  • Portions of Wikipedia
  • The New York Times
  • Blogging platforms like WordPress, Blogspot and Japanese platform FC2.

Trying to access many other sites can be a lottery, as they are frequently blocked and unblocked by censors.

We advise against trying to access these services on local connections as Chinese agencies have been accused of local hacks that leave users vulnerable to cyber attacks.

Be ultra-cautious in China – avoid attracting unwanted attention with your online activity

It’s also common sense to avoid searching for sensitive terms like ‘China persecution’ or ‘Tibetan independence’ to avoid unwanted government attention. You should also assume all your internet traffic is being monitored. All Chinese web traffic is funnelled through a small number of chokepoints to allow the government to perform close data analysis known as DPI or Deep Packet Inspection. This explains why internet access is so slow in China compared to the rest of the world.

Check for Blackouts

If you are travelling outside of major cities, such as Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou, it’s also worth checking that there is no internet blackout. While relatively rare, the Chinese government has been known to cut off access to entire areas after political unrest, such as in Yarkand County, Xinjiang, in 2014.

Your Privacy Toolkit

A toolkit

Given the amount of hacking and online snooping going on in China, state-sponsored or otherwise, you are at real risk of data theft and malicious activity if you don’t take precautions. You should really be using all of the following anyway but it’s never too late to start being security-conscious online.

Choosing and Using a VPN

More than 20% of China’s 800 million internet users use a VPN. If you’re spending any time in China, you may as well leave your tech at home if you don’t join them.

While VPNs have been removed from all of China’s app stores and the government is actively trying to crack down on them, they’re still not blanket-banned. You can use one, just don’t do anything suspicious or offensive with it.

For those that don’t know, a VPN encrypts your web traffic and creates a secure tunnel directly to one of your provider’s servers, effectively bypassing the Chinese firewall. For more information, see our VPN FAQ.

A VPN isn’t a magic wand, however. The Chinese government is well aware of VPNs and make efforts to block them. The best VPN providers give you enough options within their apps to be able to get online regardless of any crackdowns, though.

That’s why unlike using a VPN elsewhere, which is as easy as checking your email, it pays to get to know the ins-and-outs of your VPN app.

One thing you should absolutely be aware of is China’s pervasive presence in the free VPN scene. Our exclusive in-depth investigation revealed an alarming number of free VPNs have suspect privacy policies and questionable ties to the Chinese mainland – you can read more here.

Best VPN Protocols for China

Before we dip into some VPN recommendations, it’s worth taking a quick look at the most popular VPN protocols, or methods used to transmit and encrypt your data.

OpenVPNThis has become the default protocol worldwide and is considered to be the best. So naturally basic OpenVPN is blocked in China and requires an additional layer of security to stand any chance of working – and even then can be unstable. Look for security options like:

OpenVPNThis has become the default protocol worldwide and is considered to be the best. So naturally basic OpenVPN is blocked in China and requires an additional layer of security to stand any chance of working – and even then can be unstable. Look for security options like:

  • Obfuscation
  • TCP
  • UDP
  • Obfsproxy
  • SSL
  • Stunnel
  • SSH
  • Proxy

L2TP/IPSecThis is considered the best for mobile, particularly iOS (ie Apple devices), but can often be faster than OpenVPN on desktop in China.

PPTPThis should be your last resort as there are known security issues

Making sure the VPN you choose offers as many of the the appropriate protocols as possible.

Be ready to change protocols even more often than your underwear to stay out of the clutches of the censors and snoopers

You will also need to be ready to cycle between protocols if necessary, should your VPN fall foul of an upgrade to the Great Firewall while you are out there.

Understanding the strengths and weaknesses of each will help keep your data safe and access to the web open during your stay.

Important VPN Features for China

Keep an eye out for features that might not seem like nice added extras for users in the West, such as automatic reconnection on mobile. Mobile signal dropouts can be frequent in China and manually reconnecting every time gets old fast.

Stability and reliability in general are bigger factors in China than the West, as are having servers near mainland China, i.e. Hong Kong, Singapore or the west coast of the US. The closer the server, the better your speed and reliability.

How To Choose A China VPN

For a simple and easy to use walkthrough, including comparisons of features and top recommendations, check out our guide to the Best VPN for China.

VPN Preparation Tips

You should get yourself a VPN before you go. Most VPN provider websites are blocked in China, so it’s awkward to get set up once you are already over there.

Make sure you have the details of their customer service email address and a non-Gmail email address such as Outlook to use in an emergency.

Bookmark If you have problems and see error pages in your browser even with a VPN, you should check whether you are suffering from what’s alarmingly known as a ‘DNS leak’.

No need to call a plumber, just visit the above URL. If the result shows a Chinese location, you should try switching servers and/or protocols as your VPN is not working properly.

If unfettered access to the web is critical and your trip is short, consider getting a second VPN on a free trial as back-up.

Similarly, having a mobile broadband dongle plus a Chinese data-only Sim gives you a great backup option if you are unlucky enough to find yourself only able to connect via WiFi to a fixed-line ISP that blocks your VPN.

Before You Leave

Download any new apps before you go, as there have been instances of apps in Chinese app stores being infected with malware.

  1. Download the WeChat appThere is a reason why it’s so incredibly popular. Think WhatsApp on steroids. Free messages and calls and great location functions for finding local friends, perfect for when you’re in an unfamiliar environment. It’s also easy to make purchases using the app if you want to really  embrace it.
  2. Bookmark BaiduThe Chinese Google. If you want genuinely local information, Baidu gives better results. Just have Google Translate handy (or if you don’t have a working VPN available).
  3. Download the Lyft appThis makes navigating big cities a breeze, literally, as the cars are air-conditioned unlike standard taxis. It’s only slightly more expensive than a cab from a rank. Uber no longer works in China.
  4. Install FreeBrowserA free browser for Android devices that gives you uncensored access to the web. It’s not enough on its own (i.e. it won’t give you access for apps and other software, and is limited) but it’s a another tool in your arsenal.
  5. Look at TorThe daddy of all privacy tools. While effective, Tor is complicated, slow and certainly not user-friendly. It also needs additional configuration to work in China. If you are comfortable with bridges and pluggable transports and need to fly under the radar, Tor is ideal.
  6. Take a photo of your hotel business cardWith your smartphone for those times when an Uber isn’t convenient to show the taxi driver. It could save you 10 minutes of frustrating attempts at speaking mangled Mandarin.
  7. Learn at least a few words of the local languageMaking the effort to say hello (ni hao), thank you (xie xie) and the name of your hotel will work wonders in how people treat you.
  8. Take CashYou would be surprised how many shops and restaurants don’t accept foreign credit or debit cards.