Using the Internet in Mainland China has never been a fun experience. If you are a fluent Chinese speaker and are only interested in whatever is going on in China, then the only inconvenience you will have is dealing with slow connections during peak hours. But if you are like me and rely on having to reach services and websites outside of the Mainland, then you will find yourself exercising your patience quite often.
The Internet in China has always been censored, but lately things seem to be getting quite worst. All of the services I rely on like: Gmail, Google Fonts, Translator, Facebook, YouTube, etc have now been completely blocked and I’ve been having an increasing amount of trouble reaching even small sites like this one. As a matter of fact, this article could only be posted with the help of a VPN connection.
Lately I have found myself jumping from VPN to VPN service, just to remain “above water”. In the last few months, it seems that the authorities are busy targeting VPN services and blocking connections at the protocol level. All this means that climbing the wall is now a bit harder than before, but still not impossible. In this article, you will find a quick comparison of the services I have tried. I hope it will serve as a guide to anyone experiencing similar troubles. If you are not interested in the technical details, please do skip directly to the results.
What is a VPN?
A Virtual Private Network (VPN) is a network technology that creates a secure network connection over a public network such as the Internet. VPN services, like the ones listed below, allow clients located in China to access the Internet as if they were elsewhere.
VPN Speed Tests
The speed tests were carried out in Shanghai during the months of January and February of 2015. I used a popular tool called Okla SpeedTest, found here. I currently have a 30 Mbps fiber optic connection from China Telecom, which is blazing fast when accessing local Chinese networks, but takes over 2 minutes to load a foreign-hosted website like this one.
VPN services for China
I have owned 5 different VPN services as listed below:
|Astrill||StrongVPN||VyprVPN||Private Internet Access||Free Gate|
|Protocols|| OpenWeb, OpenVPN
SSTP, L2TP, PPTP, Cisco IPSec, L2TP over IPSec
|PPTP/L2TP/SSTP||PPTP, OpenVPN, L2TP/IPsec, Chameleon||PPTP, OpenVPN and L2TP/IPSec||F3, HTTP, SOCKS5|
|Price||$9.98/mo ($$$)||$4.58/mo. ($$)||$8.33/mo ($$$)||$3.33/mo ($)||Free|
|Free Trial||7 Days||7 Days Money Back||3 Days||7 Day Refund||Free|
|Security||256-bit SSL||256-bit SSL||256-bit||256-bit|
|OS Compability|| Windows
|Support||Wiki, Support Ticket, Live Chat, and Remote Desktop Assistance||Wiki, Support Ticket, Live Chat, and Remote Desktop Assistance|| Forum, around the clock Support. With fast response.
Live Chat is available
|Email, live chat, control panel||Community Forum (Chinese)|
|Speeds*||4-11 mbps||1-3 mbps||8-12 mbps||1-5 mbps||0-1 mbps|
*Download Speeds registered using a 30 Mbps connection during low and peak hours (3am and 7pm respectively)
Astrill Review ($29.95 for 3 months)
I actually heard about this service from a client of mine. At $29.95 for 3 months, it is a bit more pricey than the other services, but it’s worth the money. You are free to connect to a huge selection of servers all over the world and they offer China optimized services in Singapore and Hong Kong. You can also purchase hardware from them, which allow you to connect all of your devices automatically to one VPN connection.
Some people have been complaining about slow speeds with this service. I myself believe that the decrease in speed comes from the Chinese network itself. During lunch time and after 6pm, the internet in China usually slows to a crawl. A quick visit to the Shanghai subway during the rush hour explains why: 3 in every 5 passengers are streaming video on their mobiles.
VyprVPN Review ($24.16 for 3 months)
I switched to this service, during a couple of weeks in February 2015 when Astrill’s OSX client got blocked and I could not connect using my Mac. I had a very good experience with top notch and reliable connections (as you will see). Another great thing about this VPN is that it’s less known and can fly under the Chinese radar. It’s smaller user base, makes it overall faster than the others.
The downside for me is that they don’t ship ready-configured routers like Astrill does, but on the other hand they do allow you to connect 2 devices at once. Sadly, I always work with a minimum of 3 (Notebook, tablet and iPhone).
Private Internet Access Review ($39.95 for 1 year)
This was my number one choice when I first visited China a few years ago. They come highly recommended by a number of popular media channels, like PC Magazine and others. Unfortunately I did not have much luck this time around. Like StrongVPN, their servers seem to have been hit hard by the Great Firewall. I experienced extremely slow speeds, especially during peak hours and I found myself having to reset the connection several times when using the client.
The one good thing about this service is the possibility to connect up to 5 devices at the same time. This used to be a real huge plus, especially when the transfer rates were still decent. If you do decide to get this service, then by all means use PPTP. The PIA application you download uses OpenVPN which can currently can be very slow.
StrongVPN Lite PPTP3 Review ($21 for 3 months)
I subscribed to the Lite Plan, which allows me to pick from 113 Servers in 13 US cities. The price was quite ok and the support is great. The biggest problem I see here, is the restriction to connect only to servers in only one country. If you want to be able to connect to Asian servers, then you have to roll out more cash and subscribe to the Deluxe plan starting at $45 for 3 months.
TU Braunschweig (None-commercial)
A VPN service hosted by the Technichal University of Braunschweig in Germany. It is not a commercial service and cannot be hired like the others. I have access to this merely, because I studied in this university and kept my user credentials. The only reason why I even mention it here, is because it is a Europe-based server and I thought it would be interesting to see how it would perform against the US based service above.
FreeGate Review (Free)
I know many expats here in China using this service. It is completely free and can be downloaded easily if you are outside of China. If you are already in Mainland China, then you will have a hard time getting your hands into this via Internet, but you can ask around and might easily be able to get a copy from a friend. I did try to connect with this tool several times, but many times without success. I had to keep waiting and testing different servers until it worked. I tested it for the sake of testing, but doesn’t really come in question for me, because I use the Internet professionally and I need to use a service I can rely on at all times.
As of 2015 this software has been blocked in my area or connects with ridiculously slow speeds. I have been having a hard time just surfing the web. Streaming is out of the question.
Response from VPN Services
I did contact StrongVPN’s technical support in November of 2014, a couple of weeks after the National Holidays here in China. They were, as always, very helpful, but could not offer me a solution to my slow connection. After 30 minutes of chat, the technician and I came to the conclusion that it was a “China thing”, since the servers were operating normally elsewhere. I was told that this slowdown was common in the weeks following the national holiday, but that it would eventually clear by the end of the month. It never did.
FreeGate has issued several notices on their forums, complaining of heavy interference by the Great Firewall. One afternoon in November of 2014, every single URL I tried to reach from my Chinese connection, got me redirected to the DynaWeb website (provider of Freegate). Such weird “glitches” happened again on another occasion earlier this year, but this time the entire Baidu traffic seem to get redirected to the website of another Freedom NGO. I heard from the grapevine, that these are deliberate attempts to bring down these websites via a Denial of Service Attack.
TU Braunschweig’s VPN service presented the same spped problems. I will not go on about it, since this is not a commercial service. I just want to point out that VPN services hosted in Europe are currently suffering from the same performance issues as the US-Based ones.