Is it possible to access Gmail in China in 2018? Even though Gmail has been blocked since the middle of 2014, I still check my email on a daily basis on my phone and computer, so I can tell you from experience that it’s entirely possible…as long as you’re prepared. Here’s a quick explanation of what you need to know in order to access Gmail – or any email address for that matter – while in China.
Gmail is blocked in mainland China, which includes all parts of China except Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau. This means that once you land in China, the moment you try to open your email you’ll find your computer and phone can’t connect to the mail server.
Lots of people use Gmail for daily life and work – oftentimes without even knowing it. Many companies around the world have migrated to GSuite tools (which includes Gmail), even though they use their own email name.
This means that even if your email address reads “[email protected]”, it still might be hosted by Gmail and is therefore blocked in China.
That’s not good.
If you rely on Gmail for communication, as many people do, what are your options to open Gmail in China? You’re going to want to access your email not only on your computer, but also on your phone. Let’s take a deeper look at what’s happening here and how to get around it.
Note: This article contains affiliate links, which means that at no extra cost to you, I will be compensated if you use some of these services I recommend. The good news is that in many cases, such as this link to ExpressVPN, I’ve negotiated special deals to get you 3 months of free service.
Why is Gmail Blocked in China?
When it comes to being censored within China, Gmail certainly isn’t alone. Starting in 2009, China began blocking a lot of different social platforms including Facebook, Twitter and a host of different western media websites.
For a while, Google had offices in Beijing and provided search engine services for mainland China. That came to an end in early 2010 when Google refused to censor their searches at the request of the Chinese government.
Within a couple months they packed up their Beijing office and moved everything over to Hong Kong.
China immediately started blocking all Google-related services in retaliation. This includes pretty much any Google service you can think of. You can’t access YouTube in China, Google search, Google Maps, Google Translate and yes…not even Gmail.
How to Access Gmail in China | 3 Steps
It sounds simple enough to figure out a way to connect to Gmail in China, and for the most part it is. I’ll break it down below into 3 simple steps.
- Step 1: The first step is to make sure you can access the internet once you arrive in China. You can use Wi-Fi in China, but now there are quite a few places that require text verification to access Wi-Fi. You need to either set up international roaming with your provider at home or you can arrange to rent a phone for China.
- Step 2: Connecting to the internet is only half the battle, since we’ve already established that Gmail is blocked in China. If accessing email in China is important to you, your next step is going to be to purchase something known as a “Virtual Private Network”, or “VPN” (I use and highly recommend ExpressVPN). Perhaps your company already has you set up on a company VPN and sometimes that works…often it doesn’t. You’re going to want to purchase a personal VPN that can be used during your time in China both as an extra security measure as well as a way to bypass the blocking.
What is a VPN? A Brief Explanation
Before we jump onto step 3, I’ll pause for a moment in case you’ve never heard of a VPN. You can think of it like a tunnel through a wall (for a more detailed description, see What is a VPN?). Even when China has censored everything, a VPN will tunnel through and allow you to experience the internet as if you were located outside China. There’s no need to dive into the specifics of how it work, just know that it’s used by pretty much any expat who lives in China, including me.
I often get people who ask me “Is it legal to use a VPN in China“? It’s a legitimate question and one that I don’t take lightly when I answer it. There have been cases where a Chinese person has gotten in trouble for using a VPN and the government talks big about blocking VPNs…and yet it all still works. Not one foreigner has gotten in trouble for using a VPN because the government doesn’t really care what we look at.
Ok, now back to the process of connecting to Gmail in China…
- Step 3: Once you’ve purchased the VPN, you’ll want to set up the connections on your computer and mobile phone. For the good VPNs, such as my recommended ExpressVPN, the setup is quite simple and can be done within 5 minutes. The software will give the you ability to choose a server in another country where you want to connect (it really doesn’t matter where) and then you’ll have instant access to any sort of email, including Gmail in China.
As you can see above in the screenshots of my phone, connecting to a different server is as simple as choosing the country and then clicking the “power” button. You’ll see a little “VPN” show up on the information bar at the top of your phone.
Accessing Gmail | Expat Tips & Tricks
In addition to the explanation above, I’d like to share with you some simple tips and tricks that I’ve learned over the years of living in China. Hopefully you can find some of these helpful to you.
- Notifications vs Apps: For iPhones, you’ll quickly learn that mail notifications come from a different server than your actual app information. In other words, you might get notifications of new emails to your phone even when you’re not on a VPN, but then you can’t open that email unless you’re on a VPN. Don’t be fooled: even if you’re using the Apple Mail app or another app to access your email, it will still be blocked without a VPN.
- Get some Backup: In my experience, China has very unreliable connection when it comes to VPNs. They’ll randomly block IP addresses and sometimes it takes an hour or more for that VPN to react and make changes. In those cases, I always subscribe to at least two VPNs at a time while in China since accessing Gmail is so important to me. For me, I use and recommend ExpressVPN as my primary VPN and then NordVPN as a backup. Why? Both of them have a 30-day money back guarantee, which means that if one of them doesn’t work as well as you hoped when you arrive, you still have your backup and you can return the other one for a refund.
- Download Before You Go: As you might expect, downloading and installing a VPN while in China is quite difficult. It’s best to get it done before you go so that you don’t have the hassle once you arrive in country. Trust me, it’s much better this way.
- Forward Your Email: If you really don’t want to spring $80-$100 for a VPN service, you can forward all your email to a Hotmail account or even open up a Chinese Sina account. It’s not a very professional option and it may be that Hotmail will get blocked too, but at least you’ll be able to stay connected.
Conclusion | Using Gmail in China
It’s quite possible to use Gmail in China – and I hope you have a chance to do so! Take some time to make sure that you have a good VPN setup on your computer and phone before you travel to China and you should be good to go.
In the same way you access Facebook in China, it takes a little bit of creativity and a little bit of patience, but being able to get a bit of work done and stay connected to your friends and family back home can be worth the effort.
Were you able to use Gmail while traveling in China? How did it go for you? Let me know in the comments below.
Additional China Travel Resources